HC Deb 01 August 1867 vol 189 cc634-44

, in drawing the attention of the House to this subject, said, the pressure of political questions during recent years had prevented due attention being paid to the proper exhibition of the national collections of art. It seemed to him that the present state of affairs in that respect presented a favourable opportunity for the appointment of a Commission to inquire into the best mode of classifying our art collections, which, if it were composed of gentlemen of judgment and experience, and represented our various art institutions, might prepare the way for future legislation, and provide materials which would enable the Government in the course of the ensuing Session to propose such measures as were requisite to insure an improved exhibition of those collections. The practical utility of these magnificent collections depended on an intelligible arrangement, and much of the enjoyment and pleasure to be derived from every collection, whether of science or art, depended, in a great degree, upon the logical order and the method in which the objects were exhibited. Without the systematic arrangement which led the observer through a connected series, the museum would fail in giving useful information, and would become a show to excite surprise and wonder. Every collection that increased must be re-arranged from time to time, and they ought to determine soon what was to be placed in the new buildings for pictures and other objects of art. Until within fifty years ago the British Museum was the only receptacle we possessed for collections belonging to the State, but since the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum had been established, a sound system of classification had been adopted between the three Institutions. No other country in Europe had attempted to combine in one collection matters so heterogeneous as those in the British Museum, such as Antiquities and Statuary, with Natural History and Books, and he should suggest that in our future arrangements we ought to make as systematic a division as possible between our different museums. He wished to premise that the Motion he was about to make would only relate to the art collections. The collection in the British Museum illustrated the history of civilization among the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans; and the South Kensington Museum, taking up the series, led us from the earliest ages of Christendom down to the present time, but contained no paintings, which were collected in the National Gallery. The only original drawings included in the National Gallery Collection were those by Turner, and it would be advisable to transfer to the National Gallery the valuable series of drawings by ancient masters which was now at the British Museum. As a mere matter of classification it was clear that those drawings should be contiguous to the paintings of the same epoch; so that when any person wished to study the picture by Perugino they might be enabled to pass from the finished picture to the original sketch from which it was painted. The study of these drawings was in his opinion as important to artists as that of the finished paintings, because they showed how the first conception, of a subject by a great mind was gradually worked out into detail, while it was not improbable that the flashes of genius often shown in the first conception of a subject would infuse more light and life into the mind of the student than would the finished picture hanging on the walls of the National Gallery. These original drawings were now exhibited at the British Museum in a room which was much too small for their proper exhibition, and he hoped that a proper place would be provided for their reception in the new National Gallery. The subject was fully considered by the Committee of the House of Commons in 1860, when it was shown that no serious objection to this proposal would be offered on the part of the Trustees of the British Museum, or of any other persons who were interested in the matter. He should further suggest that the magnificent cartoons of Raphael, which were the most interesting original drawings in the world, should also be taken to the National Gallery. For a long time past they had been placed in a room utterly unworthy of them, and it was now time that proper honour should be paid them. The Hampton Court Collection of drawings, which included the Andrea Montegna drawing of the Triumph of Julius Cæsar, he should also wish to see removed to the National Gallery. He thought it important to call attention to this subject at the present moment, because in all probability next Session the First Commissioner of Works would propose a Vote for the erection of a new National Gallery, and it was necessary that the Government should first know what pictures would be exhibited in the new building. The designs which had been exhibited in the earlier part of the year were not the final plans for the new gallery; they were merely intended to assist in the solution of the problem how to erect a building well adapted for the exhibition of pictures and fitted to occupy that prominent site. Coming now to the arrangements of the new gallery, he hoped the Trustees would not think it their duty to exhibit all the pictures they possessed of the English school; for he thought it would be unfortunate if our national art should be represented by any but works of great merit. There was another collection which he thought should be transferred to the gallery. He meant those historical portraits which were at present in the Ornithological Gallery of the Museum, where they were quite out of place, and were not at all well seen. The National Portrait Gallery should be placed in the new building, but continue under a separate administration; for the principle upon which pictures were selected for it was entirely different from that which was acted upon by the trustees of the National Gallery. The portraits ought to be selected not for their merit as works of art, but only for the correctness with which they represented persons whom it was desirable on historical grounds to have remembered. With ample space