HL Deb 28 May 1897 vol 49 cc1489-501

rose to move:— That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that Her Majesty's Government should take such steps to amend the Finance Acts of 1894 and 1896 as may be necessary to preserve in the country 'such pictures, prints, books, MSS., works of art, and scientific collections, not yielding income, as are of national, scientific, or historic interest.' He urged that steps ought to be taken without delay to determine the manner in which Clause 20 of the Finance Act of last year should be administered. Before Easter he had asked the Lord Privy Seal a Question upon the subject, and the noble Lord was unable to give him a satisfactory reply on behalf of the Treasury. The noble Lord said: — The Treasury will be disposed to interpret the clause with due liberality, after taking the advice of experts in such matters, and in process of time a series of precedents must necessarily be accumulated which will be of practical importance in guiding future decisions. He would point out that if they were to wait for these precedents many pictures of importance and interest might probably, meanwhile, go out of the country, and it would then be too late to rescue them. Clause 20 read as follows: — Where any property passing on the death of a deceased person consists of such pictures, prints, books, manuscripts, works of art, scientific collections, or other things not yielding income appear to the Treasury to be of national, scientific, or historic interest, and is settled so as to be enjoyed in kind of succession by different persons, such property shall not, on the death of such deceased person, be aggregated with other property, but shall form an estate by itself, and while enjoyed in kind by a person not competent to dispose of the same be exempt from estate duty; but if it is sold or is in possession of some person who is then competent to dispose of the same shall become liable for estate duty. The expression "not yielding income" had led a great many people to suppose that pictures and books, MSS. etc., which were left as heirlooms and which were merely held by a tenant for life would be exempt from estate duty. But the section had not been interpreted by the Treasury in that way. In one case a noble Lord had added a codicil to his will in order to make his valuable pictures heirlooms; they were nevertheless not held exempt from duty. In another case an owner asked to have his pictures scheduled and to be allowed to pay the duty on them during his lifetime, but the application was refused. In administering the clause to which he had referred, the Treasury, he believed, consulted the President of the National Gallery, but that gentleman could not be ubiquitous, and supposing several possessors of art treasures were to die at the same time, how could he be expected to value their collections and to ascertain their historic or national interest? Such a system of administration must break down. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose disposition officially was naturally grasping—[laughter]—had said that pictures must be something more than artistic in order to escape duty. The right hon. Gentleman's words were:— Works of art were not excluded from operation of the clause, but they must be of national or historic interest. What was to become of their Sir Joshuas and of their old Italian masters if the clause was to be interpreted in this rigid way? His objection to the clause thus interpreted was that it had led and would lead in the future to the sale of many pictures and to the dispersion of collections which it was desirable to keep in this country. It would also discourage the purchase of pictures by connoisseurs in the United Kingdom. That pictures should merely change hands did not matter to the public, but it did affect their interests when good pictures left the country to go to the United States or elsewhere. It should be remembered that many of the existing collections were accessible to the public, and that the privilege was highly valued. He did not suggest the adoption of the Italian law, which made it illegal to sell collections of pictures of national and historic interest, but he did say that something ought to be done to encourage owners of works of art to retain possession of them. It was difficult to obtain any definite information as to the number of pictures that were leaving the country, because many of them were not sold at public auctions. Only the other day a. famous Holbein was sold at Christie's, and afterwards purchased from Messrs. Colnaghi by M. Bodé, the representative of the great collection at Berlin. Foreign collectors and dealers were very vigilant, and were always ready to buy pictures. They had been told by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that there were two test cases before the Treasury. Those cases were, he believed, the Rufford and the Cobham cases. It was said in the Rufford case that the Death Duties amounted to £100,000, and he supposed that the tapestries and pictures in that historic house would have to be sold in order to pay this large amount. With regard to Cobham Hall, he had received a petition from the Mayor and Corporation of Gravesend, in which they expressed the fear that under the operation of Clause 20 of the Finance Act of 1896 the pictures which had been accessible to the public every week by the courtesy of the Earls of Darnley, eventually might have to be sold and dispersed. The pictures at Cobham formed a very valuable collection, and by the kindness of Sir Henry Longley, one of the executors, he was permitted to quote from a letter of April 12, which he had received, as follows: — We executors claimed to have the collection as a whole exempted, and, I think, with reason, when one looks at the working of the Act of 1896. The three collections of portraits at Cobham, viz.—(1) a collection of Stuart family portraits, 17th century; (2) a similar Bligh collection 18th century (Reynolds, Gains-borough, and Hoppner); and (3) miscellaneous collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits of statesmen, poets, men of letters—are one and all of special historical interest as a series, the first and last being of additional interest as being in a Stuart house. The great collection of Italian and Dutch pictures is much of the same interest as other similar collections, and have, in many cases, their own interest and function as connecting links in the history of Art. A wider interest was involved than that of a merely class or personal interest, and it was not a Party question. In the other House, hon. Members took a large and liberal view of this question, and an advanced Radical like Mr. Birrell— thought the introduction of the word artistic was rational, and that they ought not to confine the clause merely to things connected with a place or ancestors, but ought to try and preserve in the country works of the kind referred to, because they were of interest to the nation at large. Sir William Harcourt, on July 8, 1806, said:— If it were found possible in future to make a net to let the small fishes through and to retain the large fishes, he should not object very much to such a proposal. But the Government were making a net which would destroy all the small fishes and drive the large fishes into oilier waters. For this reason he thought that some notice ought to be taken of the rule laid down as to the administration of this clause. They were grateful to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the concession made in Clause 20 last Session, but it did not mean very much. It was calculated to be a relaxation of less than £100,000 a year at the outside. He called attention to the unwisdom of doing anything which would cause the dispersal of historic collections like those at Knowle, Woburn, Petworth, Grosvenor House, Bridgwater House, and Stafford House, and stated that his remedy was a very simple one. He wished to have a permanent consultative Committee appointed to advise the Treasury. It ought to consist of the President of the National Gallery, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, and a representative of the British Museum, and, perhaps, of the Science and Art Department. The establishment of such a consultative body would save a great deal of correspondence with the Treasury, and of heartburning, and as the proposal was so reasonable, he hoped that the Chancellor of the Exchequer might be inclined to accede it. If he could obtain an expression of opinion among their Lordships, he would certainly go to a Division. Pictures, manuscripts, and scientific collections were not only very valuable, but they were a glory to the country and a source of pride to the people of England. [Cheers.]


