HC Deb 25 July 1862 vol 168 cc876-81

said, he rose to call attention to the Fresco Paintings executed and in process of execution in the Houses of Parliament. During the last Session the right hon. Gentleman the First Commissioner stated, in reply to a question, that there were only two frescoes which were decayed—one by Mr. Watts and one by another artist. The right hon. Gentleman was rather unfair to Mr. Watts, because, although the fresco by that gentleman showed greater signs of decay last year than the others, still the others had followed fast in the same direction. Every one of the frescoes in that particular portion of the House—the lobby upstairs—was more or less in a damaged state. In justice to Mr. Watts it should likewise be mentioned that he was at once one of the most distinguished and one of the most disinterested artists in England. He had recently painted a noble work for the Society of Lincoln's Inn, without any remuneration. Mr. Watts had offered to renew the work, but declined to proceed with it till he knew the cause of the very extraordinary decay which had occurred. Whoever took the trouble to inspect those works would find that all that had been said last year was perfectly correct, nearly every one of the frescoes dropping to pieces. £7,000 or £8,000 which had been expended on the walls had been totally thrown away. The House had unanimously approved the course taken by the Government in appointing a Commission to inquire into the state of these frescoes, and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would be enabled to state when the Report of that Commission, with the evidence, would be laid before the House, so as to enable them, when the Estimates were submitted during the next Session, to determine whether fresco painting should be continued. As there were many continental artists in London, and as not a few paintings executed in Paris of late years were more or less in a state of decay, perhaps it might be well that some of those foreign gentlemen should be examined. There was another point to which he wished to call attention, as to the subsisting contracts with the artists who had not yet executed their paintings. These contracts were to be found in two Reports issued in the last year—the 12th Report of the Commissioners on the Fine Arts and a Return presented on the 16th of May last year. There were five artists employed—Mr. Maclise, Mr. Cope, Mr. Ward, Mr. Herbert, and Mr. Dyce. With regard to the first three no observation could be made, except that they had faithfully and honourably fulfilled all their obligations. Large sums were voted for them, but they had not received any of them till the completion of their works. With regard to Mr. Herbert, his contract was entered into in 1850–1. He was to paint nine pictures in the Peers' robing-room for £9,000 in ten years. £6,000 had been already voted to his account; but he had received £2,500 only. Nevertheless, he had not yet completed one picture. The Commissioners stated that they entered into this agreement with Mr. Herbert before the room which was to contain the result of his labour was built, and some years before it was ready for him to work in. They adopted that course, knowing that considerable time would be required for the preparation of the designs. Since the completion of the room in 1858 there had undoubtedly been unnecessary delay in the preparation of cartoons, and in the progress of the wall-painting itself. They believed, however, that such delay on the part of the artist was to be attributed rather to repeated experiments, and to a conscientious study of the subjects committed to him, than to any feeling of indifference, or to any interruption from other occupations. He had been desired by the Commissioners to make four designs, and not confine himself to one picture; therefore, he thought that under the circumstances it was impossible to find fault with anything Mr. Herbert had done; nor was it unreasonable that he should have received the sum of £2,500. However, Mr. Herbert had been at work for a great many years, and nobody could tell whether the work would ever be completed or not. By his contract he was entitled to keep his orignal design and picture for his own benefit; he might suggest to the Commissioners whether, in case Mr. Herbert should be unable to complete the work, the designs ought not rather to become their property. The case of Mr. Dyce stood on different grounds, and was rather more serious. He was not making any charge against Mr. Dyce; he merely stated the case as he found it in the Report of the Commissioners. Mr. Dyce was to paint seven compartments in the Queen's robing-room. The Commissioners stated that— The artist was, by the original agreement, allowed a fixed annual sum for a limited period, within which he undertook to complete the work. That period expired in June, 1855, the stipulated remuneration having been received by him. An additional year, ending June, 1866, was granted to him in consideration of his plea of loss of time while engaged as a juror and reporter in the Great Exhibition of 1851. In 1854, on his application to have exclusive occupation of the robing-room, we, with your Majesty's gracious permission, granted such privilege accordingly, on the new condition, founded on Mr. Dyce's assurances, that the work should be completed in June, 1857, a period afterwards still further extended, as stated in our 11th Report, to the beginning of 1858. The work is, to our extreme mortification, still unfinished; the delay having occasioned, as we fear, great inconvenience to your Majesty in consequence of the long-continued and still exclusive occupation of the robing-room by Mr. Dyce. The more recent interruption has arisen, it is understood, from ill-health. We have the greater reason for regretting any impediment to the completion of this work since the portion already executed is, in our judgment, highly creditable to the artist. According to the "Return relating to Paintings in Fresco"— The unfinished paintings in the Queen's robing-room consist, therefore, of two on the east side, a portion of one on the north side, the friezes on the four sides, and two spaces over the doors on the north side; such two spaces not being, however, included in the contract. Mr. Dyce in 1857 received the whole money for those paintings, yet he had not finished them; and if anything happened to him, the money would be lost. Under these circumstances he wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Cowper) what steps had been taken to obtain the completion of these works of art within a reasonable time. He thought the artists were bound by their engagements, and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would be able to give a satisfactory reply to the question he had put.


