HC Deb 02 March 1920 vol 126 cc293-9

(Class 1.)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a supplementary sum, not exceeding £3,350, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1920, for expenditure in respect of Royal Palaces, including a grant in aid.


I wish to ask whether on this Vote I can raise a question which concerns one of the pictures in Hampton Court Palace? The last Item "G" refers to the purchase of tapestry for Hampton Court Palace. I desire to call attention to the treatment of one of the pictures at Hampton Court. In reply to a question on the subject, the First Commissioner of Works said he was not concerned with it, but I believe I am right in saying that he has charge of the pictures in the Royal Palaces, and is, therefore, responsible for the condition of the pictures. I am informed that this picture has been recently restored, and that its artistic value has been seriously damaged. The pictures at Hampton Court are amongst the most valued possessions of the nation, and the picture in question is one of a series of cartoons by Mantegna. The picture was given to a restorer for the purposes of restoration, and I am informed that; the restoration was very badly done, and the picture is very seriously damaged.


On a point of Order. May I state that the pictures at Hampton Court Royal Palace are in no way in the custody of my Office? I have no charge of them whatsoever, and no control over them. They are part of the Royal Collection, and under the Lord Chamberlain's Department.


Who pays for the upkeep of Hampton Court Palace? The nation pays, and surely the care of the pictures at Hampton Court Palace is part of that care for which the nation pays. I am not speaking about the ownership of the pictures. I believe that this picture comes under the department of the right hon. Gentleman and that he has failed in his charge.


The hon. Member rose on a point of Order as to whether he could raise his question on this Vote. The First Commissioner of Works says that the picture referred to does not come within his Department. The Vote before the Committee refers to the first two items.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir S. HOARE

Item "G" refers to the purchase of fifteenth century Arras tapestry. Why is the First Commissioner of Works not responsible for the pictures at Hampton Court if he is responsible for the fifteenth century Arras tapestry?


Perhaps I can explain that the pictures and tapestry at present in Hampton Court are the property of His Majesty and not of the nation, and have nothing to do with the Office of Works. The Office of Works is not responsible for them. The hon. Member (Major Hills) made a Very unfair attack upon me when he said that I have been unfaithful to my trust. The restoration in question took place long before I assumed office and I had no control over it whatever. I am quite as much interested in pictures as the hon. Member. This is a piece of tapestry bought from public and private funds for Hampton Court, and it forms part of a set of tapestries placed in the palace at Hampton Court by His Majesty's express permission.


If I have been unjust to the right hon. Gentleman I certainly regret it. I may have spoken warmly because I feel strongly on the subject. Can he tell me whether this picture has in fact suffered very serious damage?


There are two items in this Estimate to which the Committee is entitled to some explanation. The first is the provision of £100 for alterations at St. James's Palace. The total provisional Estimate was £1,250. I should like to know what new alterations have been necessary in order to necessitate this vote over and above the provisional estimate of £1,250. With regard to the question of the tapestry we are beginning today the investigation of thirty, forty or fifty supplementary estimates covering an expenditure of between 30 and 50 million pounds. This expenditure on a piece of tapestry of £3,250 is equal to the salary of some of our Cabinet Ministers, and in some cases it is even more. The First Commissioner of Works said that this tapestry has been provided by public and private funds, and the Committee will notice that this £3,250 is the sum agreed to be borne by the Office of Works. Will he tell the Committee what this piece of tapestry is? Why is it so necessary at a time when the nation wants to save money that £3,250 should be asked in a supplementary estimate for the purchase of a piece of tapestry? Will he tell us the total cost of this piece of tapestry, how much is being borne by other departments, how much by the public and private bodies to which he has referred, and how it comes about that we are asked for this money to-day?

4.0 P.M.


I hope the Committee will not cavil at the item for this piece of tapestry. So far as I recollect this tapestry forms one single piece out of a set of seven very remarkable Flemish tapestries, six of which continuously remained in the possession of the English Crown. One portion became detached from the collection in the great revolution, and passed through various private hands until it was recently sold at public aution in London, when, owing largely to the personal munificence and patriotism of the right hon. Gentleman (Sir A. Mond), this unique piece of tapesty, which completes the set which belong to His Majesty, was purchased for the nation. Now the nation is asked to bear some share along with the right hon. Gentleman out of his private munificence in restoring to Hampton Court this seventh piece of one of the most unique sets of tapestry that exists in the world. So far from censuring the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that the Committee will take this opportunity of recording its grateful thanks, not merely to him for the share which he personally has borne in this matter, but for the interest which he has taken in enabling the public once more to see complete this unique and interesting tapestry.