said that the pictures which were in our family galleries had been to a great extent largely enjoyed by the public during many years. ["Hear, hear!"] He believed that Burlington House alone had provided thousands of pictures of the highest value and artistic merit, which had tended to raise the artistic feeling of the country, and had been otherwise of the greatest benefit. Many of the men who supplied these pictures were landlords whose incomes might have been diminished, and many of whom found it to be extremely difficult to maintain those galleries. It was generally supposed that there was no expense attached to these galleries; but the insurance of pictures of special value alone was a very heavy charge, amounting as it usually did, lo 4s. 6d. per cent. This was a great consideration to a man with a gallery worth £100,000, and whose income had been reduced from £10,000 a year to £5,000 or £6,000. This man might have a family of several sons, and he could not run the risk of leaving his heirs to pay the heavy duties which might become due on the parent's death. The case of this man was aggravated by the uncertainty which existed, or, as one man remarked, "No one knows what he will have to pay until he is dead." [laughter.] If an owner could send a list of pictures to the Treasury for examination he might be able to learn. It was this element of uncertainty which drove away many of the pictures which might otherwise remain in the country. The estimate which the highest authority had given him of pictures that had gone abroad since the passing of the Act of 1894 was £3,500,000. [Cheers.] A few-days ago he met a gentleman who said that he was sending a picture abroad which was almost unique; it was considered to be about the second best picture of a very great master. When asked the reason for sending it abroad, the gentleman said: — Because I am offered this large sum. I cannot expose my heir to the risk of the enormous duty he may have to pay; it is far better for me to send it away than to sell it in this country. If you sell a picture in this country, one says. 'Poor soul, he is in rather a bad way, he is selling his pictures'; but if I send them abroad no one knows anything about it. and my heirs are free. [laughter.] Was it wise, statesmanlike, or right thus to tax the men who at their own expense supplied the public with this great advantage of seeing the best pictures? He hoped that some means would be found by which an owner of pictures, libraries, and works of art should be able to know before he died what duty his heirs would have to pay. He suggested to the Government whether some system could not be adopted by which an owner might make a small ready-money payment down—say, half per cent.—to free him from all death or other duties on the pictures until they were sold. The present system was not only killing the goose that lays the golden egg; it was worse, it was sending abroad the eggs already laid.


