HL Deb 11 December 1917 vol 27 cc111-24

LORD CHARNWOOD had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government whether the Board of Works have given a site in London for the erection of a replica of the statue of President Abraham Lincoln, by Mr. Barnard, of which the original is in Cincinnati; whether any further steps have been taken, or are about to be taken, towards the erection of this replica; and what steps have been taken, or will be taken, before it is actually set up in London, to make sure that the statue in question commends itself to competent American opinion as a worthy representation of its subject.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, without overrating the importance of this subject, I think I may say that it is a matter of international good taste and good feeling. I admit that I have raised the question with a good deal of reluctance, but the representations that have been made to me, and I think to other noble Lords, by a great many of our American friends in London have convinced me that on the whole it is rather better that this subject of controversy should be talked about frankly. In itself the proposition of erecting in London a statue to President Lincoln, assuming it to be in any way a worthy statue, is one that we should all welcome very heartily indeed. Such a thing would be most acceptable to English people generally, so manifestly acceptable that it is not necessary for me to say a single word upon it.

But I think your Lordships will agree with me that the rather unusual step of setting up here a public monument to a statesman of a foreign country is the sort of thing which, if it is to be done at all, ought to be done well and with judgment. As your Lordships will have noticed in the newspapers, there is considerable controversy as to the good judgment that has been exercised in this matter. Your Lordships have seen enough representations of Abraham Lincoln to be aware that he was a man of a marked and in some ways singular, appearance; that his frame was long, gaunt, and angular. At the same time there is abundant testimony that when roused and on occasions he could bear himself with very impressive dignity indeed. His features, again, were also somewhat haggard in character; but, on the other hand, there is abundant testimony, ranging from Walt Whitman to the late Mr. Henry James, of the remarkable beauty not only of expression but of feature which impressed the observant eye. Consequently there have been few public men, few subjects for statues, who demanded such careful treatment on the part of the sculptor, or who were both so capable of worthy and striking representation, and lent themselves so singularly to displeasing caricatures such as we should he sorry to perpetuate.

As to the position in which this question now stands, I need not say very much. I want to make it clear that I am not blaming any one. What I believe has happened is this. Your Lordships know there was a Joint International British-American Peace Centenary Committee which was constituted some time before the war with a view of celebrating the centenary of peace between the two countries, and I understand that at the meetings of that Committee there was a good deal of talk about somebody giving a statue of Lincoln to this country, and that the statue originally considered was not the statue by Mr. Barnard, but one by the well-known sculptor Mr. St. Gaudens. I want to make it clear, because there has been some misapprehension in the matter, that no definite offer was ever made by any person of this St. Gaudens statue which has been so much admired.

After a good deal of discussion on the subject, which remained in the air, I understand that Mr. Charles Taft, brother of ex-President Taft, very generously came forward with the offer of a replica of a statue by Mr. Barnard, and, there having been all this talk, since this statue had been set up in America and was admired by a good many people the, English members of the Committee very naturally accepted the offered gift, as I understand, at once. I do not wish to criticise their action. I, of course, fully recognise, as we all shall, the generosity of Mr. Charles Taft's offer, and the difficult position in which that Committee was placed upon discovering, after having accepted it, that their acceptance caused rather marked feelings of regret in various quarters. I quite sympathise with their views, but I do say that the delicacy of the situation that was caused does not get rid of this; His Majesty's Government who are asked to offer a permanent site in London for this statue of a great American statesman cannot, it seems to me, consider the gratitude due to a generous individual donor, or any personal matter of that kind. It is, I submit, their duty to be sure that the representation is prima facie a worthy one, and one which will be recognised as such by the compatriots of Lincoln, and one which shall express our very warm feelings.