it would be desirable where oil paintings could not be procured to have portraiture in prints—at all events, until an opportunity occurred of purchasing the pictures themselves. There was another museum which he had mentioned in his Motion—the Indian. That was one to which he thought more attention should be paid than it had yet received. At present it was a very interesting and valuable collection, illustrating the arts and manufactures of our Eastern possessions; and if it were extended so as to include Oriental art generally, it would become a very valuable source of instruction, particularly in its illustrations of the harmony of colour. The museum of Patents and Mechanical Inventions might be rendered a source of instruction, suggestion and amusement to mechanics. It should be extended in its purposes and objects, and it might be made exceedingly useful to inventors. The Museums in Edinburgh and Dublin had a relationship with that at South Kensington; and better arrangements should be made as to the objects which were to be exhibited in them. It would be necessary to obtain legislative sanction before the Trustees of the British Museum could surrender the objects which he proposed should be transferred from their keeping; but he apprehended there would be no difficulty about the matter; for there could be no doubt that the intentions of the donors would be carried out in the spirit, if not in the letter, if the objects of art to which he had referred were removed to the National Gallery.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be graciously pleased to give directions for the appointment of a Royal Commission to consider and report what portions of the National collections of Fine Art ought to be exhibited in the New National Gallery in Trafalgar Square; what provision ought to be made for the exhibition of the portraits belonging to the National Portrait Gallery; and what division ought to be adopted between the classes of objects to be hereafter exhibited in the following institutions:—The National Gallery, the British Museum, the South Kensington Museum, the Museum of Patents and Mechanical Inventions, the India Museum, the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, and the Museum of Irish Industry,"—(Mr. William Cowper,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


, in seconding the Motion, thanked the right hon. Gentleman for having introduced this subject to the notice of the House. He thought the right hon. Gentleman had stated the case of the National Portrait Gallery, in which he (Mr. Beresford Hope) felt personally interested, very fairly; it was not a collection of pictures as such, but of likenesses, and it ought to admit all methods of portraiture. No doubt, the House was rather scared at the very idea of a Royal Commission on the matter of our art collections. They, perhaps, were afraid it would be of a very permanent character— —Sedet eternumque sedebit one after another—he could not count how many. He confessed he was somewhat afraid of that suggestion himself. But now that they were, as it were, beginning a new era—now, as they were told, that they were approaching towards a state of beatific excellence, which was to be brought about through the means of a great measure, that was somewhere else that evening—he thought that they might devote a short time to the consideration of the question of the best disposition for the future of our artistic and scientific collections. He would chiefly confine what he had to say to the British and South Kensington Museums. The only allegation that had ever been brought against the British Museum was that of being heterogeneous. What did that imputation mean? Why, it could only mean when so applied that the British Museum was very large, ample, and complete. It was a collection of works of art and archæology of all ages and of scientific objects, with the addition of a library. It was a great magazine of human knowledge in every branch, and was under the management of an independent board. What was the harm of that constitution? What, he repeated, was the grievance of the British Museum being heterogeneous? There were two alleged grievances. One was that the Board of Trustees was not sufficiently varied in its composition to represent well the different objects of the institution. The other was that the building was not huge enough, and the area in which it stood was not large enough. Well, enlarge the area, erect new buildings, but place them under the Trustees, and as near as may be to the old central building in Great Russell Street. If they did not like that, place them elsewhere, under the same administration—a direct precedent for such an arrangement had recently been created; for within a quarter of a mile of the House, in a flat in Victoria Street, at that moment was to be found a branch of the British Museum—namely, a curious collection of palæontological remains known as the Christy Collection, bequeathed by a generous collector to the British Museum, and still remaining in the lodgings of the original proprietor. The relation of the greatest and most ancient of our public museums to other bodies of the same kind involved considerations too important to be slurred over in a hasty conversation. The British Museum had been subjected the last few years to an unnecessary and uncalled-for rivalry, in the creation of the independent national museum at South Kensington, which professed to monopolize the post-Christian schools of art. He would not now allude to the old stock South Kensington grievance, which sometimes amused, and more often bored the House. He had not one word to say against, and much to urge in favour of, the accumulation in itself. It was a magnificent collection in the mediæval and renaissance departments of art; and, he might say, that some years ago, before it had reached its present excellence, it had to himself been pronounced by that high authority on mediæval art, Count de Montalembert, to be unrivalled in Europe, and superior to the museum of the Hotel de Cluny; but, apart from what it contained, the institution was faulty in its organization, for, after all, the museum was a