HC Deb 26 July 1869 vol 198 cc708-20

MR. RAIKES, in rising to move for a Committee to inquire into the circumstances under which a contract or agreement was made by the Office of Works with the Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company (Limited) for the decoration of the Central Hall of the Palace of Westminster, expressed his regret that he could not accede to the request made earlier in the evening by the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Home Department, that he would postpone the Motion. He thought it was due to the House and to public opinion—which had lately begun to be rather interested upon that particular matter—and it was specially due to the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Department into the conduct of which he wished to have some inquiry, that the matter to which his Motion referred should as soon as possible be explained. Information had now reached him to the effect that there would be no opposition to the Motion, as the Government courted the fullest inquiry, and there would, therefore, be an opportunity of the matter being fully cleared up before the close of the present Session. Under these circumstances it would be unnecessary for him to detain the House with anything like a detailed speech. He would, therefore, briefly ask hon. Gentlemen to look back to the debate which took place upon the subject of the decorations of the central hall with mosaics about a fortnight ago. That would probably still be fresh in the recollection of most hon. Gentlemen. With regard to himself, he was glad to say that he had taken no part in the debate, or in the division that took place upon it, as he was much in favour of the proposition to decorate the central hall with mosaics, and did not wish to throw any obstacles in the way of that project being carried out. The result of the discussion that took place on that occasion was to lay down the principle that, whilst public expenditure should, as a general principle, be under the control of Parliament, there were exceptions to the rule which required that certain works should be undertaken without the direct sanction of Parliament. One of these exceptions was work of a continuous character, for a portion of which a Vote had already been taken. Another exceptional case was that of a great emergency, in which it was thought desirable that with the view of avoiding injurious delay the Treasury should sanction a certain expenditure. He thought it had been pretty generally agreed, and, indeed, admitted by the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Commissioner of Works himself, that the particular work now under discussion would scarcely come under either of those heads. The right hon. Gentleman had, however, made rather an appeal admisericordiam to the House, and had stated that if it refused to sanction the contract which had been made for the decoration of the central hall, he must himself bear the pecuniary responsibility. It was upon that plea that the House by its Vote gave its sanction to the contract. Matters would, no doubt, have rested there had it not been for some facts which had since transpired, and which formed the grounds of the Motion which he was about to make. It was possibly known to a good many Members of the House that the company now known as the Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company (Limited) and to which had been entrusted the execution of the mosaics in the Central Hall, without the consent of Parliament, had been in existence for upwards of two years, part of the time under a different name. On the 2nd of January, 1867, the company was formed under the title of Salviati and Co., and first on the list of shareholders in the company was the name of Austen Henry Layard, 130, Piccadilly. At that time the capital of the company consisted of £16,000 in thirty-two shares of £500 each. Of these shares the Gentleman to whom he referred held two, and at the present time, although no shares stood in the right hon. Gentleman's name, there were two in the name of a gentleman who was, he believed, a relative or connection of his. [Mr. LAYARD: No.] At all events that gentleman bore the same surname as the right hon. Gentleman. The company was, as he had said, established under the title of Salviati and Co. in January, 1867. In October, 1868, it changed its title and adopted its present name. In September, 1868, a register of shareholders was printed, which anybody could peruse who went to the registration office of joint-stock companies; and in that register he found the name of the right hon. Gentleman as the holder of two shares, and there were several other gentlemen well-known for their interest in art, and some of whom were Members of that House, also on the list. A subsequent list of shareholders was issued on the 22nd of June last—a date which seemed to bear no particular relation in point of time to the previous issue of the 10th of September, 1868—but he would make no further comment on that fact. In this last register it was stated that the right hon. Gentleman was no longer a shareholder, as his shares had been transferred, and a gentleman of the name of Thomas George Clark, of Dowlais House, near Merthyr Tydvil, was represented as a new shareholder. No special representation was made that the shares of the right hon. Gentleman had been transferred to Mr. Clark; but as the latter was the only new shareholder, and he held the same number of shares as that which the right hon. Gentleman had previously held, it