HC Deb 16 June 1865 vol 180 cc410-6

said, he had to call the attention of the House to the purchase of the Soulage Collection for the South Kensington Museum, and to move for Copies of Correspondence and Papers relating to it. He believed he should find favour in the eyes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer by the Motion, as upon a recent occasion he had severely reprobated the suggestion of paying for public works by deferred payments, designating such a course as a contrivance for concealing from the public the real amount of Public Expenditure. The facts were, that a collection, commonly known as the Soulage Collection, of majolica ware and Palissy ware, and other things of that sort, many very ugly, were acquired and brought into this country by some guarantee society of which Mr. Cole, of South Kensington, was an influential member. It was to be shown at the Art Exhibition at Manchester. When that exhibition was over it was offered to the city of Manchester, but declined, and it was subsequently purchased for South Kensington at about £14,000. The payment was deferred, and 5 per cent interest was to be paid on the unpaid portion. The sum, however, never appeared in the Estimates; in fact, South Kensington appeared generally to have acquired its property by deception, and in this case the transaction had certainly been kept from the knowledge of the House. There could he no doubt the purchase had been made; interest was also charged, and the whole amount of the purchase-money was only paid during the spring of the present year, the original purchase having been made in 1858. He desired to put a stop to any department acquiring property in this way, without the knowledge or authority of Parliament, and he also wished to know whether there were any other transactions of a like nature? A short time ago they had voted a sum of £10,000, which had been expended in a manner of which they knew nothing, and he wished to learn whether that sum had been appropriated towards the payment for that collection. South Kensington had also been flying in the face of a Resolution of that House. Last year there was a Select Committee on Schools of Art, and it was especially recommended that sums paid for certain objects should be kept distinct; but in the Report given this year there was no account whatever of the money which had been expended. At an earlier period of the Session he should have asked the House to appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the whole of this transaction, which he thought a very discreditable one. He hoped the Treasury knew nothing of these proceedings, and that those connected with the Science and Art Department would take care that no such acquisition should be again made without the knowledge and consent of Parliament. He should also like to know whether the item of "£500 for the hire of specimens" had not been intended for the hire and use of this collection; and, if so, why it did not appear in former years.

Amendment proposed, To add after the word "That," in the Original Question, the words "there be laid before this House, Copies of Correspondence relating to the purchase of the Soulage Collection for the South Kensington Museum."—(Mr. Dillwyn.)

Question proposed, "That those words be there added."


said, he wished to remind the House of the exhibition which had taken place of the Soulage collection at Marlborough House in 1857, when there was an affectation of consulting Parliament, and tickets were sent to hon. Members with a view to encourage its purchase by the nation, It was, indeed, a most wretched display. The greater part of the collection consisted of old locks, in which there was neither art nor mechanical skill. He had never heard till to-night that it had been purchased, and he hoped the information sought would be granted.


said, he wished to say a few words with respect to this Motion. He held in his hand a copy of a Correspondence for which he had moved in 1858 respecting this collection, which had been described as the greatest rubbish in the world. Certainly in matters of taste there would always be disputes; but if the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn) referred to that Correspondence he would find that seventy gentlemen interested in art and manufactures—manufacturers, art-workmen, and others—subscribed £24,000 in order to purchase this collection as a nucleus for South Kensington before the Government interfered in the matter. At the head of that subscription were the names of some of the first men in the country, such as Lord Granville, the late Lord Ashburton, Mr. Napier, of Glasgow, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Sheepshanks, and, in short, the names of all the manufacturers in Great Britain who had acquired a reputation between 1851 and 1862. The Go- vernment afterwards purchased it of them, and deserved well of the country for so doing. It was the opinion of foreigners that the manufacturers of this country had made a great stride between 1851 and 1862, as the Exhibition of that year showed, and, if so, it was owing to this collection. Therefore, the Government and the managers of the Museum deserved praise instead of censure for what they had done, and for enabling our manufacturers to rival those of France. He did not stand up to defend the Kensington Museum. He thought it had exhibited a somewhat monopolizing tendency, but perhaps success had produced that effect. However, let the House give justice where justice was due, and they must all admit the great success of the Museum with respect to early Italian art. Our collection in that respect was one of which Englishmen might be justly proud, and which they might show to foreigners without grudging and without shame.


said, it appeared, after all, that it was Government money which the gentlemen of whom the noble Lord had spoken had expended on the collection, and not their own. How was it that the gentlemen who purchased the collection did not present it to the Museum?


said, they purchased it to prevent its being dispersed, and then offered it to the Government at cost price.


said, he thought the matter ought to have been brought before Parliament in the first instance. The collection was a paltry one. The Government seemed to have adopted a system of spending the public money for those things which did not lead to any practical use. They were all agreed that the expenses of the collection at Kensington were increasing every year, and nobody could enter the Museum there without seeing the absurd waste of money there was upon bits of pavement of antiquated pattern and little broken stones. Those who represented people who paid for such collections without seeing them had a right to complain.