remarked that the difficulty he saw in the definition which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had made was that it was extremely uncertain. Of course, any picture that describes or depicts an event of interest in the history of the nation might be said to be an historical picture, but surely the works of the great masters of the past were no less entitled in an important sense to such an appellation. Each individual picture might be described as a chronicle from which the history of the various schools of painting that had existed in Europe for a great length of time might be worked out. Such histories had been of great advantage, not only to past generations, but to the present, as they would be to the future, and, therefore, he thought those pictures ought to come under the definition of historical and receive the same remission. He was very much struck at the dinner of the Royal Academy with a remark of the noble Lord at the head of the Government, when he said it was of advantage that pictures should leave the country, because the artists of this country would be called upon to increase the supply. If was impossible that our artists could make progress in painting if they had not the examples of the great artists of the past always before them. We were said to be a nation that was not given to artistic devolpment as regards designs and patterns. There could be no better study for that than a fine picture; the colouring, everything that would lead to the making of fine designs was there. He should be glad to see some little concession on the part of the Government in this matter. It would be to the advantage of the nation. Surely art was a thing which ought to be cultivated. It was part of the development of civilisation, and he could sec no reason why impediments should be put in the way.


, as an ex-President of the Royal Society, desired to point out the great importance of the Motion of the noble Earl so far as scientific collections were concerned. It might have an exceedingly injurious effect upon scientific investigation in this country if the heavy Death Duties were charged upon apparatus for scientific research or upon natural history collections, the property of private owners. Very large sums of money had been spent on private observatories. Members of the House knew well something of what had been done in that way. A large part of the astronomical investigation in the United Kingdom had been performed by amateur astronomers, if he might use the word, who stood at the very head of scientific men in respect of knowledge and skill in scientific investigation. A large amount of money had been spent upon private observatories, on great telescopes, and on other instruments of research which would be subject to exceedingly heavy Death Duties, and the heirs of the proprietors might find it impossible to keep them. The result might be that it would be necessary to sell them; foreign purchasers might get them, and those valuable tools for scientific work might be sent out of England and leave this country so much the poorer in respect of scientific work. The same might also be said of natural history collections. Such collections were of unique value. A man might spend his whole life in the work of making such collections and leave something that was of priceless value in reality and which would be estimated at a very high money figure if the expense involved in creating the collection was to be taken into account. It would be most disastrous that such natural history collections or apparatus for scientific investigation should be subjected to the severe Death Duties that were charged on those to whom was left property which they could use, and which might be sources of income and revenue to the inheritors, when that which was inherited could only be of use through the inheritor devoting himself, as the creator of the collection had devoted himself, to the public good and for the advancement of science. He thought it would be exceedingly bad and in every way undesirable that a duty anything more than merely nominal should be charged in such cases. [" Hear, hear!"]


