HC Deb 11 May 1966 vol 728 cc549-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gourlay.]

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Richard Buchanan (Glasgow, Springburn)

The subject of this Adjournment debate is the housing of the Burrell Art Collection. It might be, "Why is the Burrell Collection not housed?" It seems a little grotesque that at this time we should be discussing a wonderful art collection which has not been housed because there may be a shortage of a few thousand pounds. We have just been dealing in terms of millions of pounds for military aircraft, and I hope that this debate will bring the House back to a vestige of sanity.

The Burrell Collection was gifted by Sir William Burrell and Lady Burrell to the City of Glasgow in 1944. One of the restrictions involved in the gift was that the collection had to be 16 miles from the centre of Glasgow and within four miles of That was subsequently amended to 13 miles from Glasgow because of the difficulty in finding a site. This restriction is valid if one understands the type of collection. The prevailing winds in Glasgow are from the South-West, and Glasgow is an industrial city much affected by fog and smoke, although the Glasgow Health Committee is taking rigorous action to make the city smokeless. However, in 1944 this condition did not exist.

The most priceless part of the Burrell Collection is the Gothic tapestries dating back to the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. These tapestries are somewhat unique. Most Gothic tapestries are passionately Christian, but this collection is rendered unique and more attractive because of the number of secular subjects contained in it.

I am expressing the views of experts when I say that this collection is one of the most important in the world. Looking back, one cannot cavil at the conditions laid down by Sir William Burrell. I think that it is my duty to stress the value of the collection in view of what I shall ask at the end of my speech. It contains the arts of the ancient civilisa- tions, with examples of the early river civilisations dating from the fourth to the third millenium B.C. onwards. It has Persian earthenwares of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. There are almost 300 silver and gold and silver mounted items. There is a cross dating from 1300. There are Mazer bowls, pyxes, tankards, and so on, and there are 200 pieces of Chinese pottery from prehistoric times to the T'ang period and Chinese porcelain from Sung to K'ang Hsi.

In all, there are about 500 paintings. There is an excellent representation of the 19th century French painters This represents amongst the 500 the only attempt at collecting a selective period of painting. In this excellent 19th century French collection we have examples of Renoir, Degas, Daumier, Manet, Courbet, Delacroix, Corot, Cezanne, Sisley, Millet, Gauguin, Ribot and Fantin Latour. It is an amazing collection, ranging through the classical and romantic phases and incur-porating experiments in colour and technique of the Impressionists and postimpressionists.

Outside this group there are represented the 17th century by Velasquez, Rembrandt, Ribena, Hals and the 18th century by many of our own well-known English and Scottish painters—Hogarth, Hudson, Reynolds, Ramsay, Rzeburn, Romney and Gainsborough. To a later era belongs one of my own favourites, Peploe.

There is a stained glass exhibition going on in Glasgow just now which is attracting great crowds. There are 587 windows of stained glass, 50 per cent. of which is heraldic, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. This is truly a universal appreciation of art throughout the ages. In range and quality it is probably the finest collection of its kind in the world.

My purpose in stressing this and in spending some time on it is to let those who are not here to listen, those who are not Scots, those who are not Glaswegians, realise that this is not a twopenny ha'penny collection we are talking about. This is a collection which is insured for £2 million and which is probably worth many millions of pounds in the open market.

The trustees of this collection had a very grave responsibility, for its housing had to be forever. There would be no second shots. It had to be a building which was adequate. They took the necessary precautions. Many times I lost patience with them. Nevertheless, I appreciate that they are most sincere and dedicated people who are trying to do the best by the trust which was imposed in them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) was Chairman of the Art Galleries Committee when a gift was made to Glasgow by Mrs. Connell, of Dougalston Estate, near Glasgow. We all thought that this was a solution, because Sir William himself visited this estate and was delighted with what he saw there and approved the building of the galleries on the estate at Dougalston. The corporation acquired the site at Dougalston and spent a considerable amount of money on it.

Then along came the National Coal Board. It started to sink bores in the area, with a proposal that mining should begin. Sir William, the trustees and ourselves took fright. We had to give up the Dougalston site. That was in 1954. So, in the modern vernacular, we were back to square one.

Another site came to hand close to Dougalston, at Mugdock. This site was investigated thoroughly, but never "got off the ground." In these negotiations the various Lord Provosts of the City of Glasgow were concerned—Kerr, Hood, Galpern, Roberts, Meldrum, and the present Lord Provost John Johnson, with the City Treasurers and with my hon. Friend the Member for Provan as Chairman of the Art Galleries Committee. These responsible people were trying most sincerely to find a solution to what appeared to be an intractable problem.

