HC Deb 31 January 1973 vol 849 cc1509-23

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the topics under Class IX, Vote 3, and Class IX, Vote 6, and for the presence of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science to answer to these matters.

First, with regard to the question of purchase grants for local museums, under Class IX, Vote 3, since your selection of this topic two days ago, Mr. Speaker, the House has the answer given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) about the decision that, subject to parliamentary approval, the acquisition grant administered by the Victoria and Albert Museum to assist purchases by local collections will be increased to £400,000, and that the similar grant administered by the Royal Scottish Museum will be increased to £25,000. That will no doubt be most warmly welcomed by all those concerned with local museums.

The 19th Report of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, which was published recently, recommended on page 6: An increase to the fund of, say, twice the present annual rate would be insignificant in Exchequer terms but would make a substantial contribution to the enrichment of public collections in the provinces. I am happy to say that the Government have done better than that. They have raised a grant which over the past few years has been £150,000, subject to Parliamentary approval, to £400,000. There has been a difficult situation for local museums in that both in 1970–71 and 1971–72 the full grant was exhausted within five months, and in the financial year 1972–73 it was exhausted, save for a reserve sum of £6,500 by early August—a third of the way through the year. There will be general pleasure and relief that the acquisition work of provincial museums will now be able to go on far more effectively than in the past.

I turn from that to the perhaps more serious position of the grants involved under Vote 6 for the National Gallery, against the background of the special circumstances of the grant for the great Titian picture of Diana and Actæon. Here I quote from page 2 of the report of the Reviewing Committee: This pre-eminent work of art was saved from export by what must be regarded as a most exceptional tour de force; but the problem of any satisfactory mechanism for the control of pictures of the highest importance and of such astronomical value remains unresolved. There are other works of no less importance in the hands of private owners in this country which those owners may at any time wish to sell. The demands made by the Titian on the resources of the National Gallery and major artistic trust funds have so depleted those resources that they could hardly make a similar contribution to the purchase of even one more outstanding painting for some little time. It is apparent form page 103 of the Supplementary Estimates that the purchase price of the Titian was achieved by the original grant of £480,000 as in the original Estimate, a special grant towards the purchase of the painting of £381,500 from the Government, and the advance of £150,000 out of the annual grant for each of the three years beginning in 1973–74, making a total of £450,000. The consequence is that this major national collection will have little or no money available during this period for the purchase of really major works of art.

I realise that several hon. Members wish to raise subjects in this debate on the Supplementary Estimates, so I shall confine myself to putting four points to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State.

Our national collections are not protected in any way for the purchase of a really important picture, in present-day terms, for our national heritage. The Velasquez "Juan de Pareja" slipped through our hands, and the Titian was saved only by mortgaging three years' advance.

Second, there is no distinction between the need of the National Gallery to face a crisis of that sort and its need to meet the, so to speak, more ordinary problem of what happens to English pictures which come on to the market. In this connection, I ask my hon. Friend to deal with the Question which is down on the Order Paper for answer tomorrow, asking what progress has been made with the listing of exceptional art masterpieces which was announced by his predecessor on 22nd July—Vol. 821 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, at col. 1842.

Third, I ask my hon. Friend to deal in broad terms with the following problem. In the present state of inflation and the circumstances affecting so many educational and charitable foundations as well as many private people, we can never know what is likely to come on to the market over which no effective control can be administered by the Department as matters now stand. The sale of the Domenichino from Dulwich, which, in fact, had to be approved by the Department, is one example of the risks involved.

My hon. Friend will be aware, particularly against the background of the crisis which arose some years ago over the sale of the Leonardo cartoon by the Royal Academy, that that organisation alone is sitting on a number of major masterpieces. The Press has been continually concerned, for instance, with regard to the Michelangelo tondo which, on any valuation, must be worth over £3 million at current prices. This is a major work of art which has been in this country for many years. A crisis could develop if it were suddenly to come on the market, and I understand that Her Majesty's Government could have no control to stop it coming on to the market. The national collections as they stand would then be in no position to ask for a further supplementary grant.

Will my hon. Friend deal also, therefore, with the Question which is down for answer, tomorrow, to ask whether his Department will consider appointing a standing committee to review the control of sales of works of art falling within the terms of the Waverley criteria by such semi-public bodies as universities, colleges, schools and other foundations.

