HL Deb 28 January 1931 vol 79 cc700-6

Debate resumed (according to Order) on the Amendment to the Motion for the Second Reading—namely, that the Bill be read a second time this day six months —moved by Lord Hanworth on December 16 last.


My Lords, I think there was great advantage in the adjournment of this debate, because I am able to make a statement to-day upon this subject which I hope will meet all the difficulties so far as this House is concerned. I have looked to see what was said about this Bill, and particularly what was said by Lord Crawford, who, I believe, expressed the general view of the authorities. In regard to sending works abroad, Lord Crawford speaking in reference to the Italian Exhibition, said Italy did not want us to send Italian pictures to that country:— But what they would like to see is a really representative proof of our own British artistic supremacy—I use the word guardedly—extending from the year 1760,we will say, until the death of Turner in 1851. I think that what Lord Crawford said would generally be agreed to. It is the main purpose, as I consider, of the Bill that the best of our cultural expression in painting should be exhibited abroad in order that those great works of art might be known in a way they are not known at present.

The other question which was raised was that of limiting the Rill to those works and those works only, and excluding works of foreign origin. I see that the Archbishop of Canterbury during the previous debate said:— I had hoped that the noble and learned Lord himself, or the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, would have been prepared to say that they would give favourable consideration to the arguments addressed to the House by Trustees of the two great institutions affected by the Bill. We are prepared to give that favourable consideration, and I understand that what the House desires to do in Committee—in accordance really with that purpose—is to exclude the sending of art subjects abroad, except those of native art. I do not say whether I agree with that or not, but so far as this House is concerned we should raise no opposition to a proposal of that kind. It is a purely non-political matter. I hope, therefore, that we may all be agreed to allow the Second Reading of the Bill.


My Lords, it is really unnecessary, so far as argument is concerned, for me to add much, if anything, to what was said in your Lordships' House on the previous occasion by other Trustees of the British Museum—the Archbishop of Canterbury, my noble friend Lord Crawford and my noble friend Lord Hanworth, the Master of the Rolls. I need hardly say, after what passed the miler day, that as a Trustee of the British Museum I welcome—and I am sure my colleagues would also welcome —the statement which has been made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Parmoor, this afternoon. I wish he could have gone a little further and have said definitely that he would accept the words which the British Museum wishes to have put in to safeguard itself, but he has responded to the Archbishop's desire that he should promise to give favourable consideration, and I understand that, he will give favourable consideration. I shall not. be prepared to oppose the Second Reading of the Bill, but I think it, must be equally understood that the favourable consideration must materialise and that there should actually be put into the Bill the words which were advocated on behalf of the British Museum the other day—namely, that the permission to send things overseas should be limited to things representative of British art and crafts.

I should like to explain how strongly I agree with what has been urged on behalf of the British Museum, for it is really going as far, I think, as it is in the national interest that we should go, in permitting objects from such institutions as the British Museum to be sent overseas. The British Museum is a collection, accumulated in the course of generations, of objects of inestimable value. People come from all over the world to see them. They have been kept together, and, so far, the Trustees, who are under a special penalty, have been charged with the preservation and the keeping together of these objects so that everyone who knows that they are in the British Museum may be sure of having access to them. The Trustees also are, of course, charged with the duty of seeing that they are available to the public who go to the Museum.

There is a certain amount of risk in making any breach in that practice and sending any of these things overseas. It cannot be done without risk. There is the risk of damage in transit. There is also the disadvantage that temporarily, while they are away, there are breaches in the collections in the Museum; and undoubtedly, I think, the nation is making a sacrifice in giving permission For any article to be sent abroad. But it is urged very strongly that certain foreign countries send some of their best works of art to London in order that we may see them here, and that there ought to be some reciprocity. The Trustees of the British Museum feel that this is a very strong argument and that there ought to be some reciprocity—that where foreign countries show good will and generosity in sending works which are typical of their genius for us to see over here, we should respond in kind—but then the contribution we ought to be called upon to make is that we should send abroad by way of reciprocity only objects which are representative of the work of British talent and British genius. Beyond that I do not thick we ought to go. I think the risk that is involved in that amount of reciprocity is overbalanced by the fact that if we do not give ourselves that permission we cannot make any reciprocity at all. That is the kind of reciprocity we should make and that would be ensured if these words were put into the Bill, while the power of the Trustees to send works overseas would he limited to objects representative of British art and crafts.

