HL Deb 27 July 1885 vol 300 cc13-7

asked Her Majesty's Government, What steps they intend to take to complete the frescoes in the Robing Room of the House of Lords? All who had visited that room must have been struck with admiration for the works of Art there painted by Mr. Herbert, R.A. The best judges of Art had classed them among the most remarkable paintings ever produced; and yet the series was left uncompleted. Some 20 years ago it was understood that the room was to be finished, and that a complete series of pictures was to be executed by Mr. Herbert. In the case of one of them—"Moses coming down from the Mount"—Mr. Herbert was very shamefully treated. The canvas was actually painted twice. Mr. Herbert, having undertaken to paint this series, refused a number of Continental engagements. Bearing these facts in mind, he thought the time had now come when their Lordships should make up their minds what was to be done.


said, that this matter had been before their Lordships' House on several occasions. After the careful consideration given by Mr. Herbert to the subjects of his pictures, and the enormous amount of time he had spent in their design, it would be obviously unfair to intrust the work to other hands.


said, only one part of the scheme of decoration for the Palace of Westminster, recommended by the Fine Arts Commission under the direction of the Prince Consort, remained uncompleted. In this House, events appertaining to Royalty were depicted. In the Royal Gallery, the greatest victories by sea and land. In the Corridor, the struggles between Charles I. and his Parliament. In the Queen's Robing Room, the legends of King Arthur. In the Upper Hall, illustrations of the greatest English Poems. But the one Chamber which was devoted to Religious Art was the only one that remained incomplete. It was used as the Judicial Court of the Chairman of Committees. In the Central Panel was the giving of the law by Moses, the most consummate and admired work of the whole decoration, and universally recognized as a great achievement in design and colour and impressive power. It produced a vivid realization of that great event. On one side was the Judgment of Daniel, and on the two remaining sides only blank spaces. That left the room lop-sided and ill-balanced. Mr. Herbert's claim to complete the decoration, whenever a Vote should be taken for it, could not be overlooked. He had spent precious years in studying and preparing for the remaining subjects of the Judgment of Solomon and the Sermon on the Mount. At least, compensation would be due to him for the labour and thought he had expended in the execution entrusted to him by the Fine Arts Commission.


said, he felt bound to express his great sympathy with Mr. Herbert, who had practically for years past abandoned his profession and its profits, and given up his whole mind to the completion of the great works which he had so ably commenced. The first of the series, "The Descent of Moses from Mount Sinai," had, at the time, been pronounced to be the greatest of modern pictures. He hoped that the great artist would not now be thrown over, but would be allowed to complete the work he had undertaken.


on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, said, that their Lordships were aware that that was not the first time that subject had been discussed in that House; and in order to make his reply complete he must refer to the debate of July 27, 1883, or rather to the reply given at the time for the Government by his noble Friend (Lord Thurlow). It appeared that in 1850 the Fine Art Commissioners entered into an agreement with Mr. Herbert to paint nine pictures for their Lordships' House for the sum of £9,000, which were to be completed in not less than 10 years after the Robing Room, where the pictures were to be painted, was ready for Mr. Herbert to work in. The room was not ready till 1858, and in 1864, when one of the finest pictures in the House, the magnificent picture of "Moses coming down from Mount Sinai," was finished, Mr. Herbert asked that the question of the amount of his remuneration should be reconsidered, on the ground that the system he had been compelled to adopt—the "water-glass" process for fresco-painting—had proved a failure—caused a great deal more labour, and involved the expenditure of a great deal more time, while the actual cost was a great deal more than was originally thought of. With respect to the remarks made by the noble Lord (Lord Lamington), he (Lord Henniker) believed the late Prince Consort did favour this process as the best to be adopted; but he was not aware that His Royal Highness in any way unduly pressed it upon Mr. Herbert. The question of the original agreement with the Fine Arts Commissioners was then referred to the Treasury by the First Commissioner of Works, who had at that time superseded the Commission, and the Treasury ordered an inquiry into the matter. The result of that inquiry was that the sum of £3,000 was paid to Mr. Herbert, in addition to the £2,000 already paid him for the picture of Moses. In 1866 another agreement was made with Mr. Herbert to complete the picture of "The Judgment of Daniel" in three and a half years. The sum to be paid was £4,000, and the picture was to be handed over to the First Commissioner of Works in 1869, the agreement having been made early in 1866. As a matter of fact, Mr. Herbert did not hand it over to the First Commissioner by that time, and it was not handed over to him in a finished state till 1880, although he was very much pressed to complete the work. He might add that the original agreement of 1850 for the nine pictures was cancelled by a Treasury Letter in 1866, and Mr. Herbert then came to a distinct understanding that he had no further claim on the Government unless the other pictures proposed were proceeded with under a fresh contract. On consideration of these facts in 1883, the then First Commissioner of Works came to the conclusion that he could not hold out any hope whatever, or give any assurance that the request of Mr. Herbert to be allowed to finish the series of nine pictures would be acceded to, for the water-glass system was much more costly than the first proposal of fresco-painting, and caused an indefinite amount of delay. There was no one, either inside or outside the House, who appreciated more fully than his right hon. Friend (Mr. Plunket) the many merits of Mr. Herbert's paintings; paintings which had been justly praised in his own generation, and would certainly carry his name down to posterity as one of the greatest painters of the day. ["Hear, hear!"] He was sure their Lordships would agree with him in this expression of opinion. Nevertheless, after the most careful consideration on the part of the First Commissioner (Mr. Plunket), he had come to the conclusion that there was no reason to alter the decision of his Predecessor in 1883, not to call upon Mr. Herbert to execute his original designs. With regard to the finishing of the Robing Room, he was not aware that any scheme had been put forward, or any estimate made, for completing it; but if the noble Lord chose to put a Question at the beginning of next Session, no doubt the Chief Commissioner would be able to give an answer.


said, he wished to say a few words of an unofficial character, for the official answer had been given by his noble Friend (Lord Henniker), who had just spoken on behalf of the Department which was responsible in this matter. As a personal friend of Mr. Herbert for more than 40 years, and as one who had had an opportunity of knowing well the work he had done, he (the Earl of Iddesleigh) wished to make one observation with regard to the references which had been made to the length of time taken by Mr. Herbert in the accomplishment of his work. When Mr. Herbert undertook this work, it should be remembered that fresco-painting was almost a lost art in this country; and Mr. Herbert's undertaking created a great deal of sympathy, a great deal of expectation, and, at the same time, a great deal of very natural criticism. Their Lordships were aware that Mr. Herbert was frequently obliged to lay aside the work which he might otherwise have prosecuted on account of unforeseen difficulties, and questions that had to be solved—for instance, the question with regard to water-glass painting. If Mr. Herbert seemed a long time in completing the work he had undertaken, the circumstances must be taken more fully into consideration. He rose for the purpose of expressing his own sympathy and admiration for the great work Mr. Herbert had done in reviving what was supposed to be a lost art among us. Mr. Herbert had made himself a reputation which would last as long as that building endured, and a name which would be immortalized in the history of painting. Whatever disappointment Mr. Herbert might feel, no doubt the sympathy and admiration they all felt for him would be some compensation to him. While not wishing to interfere with the decision of the Office of Works, he would only say that the matter was one which, under any circumstances, and more especially in the peculiar circumstances under which Mr. Herbert completed his work, should be treated with the greatest consideration.


said, he deeply regretted that Mr. Herbert was not permitted to complete the frescoes, a work which called forth the admiration of the world. He (Lord Emly) should be very much surprised if the unanimous wish of their Lordships was not to condemn the gross injustice that had been done.