HC Deb 13 May 1971 vol 817 cc712-26

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

8.18 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

The manner in which the Domenichino picture "The Adoration of the Shepherds" was sold a few weeks ago by the Governors of Dulwich Art Gallery has caused grave anxiety among those who care about our museums and galleries and our heritage of art treasures.

The governors of that gallery had long been concerned about the funds which they had or were likely to have to maintain the gallery, in view of rising costs, and to provide the security measures they were told were necessary. They were unable to get any further funds from the Alleyn Foundation which owns the gallery, and they made every effort to raise resources from numerous bodies. For some years the governors had been anxious about the situation and I understand they had approached, among other bodies, the Greater London Council, the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum and that they had informed the Chairman of the Standing Commission of Museums and Galleries that if they were unable to raise sufficient money they might one day be forced to sell one of their pictures.

Finally, their attempts to raise money proving unsuccessful, they decided to sell this picture. It was one of the outstanding pictures in the magnificent collection left to Dulwich College in 1811, and it has hung in the Dulwich Gallery since 1814. Incidentally, the donor, Sir Francis Bourgeois expressed a desire that it should be kept by Dulwich College for ever for the inspection of the public.

The sale of the picture became a secret venture. No one knew about it, apart from the Secretary of State for Education and Science whose agreement has to be sought, under the Charities Act, 1968, before a treasure from a public gallery or museum can be sold. The Friends of the Dulwich Gallery were not informed. This is an important and influential body which has frequently helped the gallery in the past. The Standing Commission of Museums and Galleries was not informed. Indeed, no one knew about it until about three weeks before the picture was sold at Sotheby's.

The first public announcement was made in an advertisement by Sotheby's in the Burlington Magazine, which I understand appeared on 3rd March. The first statement in a newspaper appeared on 8th March, and the picture was sold at Sotheby's on 24th March. In effect, no one had time to consider the consequences or the seriousness of the situation, and the public and the art world were inexcusably left in the dark.

Fortunately, by the last-minute intervention of the Scottish National Gallery which, like others, had no prior knowledge of the sale, the worst disasters of this secret, rushed sale were avoided. The picture did not pass from public into private ownership, and it was not sold abroad. 'The Scottish National Gallery offered £75,000 out of its £80,000 annual grant for the purchase of this picture, on the understanding that the Government would provide another £30,000. This the Government agreed to. As far as anyone knows, the Government were not asked to make such a contribution before the sale was decided upon or made. Had they been, and the £30,000 had been agreed at that stage, this sum might have been sufficient to form the nucleus of a successful rescue fund, and thereby prevent the picture from leaving the Dulwich Gallery.

At the end of the day we have the ludicrous situation that the picture, by the provision, directly and indirectly, of public grants, continues to be hung in a public gallery, but not in the one to which it was bequeathed, and where it had been a cherished exhibit for more than 150 years. Moreover, its loss from that gallery has impoverished the historical significance of the Dulwich collection as an index of late eighteenth-century taste.

My purpose in raising the matter this evening is not to cry over spilt milk, or to criticise, or to allocate blame. It is to seek to remedy the obvious serious deficiency, revealed by this case, in the procedures which govern the sale of our art treasures from public museums and galleries. I feel that early action should be taken in this matter, as similar situations may arise at any time.

The trustees of many galleries may find themselves—indeed, do find themselves —short of money, and they may, in desperation, and reluctantly, decide that the only way out of their dilemma is to sell one of their valuable exhibits. Following the Domenichino precedent, they may assume that they will get the acquiescence of the Secretary of State for Education and Science, and that if they act with the utmost speed and secrecy all will be well. Their gallery may lose one of its finest pictures, but their financial worries will be at an end. I suggest that that assumption should be removed as quickly as possible, both in their interests, and in the interests of the public.

The disposal of a masterpiece from a gallery or museum should not be a matter for the discretion of its trustees. It is a matter of wide public concern, and if things are left as they are, and the present wholly inadequate—indeed, one might say non-existent—procedures surrounding the sale of treasures from our museums and galleries remain unaltered, two undesirable consequences are likely to follow.

The first is that potential donors of works of art to galleries and museums may be reluctant to make such gifts, through fear that they may be sold one day without adequate safeguard or scrutiny. Second, masterpieces in our public galleries, which have long been part of our national heritage, may irretrievably disappear. I am not arguing that under no circumstances should an exhibit in a public gallery or museum be disposed of. What I am urging is that stringent safeguarding procedures should be established and operated before any such disposal can be effected in future, and that these safeguards should be made known.