The time is coming when we cannot expect the National Arts Collection Fund and the Pilgrim Trust, who were partners to the Government in the acquisition of the Titian and to whom I pay the highest possible tribute, always to bail out the acquisition policies of the major galleries. The amount of money available from these entirely voluntary bodies is necessarily limited. My fourth point relates to the need to establish either an effective sum so that the Reviewing Committee on the export of works of art can have financial teeth, and not merely a legislative basis for recommendation, or as to whether the major collections can have sufficient money in order to have at least an effective acquisitions policy. The risks involved in the absence of such a policy are shown only too clearly in today's edition of the Guardian by the account of the difficulties into which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has got itself in recent months. This is described under the unhappy description of "de-accessing". Large numbers of works have had to be put on the market apparently to pay for the acquisition of the Velasquez "Juan de Pareja". The story reads: One of the biggest art controversies in years has exploded in New York. The College Art Association, the leading professional body for art historians and museum curators, has called for a public inquiry into the Metropolitan Museum. Such an inquiry would be without precedent. The current issue of the influential journal Art in America calls for the resignation of the museum's director Thomas Hoving. Angry New Yorkers are writing to the Times. The art world in one of the great art cities of the world, always a glorious jungle of intrigue and gossip, is ashriek with rumour and recrimination. I pay tribute not only to the work which has been done by individuals but to the brave decision of the trustees of the National Gallery to save the Titian at all costs; to the generosity which the Government showed on that occasion. I pay tribute to the important steps which the Government have taken to help by extending the unlimited exemption from estate duty on bequests to national authority and university collections; by the corresponding extension to estate duty bequests up to a limit of £50,000 to the National Arts Collections Fund and, at last, on an unlimited basis; by the extension of the scope of exemption of works of art from estate duty under the Finance Act 1930; and by the acceptance of works of art by the Treasury in lieu of estate duty. All these are major achievements but a situation remains whereby unless our heritage is to be permanently at risk and unless we run the risk of losing works of art like the tondo something must be done on a permanent basis.

I finally refer my hon. Friend to the Question on today's Order Paper asking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State whether, in the light of the recommendations of the Nineteenth Report of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, Command Paper No. 5194, she will recommend that, in view of the risk that outstanding works of art may be lost to the UK, particularly at a time when the resources of the National Gallery and the major artistic trust funds have been depleted in saving Titian's 'Death of Actæon' for the nation, that consideration should be given to further financial support for the export control.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I am delighted to be able to support my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money), who has taken such a great interest in this subject. Although there are one or two matters on which I might disagree with him on detail, he will appreciate that in the world of art controversy is bound to enter into almost every subject. That is really part of the thrill of entering this field—that there are violent clashes of opinion and disagreement.

I think that what my hon. Friend has said should be looked at against the background of the announcement in Hansard on 30th January, reported at column 358, in which the Secretary of State said that, subject to parliamentary approval, £17.388 million would be available to the Arts Council next year, compared with £13.67 million in the current year. Despite all the difficulties which the nation faces, the Government have set this priority for this activity about which many members of the public care deeply. The special provision for the British Film Institute, asked for by many, of £1.36 million opposed to £1.094 million, is, I am sure, welcome. I must pay tribute to my noble Friend the Minister for the Arts, who has done more than any other to foster this aspect of our work and has succeeded, with the help of a massive private benefaction, to do a fine job for the crafts individually, particularly through reconciling certain differences of opinion among those who are keen to further this aspect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich referred to the increased grants to the Victoria and Albert Museum, especially for local collections, and I am sure we all welcome that. Even Scotland is to be included, and the Science Museum, which my hon. Friend did not mention, is to be given £150,000 for a special fund. How important that is with the renewed public interest is echoed by official interest.

Mr. Money

Perhaps my hon. Friend will forgive my saying that I am not overlooking the total effect of the answer given by my hon. Friend the Minister. I was merely concerned with Mr. Speaker's Ruling with reference to Class IX, Votes 3C and 6C.

Mr. Cooke

Perhaps I should have asked for your indulgence, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend who is to answer this debate will agree that this is a magnificent achievement within the confines of the need for public economy, which we all recognise as very necessary at present.

Mr. Money

Hear, hear.

Mr. Cooke

I hope that there are other newspapers apart from the Financial Times, which paid a gracious tribute to my noble Friend. Somehow I did not see it in a number of popular papers. Perhaps they will take it up after this. They hate being accused of lack of impartiality. They should certainly give the arts their fair share, even at this time; it is not very late—only just after dinner.