The statue has been the subject of a good deal of protest of a sort to which I think the Government ought to pay serious attention. I am not going to read many quotations from the protests that have been made on the subject, but there are two that I must read. Mr. Robert Lincoln, lately American Ambassador of this country, the son and only surviving descendant of President Lincoln, said this— When the statue was exhibited in the early winter, I was deeply grieved by the result of the commission which Taft had given Barnard. The result is a monstrous figure, grotesque as a likeness of President Lincoln, and defamatory as an effigy. That my father should be represented in London or Paris by a statue such as that of which I am writing to you would be a cause of sorrow to me personally, the greatness of which I will net attempt to describe. There is other testimony given by persons whose names are less well known, who knew President Lincoln in life and who all declare that the statue is very unlike him, and makes a distinctly disagreeable impression. The only one that I will quote is that of the late Mr. Choate, who was well known in this country. He says, giving an account of the advice he has given to some other person— I told him I had seen the statue and regarded it as a horrible tiling and a gross libel upon President Lincoln. I do not think it was ever submitted to our Committee or the Executive Committee of which I am a member to consider the subject. I said I thought it very deplorable that this horrible thing should be selected and set up right at the entrance of the House of Lords, where every American for all time would see it. That is the rather weighty opinion of Mr. Choate.

I am aware that there are opinions on the other side, but the only expressions that I happen to have received on the other side myself—though I doubt not we shall hear more—have come from two letters in The Times, one of which is a brief letter by a gentleman I do not know. He states that millions admire the statue, which may be true. The other letter is in some respects so interesting that I am going to read to your Lordships a single sentence from it— The model for the figure was a man named C. A. Thomas, who was born, as his father and grandfather had been, on a farm only 15 miles from where Lincoln was born. I do not know whether my noble friend opposite will agree with me, but a more insufficient recommendation for a portrait I can hardly conceive.

Your Lordships—and least of all myself—are not going to enter into a question of art criticism, but I think that, without setting up to be an art critic, and quite conceding that a statue which the public at large do not much like may have certain artistic qualities, we should all say that it was very undesirable to set up a big public statue of a great man which to the ordinary eye had the appearance of a violent caricature; and the representations which I happen to have seen of this statue, though in many respects they may be misrepresentations, do make it quite unmistakable that this figure has some of the attributes of a tremendous caricature. The feet, for instance, are colossal, and there is no reason to suppose that Lincoln had feet of very extraordinary size. On the other side, the shoulders are narrow and rapidly sloping, and are not the shoulders of a man of any great physical vigour or power; whereas, as everybody knows, Abraham Lincoln was a man of quite extraordinary physical strength and energy. So far as his photographs show, the main outlines of his figure bore no sort of resemblance to those of this statue. Anybody getting a representation of it and comparing it with a photograph of Lincoln would see for himself the differences.

I am very far from laying down the law and saving that this statue may not have countervailing artistic merits, or that there may not be a volume of opinion which would outweigh the strong feelings even of Lincoln's only surviving son, but I do say that when we have these very strong expressions of dissatisfaction at the existing proposal the Government would show good judgment and good feeling if, before committing themselves finally to giving a public site for the erection of this statue, they made, as they very easily can make, careful inquiry as to what really is the judgment of those most competent to express a view on this matter. The opinion of sculptors in London who know a good deal about the work of their colleagues in America might be considered

I ought to have mentioned that recently a rather weighty and highly reputable body in the United States, the National Academy of Design, passed through their Council a strong protest against the erection of this statue—a very marked step for a body of this kind to take in the case of the work of a living artist, their colleague. The Government with a little, care in the matter could, I think, easily ascertain the prevailing opinion of competent art critics in America, and they might take the advice of representative sculptors in this country.

I ask this Question only for the purpose of urging that no final decision in the matter should be made until such careful consideration as I have suggested has been given to it by the Government. Before I sit down let me repeat again as earnestly as I can that I cannot agree with the suggestion which has been made that the Government are bound or that they would even be justified in permitting the erection of this statue merely because an individual generous American has come forward with the gift.


My Lords, perhaps before the noble Earl replies I may be permitted, as chairman of the British Committee connected with this movement, to make a few observations respecting it. What is the history of this statue and of the controversy to which it has apparently given rise? When the British Committee, in concert and co-operation with a similar Committee in America (presided over by Mr. John Stewart) and a Committee in Canada, agreed, among their various objects in celebration of the centenary of peace between Great Britain and the United States, to the erection in London of statues of Washington and Lincoln, it was suggested at the time that probably a statue by Augustus St. Gaudens would be a suitable one for erection in this country, and an application was accordingly made to the Board of Works to know whether the Government would grant us a site for that purpose. I was not chairman of the Committee at that time, nor was I at the time when the Barnard statue was accepted, but I am only too willing to share full responsibility for what the Committee did. When, therefore, this proposal was made, the Board of Works replied—and I think the noble Earl below me (Lord Beauchamp) will explain the grounds on which they did it—that they would be pleased to afford a site at a suitable point in Westminster for the erection of a statue of Lincoln.