The responsibility for doing that lies clearly with the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The right hon. Lady has a specific obligation under Section 35 of the Charities Act, 1968, to grant or refuse consent when the trustees of a public museum or gallery seek to sell any of their possessions. She also has a wider responsibility, in that she is answerable to this House and the country for the welfare of the nation's art collections. I invite the Under-Secretary of State tonight to make a declaration whereby those two responsibilities can be reconciled. I ask him to tell us that in future a different course of action will be taken by the Secretary of State when she receives an application.

When she does, I suggest that she should do three things. First, she should insist that full publicity is given to the proposed sale. Second, that ample time is allowed for the possible raising of sufficient funds to prevent the need for the sale, or for devising some alternative solution. Third, as she has no art expertise in her Department, she should consult those bodies who have before giving her consent. In the Domenichino case, the Under-Secretary told me in answer to a Question, she consulted no one because she believed this was unnecessary. I ask that, in future, such consultation should take place, particularly with the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries, which has the requisite knowledge and expertise and which, in comparable cases in the past, such as the Soane Museum, the Iveagh Bequest at Kenwood and the Wellington Museum, was able to provide valuable help and advice.

There is no need for me to elaborate on these proposals. They present no difficulty and their desirability is self-evident. I have elaborated them to the right hon. Lady in the long letter that I wrote to her about three weeks ago, so she has had ample time to consider them. I hope that the Under-Secretary will now indicate her full agreement with these proposals. If he does he will dispel the justified disquiet which the sale of the Domenichino has aroused in the minds of all those who care about our national art treasures.

8.31 p.m.

Mr. Carol Johnson (Lewisham, South)

As I am a governor of Dulwich College and therefore must accept responsibility for the decision to sell this picture, perhaps the House will bear with me if I try to put this matter in some perspective.

The history of the Dulwich Picture Gallery goes back to the foundation of Alleyn's College of God's Gift, a gift made by Edward Alleyn, the actor and contemporary of Shakespeare, who died in 1526. He was the master of the royal games and acquired great wealth and a great deal of land in what was then the village of Dulwich, becoming lord of the manor. He was anxious to perpetuate his memory by the creation of the foundation, which also included some pictures, although of no interest or merit. There was a further gift of pictures by the bookseller and actor, William Cartwright, a few years later, and these pictures, in earlier years, were hung on the college walls.

But the most important part of the collection were the pictures bequeathed by Sir Francis Bourgeois in 1611. They also have an interesting history, because the nucleus of the collection was a collection formed on behalf of King Stanislas of Poland with the intention of creating a Polish national gallery. Unfortunately, he was deposed and that collection never came into existence, but the pictures passed from Sir Francis Bourgeois and in his will they were left to Dulwich College. To house them, this charming, beautiful and functional building was built by Sir John Soane.

Since those times, there have been many further bequests and both the gallery and the pictures attract visitors from all over the world. This collection, of which the governors are very proud, is housed in what Robert Browning christened "the gallery in a garden".

Why then even contemplate selling any pictures from a unique collection? I should like to explain the background which led to the governors' decision to sell. The pictures were removed from the gallery during the war. This was a fortunate move because the gallery itself was badly damaged. It was rebuilt after the war, but unfortunately the war damage payments covered only half the cost of renovation, so the gallery was substantially in debt and has been facing financial problems ever since.

In view of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) said, I should like to say something about the gallery's financial position, as this is not merely relevant to the decision to sell but, in my view, a complete justification for it. I should like to remove any misunderstandings about the governors' resources. It is true that the gallery is part of the Alleyn's Foundation of God's Gift and is administered by the governors, but the Foundation includes four other schools, apart from Dulwich, together with the chapel and the almshouses, and the gallery receives only a minute percentage of the income from the estate. This is a fixed percentage and cannot be increased, except by modifying the whole trust, which would need the agreement of the other beneficiaries, and it might be difficult to obtain that.

In addition to the rising costs to which my right hon. Friend referred, in recent years the governors have been faced with substantial expenditure necessitated by the urgent and expensive security apparatus which has had to be installed to avoid a repetition of the sensational theft a few years ago when, among many of the valuable pictures stolen, was Rembrandt's "Girl at the Window".

For many years the governors have been trying to improve and increase the gallery's resources. We are told that we should have let the world know of our financial plight and that money would have poured in. Those who take that view might be interested to learn of some of the abortive approaches that we have made in recent years.

As far back as September, 1966, an approach was made to the Arts Council for a grant. The Council advised the governors to appeal to the local authorities in South London. That we did, without success. After that, and on reporting back to the Arts Council, we were told by the Council that it was unable to help.