It is very surprising that there is not one member of the Opposition present in this debate, not even the bewhiskered gentleman who delights to stand at the Dispatch Box and attack my noble Friend on personal grounds without a policy to back his views. I hope that those who are listening to this debate will note that there is a total lack of any gracious admission by the Opposition parties of the Government's success, or, indeed, any constructive suggestion from them about how we might proceed in future.

To get back to the subject of the debate, there are one or two things I should like to add to what my hon. Friend has said and to give the Government perhaps another line of thought which may be of assistance. I do not deny that my hon. Friend was absolutely right in saying that there are certain things—if I may use such an unattractive word—certain works of art, not just pictures but other things, which certainly ought not to be allowed to leave these shores. On the other hand, there are works of art which have left these shores which we would very much like to have back.

I think that if my hon. Friend ponders for a moment he will agree with me that a freer interchange of works of art internationally would perhaps be no bad thing and that perhaps, in some circumstances, even the possession by a particular nation of a certain work of art is not quite the barrier to worldwide enjoyment that it once was with people now moving across the world with ever-increasing speed and ease.

Tonight, despite the mild setback of one of the American airlines refusing to purchase Concorde, at any rate for the time being, there are others who will be able to fly at twice the speed of sound——

Mr. Speaker

Order. That really cannot be in order.

Mr. Cooke

I thought it was not, Mr. Speaker, so I immediately move on to say that it is possible to enjoy the works of art which we might want to have here even if they are in another place, however one goes about it.

Mr. Money

I hope that whatever he recommends, my hon. Friend is not recommending that major works of art should be moved about, as came up as one of the suggestions at one stage with regard to the sharing of certain works of art between American galleries and our own, which could lead only to total disaster for their condition.

Mr. Cooke

No, that is not my suggestion. Some things can be moved about but others, I agree, could not and should not be moved about. I was about to say that there should be a freer movement of people across the world as the years went on. Although this is in its infancy, eventually it will be much easier for people to see things even if they are not in this country.

In making his very laudable case for further public assistance to purchase works of art as they come on to the market, my hon. Friend might have addressed himself—I know that he has thought about this privately—to the question why these works of art appear on the market. I think he and I would agree that it is regrettable that circumstances have forced the owners to put them on the market. Certainly the institutions he mentioned—the charitable institutions existing for the public good, showing pictures but not having the wherewithal to run their galleries—might not have found themselves in their present difficult position but for certain political and economic forces. I say "political" advisedly because politicians and Parliament have a strange attitude to the possession of works of art of great significance, because the owners are beset by many forces—taxation amongst them—which result in these things appearing on the market. I think that if the public, through Parliament, thought carefully, they would alter their attitudes about the possession of these valuable things.

I maintain that provided a valuable work of art of national importance is readily available to the public, it is probably far better that it should remain in the place for which it was purchased or commissioned, in a great country house or similar place, than that it should be removed forcibly by the nation and purchased, with difficulty, and placed in the somewhat clinical conditions even of one of our great national collections, which are at present bursting at the seams.

I do not suppose that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary can go very far on this tonight, but I feel that we should think carefully about where we are going because certainly there is absolutely no limit to the insatiable appetite and demands of our national collections if there is to be a great flood of works of art of national significance coming from private and semi-private hands because of political and economic forces. My hon. Friend might like to address himself to that. We had the panic about the Titian and there may be various views about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich mentioned Lord Radnor's Velasquez. If Lord Radnor had not been punished by what I regard as absolutely iniquitous taxation, his Velasquez might still be on view to the public at Longford Castle, where it could be seen in far more enjoyable surroundings than in any gallery, even on the other side of the Atlantic. My hon. Friend may care to comment on that.

When we talk about grants for the arts—that is what the debate is about—we do not just mean the acquisition of celebrated pictures for the nation. These are the things that come up from time to time. Very little attention was given at the time to the export of the Oscott Lectern. I do not suppose that anybody in the House has heard about it——

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

Oh, yes; I have.

Mr. Cooke

Then I exclude hon. Members on this side of the House. I do not suppose that any hon. Member opposite has heard about it. But it is important in the whole history of medieval Gothic art, and in terms of the significance it has for this Palace of Westminster in which we are speaking this evening. It inspired Pugin to revive the true Gothic style, as opposed to all the nonsense that Horace Walpole started, and the efforts of Mr. Burgess and others later. The true scholar of Gothic revival —Pugin—owed much to this object; and we lost it, although we should not have.