sort of little pet lamb in the hands of each varying President and Vice President of the Committee of Council upon Education—a plaything to be dealt with by successive administrations. It was destitute of the stability, and the method by which it might be distinguished, if it were united to the parent body under the solid, well-organized management of the Trustees of the British Museum. The two museums ought to be amalgamated. It was said against that that there was a clear and well-defined difference between them. The British Museum, we were told, contained specimens of art anterior to the Christian era, and South Kensington specimens of art after that era. He protested against the severance of these great periods of art, as tending to discourage the philosophic study of the world's progress; because if they wished to appreciate art, as students of history, they ought to see the productions of all ages and times as much as possible in one repository. That might be very easily and simply attained by the South Kensington Museum being handed over with all its liabilities to the British Museum. Then, of course, the renaissance and mediæval collection there would be amalgamated with that at the British Museum, while, as a matter of course, the Board of Trustees would be enlarged by the addition of representatives of those schools. If we desired to study art, so as to embrace as far as possible the history of all ages, it was of the utmost importance that we should have the materials for that study laid side by side in one grand panorama, and that we should get rid of the pedantry which led to our having one epoch illustrated at South Kensington, and another at the British Museum. He, for himself, objected to having a broad line drawn between the progress of the human race before the great revelation of Christianity and since that event. To draw such a line was an injury at once to Christianity and to Paganism. Unspeakable as were the benefits of the revelation of salvation—immeasurably superior as was the condition of the world after, as compared with what it was before, the Christian era—still it was the same, and not another human race that was thus purified. Christian art was built on that of previous ages; and therefore, in order to understand the very fact of Christianity, it was requisite to connect—not separate—the two. Such a separation would be eminently unphilosophical; and yet it was the principle which governed the distinct organization of South Kensington, and forbad our whole public art stores to form, as it were, one grand focus of the history and advancement of civilization and art from the year 1 in the history of the world to the year 1867 of the Christian Era. Such an amalgamation would go far to allay and soften the prejudices which art disputants of various schools entertained, and to put an end to the bitter disputes and controversies which had reigned between mediævalists, gothicists, and the admirers of other art "isms" by placing all forms and developments of art on the one broad grand basis of truth and beauty, visible in one universal collection. Any Minister, accordingly, who could bring representative art into one institution would confer a most important service, not only on the country, but on mankind at large. Of course, he did not mean to dismantle the new building down at Brompton, or transfer its contents to Great Russell Street. There it was, and the precedent of the Christy Collection justified the British Museum in having branch establishments. On the contrary, he would bring down to South Kensington those objects of post-Christian art which were now on exhibition at the old institution.

But here another aspect of the question came into view. The Kensington Museum depended on its art schools; and its collection of antiquities was intermingled with the study museum of casts and copies and models. In order to effect a real reformation, the two must be divided, for a great distinction was to be drawn between things which were only intended to be exhibited as art specimens, and things which were intended to be copied and to form the basis of art education. The art schools at South Kensington need not be meddled with; but left where they were, and as they were. Then the Kensington Collection, building and all, might be handed over to the British Museum. Nothing was more fallacious than the idea that study museums and art museums ought to be, or would ever advantageously be, part of the same institution. The artistic collections he would place under the British Museum, and the teaching schools he would retain as at present, unless the Royal Academy could be made strong and competent enough, as he thought it might be, to take the burden on itself, under the general control of that Minister of Art of whom he proposed shortly to speak. There was no objection to those portions of the collection at South Kensington deposited there on loan being received on the same terms by the British Museum; in fact, that principle was already recognized there, for the famous Portland Vase was on deposit, and not the property of the nation. He could give an instance from his own experience of the working of that incongruity. He had taken part some years since in the creation of a large and valuable collection of architectural casts for the use of architects and art-workmen. Its possessors deposited it on loan at Brompton, and year after year urged the authorities there to take it up as the nucleus of a study architectural museum on a national scale. But the Exhibition feeling was too strong in their minds, and, while desirous of a collection of casts, they wished to confine it to large objects, like the Pisan Pulpit, the Compostella Doorway, and Gray's Tomb, which the million who visited South Kensington would notice and admire. This was a very good thing in its way; but it was not all that was wanted for the practical student who had to learn the details which he himself was called on to carry out. The upshot was that after a time he and his friends, finding it impossible to bring South Kensington to their views, had been driven to make a home for themselves on their own resources.