In 1962, I became the Chairman of the Special Committee on the Burrell Art Collection. Everything looked very, very bleak. It seemed that everything that could be tried had been tried. No solution seemed to be coming forward. Suddenly, it was spring again. Suddenly, in the midst of December, the sun shone, because a member of one of the families near Glasgow, the Maxwell MacDonald family—Mrs. Anne Maxwell MacDonald, daughter of Sir John Stirling Maxwell—very much in the family tradition of public spirit and generosity, offered Pollok House and the estate at Pollok to the nation via the National Trust.

Glasgow Corporation was party to a restrictive agreement between Sir John Stirling Maxwell, the National Trust and the corporation in 1939. This will come in later. The fact remains that this particular estate—Pollok House and all that it contained—was offered to the nation. Could a place be found for the Burrell Collection? It seemed too good to be true. On 16th December, 1963, the trustees, those concerned in the National Trust, and ourselves, visited the Pollok estate. On that grey December day Pollok estate still looked gorgeous. The trustees were impressed. They considered, they held meetings, and they agreed, subject to certain safeguards and conditions, that the Burrell Collection should be housed in Pollok.

I shall remember that day for the rest of my life. The mixture of excitement and delight with which I was filled made me almost incoherent. It was a great thrill to be associated, even in a small and humble way, with anything that promised to make history for my native city. Pollok House was built in 1752 by William Adam, and is situated in beautiful parkland. I cannot believe that there is another site more appropriate for the housing of this collection anywhere else in the world. We have a historic and beautiful house built by one of Scotland's greatest architects in lovely parkland, and containing such an artistic collection, within three miles of the City of Glasgow.

To give such a house to the nation is a tremendous thing. As I say, it was given completely in the family tradition of public spirit and generosity; and to add to this the Burrell Collection did not seem possible. But it was, for during friendly meetings it was agreed that if suitable arrangements could be made between the Government and the National Trust of Scotland for the Trust to become owner of Pollock House and policies, the Maxwell MacDonald family were in fullest sympathy with the aspirations of Glasgow Corporation that a part of the policies should be made available for the housing of the Burrell Collection, and the National Trust for Scotland was of the same opinion.

So, when I left Glasgow Corporation, the state of play was as follows. First, the Burrell trustees were in agreement, subject to certain safeguarding conditions, that Pollok be the site. Secondly, in terms of the restrictive agreement, Glasgow Corporation had a right of preemption which, if the property was to be transferred to the National Trust, the corporation would require to waive. Third, if satisfactory arrangements could be made for the National Trust to become owner of Pollok House and policies, it was understood that the corporation could have the site.

It is the third item—the satisfactory arrangements—with which I am concerned. It is well known that the future care and maintenance of the property would place an impossible burden upon the Trust, for without financial help by way of endowment fund or annual grant, it could not carry on. At the beginning of 1964 such an application was made to the Treasury, via the Historic Buildings Council for Scotland and the right hon. Gentleman who was then Secretary of State for Scotland. There it seems to have stuck.

There should not now be any reason for delay. Excuses will not do. This has been going on for 22 years. The collection is scattered throughout the city in six secret stores. For obvious reasons the stores must be secret. These priceless tapestries are unwound regularly to ascertain that no damage is occurring to them. But there obviously must be wear and tear, no matter how much care is taken in the examination. If it is the Government's fault I am disappointed that there should be this delay. But I am encouraged by the stimulus which the Government have given to the arts, not only in Scotland, but in Britain as a whole, to ask that they should do all in their power to make possible the housing of this wonderful collection.

I implore my ex-colleagues of Glasgow Corporation to take their courage in both hands. Glasgow has always played her part in stimulating and encouraging the arts. In this respect a responsibility has been placed on them, and I ask them to stop this delicate, dithering, dickering diplomacy. Delay simply plays into the hands of the Philistines in their midst. If the opportunity is lost here, it may never recur. I ask my former colleagues of Glasgow Corporation to "go it alone" if need be. They can do this sort of thing better than most.

I hope that all obstacles to the housing of this fabulous collection may be removed and that it may yet be seen in its entirety in the gorgeous setting of Pollok, before this generation passes into oblivion.

10.34 p.m.

Miss Harvie Anderson (Renfrew, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan) on raising this very important subject tonight. Glasgow has long been prominent in the patronage of the arts, and some of my particular interest in the Burrell Collection may stem from the fact that my grandfather was chairman of the committee responsible for building the art gallery. But the importance of the Burrell Collection goes far beyond Glasgow.