said the treasure house of England was the stalking horse of the foreign dealer at the present time. ["Hear, hear!"] Europe had been ransacked. Spain, Italy, France, and other countries of the Continent contained but a small amount of art treasure, of books, and of manuscripts compared to that which lay in private hands in England. There was greater wealth in this country than in any other in private hands. These dealers, these seekers to purchase objects of beauty and of value, nailed these Death Duties with delight, because they felt that it was certain that in course of time these objects would fall into their possession. He should suggest that all such objects should not be taxed at all. ["Hear, hear!"] All such objects being of a quality that produce no interest or return to their owners—which were a constant source of outlay, whether in the way of keeping them in due order or in premiums to the insurance offices in order to guard aganst the risks of fire or theft—should be left in the safe custody of their owners, without the necessity of their being compelled to sell them owing to the infliction of these terrible duties. There was another way in which the matter might be looked at. When a man died and his executors had to prove his will they had to examine and see what were his assets. Now it frequently happened that in a man's strong box lay the record of a purchase, an investment in a business, in which the money was practically lying idle. That investment at the present moment was valued for probate as lying idle and was returned as nothing whatever. His pictures, his books, his manuscripts lying on his walls and shelves were returned as paying nothing, and yet they were to be taxed according to their utmost value. Again, it was very difficult indeed to say what, in the clause of the Finance Act, was of "national importance" or of "historical interest." Of historical importance, of course, might be said to be a picture which portrays a great event, or it might be a manuscript in the hand of a great man, dealing with a subject which was of great interest to the nation; but he would venture to say that there were pictures which ought not to leave this country which were not necessarily of historical interest. The collection which was made by the late Lord Hertford was not, in a sense, of historical interest to England, and therefore, technically, would not fall within the lines of exemption. Any one might by judicious selection make magnificent collections from the Academy and other galleries—collections which would be worthy of the nation and its art. Such pictures ought not to place a huge burden on the unfortunate heir of the collector, whose ordinary income might, from depression in trade, be greatly reduced at the moment, and who might have no option but to sell the pictures to pay the debt. Allusion had been made to a certain law in Italy, applying to certain districts, which provided that where any collection of pictures or statuary had been thrown open to the public—such, for instance, as the Villa Borghese at Rome—the owner had only a limited interest in the collection, and it could not be dispersed. He did not wish such a law to be enforced in this country, but it had the advantage of keeping pictures in the country, whereas the Finance Act had the very opposite effect. He knew of a case in which a man inherited a large property, consisting of landed estates, commercial interests, a fair collection of pictures, and a large library with many-valuable MSS. He also inherited large liabilities in the shape of settlements and mortgages. The commercial interests were of a fluctuating nature; so much so that at one time they produced an income of £160,000, and within a few years not more than £5,000. Certain mortgages were called in at short notice, and the only available asset was the library, and a certain proportion of the books and MSS. had to be sold. Naturally, too, that had to be sold for which there was a demand. He urged that such possessions should be allowed to pass free, for when heavy duties were imposed it became incumbent on the possessor to look to the future and think of his successors. In the case he had alluded to, the person who inherited the books and pictures also inherited his father's love for them, and he who would next inherit them had the same passion for them. There were, therefore, three generations who had done or would do their best to maintain the value of this collection, which had always been freely placed at the disposal of those interested. The MSS. and books were sent all over Europe; at present some were on their way to the Imperial Government of Austria, and others would shortly go to the Imperial Government of Germany. He hoped an appeal would be made which would result in freeing these objects from liabilities which must end in their dispersal, and he could only add that the case which he had mentioned was his own. [Cheers.]


said tint there were many works of art which had not a national or historic importance, and which could not be left exposed to the operation of the Finance Act without a great restriction being put upon the collection. The noble Marquess at the head of the Government must be rather indifferent to the old masters, for speaking at the last Academy banquet, the noble Marquess said: — I have seen complaints that the old masters are leaving this country rapidly, and that, under the pressure of financial difficulty and severe Chancellors of the Exchequer, the numbers of these artistic treasures which we used to possess are diminishing rapidly. So you see, at all events, that will not be a matter of profound regret, for if the old masters are leaving us, we must always remember that you are at the head of a manufactory of new masters. The noble Marquess went on to hold out hopes of "undeveloped Raphaels and unsuspected Rubenses" in the society which he was addressing—an idea suggested rather by that of mute, inglorious Miltons than by the pictures exhibited this year, for by common consent the exhibition this year was the worst that had been held for many years. The noble Marquess also praised the liberality of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his freehandedness. This freehandedness resembled that of Robin Hood, who plundered the rich to give some portion as alms to the poor. It was easy to be lieberal to a new collection, when an exhorbitant fine was levied on every Sir Joshua and Gainsborough at the death of its owner. The value of pictures more than of anything else, was a matter of opinion. The Succession Duty Office employed a gentleman called Rossetti to visit and estimate the value of pictures, the object being, if possible, to raise the aggregate amount so that duty could be charged on the higher scale.


