HL Deb 29 March 1889 vol 334 cc1117-25

, in rising to ask the Government what progress had been made with regard to the selection of a site for the National Portrait Gallery, said: My Lords, I have so often asked this question before that I am almost ashamed to put it now. I cannot say that I have ever received any satisfactory answer from Her Majesty's Government. The matter is one that cropped up some weeks ago, when my noble Friend (Lord Lamington) brought forward the question of public buildings in the Metropolis, and on that occasion my noble Friend (Lord Henniker) certainly did not give a very re-assuring answer. What I have always contended for is this—that the National Portrait Gallery has a preferential claim over all other departments of Science and Art, because three years ago a promise was made that two years would not elapse before an arrangement was made for removing the pictures from Bethnal Green, which is not a suitable place for them, and where they are hardly appreciated. I know it is said that just at this moment there is considerable pressure upon the Government in consequence of the demands in respect to the National Defences; but if that policy is to be pursued in any continuity—which I certainly trust it will be—it may be years before anything is done, before we get a site, or before any steps are taken to build a new National Portrait Gallery. Last year a deputation composed of Peers and Members of Parliament presented a Memorial to the First Lord of the Treasury which was very numerously signed. The First Lord received the deputation with his usual courtesy, but since then nothing has come of it. During the Autumn Session of last year a question was asked in the House of Commons as to what were the intentions of Her Majesty's Government with regard to that matter. Mr. Plunket on that occasion stated that he was in communication with Mr. Scharf on the question. That satisfied the hon. Member who put the question; but, on inquiry of Mr. Scharf, I find that the only suggestion Mr. Plunket made was that Madame Tussaud's Waxworks were to be placed at the disposal of the Trustees of the Gallery. Now, it is quite a novel idea to turn a waxwork exhibition into a National Gallery; but I think the great objection to it was that the building was insufficient, and was quite as much out of the way as Bethnal Green. When the last Government were in office, Mr. Mitford prepared elaborate plans for a new gallery in Delahay Street. That had great merits, and we were in hopes that something was going to be done; but now, it appears, a company has got hold of this land, so that the site is gone. Then there were other plans. There is the site at Millbank; the prison there is going to be pulled down, and there is a very large extent of ground behind in Victoria Street. Any of these sites might be negotiated for, at any rate; but nothing is being done. Then, I must draw my noble Friend's attention to the fact that we are constantly having donations and bequests coming in, and we do not know where to put them. We are practically in a small lodging house at 20, Great George Street, where you can hardly get full-lengths up the staircase. The consequence is we have been obliged, as a last resort, to ask the Trustees of the National Gallery to receive those pictures that are too large in their cellars. We have been obliged to send to the lower part of the National Gallery that most interesting picture presented by the Emperor of Austria of the House of Commons, with Pitt addressing the House, and also another most interesting picture, of the Conference of 1604. These are two extremely valuable pictures, and they must remain there out of sight until the Government do something. I wish to correct an answer which my noble Friend gave the other night to a question of the noble Lord opposite (Lord Sandhurst). The question was as to the number of visitors to the Exhibition at Bethnal Green, and my noble Friend said it was five times as large as before the pictures went there. The real state of things is that for two years the number has rather diminished. In 1880 there were 450,000 visitors; in 1886 there were 480,000; in 1887 it dropped to 409,000; in 1888 it rose to 910,000, but this was the Jubilee year, and the large crowds were no doubt principally attracted by the exhibition of Her Majesty's Jubilee presents. But there is another much more serious thing with regard to the Bethnal Green Museum, and that is the deterioration of the pictures there. The pictures are all cracking. I have a Report from Mr. Scharf, who inspected the Gallery together with two experts, and that Report is— Those portraits on the side walls have suffered most. The walls are very thin, and the changes of climate during night-time seem to have taken a greater effect on them. The other portraits show less marks of deterioration. I am sorry to say there are upwards of 40 portraits, many of them extremely good ones, that are so attacked. Under these circum- stances I must say I think it is hard upon the Trustees who are responsible for the proper keeping of the pictures that this state of things should be allowed to continue. I want to know from my noble Friend whether any move has been made—whether any correspondence has taken place between the Office of Works and the Treasury upon the subject; because if we are to go on year after year receiving the same answer, and nothing being done, the pictures will all go to rack and ruin.