The fantastic generosity of Sir William Burrell caused him to donate these 8,000 objects to the City. The present insurance cover for them is £2 million, and is probably but a fraction of the collection's sale value. What is important now is that arrangements shall be made soon which can be reconciled with the terms of the donor's will. He could never have visualised that his treasures would remain hidden for 22 years. The prospect of a permanent home in Pollok must be welcomed by all concerned. No great city could offer a more wonderful setting within its bounds, and the long interest of the Stirling Maxwell family in the arts makes it an even more appropriate choice.

As the hon. Member for Springburn reminded us, the collection includes the greatest collection of medieval tapestries in Europe, a unique collection of stained glass, and, apart from the pictures which he enumerated, the Oriental collection of Chinese bronze and early jade, with the Near East represented with perhaps the finest collection of Persian rugs and metal work in this country.

Sir William Burrell had great skill in collecting, as did those associated with him. It is more difficult to look after these treasures, scattered as they are, and we would all like to acknowledge our debt to the curator in whose care they have been. But the treasures are exposed inevitably to dangers. Moreover, they are only partly on show from time to time. I am sure that all hon. Members join in hoping that a universally acceptable solution to the present problem will be found, and found quickly.

10.37 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Bruce Millan)

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan) has raised the question of the Burrell Collection, and I am particularly pleased that he has done so in such a very reasonable and helpful way. I know that this is a subject in which he has a deep interest and concern, and I hope that what I shall have to say will give him some ground for optimism.

I am indebted to the hon. Lady the Member for Renfrew, East (Miss Harvie Anderson) for what she said and the way she put it, and I am delighted, too, that so many Glasgow Members are here tonight to hear this short debate, because their presence demonstrates the interest which, I know, hon. Members on both sides feel in the subject.

As my hon. Friend said, the whole problem has become one which involves both the Burrell Collection itself and Pollok House, which also, incidentally, contains a very fine collection though on nothing like the scale or value of the Burrell Collection.

I need not describe the collection in detail because my hon. Friend has already done so. It consists of a vast assembly of paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other objets d'art of very high quality. It is a very remarkable and valuable collection, and, as both hon. Members have pointed out, in many respects a unique one. It was amassed over a long period of years by Sir William Burrell, who, in 1944, 14 years before his death, gave virtually the entire collection to Glasgow Corporation, together with a large sum of money which now amounts to over £500,000, for the housing, care and enlargement of the collection.

As my hon. Friend said, it was one of the conditions of the gift that the collection should be housed in a suitable district and in separate buildings which would be specially erected for the purpose on a site provided by the corporation not less than 16 miles from Glasgow. The 16-mile limit was subsequently reduced to 13 miles, but the trustees have, quite understandably, been most anxious that the collection should not finally be housed where it would be exposed to damage from the smoky atmosphere of the City of Glasgow.

My hon. Friend mentioned the number of unsuccessful attempts which have been made over the years to find a suitable home for the collection. I need not recount the history of that, and I come now to the present situation which has developed out of the proposition, first made in 1964, that a suitable site for the collection might be found in the grounds of Pollok House.

The Burrell trustees have agreed that if the collection could be housed in buildings to be erected in the Pollok estate they would not enforce the obligation that it should be housed more than 13 miles from the city. We are very much further, therefore, than we were in 1964.

I will say something about Pollok House itself. As my hon. Friend said, it is situated in Pollok estate, which is a very fine and extremely pleasant estate. I take the more pleasure in saying that as, incidentally, it is largely within my constituency of Craigton. It is only about three miles from the centre of Glasgow and the estate and house are owned by Nether Pollok Ltd., which is a family company. The house has a fine collection, a very notable collection, of Spanish paintings, 18th century furniture, silver and porcelain which has been built up by the Stirling-Maxwell family.

The proposals under discussion are that the Burrell Collection should be suitably housed at Pollok estate. As my hon. Friend said, and I was very glad he said it, the present owners of Pollok estate have shown great generosity and public spiritedness over the years, particularly in this matter in their anxiety to ensure that the estate and the treasures of Pollok House should be available for the public at large to enjoy. There is already before us, therefore, the prospect that the two fine collections could be housed near to each other in extremely pleasant surroundings, thus providing an unsurpassed amenity for the City of Glasgow.