My right hon. Friend referred to the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries. We approached that Commission and discussed our financial problems with it as long ago as April, 1967. We prepared for the Commission a most careful memorandum setting out the needs of the gallery, and later we had a visit from members of the Commission. It was on the Commission's suggestion that the governors approached no less than 25 of the largest trusts and foundations in this country and America to raise an endowment of £100.000, which the Commission agreed we required.

After all that effort, the meagre sum of £5,000 was raised. Had the response to those efforts been more promising, the governors would have felt justified in mounting a public appeal for the remainder of the money, but in view of that unfortunate result, that was deemed to be inappropriate.

We then went to the Greater London Council, to which my right hon. Friend referred, in the hope of obtaining a larger grant and, indeed, the G.L.C. increased its grant from £2,000 to £3.000. We are grateful for its support, though it does not deal with our major problem.

Then, at the suggestion of County Hall, we again approached the South London boroughs, and this produced £75. Back we went to the Arts Council, which told us that it could do nothing. However, it wrote to the Department of Education and Science suggesting that the Department should consider making an annual grant to the Dulwich College Picture Gallery on the lines of the grant made to Sir John Soane's Museum.

The chairman of the governers, Lord Shawcross, met the present Paymaster-General, Lord Eccles, to discuss the financial difficulties of the gallery, but the latter did not hold out much hope of the Government extending the sort of help to Dulwich that had been given to the Soane Museum. He was certainly aware of the dire financial straits of the trust from the point of view of the gallery.

My right hon. Friend also referred to the Friends of the Dulwich Gallery and to complaints that they had not been consulted. However, they represent a very small body. There are not more than 150 of them who each make an annual payment of one guinea or so a year. Certainly they could not have been expected to raise the £100,000 that was required.

After all this, covering several years, and after making every effort we could to raise the necessary money, we were faced with the prospect of disposing of one of our pictures. We took the most careful advice, particularly from the representative of the Royal Academy, who serves on the board of trustees, about which picture to sell and which one would do the least harm to the collection as a whole.

On the legal side, authority for the sale was obtained from the Department of Education and Science, and I am sure that the Minuister will be able to deal with this aspect. I suggest that neither the terms of the original Alleyn Deed of Foundation or the terms of Sir Francis Bourgeois' will are relevant today, because the position, powers, responsibilities and rights of the governors are governed by Act of Parliament. The Dulwich College Act, 1857, and the Order in Council of 18th August, 1882, deal with the management of the Foundation.

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that the decision of the Governors was a difficult one to take. They deferred contemplating it as long as possible. They made every effort open to them to secure the funds to maintain the gallery. If they had not taken the action which they did, the gallery would have had to be closed. It is a popular gallery which is free to the public and, as I have said at the beginning, attracts visitors from all over the world. If my right hon. Friend had served with me on the board of governors I do not believe that in these circumstances he would have come to any other decision than that to which we came.

8.40 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. William van Straubenzee)

I understand the strong feelings aroused by this matter in the mind of the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss).

It is positively valuable that we should have time—by the good fortune of our business today we have time—to consider this matter at rather greater length than would normally be the case on an ordinary Adjournment debate. It also has the advantage that the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson), who speaks with great authority on the matter, having been intimately concerned with each move, has been able to make public certain matters, which have not previously been fully ventilated, to the great advantage of the debate.

Although neither the right hon. Member for Vauxhall nor the hon. Member for Lewisham, South know this, I have a personal connection with this particular collection. Until 1959 the then chairman of the trustees, now deceased, was my uncle. I therefore knew at first-hand the passionate care which the trustees bestowed upon their picture collection.

At the risk of sounding momentarily pedantic, I should like, first, to deal with the purely legal side, but I shall also deal with what I may loosely call the strictly practical side.

Since I am dealing with a legal power vested in my right hon. Friend, I have to start by saying that it is fundamental to the sale of this picture and the request for consent by the trustees that a statutory power must be exercised only for the purposes for which it was conferred by Parliament. The relevant power is conferred by Section 23(1) of the Charities Act, 1960. I am sure that it was merely a slip on the part of the right hon. Gentleman, but for those who read our debates it might be important. If I heard him correctly, he said that it was in Section 35.

