HL Deb 12 March 1886 vol 303 cc601-8

, in rising to call the attention of the House to the new Public Offices, more especially to the proposed new National Portrait Gallery, said, that on a former occasion he had brought the subject to their Lordships' notice; and it now appeared that a decision had been arrived at to build on the site next the Horse Guards. The Government plan for the new Offices for the War Office and the Admiralty had been examined by the Royal Institute of British Architects, and they had pronounced in favour of an alternative scheme. The plan proposed by the Institute was one which would utilize the fine site at Charing Cross to the utmost, and would, moreover, constitute a great public improvement. The additional expense would only amount to £200,000, half of which would be paid by the Metropolitan Board of Works. He did not know whether a site for the National Portrait Gallery had been selected; but he believed it had not. By the adoption of the plan suggested by the Royal Institute of British Architects a good site would become available. He would earnestly ask the Government to reconsider the matter, and to make up their minds to a slightly-increased expenditure in order to provide public buildings really worthy of the country, as well as make suitable provision for the National Portrait Gallery.


said, that there were three important questions raised by his noble Friend—(1.) the general plan; (2.) the elevation of the proposed building; (3.) the position and action of Her Majesty's Office of Works. The question was one of considerable importance, particularly as regarded the ground plan of the new Offices and the elevation; and he contended that there should be an alteration in the ground plan. He was sure that if their Lordships had a full opportunity of judging the comparative merits of the plan, and had before them a large map of the proposed new building, there would not be the slightest doubt as to which plan would be decided on—i.e., the plan of the Government or that of the Institute of British Architects—they would select the latter, both as regarded light, space, and many other matters. Even Mr. Shaw Lefevre, in a letter to The Times, speaking of the comparative merits of these plans, said that there could be no doubt that a more perfect scheme could be made for the new Offices with the addition suggested. His (Mr. Lofevre's) objection was to the increased cost; but that, it appeared to him (the Earl of Wemyss), was a secondary consideration, for they should remember that they were trustees for those who came after them; and if, with a view to a small saving of money, they wished to destroy one of the finest sites in London, they would incur a heavy responsibility to posterity, whereas the alternative plan would deal with the site to the greatest advantage. Not only was the ground plan suggested by the Institute much better than the original scheme, but public opinion had now pronounced, strongly against the elevation of the proposed buildings. The new elevation would be destructive to the appearance of the Horse Guards, and out of harmony with all its surroundings. The Office of Works had afforded no guidance whatever to the architect who designed the proposed new buildings as to what their character should be; and they did not appear to care whether that character was Gothic, Grecian, Roman, Japanese, or Chinese. It was essential that the new buildings should be in harmony with the older ones which surrounded them. The present Horse Guards made an admirable centre to the Whitehall side of the parade, and the buildings on either side of it ought to correspond in character; whereas, if the proposed plans were carried out, the buildings on one side of the square would be wholly out of character with the Horse Guards, which they would dwarf and destroy. He regretted that the recommendations had not been carried out of a Royal Commission on which he had sat, to the effect that there should be a permanent Council to assist I the political First Commissioner of Works, so that there should be a continuity of policy and of idea in dealing with our public buildings. Sir Henry Layard had felt that want so strongly that he had appointed the late distinguished artist, Mr. Ferguson, Consulting Architect to the Department of Works. But he and Sir Henry Layard ended by resigning their appointments, as Sir Henry Layard, not being in the Cabinet, found himself powerless for good. Now they were dependent wholly upon the taste and fancies of the First Commissioner, and one generally undid or upset the plans of his Predecessor. Then, when designs were required for the Natural History Museum, a Commission, of which he was a Member, decided in favour of the design of the late Captain Fowke, and this design would have been adopted had the then Liberal First Commissioner of Works remained in Office; but before the building was begun he was succeeded by Lord John Manners, who, being of a Gothic turn of mind in architecture, threw over the Fowke plan, and appointed Mr. Water-house to make a Gothic design, which, greatly cut down by Lord John Manners' Successor, Mr. Ayrton, who boasted that he knew nothing about these things, was now the Natural History Museum. Again, a Royal Commission, of which also he (the Earl of Wemyss) was a Member, recommended that the present National Gallery should be handed over to the Royal Academy, and that National Collection of pictures should be transferred to Burlington House. This would have given ample accommodation to the National pictures, as galleries could have been built in the garden at the back of Burlington House as required. Now, there was great difficulty in finding space for our pictures, and it was not known where to house and exhibit the noble gift of his works which Mr. Watts was about to present to the nation. Lord Mount-Temple, when First Commissioner, adopted the recommendation of the Royal Commission, and proposed a Vote in Parliament, which his political rival, Lord John Manners, succeeded in inducing the House to reject. It was the same system which had removed the Wellington Arch to the side of a hill; and we had now presented to us the ludicrous sight of a triumphal arch erected on the side of a hill, with one long leg and one short leg, a thing quite unique in architecture, for which they were indebted to Mr. Shaw Lefevre. He hoped that the whole matter would be reconsidered.