In the Scottish Grand Committee debate on 20th July, 1965, when the Committee was debating arts and amenities, my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart), then the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, dealt briefly with the Burrell Collection. She said that at that time she was not able to give any final details or information about the negotiations which were then taking place. She went on to say that she had to be rather cautious because there were complex and delicate issues involved both for the private parties concerned and public bodies, Glasgow Corporation in particular. I am glad to say that since that time a good deal of progress has been made, but it is still true that the negotiations going on involving both private and public bodies are, naturally enough in view of the complexities of the subject and the variety of interests, at a delicate stage.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and myself have been kept in close touch with the progress of the negotiations by Glasgow Corporation and others who are involved. I think that all parties to the negotiations recognise that the Government are very ready to help. That does not exclude financial help, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark said last July. We are ready to help when a solution has been reached, but things are not yet at a stage where a solution has been reached by the other parties concerned. It would be premature, and I believe unhelpful, if I were to give the details of what is at present being discussed. Perhaps, however, I may mention one aspect of the problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for Spring-burn referred, the proposal that the National Trust for Scotland should become the owner of Pollok House and its immediate surroundings. It has become clear as negotiations have proceeded that maintenance of Pollok House, its contents and the estate would be a very heavy burden on the Trust which would necessitate their being substantially endowed for the purpose.

This situation is not one which could appropriately be met by grant under the Historic Buildings Act. Various Governments have taken this attitude. The discussions which have been going on recently, therefore, have not excluded the possibility that, in the event, the best solution might be one which did not involve placing Pollok House in the permanent care of the National Trust.

I am not able to go much beyond that this evening, because we are dealing with private property and the legitimate interests of various public-spirited people. It would not be proper for me to say much more tonight. I emphasise, however, that the Government are very much interested in the outcome of the negotiations and are anxious to help. We are not, however, at present a major party to the negotiations. It is not for my right hon. Friend or myself to speak on behalf of the Burrell trustees or Nether Pollok Ltd., or for Glasgow Corporation or, indeed, the National Trust. In the first instance, it is for these bodies to see that a solution is worked out.

In saying that, I am not trying in any way to conceal a lack of progress in this complicated matter. I repeat that considerable advances have been made in these private discussions, and I hope that they will be brought to a successful outcome. The preliminary exchanges seem to suggest that that will happen. We have to leave it now to the parties concerned to try to reach agreement. I know that they are all anxious to reach settlement and that there is a tremendous amount of good will on all sides.

A great deal of time has elapsed since Sir William Burrell made this gift to the City of Glasgow, and many people feel strongly that not enough has been done over the years to have this problem solved and this great collection housed in a worthy gallery where it can be seen and enjoyed not only by the citizens of Glasgow, but by a wider public.

For obvious reasons, I do not wish to go over the history of the whole problem, but, as both hon. Members who have spoken have pointed out, it is a considerable disappointment, to put it no higher, for all of us who are concerned about this matter that it should have dragged on for more than 20 years so that the benefits of the collection are not being made available to the public, as we should like them to be. Many people have become rather disillusioned that this difficult problem will ever be satisfactorily solved. I want to make it clear, therefore, to my hon. Friend that I believe that we are now genuinely in sight of a solution to the problem. I hope that this debate will indicate to all the parties concerned the interest that, I know, hon. Members on both sides have in the matter and our concern that a solution should be reached.

I repeat that the Government are certainly anxious that a solution should be reached. I assure my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that anything that we can do to facilitate a settlement, not as a major party to the negotiations but, obviously, as an interested party, we should be only too pleased to do.

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has been very helpful and courteous in his reply to the debate. It is encouraging that something appears to be happening. It is also encouraging that the Minister will keep in touch with the parties concerned. As a member of the Glasgow Corporation for five years, I have had nothing like the experience of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Spring-burn (Mr. Buchanan) in being engaged in the negotiations.

I wish to make one brief point. I counsel the Minister against the feeling that the present time is a delicate stage in the negotiations and that something will happen. During the five years that I was on the council, we always had this feeling. Whenever there was a question of raising the subject in any way, we were told that negotiations were at a delicate stage and that something would happen soon. That is the situation now. We are told that something may happen soon.

Everyone who has spoken tonight has accepted that this is a collection of international as well as national interest and is not simply a matter for Glasgow. The city, as we all appreciate, has an enormous financial burden at present, and looking to the future this may become more serious. If we are to approach this as a Glasgow problem, in which the corporation accepts responsibility for putting up buildings, I hope it will be possible for financial assistance to be given from the Government, because at present I feel that the resources are simply not there.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.