To give effect to the desired change there must be a reform of the official department. There must be a Minister of Art responsible to the nation, strong enough to deal with the whole question of national art. At present they had only one Minister and two half-Ministers of Art—namely, the First Commissioner of Works and the President and Vice President of the Committee of Council, if, indeed, either of the latter was more than half of a semi-Minister. The Lord President ought to be returned to the department of general education, while the Vice President should sink into a Parliamentary Secretary. Then the art education of the country would be handed over to another Minister, the recent date of whose office, even on its present basis, had now almost been forgotten. Till 1832 the Board of Works had a permanent head, and, as might be supposed, jointly vegetated under the influence of clique and prejudice. At that date its architectural duties were transferred to an already existing official, who changed with the Ministry of the day, although his duty was merely that of land steward of the hereditary estates of the Crown — the First Commissioner of Woods and Forests. Then, again, he believed during Earl Russell's first Ministry, the original duties of the office were placed in the hands of permanent administrators, and the First Commissioner became the Minister of national architecture. Let him now be bidden to add to that the cognate duties of the Department of Science and Art with, as his permanent councils of advice to support and to instruct him, a strengthened and enlarged British Museum, a strengthened and enlarged Royal Academy, and a vigorous Institute of Architects. The present combination of art teaching and of primary education, under the same department of the State, had produced a great deal of perplexity and official paralysis, and placed this country at a thorough disadvantage compared with France and other Continental realms. Until they separated their art collections from art teaching, and primary education from both, England, with all her good intentions, never could take her proper place amongst the artistic nations of the world. If the Ministry of Art and Architecture were placed on its proper footing of dignity and emolument, good men could be got for the superintendence of that department as well as for others, because young men who were ambitious would read up for it as they did now for the Treasury, the Colonies, or the Foreign Department. Let the noble Lord the First Commissioner of Works take the matter in hand in the Recess, and carry out the reforms which he had suggested, and then he would be deserving of a statue by the side of Canning.


said, that the right hon. Gentleman who brought forward the present subject had made so clear a statement with regard to all the collections, excepting that of the Patent Museum, embraced within the terms of his Motion, that it was plain there could not be that absolute necessity for the further inquiry indicated by the Motion, and he thought, therefore, that it would be the duty of the Government to decide on their own responsibility each point as it arose. It would be strange if it were otherwise, for during the last few years there had been no less than eleven Commissions or Committees investigating every one of these subjects. There had been five on the British Museum, three on the National Gallery; in 1860 there had been a Committee on South Kensington Museum, and in 1864 a Committee on the Patent Office and a Committee on the Irish Museum. There was a Committee in 1860 with respect to the drawings of the Old Masters in the British Museum, and that Committee clearly indicated their opinion that those drawings had better be transferred to any building which might be erected for the purposes of a National Gallery. He believed that such was also the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman, and he did not suppose that anyone would be disposed to question the soundness of that view. With respect to the general question of the separation of the collections in the British Museum, it was only the other night that the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated that early next Session the Government would be prepared to come forward with a distinct proposal on that subject, and he could not but think that the appointment of a Commission now would only tend to embarrass the action of his right hon. Friend in that respect. The question of the Irish Museum had been completely settled by the department acting upon the recommendation of the Committee of 1864, as would appear from the 14th Report of the Science and Art Department just circulated, while so far as respected the National Portrait Gallery, Lord Stanhope had shown conclusively that it ought not to be placed with the general collection of pictures in the National Gallery; that its purpose would be destroyed if such a course were adopted, and therefore that it ought to have a home of its own, though probably under the same roof as the National Gallery. The Indian Museum was of course under the control of the Secretary of State and Council for India, and he had no doubt that ample accommodation had been provided in the new India Offices for the accommodation of that valuable and interesting collection. In conclusion, he reminded the right hon. Gentleman that when he was himself in office, two years ago, and a discussion arose in the House on a cognate question—namely, the relation between the Royal Academy and the National Gallery, in defending the Government against the attacks made against it, he pointed out the uselessness of moving for Commissions on subjects on which the House already possessed the amplest information, and the conclusions of which were precisely those of the Government. Having had already eleven Commissions on the various branches there was no necessity whatever for having one which was to range over the vast extent of the whole subject. The Commissions which had sat had furnished the Government with much interesting information on the various details of the question, and on that information it would act as occasion arose.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.