Mr. Strauss

Of the 1968 Act.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Section 23 of the Charities Act, 1960, gives the power vested in my right hon. Friend, and that is the one under which she was operating in giving her consent. That power enables her to authorise any action proposed or contemplated in the administration of an educational charity which appears to her to be expedient in the interests of the charity". In this case the trustees represented to my right hon. Friend that it was expedient, in the interests of the Dulwich Art Gallery, that they should be authorised to sell the Domenichino to raise funds, without which it would in all probability be impossible for them to maintain the gallery.

The essence of the problem which had to be considered by my right hon. Friend can be put in the form of two questions and the answers thereto. The first question is: did the gallery need funds on the scale contemplated; that is, a capital sum of between £80,000 and £100,000? The answer clearly is: Yes.

Secondly, was there, at the stage at which my right hon. Friend was formally approached, at the beginning of December, 1970, any practicable alternative way of raising the sum involved? I believe the answer is: No.

In the light of the speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham, South, there is no need for me to argue the extent of the financial plight of the gallery. He does it with an authority that I do not possess. For reasons that both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member will understand, I do not propose to go into some of the most pressing reasons why it is necessary for expenditure to be incurred by the gallery. It would not be in the interests of the gallery to elaborate the matter, other than to say that the financial plight is common ground.

As the hon. Member said, by the time that my right hon. Friend was approached for an order authorising the sale of the picture the trustees had spent four years, or thereabouts, attempting to raise the money in other ways. We have heard tonight of the details, step by step. They were described in a letter to The Times by the noble Lord, Lord Shawcross. Put shortly, the story as it came before us—and as it has been confirmed tonight—was that the trustees appointed a special appeal committee to advise them on the best way of raising the money. The trustees did consult the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries. They did apply to the Arts Council for financial assistance. Indeed, they leant directly on the advice of a committee, specially established, and they appealed to an impressively large number of organisasations, both in this country and in the United States. They did apply to the Greater London Council. They did apply to the Boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. Finally, they approached my noble Friend the Paymaster-General about the possibility of Government help.

The net result of all these steps, taken with such earnestness and, no doubt, skill, was that the committee realised slightly more than £6,000 in capital, with the other additions mentioned by the hon. Member.

The trustees had exploratory discussions with my noble Friend the Paymaster-General. He put to them two suggestions for methods by which they might run the gallery on a more economical footing. I do not believe that it has been previously made public that, without any commitment, he also suggested that they might consider the possibility of the gallery's becoming, in effect, an outpost of the National Gallery, maintained out of public funds and—as a corollary—subject to Treasury control.

The trustees, as they were fully entitled to do—I make no complaint about it—did not feel able to pursue that suggestion. It is only reasonable to make that matter known because there have been assertions that my noble Friend did not take as much care in the matter as, without question, he did.

We reached the position that the trustees decided to make no public appeal for funds for the gallery, for the reason given by the hon. Member, namely, that they were advised by the committee that the appeal was not likely to be successful. If I may supplement this, that advice was confirmed by its own experience in an attempt to raise funds for another institution forming part of the same charity which, to put it mildly had been very far from a success.

That was the situation when the trustees applied to the Secretary of State for an order under Section 23(1) of the Charities Act. I have shown that it was reasonable for the Department to say that it was satisfied, on the evidence, that there was no practicable alternative to the sale of a picture forming part of the gallery's main collection; and that is how an order was accordingly made authorising the sale of the Domenichino.

The sale of this picture, the trustees had been advised, would do the least damage to the collection as a whole. This decision has been criticised on a number of grounds but I venture to say that the only relevant ground—and I use that phrase because the relevancy follows from what I have said about the questions which have to be considered in the context of Section 23—is the claim that there were alternative ways of raising the funds and that more time should have been given to the trustees to raise them before the order was made.

This, frankly, is a matter of opinion. The short answer was given in the letter to The Times from the chairman of the governors to which I have referred, in which he said: … in spite of all the publicity the matter has received we have only received one donation of £5.

Mr. Strauss

The hon. Gentleman must realise that Lord Rosse, Chairman of the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries, takes a very different view and considers that if it had been known that this picture was to be sold the Commission might have been able to devise, through its experience and contacts in the art world, ways of saving it.

Mr. van Straubenzee

That is not so, but I will come to Lord Rosse's letter, which I have read. Surely what he was saying was that the Commission would be glad to give advice. The trustees have had, to put it loosely, bags of advice. After all the publicity given to the matter after the sale had been announced there was only one donation of £5 received.