was not unreasonable to conclude that the right hon. Gentleman's shares had been transferred to Mr. Clark. That transfer took place on the 10th of January in the present year, and one of the points the House should be informed upon was whether the transfer really took place on the precise date, as they knew that not unfrequently transfers were ante-dated. He did not assume that it was so in the present case, but it would be satisfactory if the House had conclusive proof that the 10th of January was really the date of that particular transfer. That being so, and the right hon. Gentleman having ceased to be a shareholder in the company since his accession to Office, but having only very recently ceased to be one, and there still being a shareholder of the name of Layard in the company, he was sure the House would conclude that it was very desirable that the right hon. Gentleman should be put in a position to assure the public that in the irregularity that took place in giving the company that contract for the decoration of the central hall, he was not influenced by the desire to benefit the company. That matter was of public interest, but no one had a deeper interest in it than the right hon. Gentleman himself. It was exceedingly unfortunate that when an irregularity like that which had undoubtedly occurred took place it should have been in connection with a company in which the right hon. Gentleman had recently been a shareholder; and he thought the right hon. Gentleman himself would admit that under the circumstances he should have exercised special caution in his dealings with the company. It might possibly be said that it was Mr. Barry who had recommended those works and advised that contract, as the architect of the building. He trusted, however, that the House would pay no attention to an explanation of that kind, which, if accepted, would strike at the very root of all ministerial responsibility, because if a Minister could defend himself by stating that such and such acts were the acts of his subordinates, it would be of very little practical use to lay any Es- timates before the country at all. We had at the present moment an economical Government—a Government which had felt the importance of economy so strongly that it had increased the forces of the Treasury, and, in addition to the First Lord and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had appointed a more anomalous functionary to watch over expenditure. That being so, the country might have expected that the Treasury would have been most vigilant in looking after public expenditure, and would not have allowed a Department to run riot in this way. He had most carefully endeavoured to avoid in any way prejudging the ease, and no one would be better pleased than himself if the right hon. Gentleman had a full and satisfactory explanation to give. When matters of this sort were commonly talked of out-of-doors, however, he considered it due to the credit of the House and of the Government, and especially to the fair fame of the Chief Commissioner of "Works, that they should be inquired into and disposed of.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the circumstances under which a contract or agreement was made by the Office of Works with the Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company (Limited) for the decoration of the Central flail of the Palace of Westminster," — (Mr. Raikes,) —instead thereof.

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


Sir, I have not the slightest objection to the Committee for which the hon. Gentleman moves; on the contrary, I court the fullest inquiry, both with regard to the statements which the hon. Gentleman has made here and those which, according to what he has told the House, have been made elsewhere. But, in order to facilitate the inquiry which he proposes and to enable him to obtain the fullest information, I would suggest an alteration in the words of his Motion. As I have already stated to the House no contract or agreement whatever has been made with the Office of Works, and if the Committee were to confine itself to the Instruction that' it would receive, if the hon. Gentleman's Motion is worded as it is, they could only report that such was the case. If, therefore, the hon. Gentleman will strike out the words "Office of Works" he will gain his object and secure a full and searching investigation. The agreement for carrying out some of the architectural decorations of the central hall—the only agreement hitherto entered into—was made entirely without my knowledge. The execution of this part of the decoration was one of those matters of detail connected with the designs of the architect, which I left entirely to him, and which has always been settled without consultation with the First Commissioner. What I have done my predecessors did before me. In decorating the Queen's robing room, and the crypt with mosaic, Mr. Barry was desired to select the artists whom he considered best qualified to carry out his designs. I really feel ashamed to take up the time of the House with a matter personal to myself; but I equally regret that there should be found any Member of this House who could, without inquiry and without satisfying himself that there was some foundation for these accusations, rise in his place and make such a statement as we have heard from the hon. Gentleman this evening. At least he might have delayed that statement until evidence had been taken before the Committee for which he moves, and until that Committee had made