said, his attention had been directed to the partial decay of those beautiful works of art that decorated the walls of that building; and although he could not quite agree with his hon. Friend as to the extent of the decay that existed, yet he did admit that decay, though local and partial, was sufficiently extensive to excite a good deal of apprehension and deserve a good deal of attention. The method of fresco painting was adopted at the recommendation of the Fine Arts Commission, under the impression that the wall spaces in that building were lighted so imperfectly, and placed in such positions, that oil painting would prove ineffective. There was also a desire, in adopting fresco painting, to encourage the development of those qualities which had not hitherto been conspicuous in the British School —correctness of drawing, and simplicity, breadth, and grandeur of design. It was also contemplated that the paintings would be more permanent in fresco than in oil, not being subject to those periodical cleanings and varnishings which had such a deleterious effect on oil paintings. But, it having been found that these paintings were not really permanent, it was desirable that some step should be taken either to alter the method of painting or stop its future use. He had brought the subject under the consideration of the Fine Arts Commission, and on the 10th of March last they instituted an inquiry into the extent and causes of the decay. Seven gentlemen, well known for their acquaintance with and technical knowledge of fresco painting, were appointed to investigate this subject with Sir Charles Eastlake, who acted as their secretary; they had immediately examined the various paintings, conferred with the artists who painted them, and made considerable progress with their inquiries, but they had not yet come to a final conclusion. They intended to extend their inquiries still further, and it was not likely that they would be able to give in any Report just yet; but he hoped it would be in the hands of hon. Members by the beginning of the next Session. Although he was not in a position to state the views of the Commission, he might say that the decay was so partial and so local as to negative the belief that there was anything in the walls of the House or in its atmosphere to destroy the permanency of fresco paintings. Many of the ancient Italian frescoes had gone altogether, and there seemed to be so much uncertainty in the management of the details of the application of the colours that everywhere there was liable to be a failure in the permanency of frescoes. In this case the defects appeared to have occurred in the management of the colours or the lime. The permanency of fresco was due to the formation of a thin pellicle of carbo- nate of lime on the surface of the picture; and that was liable to be interfered with by the chemical action of the colours upon the plaster. It was remarkable that the failures occurred principally in the yellow ochre and other pigments which were peculiarly liable to adulteration. But when the matter was fully discussed, he believed it would be found that the decay was owing to causes which might have been prevented, and which more careful manipulation and increased experience would prevent for the future. The recent examples, however, of water glass painting had proved so satisfactory and durable as to deserve a preference over the previous methods. He quite concurred with his hon. and learned Friend in giving full credit to Mr. Maclise, Mr. Cope, and Mr. Ward for the diligence and accuracy with which they had fulfilled their engagements. Mr. Dyce's case was an exceptional one. He engaged to finish his work in six years; and the Fine Arts Commission, relying on that engagement, had not required the payments to be conditional on the execution of the painting. At the end of six years he had received payment in full. Mr. Dyce, however, had not completed his work even now, at the end of fourteen years. This was quite unaccountable in a man of his position and ability. It was to his own injury that he delayed the public exhibition of works of so high a character, which would increase his fame; and he had also put Her Majesty to some inconvenience, by preventing the use of the robing-room on state occasions, when She opened or prorogued Parliament. Mr. Herbert's case was different. His engagement was made in the ordinary manner; and although his work was not completed, he had only received a portion of the whole amount. The delay in his case had not arisen from other occupations, because he had concentrated all his attention upon the work. He had formed for himself a high standard; he was resolved to achieve a great and permanent result, and had cancelled much preliminary work. When the House saw the pictures complete, they would not regret the time which had been spent in producing so noble a work of art.


said, that Mr. Herbert had destroyed 446 square feet of his earlier work in consequence of dissatisfaction with it. The value of one square foot of his works was £8; he had therefore destroyed over £3,000 worth of his works in order that he might produce what would be more valued by the public.

Motion agreed to.

House at rising to adjourn till Monday next.