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the letter from the Chairman of the Standing Commission. What it said was that they would be glad to offer advice, but what the trustees were short of was funds, not advice. I have yet to hear any practical suggestions about what the trustees could have done to raise more funds.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham, South for making reference to the Friends of the Dulwich Gallery. Like him, from my position, I nay the warmest tribute to the work of that body which I know is enormously appreciated by the trustees. But to suggest that it could have raised a sum even remotely approaching £100,000, which the picture raised, is not realistic. I am grateful to him for putting right a misconception very much abroad as to the way in which the admittedly wealthy Alleyn Trust, which runs various schools as well as the gallery, could have been asked to cooperate. The answer is that the administration of the income of the Alleyn Trust is regulated by schemes which have effect under the Charities Act.

In practice, my hon. Friend could amend those schemes only with the consent of those who administer all the institutions which benefit from the trust. I have only to ask the House to consider the difficulty of obtaining the consent to a variation of a scheme from all those who receive income for it to realise what lies in the way of reaching agreement, which would necessarily imply that some would take a reduced income. The Alleyn Trust was not a free agent.

It has been mentioned outside the House that the National Art Collections Fund should have been brought into the matter. That fund is constituted To assist public art collections in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth to acquire works of art and objects of historical importance". There can be no question of the National Art Collections Fund making a substantial contribution towards the maintenance —and I stress the word "maintenance" —of the gallery.

To sum up, when the time came to consider whether an order ought to be made under Section 23(1), all the evidence before my right hon. Friend was that this was the best means of raising the money which all agreed the gallery required for its continued existence. I personally believe that everything which has happened since confirms that conclusion.

The right hon. Gentleman has suggested that my Department should have taken expert advice before making the order, and in a Parliamentary Question earlier this Session he referred specifically to local organisations, art authorities, or other interested parties. He has also suggested that the Department should have consulted such organisations and authorities because there is no expert evidence available within the Department. It is sufficient to point out that the Department's officers include the staff of the Victoria and Albert Museum, whose director is Sir John Pope-Hennessy. It cannot, therefore, be sustained that a Department which can look to such a man for advice lacks any expert advice. In addition, the Department can, if it wishes, turn for advice to any of the national galleries.

The real answer to this point is that it is wholly misconceived, because the questions which the Department had to consider could not be affected by the sort of consideration to which the advice of such experts would have been directed. The question which the Department had to consider, and on which my right hon. Friend had to adjudicate, was whether the sale of the Domenichino was expedient in the interests of the gallery. In the particular circumstances—the possibility that the gallery might have to chose if funds were not raised—the artistic value of the Domenichino, even the possibility that it might be exported if sold, could not properly be taken into account in the legal context. Therefore, there was no question upon which the Department could consult these bodies.

I have been asked on other occasions to give a guarantee that the Department will not be asked to make another order authorising the trustees to sell another picture from the main collection. I cannot in good faith give a guarantee that the trustees will never make another approach of that kind. But there is every reason to hope that the recent sale will enable the trustees to maintain the gallery out of their additional income, at least for the foreseeable future. It was only with the greatest reluctance that the trustees decided to sell, and that was when the Gallery was in financial extremes. What the trustees want to do is to keep their pictures.

One question raised by the right hon. Gentleman relates to the effect on other potential donors. This is a valid point. But the Department and the trustees have to deal with the situation as it exists in any particular case. I have outlined with some care, both on the strictly legal side and on the side looked after by my noble Friend, the detailed and careful scrutiny which was given in this particular case. The harsh realities of that situation left no doubt at all about the action that was taken. I am grateful that our business has enabled me to give a detailed and full explanation to the House.

Mr. Strauss

There is one question with which the hon. Gentleman has not dealt. Complaint has been made about the lapse of time between the public announcement of the sale of the picture and the date when the picture was sold, which was less than three weeks. Indeed, the period was so short that possible supporters of a rescue fund could not be mobilised and it was impossible to do anything about it. When one bears in mind that the appeal to rescue a picture might be more potent than an appeal to provide maintenance money for a gallery, it is highly desrable that in future there should be a reasonable gap between the public announcement of sale and the actual moment when the sale takes place. I ask the hon. Gentleman for an assurance that in future the Secretary of State will see to it that sufficient time elapses in this respect to enable a possible rescue operation to be launched, perhaps with success.

Mr. van Straubenzee

The technical answer is that, under the powers invested in my right hon. Friend by Section 23, the Secretary of State for the time being would not, I think, have the legal power to make such a requirement. I take the point, however. But, on the facts of this case, very wide publicity was given to the fact that the sale had been authorised, and it follows from the speech of the hon. Gentleman, who is himself a trustee, that if in that period there had been a reasonable expectation of the necessary funds being raised, the trustees would have been the foremost people to have welcomed the alternative solution.