said, he did not understand what was meant when hon. Members charged his Department with spending money without the authority of the House. The House had year after year voted sums to be expended in making a collection of objects of art in the Museum, and an account was annually rendered of the manner in which the sums granted have been expended. With respect to the Soulage collection, he should say a few words in explanation, which the House, perhaps, would accept all the more readily because the Government of which he was a Member were not responsible for the purchase. He found no fault with the parties who were responsible, but the credit or discredit of the transactions was due to the Government of Lord Derby. The noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho) had very correctly stated how that collection was offered for sale, and how a number of gentlemen who saw it were anxious to secure it for this country. Accordingly they bought it out of their own funds, and offered it to the Department for £14,000. Application was made to the Treasury to buy it for that sum, but the Treasury refused. Lord Salisbury, who then presided over the Department, endeavoured to discover some means by which the collection could be secured to this country. The House of Commons had for some years previously voted sums for the purchase of objects of art; and the objection of the Treasury applied not to value or importance or fitness of the collection for the purposes of the Museum, but only to the immediate outlay of so large a sum, A rule, however, had been laid down by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxfordshire (Mr. Henley) when he was at the Board of Trade, which had then the direction of such matters, that art objects might be taken on hire for the purpose of testing their genuineness. By a somewhat elastic application of that rule this collection was hired, and every year from that time a portion of the money voted by Parliament had been applied to the purchase of some part of the collection. The practice, however, originated in a Minute of Lord Salisbury's, and after the lapse of seven years it was hardly worth while to give it up. The Statute of Limitations ought to be applied to such transactions. The country by this time had acquired a very valuable collection. With respect to the charge brought against the Department of concealing what they had done, he might say in explanation that he undertook last year, when bringing forward the Estimates, that for the future they should be given in greater detail. The Estimates of the present year accordingly gave much fuller details than formerly. The account was divided into different heads, showing the cost of hiring as distinguished from the purchase of works of art; and distinguishing the estimates on account of the Schools from those of the Museum. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Potter) complained that the table of expenditure, usually inserted in the annual Report of the Department was not to be found in that for the present year. For that omission the hon. Gentleman was himself responsible, the publication of the Report having been made earlier by two months than usual at his urgent request, and having been issued at Easter instead of July, the materials for making a correct account of expenditure were wanting.


said, he had been reminded by some remarks which had fallen in the course of the debate, of a lady's maid, who, having gone to the British Museum to enjoy herself for the day, was asked upon her return what she had seen, and she replied that she had seen a number of marble statues which appeared to her to be a representation of a railway accident. He did not mean to say that hon. Gentlemen looked at things in the same light. But it was difficult to know how people would regard certain things. What might appear only mutilated bodies and trumpery to one, to another might be works of art. He remembered several years ago his hon. Friend the Member for Stirlingshire (Mr. Blackburn) and himself sat upon a Committee before which Mr. Cole was examined, and the great object of his hon. Friend seemed to be to learn from Mr. Cole whether the Kensington Museum had been the means of bringing out anything new. The great struggle of Mr. Cole was to show that it had, but, when pressed, he was obliged to admit that they had only produced "a combination." Since then many new things had been done. The working classes, studying probably some of what hon. Members had called wretched old rubbish, had, in many instances, struck out something beautiful for themselves. Whatever it might have done some years back, it was quite evident that original designs were now being introduced through the influence of the collection at Kensington; and, therefore, he thought that those seventy gentlemen who had combined together to purchase this collection had done the State some service, and that they were subsequently quite justified in getting the Government to make the purchase instead of themselves.


said, that to all intents and purposes the Government had purchased the collection, and the mat- ter which the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn) had brought forward well deserved the attention of the House. The right hon. Gentleman had asked whether it was fair to rake up that faux pas of Lord Derby's Government; but the consequences of that faux pas had only just been paid by the country.


said, that a number of gentlemen had purchased this collection in 1856. The Government of that day refused to have it, and as there was to be an exhibition of art treasures at Manchester in 1857 the executive Committee, of whom be was one, applied for the loan of the Soulage collection, but the owners of it declined to lend it. They then wished the city of Manchester to buy it for a public museum. Mr. Cole, however, offered to purchase it, and it ultimately went to South Kensington. He believed that the purchase was a good one, and he had no wish to say anything whatever upon that subject. But he was very anxious for a statement of this account. He could not understand why a simple statement of the account could not be put at the end of it. Mr. H. A. BRUCE said the account was not yet made out.] He thought that the House was entitled to the statement asked for.


said, he had omitted to notice one portion of the speech of the hon. Member (Mr. Dillwyn)—namely, that respecting the production of certain papers. He certainly objected to the production of the Correspondence between the Departments, but he would not object to produce the Correspondence between the owners of the collection at Manchester and the department in question.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.