Time passed, and for one reason or another no statement was forthcoming from the American Committee who were to provide the statue. It was perfectly true, as anybody who has gone into the matter at all will agree, that there were objections to the St. Gaudens statue, which is part of a group and unsuited for the particular position in which it was intended to place it. That, after all, was a matter more for the judgment of the American Committee than for ourselves, and we allowed time to pass, until we had received a communication from the chairman of the American Committee that a generous citizen, Mr. Charles P. Taft, was good enough to present to them for erection in London a replica of a statue by Barnard which, he said, was one very widely admired by many people in America. It had been already erected in Cincinnati, and although this is a form of art which perhaps does not particularly appeal to myself and I do not pretend to pass any judgment upon it, some rather ridiculous caricatures of the statue have been sent over here for publication in this controversy. Of course, in a matter of this sort the opponents have taken the greatest advantage of their case by taking a side view of the statue, which naturally represents its somewhat rough features in a very unfortunate manner. But I am not going to discuss whether it is or is not of the artistic merit which some people suggest it is. What I say is that many people of authority, and of much higher authority than those quoted by the noble Lord, have declared it to be a work of great ability indeed, and I think it is my duty to defend the generous donor and the accomplished artist who have been so good as to provide this replica for this country. Now that same replica has been presented by the same donor to the French Government and accepted by them, and it is to be erected in Paris.

I am going to quote only two authorities, but they are considerable ones, as to the merits of this statue. I will first of all quote someone who, I will not say is in the same category as the statesman's son, Mr. Robert Lincoln, but who at all events is a man of considerable weight. What does ex-President Roosevelt say in this matter? He says— At last we have the Lincoln of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. How long we have been waiting for this Lincoln. I feared with the passing of years it would never come; but here it is the living Lincoln, the great Democrat, The statue is unique; I know of no other so full of life. The greatest statue of our age has revealed the greatest soul of our age. One is worthy of the other. I congratulate Barnard with all my heart. He has given us Lincoln, the Lincoln we all know and love. I am going to quote one other authority, because I shall be told that ex-President Roosevelt is no artistic authority of great distinction. That may or may not be the case. But I do not think that anybody will deny that the other authority is one who is recognised as a great artist—that is, Mr. John S. Sargent, the eminent painter. The editor of a paper called the Touchstone says— I am at liberty to quote Mr. Sargent [John S. Sargent, one of the greatest portrait painters that America has ever produced] as paying to Mr. Barnard I have no words with which to tell you how much I like your work.' Here are two authorities, one representative, if you like, of the "man in the street," and the other representative of the artistic world. I quote them only because I wish the House to understand that there are two sides to this question. This work may not be a work of great artistic genius. I am not prepared to discuss that. All I say is that the Committee, in my opinion, have taken the very proper step of delaying any action in this matter until the end of the war, and in that way we are co-operating with the. Board of Works and the Government, who, I understand, have explained that no shipping facilities can be given at the present time for any statue to be sent to this country. In the interval I sincerely trust that American friends will agree among themselves as to the particular statue which they desire to be erected on this site at Westminster. I am not going to offer an opinion as to whose work that statue is likely to be, but I did think it my duty here to protest against the very strong and unjust criticism which has been passed upon a distinguished artist who has many friends on the other side of the Atlantic, and indirectly upon the generous donor, Mr. Charles P. Taft, who I think ought to be remembered with some gratitude for what he has offered to do.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Stanmore is indisposed, and I have been asked to communicate to the House the views of the First Commissioner of Works. In February, 1914, Lord Beau-champ, the then First Commissioner of Works, was approached by the British Committee for the Celebration of the One-hundredth Anniversary of Peace among English-Speaking Peoples with a request for a site for a statue of Abraham Lincoln, which was to be presented to the British nation by the American National Committee. It was suggested at that time that the gift should be a replica of the statue by the well-known sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. The Committee made a request for a site for this statue at the south-east corner of the Canning Enclosure, fronting Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square. Lord Beauchamp gave the matter careful and personal consideration, and decided that the site in question was appropriate for the proposed statue and offered it to the Committee. The Lords Commissioners of the Treasury agreed to the, statue of Lincoln being transferred to the charge of the Office of Works under the Public Statues (Metropolis) Act, 1854.