its Report to the House. He would then have had the fullest opportunity for making a statement. But that would not have suited the hon. Gentleman's purpose. He wishes the accusations he has made to go forth to the world uncontradicted before the result of any inquiry can be known. Such being the case I am compelled, although I do so with great reluctance, to make my statement to the House, in order that what has fallen from the hon. Gentleman may not pass uncontradicted, I apologize to the House for detaining it from more important business, and I promise to say what I have to say in as few words as possible. At the same time the story Which I have to tell may have some little interest for the House. If any hon. Gentlemen who hear me have thought it worth while to follow my humble career they will know that I have had two passions in life—Italy and Art. Whilst Italy was struggling to conquer her independence, I spoke and worked for her in this House and elsewhere. Since she has achieved her independence I have done the little that was in my power—and it is very little —to assist in the development of her resources, and in making known the remarkable genius of her sons. With this object I have, for some years, spent the little I could spare out of my limited means in assisting struggling artists of genius and in making known their works. Some years ago I made the acquaintance of Dr. Salviati, a lawyer of Venice, and a man of great enterprise and ability. This gentleman, with the assistance of a common workman named Radi—one of those men of extraordinary artistic genius who are so frequently met with in Italy—had succeeded in restoring the art of working in enamel mosaic, which had been abandoned, if not entirely lost, for more than a century. I was greatly struck with the result of Dr. Salviati's labours, and I saw in his discoveries a source of employment for a number of poor artists of Venice, and of future wealth for their city. Moreover, I was convinced that if the art were brought to perfection it might be introduced with the greatest advantage into England. In Venice it had already been successfully employed in restoring the magnificent mosaics of St. Mark's. I did what I could to encourage Dr. Salviati, and to assist him with my advice. At the time of the Great Exhibition of 1862, Dr. Salviati came to England, in the hope of being able to introduce his mosaics into this country. The first person in England who perceived the value and importance of Dr. Salviati's discovery was the Queen, whose taste and knowledge of art are so well known to those who have had the privilege of having been brought into contact with Her Majesty. The Queen employed Dr. Salviati to decorate the groined roof and the walls of the Wolsey Chapel at Windsor, and subsequently Her Majesty approved of his mosaics for decorating the spandrils and pediments of the Memorial to the Prince Consort in Hyde Park. Dr. Salviati undertook these important commissions, and, in order to carry them out, established a school of young artists at Venice, bringing skilled workers in Roman mosaic from Rome to instruct them. Three years ago, when in Venice, I found that Dr. Salviati, although a man of genius, was, like most men of the same class, without the pecuniary means necessary to carry out his discoveries. He was in want of capital, and, having borrowed as much money as he was able, he had come to a stand-still, and was completely unable to carry out the commissions with which he had been entrusted. I was much distressed at the prospect of such great works falling through. I was distressed not only for the sake of Venice, of Italy, and of the artists who were being educated for the work, and who now depended for their livelihood upon it, but for the sake of my own country. I felt that if the magnificent decorations in mosaic of the Wolsey Chapel and the Albert Memorial were successfully carried out, a new era of art-decoration would be established in England by the introduction of a material of great beauty and durability, which would stand our climate, and would take the place, to a great extent, of fresco and wall painting, which, from various causes, does not appear to be able to resist the effects of our climate, and certainly not of the atmosphere of London. I attach probably more importance to such matters than many people, because I believe that wall decoration, properly employed, might not only tend to elevate the public taste, but might become a source of public enjoyment and public instruction. I would willingly have assisted Dr. Salviati with my purse, but my means were too limited to be of any real use to him in his difficulties; so I wrote to some friends in England who, like myself, loved Art and Italy, placed before them the circumstances of the case, and appealed to them not to allow Dr. Salviati's remarkable undertaking to fall through for want of a small sum of money. Amongst those to whom I appealed and who answered to my appeal, were, as the hon. Gentleman himself has stated, several distinguished Members of both Houses of Parliament. With their assistance the necessary funds were subscribed, and the good work was carried on. I need scarcely tell the House that these funds were furnished not with any prospect of or desire for gain, but out of a love of Art and for the sake of Venice and Italy. Owing to the assistance which he thus received Dr. Salviati was enabled to execute his commissions, with what result those who have seen the Wolsey Chapel, the mosaics of the Albert Memorial, and