Before my noble Friend replies to this question, I wish to refer to the answer which my noble Friend gave me the other evening. I did not catch the observation at the time, but the noble Lord is reported to have said that a great many more people visited the Bethnal Green Museum since the pictures have been there than visited the old gallery at the West End. Now, I want to point out that there is another exhibition at Bethnal Green, and if account be taken of the ordinary visitors, I do not believe it will be found that the number of the visitors to the pictures simply has increased. Very recently I visited Bethnal Green for the purpose of seeing for myself what is taking place. A great number of people were there, but they were not the class of people who care for historic pictures, and the collection is entirely lost in its present position. Now, a great number of these pictures have been presented to the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery by families, in order that they might be placed in a favourable position, and so prove an advantage to the nation. Many of these families feel considerably aggrieved that the pictures should be left at Bethnal Green, and, if nothing is to be done to house the pictures properly, I think it would only be just that they should be returned to their donors. What has been stated to-day by my noble Friend as to the deterioration of the pictures is a matter of very great importance, because we must remember that portraits cannot be replaced.


I would like to ask my noble Friend (Lord Henniker) whether the Government have considered or will consider the possibility of obtaining Her Majesty's gracious permission to utilize the large Banqueting House, Whitehall, for this purpose? That beautiful build- ing was designed by Inigo Jones for James I. in the beginning of the 17th century. It as all that was ever carried out of the magnificent Palace which he designed for that Monarch to replace the old Palace which shortly before had been burnt down. It has sustained two subsequent fires; and it remains there the finest specimen of Italian architecture in this country, and one of the most beautiful of the building which adorns the Metropolis. It was built and originally used, as it was intended, as a Banqueting Hall; but since the reign of George I. it has been used as a chapel, but it has never been consecrated. It is about as as un-ecclesiastical looking a building as it is possible to imagine. It faces north and south instead of east and west. It is hung with curtains in a theatrical manner. Its ceiling is covered with a beautiful mosaic by Rubens of the apotheosis of James I., who was hardly an ecclesiastical personage, and certainly not one whose apotheosis one would expect to see on the roof of a chapel. Under these circumstances it appears to me no more consecrated to Divine worship than is one of your Lordships dining rooms where family prayers take place from time to time.


In the one or two remarks which I shall mate, I hope the noble Viscount will understand that I am in no way hostile to the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery, nor that I grudge the removal of the Gallery back to South Kensington, but I hope it will be possible to replace it in Bethnal Green by a collection of miscellaneous pictures, which would probably interest the people of that quarter more than a collection of national portraits. There is another point which I would ask the noble Lord to take into consideration, and that is, whether it would not be possible, and advisable, to establish, instead of these large picture collections, two or three small ones in two or three of the more densely populated districts of London. The South Kensington Museum, the National Gallery, and the British Museum are at a very great distance from the East End, Islington, Shoreditch, Hackney, and, to the south of the river, Bermondsey is extremely badly off with respect to Art Collections, and I hope that Her Majesty's Government will take the matter into their consideration.