Nothing further was heard, either from the American or British Committees, until March of this year, when the present First Commissioner received a letter from one of the honorary secretaries of the British Committee saying that the American Committee had recently expressed their desire to substitute for the St. Gaudens monument of Lincoln previously offered, what they considered to be a superior monument—namely, that by Mr. George Gray Barnard, an eminent sculptor, which had recently been erected and unveiled in the city of Cincinnati. The statue in question was considered to be a speaking likeness of the, great President. The First Commissioner has since learnt that the Barnard statue is the only one that the American Committee has to offer, as it has been provided by the generosity of Mr. Taft, brother of the ex-President, and the casting has actually been made and the plinth prepared. The First Commissioner took all the steps that he could to ascertain the general feeling of artists as to these rival works, but found, as is usual, a wide divergence of opinion, In view, however, of the strong backing of the Barnard statue by many eminent men, both artistic and political, he agreed to accept the Barnard replica instead of the St. Gaudens.

Considerable controversy as to the rival merits of the two statues began to appear in the Press both here and in America, and Questions were asked on the matter in another place. The First Commissioner took the line that, inasmuch as this was a gift from the American people to this nation, it was not possible for him to question the artistic selection of the donors, who comprise men of well-known artistic standing. He felt, as I am sure your Lordships will feel, that His Majesty's Government and the country would warmly welcome a representation worthy of so illustrious an American statesman in the capital of the Empire. No protest of any kind has reached him from America, and only within the last few days he has received a telegram giving a long list of names of distinguished men of the political world, men of letters and art, and editors of important newspapers, who consider that the statue in question has high artistic merit and is entirely worthy of the two countries and of Abraham Lincoln. This indicates the disparity of judgment which these matters excite. It is necessary only to compare the view taken by my noble friend behind me and the view expressed by Lord Weardale as to the merits of this figure. These are matters which can be settled only by a personal examination of the work of art concerned; and I question whether Lord Charnwood is better able to judge of the merits of this statue than ex-President Roosevelt, who was nine years of age only when President Lincoln died.

In this telegram to which I have referred the First Commissioner was asked to grant a permit of tonnage for the immediate shipment of the Lincoln statue by Mr. Barnard, which has been cast and is ready with its pedestal. The First Commissioner, after consultation with other Ministers, decided that it would not be right to allow tonnage for any work of art to be, conveyed across the seas at this time, and he communicated this by telegram to the American Committee. Meanwhile the First Commissioner has recently heard from the American Society in London that they consider there is a paramount necessity, before finally selecting any design, to consider the position and surroundings in which the statue of Lincoln will be placed, and they have generously offered to contribute substantially towards the cost of the statue which may ultimately be erected on the basis of these conditions.


My Lords. I do not rise to take any part in the discussion of the artistic merits of the statue but I should like to suggest to the First Commissioner of Works, through the noble Earl who has just spoken, that noble Lords-might have an opportunity of seeing the photographs of the actual statue at Cincinnati, which, I believe, are in his possession. If the photographs were placed in the Library of this House they would probably be illuminating to those of your Lordships who have not at present seer any representation of the statue.


My Lords, as my name has been mentioned in connection with this statue I ought, perhaps, to say a few words upon the subject. I have not been able to refer to the Papers from which the noble Earl quoted, but I am sure that the statement which he read to your Lordships adequately and accurately represented what took place at that time. For my own part, I confess that I should be most unwilling to join in a censorship of any sort or kind, even a censorship of taste; and if the American Committee decided upon offering this statue by Mr. Barnard. I am sure that the attitude which was indicated by the noble Earl as that of the First Commissioner of Works is a proper attitude to take, and that he will be well justified in accepting it.

I confess that it was with some alarm that I heard one of the suggestions of the noble Lord (Lord Charnwood) when he put forward the idea that we should ask representative sculptors in this country to express their opinions upon the merits of the statue. We are notoriously behind other countries in the art; of sculpture, with the exception, of course, of two or three men of outstanding and high merit; but I should indeed deprecate the idea that a statue of this kind should be judged by the same criterion of taste as that which dictated the erection of the Queen Victoria Memorial. I venture to impress upon your Lordships the fact that this statue has found no critics, apparently, in Paris, and that the French people seem willing to accept it.