the beautiful reredos of Westminster Abbey, will be able to judge. Such is the history of my connection with Dr. Salviati and the company which bore his name. The hon. Gentleman has alluded to the change of that name, as if there were some mystery involved in it. The simple fact is, I believe, that it was made on account of some requirements of the Italian law in regard to what are called "anonymous societies." Since the undertaking has thus been carried on, I have taken a very lively interest in it. Every year I have myself spent two or three months in Venice, encouraging and directing the artists employed as far as I was able, furnishing them with books, drawings, and models, and endeavouring to bring this important art to the perfection which it once attained in that illustrious city. But although feeling that, whether in Office or out, I might fairly and without exposing myself to attack, take a direct interest in an undertaking of a purely artistic character, yet I know also, from bitter experience, how ready men are, in order to injure a political opponent, to make use of any little tittle-tattle, and of any calumny, even in the House of Commons. I accordingly thought it best, as soon as I came into Office, to divest myself of every direct interest in the Salviati undertaking, and I transferred my shares to a gentleman who kindly offered to take them, and who, I can assure the hon. Member, is no connection whatever of mine. I can only repeat, what indeed the hon. Gentleman himself has admitted, that the names of those who are connected with this company is a sufficient guarantee that I had not entered into the undertaking as a speculation, but solely with an earnest desire to introduce into this country a beautiful and noble kind of decoration, which might prove eminently serviceable to British Art. Almost one of the first things that was brought under my notice, after I came into Office, was the usual estimates for the completion of the decoration of the Houses of Parliament; amongst which was one for decorating the central hall. This was no new scheme. The decoration of the Houses of Parliament has been going on for many years, and has been carried out according to a scheme recommended to the House by a Royal Commission com- posed of some of the most distinguished statesmen of our time. That scheme has been carried out in most parts of the building, but the great hall—the very centre of and key to the whole edifice— has not hitherto been touched, having been loft entirely unfinished; and yet it is the most important part of this great building, and is now in actual need of some decoration—the spaces reserved for decoration being covered with common paper, which is actually falling off the walls. Mr. Barry suggested to me that it was a proper place for the use of mosaic. The Royal Commission had recommended fresco paintings; but, after the result of the experiments in other parts of the building, I could not authorize its adoption in the central hall. I accordingly approved of Mr. Barry's suggestion. I made no secret of the matter. On the contrary, before coming to a decision I consulted several eminent artists, those who were best able to advise me in my own Department, and many Members of this House who are well known for their taste and knowledge of Art—amongst them my noble Friend opposite (Lord Elcho). The Treasury sanctioned the expenditure, and Mr. Barry—acting as he has always been accustomed to do under my predecessors in the Office of Works—whether the system is a good one or not, I will not stop now to inquire—made preparations to carry out the work. Mr. Barry did not consider it necessary to consult further with me but went to Mr. Salviati, the son of Dr. Salviati, and made an agreement with him for executing his, Mr. Barry's, architectural ornamental designs—not for executing the picture cartoons for the vacant spaces, let it be remembered. Mr. Barry went to the person who he believed could best and most economically execute the work. It was, of course, his desire to have his own designs executed in the best possible manner, and had there been anybody better able to execute them than Salviati, he would not have gone to him. But besides the mere architectural decorations, there are four great pictures to be executed in mosaic. As I have already informed the House, I have requested two very rising young artists, Mr. Poynter and Mr. Moore, to make designs, or cartoons, as they are called, for these pictures. When these designs are made they will be confided for execution in mosaic to the artists who are most competent to do justice to them, and who can unite the best work with the greatest economy. Dr. Salviati's establishment probably best furnishes the requisite means for doing this. We need feel no jealousy of employing foreign artists. Indeed, one of my objects in assisting to introduce mosaic decoration into England has been to form, if possible, a school of English artists in mosaic. I doubt not that if this mode of decoration is found to be suitable to our climate, and is approved of by the public, and generally adopted in our ecclesiastical and secular buildings, English artists will be formed whose work will bear comparison with the best work that even Venice can produce. I can only say in conclusion, that if the hon. Member will consent to strike out the words "Office of Works" from his Motion, I shall not only be most happy to grant him the Committee, but to give him every facility for carrying out to the fullest extent its investigations.