I am sorry to say that I can really add very little to what I have stated more than once in this House on this subject. The whole question of finding a permanent home for this valuable collection is one which depends upon the Treasury recommending the expenditure and Parliament finding the money. If they sanction it and find the money, there will be no difficulty whatever in finding a site, or in regard to proper plans. It appears to the First Commissioner of Works, as I think it will appear to your Lordships, that there is no use in providing plans and proposing a site if the money is not forthcoming to provide the site and carry out the plans. In fact, it is useless to put a scheme before the Treasury which is not one which is immediately and imperatively required. I quote the words "immediately" and "imperatively" from a Circular from the Treasury; and this is a rule strictly laid down by the Department. Certainly this is one of the works which ought to be undertaken as soon as possible; but there are others which ought to take precedence of a National Portrait Gallery. One of the important works which come into this category is the erection of new Admiralty buildings. As I said the other day, it is only proposed to ask for a very small Vote to begin to carry out the plan already adopted with regard to the Admiralty. The calls for national defence are very great upon the Government and Parliament at the present moment, and it is very difficult to ask for a grant for public works. If the pictures were suffering in Bethnal Green, as the noble Lord said, of course the question of providing a permanent home for them becomes one of greater urgency; but neither myself nor the Office of Works had any information on that point until my noble Friend (Lord Hardinge) was kind enough to mention the matter to me privately the other day; and no complaint had been made at the Office of Works on the subject. I must remind your Lordships of this: that the Office of Works has nothing to do with the care of the pictures; it is only their duty to provide a building to contain them. This applies to what my noble Friend (Lord Sandhurst) said as to loans of pictures in different parts of London. It is the Trustees who are responsible for the pictures, and I suppose it would be their duty in a case of this kind to make a representation to the Government that the pictures were not properly housed, and no doubt such a representation will be made. Apart from this consideration, it does not appear that any serious evil arises from these pictures being at the Bethnal Green Museum. As has appeared lately from the public Press, the place where the pictures are appears to please the public. The way in which the pictures are hung give the student a far better opportunity of seeing them than he ever had at South Kensington. I cannot think for a moment that any real student would object to take a journey down to Bethnal Green to see the pictures as they are hung at present. There are numbers of visitors who never had an opportunity of seeing the collection before, and might never have done so if the pictures were not where they are. I should like here to give some explanation as to what I said the other day, particularly as my noble Friend who brought this question forward has found fault with what I said. I was misreported. I had not the figures with me at the time, and I spoke from recollection; but I told your Lordships that I believed that the number of visitors in the first year that the pictures were removed to Bethnal Green was three or four times (not four or five times, as my noble Friend said just now) as many as the number who visited the collection the last year it remained at South Kensington. I made one mistake. I said I thought I based my recollection on a Return on 1887; I ought to have said 1886. The pictures were removed to Bethnal Green in September, 1885. What I based my calculation upon was this. I based my calculation with regard to South Kensington on the ten years from 1876 to 1885, in which year the pictures were moved from South Kensington to Bethnal Green. During that ten years the largest attendance was in 1883, when 146,187 visited the Gallery at South Kensington. During 1884, the last complete year the pictures were at South Kensington, 127,716 visited the Gallery; in the first complete year at Bethnal Green, that was in 1886, the number was 446,722. My calculation was, therefore, not far wrong. That was the only information I had to go upon, but I afterwards asked for a Return, and since I came into the House to-day, a few minutes ago, I have received a letter from Mr. Scharf, who says— There is no means of distinguishing at the Bethnal Green Museum with what particular object visitors enter the Museum. One set of turnstiles lead to every department. Vagrant children of a tender age count the same as grown-up, cultivated persons. A large number of the former preponderate. Since the addition of the portraits to the Bethnal Green collection the total yearly number of visitors has diminished. In 1884 and 1885, before the portraits, the number of visitors was 447,330 and 450,439; in 1886, with the portraits, the number was 446,722; in 1887, with the portraits, 409,929; and in 1888, with the Jubilee presents on view, 910,511. I think I was justified in making the statement I did. On this statement, there can clearly be no means of judging who visits the pictures, unless it be the Return of those who pass through the turnstiles; and, again, I have no information as to the difference of numbers being increased from any special reason except in 1888, when the Jubilee presents to Her Majesty were on view. The noble Lord has said something about pledges as to the building of a National Portrait Gallery. I myself know of no promises having been made since I have been connected with the Department over which my right hon. Friend Mr. Plunket presides. At all events, I never made any promise in your Lordships' House, either on my own behalf or on behalf of Mr. Plunket. He is, I know, extremely anxious to find a permanent home for these pictures as soon as possible, and he is quite ready to proceed the moment the Treasury and Parliament grant the money for a site and settle the plans for the erection of a building. I quite appreciate what my noble Friend says as to the inconvenience of pictures being put away in cellars at the National Gallery, and I have no doubt that the First Commissioner does the same. With regard to the correspondence, any correspondence that I have is quite at the service of the noble Viscount; but it really throws no light upon the matter because it simply relates to the leave given by the Treasury at the instance of the Works Department for the loan of the pictures to the Bethnal Green Museum, with some letters from the noble Viscount and the Science and Art Department on the same subject. That is all the correspondence we have since 1886. I do not think it would be worth while to print it; it is very short, and does not touch the points to which the noble Viscount has alluded. As to the question raised by my noble Friend (Lord Milltown) whether Whitehall Chapel could be used as a gallery for these pictures. I will call the attention of the First Commissioner to his proposal, but it is the first I have heard of it, and I hardly think that I can encourage him in thinking that it will be successful.


There can be no doubt that any one who really wishes to see the pictures can see them at Bethnal Green with great effect. At the same time, I believe very strongly that the time has come when the pictures which have there found a temporary home should be brought back. If, as the noble Viscount avers, the pictures are being injured at Bethnal Green, that seems to be an answer to the suggestion as to taking other pictures there, until, at all events, the place is put in such a state that the works can be exhibited without sustaining injury. With regard to the loan of pictures generally, there are certain principles on which the Science and Art Department grants loans of art subjects to localities, and they are always ready to consider favourably any plan which seems to offer advantages for the instruction and elevation of the people, due regard being had to the safety of the collection.