I am sure that every Member of the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for bringing forward this Motion, because the matter is of the greatest importance to the country. ["Hear, hear!"] But I do not follow the noble Lord in the terms of the Motion. It is hardly possible for Her Majesty to take any steps beyond the Act of Parliament. Her Majesty could not pass an Act of Parliament, and the Motion ought to point to the action of the Treasury under the Act of Parliament, or to request the Government to amend the Act if necessary. Although I entirely sympathise with everything the noble Lord has said, the Motion is in its terms hardly one which it would be safe to puss. If the terms were altered it might be another matter. A great deal which has been said in this Debate has been really directed against the Act of 1894 and not the Act of 1896. The former Act imposed the Death Duties, and under that Act there might have been great hardship in respect of works of art. But the Act of 1896 was passed to remedy the former Act, to a great extent at all events: — Where any property passing on the death of a deceased person consists of such pictures, books, prints. MSS., works of art. scientific collections, and other things not yielding income as appear to the Treasury to be of national, scientific, or historic interest. The question was one of administration or of still further amending the present law. If under the present statute these works of art cannot be kept in the country, then let us alter the statute. But if, on the other hand, by way of administration, the Treasury can do more than they have hitherto done, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the views he holds on the matter, will only be too ready to fall in with the views of the noble Lord so far as he can do so under the Act. When I was asked a question on this subject last Session the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not feel able to lay down any special rule. He said he must see how the Act would work before he could tie the hands of his successors. Further consideration of the matter has led the Chancellor of the Exchequer to lay down certain instructions, which were given to the Inland Revenue. Those instructions are: — Gentlemen,—The Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury have had before them your reports, dated respectively the 8th and 15th ult., on applications that certain pictures and works of art bequeathed as heirlooms by the late Mr. R. Wilbraham and by the late Earl of Darnley, may be exempted from estate duty under the provisions of Section 20 of the Finance Act of 1896. My Lords consider that this exemption was intended to apply not to collections as a whole but to particular works of art, which are of such national or historic interest that they would be purchased or accepted as a bequest by one of the national collections, and they agree with the suggestion that, before reporting to the Treasury that any particular works of art fall within this definition, you should cause them to be examined by an expert appointed by you, and that you should invite the opinion of the Trustees of the National Gallery or of the National Portrait Gallery on his report, according as the works are represented to be of national or of historic interest. The cost of the expert's inspection should be borne by the executors of the testator's will, and the same rule should apply if the trustees of either gallery find it necessary to send someone to look at the works on their behalf before endorsing the opinion of your expert. In deciding the question whether a picture or series of pictures are of historic interest, my Lords consider that the term may properly be held to cover pictures which, though of moderate artistic merit, directly illustrate the history of a county or of a county family of historical importance. Their Lordships agree with your suggestion that, pending the decision of the Treasury on the question whether the whole or any part of a bequest falls within the exemption of Section 20. the executors should proceed with the valuation of the estate, excluding the works of art which are in question, for consideration later on, but entirely without prejudice. I am further to return to you the letters and enclosures from Messrs. Rowcliffe and Rawle, and from Messrs. Thorold Brodie and Co., and I am to add that those firms have been informed of the instructions now given, and have been requested to place themselves in communication with your board on the subject. The noble Earl will see that there was a great desire on the part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to deal fairly with this matter. I am certain that anything he can do within the terms of the Act of Parliament will be done by him to keep those works of art, whether they be pictures, manuscripts, scientific collections, or scientific instruments, in the country. I hope, therefore, my noble Friend will not press his Motion, but will rest content with the general expression of opinion on the subject which he has elicited from all sides of the House and rely upon the assurance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he will give as extended an interpretation of the Act as it is possible to give it.


said the answer of the Lord Privy Seal was in a great measure satisfactory, but he would like to obtain the opinion of the House on his Motion. They had been told that if they had grievances they ought to air them. [laughter.] Well, here was a real grievance. He therefore begged in move his Motion in a slightly altered form: — That Her Majesty s Government should be invited to take such further steps as are necessary under the Finance Act 1894–96, to preserve in the country 'such pictures, prints, books, manuscripts, works of art, and scientific collections, not yielding income, as are of national, scientific, or historic interest.


said he really thought the noble Earl might leave the matter in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and if his noble Friend found that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not carry out everything he (Viscount Cross) had said he could again bring forward his Motion.


Yes, but meanwhile Rome is burning. [laughter.] The noble Lord says we should trust the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Not where if is a matter of taxation, [Laughter.] T hope my noble Friend will press his Motion in its amended form.

Resolved in the negative.