said, he thought that the right hon. Gentleman ought to feel glad that the hon. Member for Chester (Mr. Raikes) had given him the opportunity to make a most statisfactory explanation, and to clear up a matter which, in the mind of the public had not assumed a pleasant aspect. Since the subject was last under discussion there had been rumours to the prejudice of the right hon. Gentleman, and the lion. Member for Chester was justified in alluding to those rumours and in stating the facts which gave rise to them. He thought that the right hon. Gentleman had no cause to complain of any terms used by the hon. Member, for the hon. Member was careful not to assume that there was anything improper in the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman, who had now given a most satisfactory explanation of all the circumstances of his connection with Dr. Salviati. It was most desirable that in matters like these the conduct of public men should not only be free from motives of private interest, but should also be free from all suspicion of interested motives; and, after the explanation given by the right hon. Gentleman, he recommended his hon. Friend not to press for the Committee.


said, he also hoped that the hon. Gentleman would not press his Motion. It was satisfactory to find that the amenities of public life were such as to satisfy the House that the Motion was brought forward only for the purpose of eliciting an explanation, and he was quite satisfied that the right hon. Gentleman had cleared himself from any aspersion that might have been cast on his conduct in the matter. It was well known that the right hon. Gentleman had devoted himself for many years to the promotion of art, and had taken a prominent part in the Arundel Society, the object of which was to prevent the ancient frescoes being lost to posterity. It was the right hon. Gentleman who suggested the use of chromo-lithography to give an accurate representation of these frescoes. Any idea of a job in connection with the right hon. Gentleman holding two shares in a society, the whole capital of which was only £16,000 was absurd. The amount of the estimate was only £5,000; he would leave the House to calculate whether the amount of profit would be such as to induce a Minister of the Crown to peril his reputation, even if he were so dishonest as to think of doing so. He (Lord Elcho), taking a deep interest in the matter, thanked the right hon. Gentleman most heartily for having proposed this system of decoration, which he was convinced was better suited than any other to this country, and he was perfectly certain that the unanimous feeling of the House was that it would be a waste of time to inquire any further into the matter.


said, he thought the discussion had been on the whole very useful and satisfactory, and that the House ought to be thankful to the hon. Gentleman who had introduced it. When rumours were afloat affecting the character of a Member of high position in the Government the sooner the matter was explained in the House and unfounded imputations repelled the better. Such rumours and insinuations ought not to be encouraged outside the House; but when they existed it was quite right to ask those whose conduct and honour were attacked to state what were the real facts of the case. The hon. Gentleman who had brought forward the subject had been most careful not to make any attack on the right hon. Gentleman; and he considered it a happy thing for the new House of Commons to possess men who, when the conduct of a Minister of State was impugned, would not hesitate in a becoming spirit to ask for an explanation. When properly put to the test such mischievous rumours would not travel. The explanation appeared to be perfectly satisfactory, and therefore he felt confident that the hon. Member opposite would not press his Motion for a Committee.


said, he was perfectly well acquainted with the person to whom the shares of the right hon. Gentleman had been transferred. He was in no way connected with the right hon. Gentleman, and he was not a person likely to take shares in any [company, except in a bond fide way for the advancement of art.


begged to assure the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Commissioner of Works that if he had used any expression which was offensive or unfair he was exceedingly sorry for it. He thought, however, that the matter ought to be sifted because the rumours were very prevalent. He was quite satisfied with the explanation; and. he was sure the right hon. Gentleman would not be sorry that the opportunity of making it had been afforded to him.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.