I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I quite agree that perhaps some word of explanation is needed, and I am quite prepared to give it. This is one of seven pieces of tapestry which Cardinal Wolsey had made at the time that Hampton Court was built. There was every prospect of it going to America. I thought that it would be a great pity to let the tapestry leave this country, and I therefore endeavoured to get it housed in its traditional home. With that object, I approached the National Art Collection Fund which exists for the purpose of bringing important works of art to this country and maintaining them, and I also approached the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The arrangement that was made was that if half the money could be found by private subscription the Treasury would be willing to find the other half under the special circumstances. The vendor of the tapestry very generously let the State have it at a price below that at which he bought it some years ago, and a great deal below the price which I am certain that it would have realised had it gone to America. Although I quite sympathise with my hon. Friend regarding economy, I think the purchase of tapestry of this importance at such a modest cost to the Treasury—


What was the purchase price?


£6,500, and the Treasury bore half of it. Under the circumstances, I think the Committee will agree that it would have been the greatest pity to have allowed one of the most unique specimens of tapestry to have left the country.


Will the right hon. Gentleman inform the House which of the seven deadly sins is enshrined in this piece of tapestry?


I am afraid that I cannot do that at the moment.


I do not quite understand who paid the other half. I understand that the Treasury paid half and that some unknown donor—I do not know whether it was the right hon. Gentleman—paid the balance. If so, it was very patriotic of him. I have always been a very strong supporter of economy, and, though no doubt this is a very excellent work of art, works of art do not return any interest or bring in any revenue, while they require someone to look after them and to preserve them. I would therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman to curb his artistic desire and not to buy any more works of art until our funds are in a rather better position. At the present time we cannot afford to buy works of art. I should like to know who found the other half of the purchase price, and I should also like to have some pledge from the right hon. Gentleman that, at any rate, for the next four or five years the Government will not buy any more works of art, but will exercise the strictest economy in this Department.


I do not want to take any merit which does not properly belong to me. The fund was collected by the National Art Collection Fund, and, although I did contribute to that fund, I did not find the £3,250 required. Part of it was found by the National Art Collection Fund and part by other friends interested in the purchase. It does not often fall to my lot as a Minister to dabble in works of art, but I can assure the right hon. Baronet, however economical we ought to be, that it would have been the greatest mistake not to have closed with this bargain. With regard to the first question raised by the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Hogge), there has been a change of occupation in these residential apartments, and a number of small services have had to be put in for the benefit of the now tenant. That explains the small items for St. James's Palace. It is very difficult to make exact estimates, but the items represent small alterations, such as gas cooking stoves and things of that kind. It is almost impossible to estimate absolutely accurately, and that is why we ask for this small additional sum.


I do not want to begrudge any expenditure made in this way, but, if the House of Commons really want to economise, we ought not to allow Votes to pass in this way. What is to prevent any other artistic or scientific body in this country offering to purchase something if some Department of the State will find the other half? That is what is being done here. Somebody has been very keen to complete a certain number of pieces of tapestry which, probably, not one in one hundred people in this country will ever see or read about. My right hon. Friend says that they ought, but he knows that the transport facilities are such that the bulk of the people will never see them. I would also suggest that a body like this very seldom lends these works of art to any of the local museums. It is very difficult to get them to Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, or Edinburgh. They are kept in certain buildings in London, and yet, because some body, called the National Art Collection Fund, has subscribed half, we are committed as a Committee to the payment of £3,250. I do not believe that is right. I do not believe that we are ever going to effect economy if we are going to pass sums like that simply because it is felt that it ought to be done. With regard to the other items, the answers which we have received from the right hon. Gentleman obviously are not complete. The provisional Estimate was £1,250, the revised Estimate was £2,400, and we are being asked to-day for an increase of £100. Before he can make good his reasons for getting this £100, my right hon. Friend has to explain the difference between the revised Estimate of £2,400 and the provisional Estimate of £1,250 for those apartments.


The original Estimate was £2,300.


Yes, and the revised Estimate was £2,400 and the provisional Estimate £1,250, or half the revised Estimate. My right hon. Friend says that there has been a change in occupation and that some little services have had to be made, a dinner lift, a kitchen sink, or something of that sort. That is not the way to save money, and I make these remarks to warn the Committee before we enter into a specific examination of all these Estimates that it is going to commit the country to millions of pounds if it does not cheek the Estimates. I submit that my right hon. Friend has not given adequate reasons for the increase from £1,250, the provisional Estimate, to £2,400, the revised Estimate.


May I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that while this country remains so poor he should get the Government to introduce and pass legislation similar to that passed in Italy, preventing works of art of great antiquity leaving the country. That at any rate might save us being tempted to spend public money in order to prevent plutocrats of America getting hold of works of art which cannot be replaced.


Speaking for people with whom I am associated on these Benches, I want to thank the right hon. Gentleman opposite for having made this excellent speculation on behalf of the British Crown. When we do get a chance of getting a thing at half price, it is just as well to buy it whether it is a work of art or not. In this case we have not only got this additional work of art, but by buying it we have added enormously to the value of the other six pieces of tapestry by completing the series. Those of us who believe that the State ought to enter more largely into human relationships than it does at the present time are particularly glad to see an addition to the National treasures, whether they be artistic or purely utilitarian.

Question put, and agreed to.

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