I wish to put forward a suggestion in regard to the excellent idea of my noble friend Lord Harcourt. He suggested that photographs should be placed in the Library of this House; but I trust, if this is done, that care will be taken to see that the photographs represent the statue from every point of view. There is no difficulty at all in misrepresenting most statues. From certain points of view the statue even of Nelson in Trafalgar Square lends itself to misrepresentation; and I think it would be a great misfortune if we were obliged to come to a conclusion with regard to the statue in question after having seen only one or two aspects of it.

In conclusion, I may perhaps be allowed to say as one who has ventured to dabble in the art himself, that I am not so alarmed as the noble Lord opposite by his sugges- tion that a model was used by Mr. Barnard to help him in modelling his statue. It seems to me that it was almost inevitable that he should call in the help of somebody in order that he might represent naturally, not the face, nor, probably, the hands, but the finish of the statue, and the way in which the dress would hang upon the figure. That Mr. Barnard in this matter should have called in the help of a man who was brought up in much the same way as President Lincoln, and who was probably, in the opinion of some people, well qualified to judge of tin; appearance of the deceased President, seems to me no unwise step on his part, but, indeed, one which it was inevitable for him to take. In these matters it is generally exceedingly difficult to come to a judgment: it is merely a matter of taste, upon which every opinion differs. I would venture again to say that it seems to me that the First Commissioner of Works is indeed acting wisely in withholding action at the present time and abstaining from taking either one side or the other in this controversy.


My Lords, before this controversy ends I desire to say a word, because I should like to support the view taken by Lord Charnwood. I have had conversations with representatives of America in this country, and I am bound to admit that the views they have expressed are very much against the Barnard statue. I do not, like others, dabble in works of art, being more or less of a Philistine, and I am bound to admit that what appears to the artistic eye, like a work of art very often appears to me to be a caricature. However, I think it should be made perfectly clear—and Lord Charnwood took care to emphasise the point—that there was nothing whatever to be said against the generous offer of Mr. Charles Taft. There is no desire to minimise that generous offer, but I own I have not been convinced by the quotations that have been made. The noble Lord (Lord Weardale) quoted Mr. Sargent, who said "I have no words with which to tell you how much I like it." That suggests to me a rather two-edged compliment, because while many of us have no words in which to say how much we like a particular thing, we often have plenty in which to say how much we do not. The point which we have to bear in mind is the effect which this is going to have upon the family and upon the American public. One of the representations made to me about this particular statue by a man who knew Lincoln was that it seemed to embody in his mind all the nasty things and spiteful attacks made against Lincoln when a boy: and if that is the impression which it is going to convey to the ordinary American mind, then we should be very careful before we accept it.


My Lords, I should like to intervene after what has fallen from Lord Beauchamp, but I do not do so except to enter a strong protest against his statement that this country has no standing in the art of sculpture. He is wrong; and I think if he will appeal to those who have made a study of plastic art here and abroad, he will find that his own view is not shared by persons who are qualified to form a judgment. That he should have expressed this view with so much freedom and such confidence casts very well-merited doubt to my mind upon the aphorisms which he put forward about this statue. He said it was merely a question of taste. It is not merely a question of taste. A work of art may be good or bad, whether it appeals to the taste of this man or of that; but he did not strengthen the case for this statue by saying that a model was necessary in order to represent the finish, and that as the model was a man brought up in the same sort of way as President Lincoln he was a suitable person from whom to take a personal likeness. I will certainly do what the noble Viscount Lord Harcourt, suggested, and lay the matter before my friend Sir Alfred Mond. I have not the slightest doubt that we shall be able to place photographs, if they exist, in the Library, and I hope they will not be photographs which seriously misrepresent the statue. There is no reason why they should. They will presumably be taken under the direction of the Committee and by a responsible photographer, who will have taken them from every point of view.


The only representations of this statue that we have had in any newspaper in this country give simply a side view. I therefore sincerely trust that the noble Earl will take steps to secure a full-face view of the statue.


I will certainly do my best to get views of the whole of the statue; but, of course, for every person who looks at a statue in the full face at least two look at it from the profile, one way or the other.