My Lords, the noble Lord (Lord Lamington) who has brought the subject forward deserves support from all who view it with anxiety. Since it came last before the House, the Institute of Architects have sent their deputation to the Government; Mr. Shaw Lefevre has endeavoured to reply to them; further correspondence has appeared this morning from the President and Secretary of the Institute calculated to impress on all who see it the error of the scheme involved in what is called the Public Offices Site Act. I only wish to-night to advert to a single ground on which the Government may be induced to pause before they carry out the measure. I have no reason to assume that the noble Earl (the Earl of Morley) who has consented to preside over the Board of Works is anxious to precipitate it. The ground I wish to mention is the striking multiplicity of projects which ought to be collated before a final step is taken. You have the project of the deputation by which Drummond's Bank would be removed, a larger site obtained, and St. James's Park encroached upon more widely, a thoroughfare from thence into Trafalgar Square being ultimately contemplated. You have the plan of building on the Great George Street site, which the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees (the Earl of Redesdale) has repeatedly defended, and which, at a humble distance, I no less thoroughly adhere to. But something else might be considered. It would be easy, instead of effacing Spring Gardens altogether, to rebuild the houses on a larger scale and with a higher elevation. In that way, in a year or two, without the hazard, or the outlay, or the time which a great enterprize demands, you might nearly double the accommodation they give to offices at present. Those upon the northern side might be thrown further back over the garden they look out upon; and those upon the southern side over the mews which they command. Under these circumstances, the Board of Works and the Treasury, with whom the question lies, should act upon the well-known principle, "Siste in dubiis." As to the War Office, I have already pointed out that if the demolition is arrested its wants may be supplied to a great extent, although not to the full extent that we should wish for. As to a new Admiralty, the public would thank you more for a new Navy. They are more inclined to spend on ships than on the palatial residence of those who organize and guide them. What the Government might do with every advantage is to exhibit detailed plans of all the rival schemes during a twelvemonth, and thus allow opinion to mature as to the course to be selected. The scheme of Mr. Shaw Lefevre has no defence but the economy it claims, and which is far from being admitted. But as to economy, I cannot but repeat what has fallen from my noble Friend (the Earl of Wemyss) on the Cross Benches. When new Public Offices are in question it is not at all the first consideration. If you are bent upon economy there is no necessity for having them. If you desire to save money, not to have them is the easy mode of saving it. You are only justified in spending in order to increase, and not in order to reduce, the splendour of the Capital in future generations.