There are other things of that kind, not just pictures. Let us try, in this House, to sink all the differences we might have with the private owner, so long as he is prepared to enter into a working partnership and with the public, which so many owners of historic buildings do. We cannot sell historic buildings abroad, true, but we can let them fall down, and we do not, because the Government give us back a little of the money they have taken off us in taxation and help us to repair them, and we allow the public in, and they see the works of art as well. They do not see a barn of a place, stripped of works of art which have been put into some national collection, because of the agitation on the part of some hon. Members. We should leave them where they are, if possible, in happier surroundings, to which public access can be secured.

My hon. Friend and I are together in wishing to see the best kept in this country. He would now add to what he has said that he hopes that a lot of the things that we have lost abroad will come back.

Mr. Money


Mr. Cooke

My hon. Friend says, "Certainly". That may mean that we must let some things go from this country that we would like to keep but that we are prepared to exchange. We cannot keep everything. I am not trying to trap my hon. Friend or the Government. Provided everybody is happy to exchange, there cannot be anything wrong in that.

We should look at this question against the background of immensely increased finance for historic buildings, and for the arts, for which we all care.

My last point concerns the immensely increased public interest and Government interest in the whole field. My hon. Friend would not——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have been very tolerant with the hon. Member. He is going very wide indeed. The debate is limited to an increase of £9,250 in respect of certain provisions for the Victoria and Albert Museum and an increase of £480,000 for purchases by the National Gallery—some of it for the Titian. The hon. Member is going much too wide.

Mr. Cooke

Then I conclude by saying that I know that my hon. Friend would not have been able to say anything about ministerial responsibility for the whole field, which we regard as more than simply the acquisition of pictures. At school I remember a Latin tag which sums up all that I wish to say Ars longa, vita brevis which I translate to mean, "The arts are all-embracing but if one values ones life one had better not speak too long about them in the House of Commons."

11.40 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

Who am I to dissent from such an admirable sentiment, expressed in such beautiful language? I must express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) for raising this subject tonight because it gives me the opportunity to explain to the House how the system of control of works of art in this country operates. These two special grants at the centre of our discussion this evening are a part of the whole.

I am afraid that I cannot follow my hon. Friend's siren counsel to anticipate the answers that will be given tomorrow to Questions tabled on the Order Paper. It would be quite improper for me to do so. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) that we must consider the whole question of these grants in the context of the record sums which, subject to Parliamentary approval, are to be devoted to the arts. The record sum of £17,388,000 is involved, which goes to prove my point that we have become the party of the beautiful people, even if one or two of us are not exactly oil paintings.

In passing, may I say to my hon. Friend that it was rash of him to say, with me sitting on the Front Bench, that there was no one here who knew anything about the Oscott Lectern? It is an object in which I have taken a great interest. Perhaps it will reassure my hon. Friend if I tell him that although it is sad that the Lectern has gone overseas——

Mr. Robert Cooke

It is still in Catholic hands?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

In these ecumenical days we do not worry whether it is in Catholic or Protestant hands, or even Jewish hands for that matter, so long as it is in good hands. A lot of the proceeds from the sale of the Lectern have been devoted to beautifying the Chapel at Oscott. My hon. Friend will be able to visit it and see that it is restored to the original condition in which Pugin designed it.

I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich that it is necessary to have a further increase in export control to protect our works of art. The burden of my remarks tonight is that our system of protecting——

Mr. Money rose——

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Perhaps I may be allowed to develop the point. I am only at the beginning of my remarks. Our system, although a complex one, is effective and is one which offers adequate protection at a number of points.

Mr. Money

I had hoped to save time by saying that my hon. Friend and I would be at one, and certainly his predecessor and I were at one, in agreeing that the Waverley system works admirably. What I want to ask his Department, through him, is whether more money could be made available to let that system work.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

If my hon. Friend will be patient and allow me to answer his points in a logical order I will eventually come to that. We must begin at the beginning of our system of protection, which begins with fiscal incentives for owners of important works of art, either to retain them in their families or, if they need to sell them for personal reasons, to sell them direct to public collections. Successive Finance Acts contain provisions which relieve owners or their executors of estate duty if certain requirements on the quality of the works of art are met.

