HC Deb 31 July 1962 vol 664 cc405-8
Q.6. Mr. Wyatt

asked the Prime Minister why he requested the President of the Royal Academy to delay the sale of the Leonardo da Vinci cartoon; what reply he received; and what further action he now proposes.

The Prime Minister

I asked the President of the Royal Academy to delay selling the Leonardo cartoon in order to allow time for a public appeal. This was undertaken in a public-spirited and energetic way by the National Art Collections Fund, and I should like to express our gratitude to Lord Crawford and his colleagues for what they have done. As a result of the appeal, and of the contributions made by the National Art Collections Fund, Lord Crawford informs me that they can make available £450,000 towards the £800,000 which the Royal Academy is asking for the cartoon.

The Government have been greatly impressed by the very large number of individual citizens who have contributed towards keeping this great work of art in this country. I am therefore informing Lord Crawford that, subject to the approval of Parliament, the balance of £350,000 will be found from public funds.

Mr. Wyatt

Is the Prime Minister aware that he has made a very wrong decision? Does he not know that the country would have stumped up for the picture if it had really wanted it, that the National Gallery does not want it and never had it on its list of 160 pictures throughout the world which it would like to acquire, that adequate reproductions can perfectly well be made of it, as it is not in colour, that the Royal Academy never bothered to show it to the public for nearly 200 years, and that the art world and the general public never took the slighest interest in it? Would it not now be better for the cartoon to be auctioned where it might earn some foreign exchange from a country which might appreciate it more?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman has made a large number of statements which I do not think he will expect me to controvert or to accept.

Mr. Driberg

Or something in between.

The Prime Minister

The situation is this, that £450,000 has been provided. I was particularly struck by the very large number of quite small subscribers who, having either seen the picture or bought its reproduction, have thought it tremendously important to keep it in this country. For my part—my colleagues have agreed with me—I think that it would be tragic if it were to leave this country. I think that it is one of the most beautiful things in the world. I believe that it is right that we should keep it here.

Mr. John Hall

I welcome the Prime Minister's decision to recommend a grant, but on what evidence has it been assumed that the picture is in fact worth £800,000?

The Prime Minister

The only evidence is that of those who know most about the prices that these things are likely to fetch in the market. We are told that it is likely to fetch a sum far in excess of that if it is sold by auction.

Mr. Gaitskell

Many of us regret that the Royal Academy has decided to sell this cartoon and think that it would have done better to have accepted a Government grant. Is the Prime Minister aware that public opinion generally will nevertheless welcome the grant given by the Government to make up the purchase price?

The Prime Minister

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I really feel that people would be very sad if this cartoon left the country. Even in the most affluent society we should surely be allowed to turn occasionally to things of this kind and to keep them.

Sir G. Nicholson

I echo what has been said by the Leader of the Opposition. Is my right hon. Friend aware that this action will meet with general approval, but that the background is not entirely satisfactory? Will some serious thought be given to ensuring that the public and the Government are not again faced with such a dilemma?

The Prime Minister

With regard to the great works of art, if they are held by private owners there are the rules which are applied in connection with the granting of an export licence and all that. A great number have been acquired by the country as the result of the heavy death duties system. With regard to works of art of major importance held by public or semi-public bodies, we are considering whether the procedures are adequate and whether perhaps they ought to be thought of again as a result of this case.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Prime Minister aware that his statement that the procedures are being reconsidered will be widely welcomed because, although we would agree with him that it might be a tragedy if this cartoon left the country, there is considerable anxiety about whether the amounts available for art in general are best expended? We should be glad of a reassurance that the provision of £350,000 for this purpose will not exhaust the Government's assistance to art, particularly the living art.

The Prime Minister

The normal contributions are made under the annual Vote to the National Gallery and other galleries.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Arthur Henderson, for the next Question.

Mr. Shinwell

On a point of Order. The Prime Minister has told the House that he proposes to seek the approval of Parliament in order to find the money for this purpose. No opportunity has been afforded for ascertaining from the right hon. Gentleman when he proposes to seek the approval of Parliament. May we ascertain from the right hon. Gentleman when he proposes to do that?

Mr. Speaker

My difficulty is this. There are large numbers of people who want to ask supplementary questions and it is not fair on other hon. Members with Questions on the Order Paper if we do not get on. I do not know whether the Prime Minister could hastily answer that one.

The Prime Minister

The sums will be advanced from the Civil Contingencies Fund. A Supplementary Estimate will be presented to Parliament in due course to cover the transaction.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Sandys.

Sir C. Osborne

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely, you called the right hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson) who has a most important Question on the Order Paper. Is it possible for his Question to be answered?

Mr. Speaker

I think that is a most attractive argument. Mr. Arthur Henderson.