said, that he mainly agreed with his noble Friend who spoke second in the debate; and with regard to what had fallen from the noble Lord who had just sat down, he would reply that it had been decided by Parliament, considering the wants of the Army and the Navy, that no further delay was desirable in the erection of a suitable building for the accommodation of both Services. He agreed in the opinion which had been expressed as to the alternative scheme of the Institute of British Architects. The original mistake made was that a larger area had not been taken. There was a time when the owners of Drummond's Bank might have been negotiated with; but nothing at the time was done. Drummonds said they were willing to wait two or three years until a decision was arrived at; but, no decision having been come to, they were in danger of marring the plan. If Mr. Shaw Lefevre's plan was adopted they would have a lofty pile of buildings erected, with an enormous tower overtopping and dwarfing the public buildings in the neighbourhood. He thought that a result of this kind would be a very unsightly object to contemplate. One advantage of the alternative scheme was that both wings would be so low that they would not dwarf the other buildings in the same way as the other scheme would do if carried out. The elevation, too, was very poor. In regard to plans of this kind, he expressed himself as being unfavourable to a public competition. A limited competition would be far more suitable, or let the best architect that could be obtained be taken. The only good work ever obtained by public competition was Stephens' monument of the Duke of Wellington. He agreed with the view expressed in the Memorial of the British Architects that if they were to erect Offices of the kind proposed, with a wretched frontage and a tavern or two, it would be a disgrace to the nation. They ought, if possible, to have a wide vista, in order that an uninterrupted view might be had from the statue to the Houses of Parliament. He had not been converted by Mr. Trevelyan's letter in The Times, which evidently considered economy the first object. As to the cost, he was of opinion that if they were going to do a good work they had much bettor not spare the cost, because it was well known that the cheapest way was not always the best. And now he would say one word as to the proposed site of the new National Portrait Gallery. It was to be built on the open space joining the India Office, on ground belonging to the Government. It would have spacious galleries lighted from the top, extending from King Street to Delahay Street, with a handsome façade towards King Street. It would have four times the space now allotted to the pictures, and would be a very central gallery for the public. This was Mr. Plunket's plan, and he trusted the Government would adopt it.


said, that although the debate had been an interesting one, the only point really calling for the attention of their Lordships was whether the scheme of the Institute of British Architects or the plan of Her Majesty's Government was the better. The noble Earl on the Cross Benches (the Earl of Wemyss) condemned the elevation that had been approved by the Government. That elevation was chosen after competition, and the designs were selected by a competent Committee, on which Mr. Christian, President of the Institute of Architects, sat. The noble Lord (Lord Lamington) who introduced the discussion quoted a reply of his own to an interesting deputation from the Institute of Architects which waited on him the other day. He admitted that in some points the scheme proposed by the Institute of Architects would be an improvement. No doubt it would open up Charing Cross, as well as one of the façades of the building; but he did not think their Lordships could entirely put aside the question of cost, as one noble Lord had done. As to the estimate of additional cost, he had seen it placed as high as £1,000,000 sterling, and the lowest estimate was £200,000. Making a rough estimate of the extra expense, he believed it would be little short of £400,000, which would include the rebuilding of Drummond's Bank and the additional area given by the Institute of Architects. The noble Lord seemed to have an idea that the Metropolitan Board of Works would contribute in some way to the expense; but he possessed no information leading him to the belief that the Board would contribute anything, and he doubted very much if they would do so. He acknowledged, from an aesthetic point of view, that the question of opening up Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square would be a considerable improvement on the present aspect of things; but if their Lordships looked at the convenience of traffic at Charing Cross they would find that there was no block at that point. Having, therefore, all the area they wished for the Public Offices, and when they did not require as a necessity to widen the thoroughfare, he did not think they were justified in spending an additional large sum of money. In considering these rival schemes it was absurd to put aside altogether the question of expense. He could not say more at present than this—that the whole question was under the earnest consideration of the Government. He could not, however, forget that Parliament had already decided the site question, and the property had already been purchased. He should receive any suggestions with pleasure, and he would not at present commit himself to an opinion upon the question, or to the plan of the Institute of Architects, although he admitted that there were certain advantages connected with that plan. With regard to the new National Portrait Gallery, he regretted that he was not in a position to afford their Lordships any information upon the subject. The National portraits, as the noble Lord had remarked, were removed from the very dangerous building in which they were deposited at South Kensington last August to Bethnal Green Museum, where they were perfectly safe. When their Lordships considered the great value of the Collection, they must be heartily glad that the pictures were safely housed. At the same time, he quite admitted that they ought not to remain at Bethnal Green. The question of their future destination was one which must be left for future careful consideration, and it would, no doubt, shortly occupy attention.


said, he hoped the Government would obtain and lay before the House an Estimate of what the scheme suggested by the Institute of Architects would cost before altogether discarding that scheme. So far as his information went, he understood that it would not cost more than £200,000, instead of £350,000 or £400,000, as mentioned by the noble Earl, because the question of compensation to the Messrs. Drummond could be got over by the erection of new offices for them, which would be ready before they would be asked to move out of their present premises. If that were so, then he thought that a matter of £200,000, if that were the outside, should not be allowed to stand in the way of their securing suitable buildings.


said, that his figures of £350,000 to £400,000 had not been given at random; but were based on a rough estimate which had been made of the cost of the scheme.