The second line of defence is the purchase grants of the national or local collections. That is the important point to which my hon. Friend has just referred. Purchase grants of the national institutions now amount to £2 million a year and, subject to parliamentary authority, the assistance provided for local institutions will be increased next year to £400,000 for England and Wales and £25,000 in Scotland. Additional funds of £150,000 and £25,000 are being established for scientific and technological material, thus relieving the previous funds of these commitments.

Finally, the Government are always prepared in certain cases to make additional special grants where the merits justify it, and the two cases to which the Estimates refer, one of which my hon. Friend discussed, provide important examples of this. There has been hardly a mention of the "Bureau-plat" which is being purchased with the aid of the Treasury. But there has been a discussion of the Titian, which is a classic case.

Following the export of the Velasquez "Juan de Pareja", the feeling was growing in some circles that the export control had failed to cope with the current very high prices for major works of art. But the success of the Trustees of the National Gallery in raising their share of the funds required to purchase the painting coupled with the matching grant of the Government went a long way to reassure public opinion that where a painting of importance which met the Waverley criteria was at risk, the Government were prepared to step in and help save the work for the nation. But in advance of any case, we cannot give specific commitments about that.

This assistance to protect what is widely, but rather loosely, called the national heritage is undoubtedly effective. I have a great deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West said about private collections. We should note that what is called the national heritage is in large part in private hands, and I am glad that that is so. But it is private property and, of necessity, the powers of the Government over the control of the property of private citizens is limited. But it shows how effective the system is that only one great painting, the Velasquez "Juan de Pareja" has been exported in recent years which the Government's expert advisers thought, and the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art agreed, ought to be retained.

Mr. Robert Cooke

That only became for sale because of penal estate duty. Although my hon. Friend is in no position to guarantee to put that right, that was the reason why it came on to the market.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Obviously I cannot go into estate duty this evening. But, like my hon. Friend, I regard it as at best perhaps a necessary evil. My hon. Friend might not go so far.

Those who raise the alarm on the subject are doing the country not a service but a disservice in a number of ways. They are wrong about the facts, they create unnecessary concern, and they add to the pressures upon owners who might be led to feel that now is the time to sell before the Government have to take more extensive action.

The essential point is that the present system of control serves effectively the purpose of giving the national collections and increasingly the local collections a fair chance to consider whether to try to raise from both public and private sources the money for purchases. It is not the purpose of the Government to stop works of art coming on the market. If a work of art of any importance comes on the market, the Government want to create a situation where those who have a legitimate national interest in acquiring it will have an opportunity to do so.

No discussion of this matter is complete without acknowledgement of the important work performed by the voluntary organisations which exist to help in this task, notably the National Art Collections Fund, but also a number of other charitable and private bodies and persons. I pay tribute to them.

There is also increasing assistance for local collections, and my noble Friend announced on 30th January that, subject to parliamentary approval, the grants-in-aid administered by the Victoria and Albert and the Royal Scottish Museums to assist local purchases would be increased in the next financial year.

Moreover, the Government announced last autumn that the criteria for the acceptance of works of art in lieu of death duty would be widened to include works of outstanding importance in relation to local as well as to national collections. This has already resulted in an increasing flow of works so offered.

To sum up, the arrangements for protecting the so-called national heritage in this country are many and practical. They have the great merit that they work. Many well intentioned people who take a theoretical view of this question might make the problem worse if some of their suggestions were adopted besides committing us to an enormously onerous system of control. To those who criticise the system I say, "Go and see the Titian in the National Gallery. Go and see the Stubbs, "A Couple of Foxhounds" in the Tate, the Hilliard and Eworth portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, and the Domenichino in the National Galleries of Scotland." I could continue the list. If one considers those practical acquisitions, one can see whether the criticism is justified.

My last point concerns the possibility of control by reference to a national list of treasures of outstanding merit. That has been under examination for some time, but there are known to be serious difficulties both in the compilation of a list and in its use, and serious questions of interference with the rights of private owners which we must always consider would arise. In any case, it is fair to point out that such a list could never be totally comprehensive because it could not deal with works of art which are rediscovered, as so happens from time to time.

The subject of the arts is one that interests me very much. I know that it interests my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West. Their presence at this latish hour of the night indicates more graphically than any words the sincerity of their interest in this question.

I should be tempted, Mr. Speaker, were you not in the Chair, to go on and widen the scope of the debate. But midnight approaches, and we all know what happened to Cinderella when she went on too long. I shall therefore follow her example and draw the evening to a close, at least as far as the Department of Education and Science is concerned, by thanking once again my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich for his zeal in raising this most important subject.