I would like to enforce something which I think both Lord Crawford and Lord Hanworth said the other day, and it is this. It is really putting the Trustees in a false position, in a position in which they ought not to be placed, if upon them is put the responsibility of saying as regards everything in the British Museum, whether it shall he sent abroad or not. Supposing, for instance, a foreign Ambassador or a Foreign Minister goes down to the Foreign Office and says that his Government Very much hope that some particular object known to be in the British Museum may he sent. on loan to his country. What is the position of the Foreign Secretary going to be? He may, personally, hold the opinion that it is very undesirable that the request should be acceded to. I am not sure whether in his position as Foreign Secretary he would be entitled to express that opinion to the Ambassador. It is his business to be conciliatory to foreign Governments. If the decision upon such a request does not rest with him the Ambassador may think that he is really showing a want of good will in taking upon himself the responsibility of saying he cannot recommend that request to the Trustees of the British Museum. I think he would feel bound to pass it on to the Trustees of the British Museum, though he had a strong feeling himself that the Trustees ought not to accede to it. Upon the Trustees would rest the responsibility of refusing the request of a foreign Government.

The situation may be even more difficult than that. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs may have no strong feeling himself on the subject, hut the political conjuncture may be such that he is really exceedingly anxious to gratify any request made to him by a particular foreign Government. In that case he would certainly pass on the request to the Trustees of the British Museum with a strong recommendation that in the interest of foreign policy they should accede to the request. The Trustees of the British Museum or the National Gallery ought never to be placed in that position. Their duty, and the responsibility placed upon them as Trustees, is to preserve these great national works of art in the interest of the public who visit the museums and in the interest of the nation. That is the responsibility placed upon them. They ought never to be placed in a position where their decision will have political reactions or political responsibility. That would not be a fair position in which to place the Trustees of these great national collections.

It is suggested that it should be made permissible to send objects of British arts and crafts abroad. That has been accepted as a compromise, and I can only say that that, I think, is the furthest limit to which we ought to go as Trustees of these great national collections. If further responsibility is placed upon them the Trustees will he in a very difficult position in which they ought never to be placed, and I think it is very much in the interest of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and of the Trustees that Parliament should lay it down definitely, with particular words placed here, that the Foreign Secretary is to be bound to say that he knows that the Trustees have no power—that Parliament has decided that they have no power, except this which is now given, to send works of that kind overseas. Those, I think, are the very strong arguments for not going further than these words allow. I certainly trust that in the national interest, in the interest of these great national collections, these words will he eventually inserted in the Bill: and, of course, we must reserve the right as Trustees, while agreeing to a Second Reading of the Bill this afternoon, to oppose it at any future stage unless these words are definitely put in the text of the Bill.


Does the noble Lord press his Amendment?


With the leave of the House I will withdraw my Motion to reject the Bill on the terms that have been stated by the noble Viscount, Lord Grey.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


My Lords, it is with very great diffidence that I venture to address the House on a subject of this sort, more especially after the great weight of authority to which the House has listened in the speeches from the most rev. Primate and from the noble Earl, the noble Viscount, the noble Lord and the noble Viscount who has just spoken. But I do feel that to allow the Second Reading to pass without some indication of the feeling of certainly a considerable portion of the House would he wrong. I think that the words which the Trustees of the British Museum and the National Gallery have agreed to accept go too far. My own feeling is that the Trustees with their undoubtedly great knowledge are perhaps a little bit inclined to look on the question purely from the artistic point of view. There is another point of view. There is the historical point of view.

We own in this country a certain number of things which perhaps are not of very great artistic merit—pictures, perhaps, which people in Florence or Vienna or Paris would not, wish to borrow. But we have other things which to us are of absolutely supreme importance. I will take the case of books, because books are things in which I have great interest, and I have been a book collector for many years. Take the case of the very early Caxtons. They are not, perhaps, very great examples of typography, but they are unique. Caxton, owing possibly to the perhaps mistaken Free Trade policy of Edward IV and his brother, was not a very great printer, and at the end of the fifteenth century this country was flooded with foreign books. Still, they are first things and there are hardly any of them. Then there are the Luttrell Psalter and the Sarum Missal, and, to come to pictures, there are a few of the early panel pictures in the National Gallery and the portrait of Richard II in Westminster Abbey. Those are things which may very easily be coveted by some of the Colonies, and it would be doubly difficult to refuse articles of that nature. I deplore this class of thing being lent possibly to small Colonies where there are no means of looking after them. This sort of loan, called a temporary loan, may very easily become a permanent loan. That is a fatal objection.

A schedule, of course, is a very difficult and unpleasant thing to draw up, but I understand we are going to have an implicit schedule, in any case—a schedule of countries and places to which, in no circumstances, would we lend. Would it be impossible for the Trustees to draw up a short schedule of a few articles of the very first historical importance that may not go abroad? The desire of acquisition by the richer countries now is enormous. I wonder how many of your Lordships know the present history of the first folios of Shakespeare? The first collected edition of Shakespeare was published in 1623. There are 83 or 84 known copies all over the world. Forty-one of these have been bought by one American millionaire—forty-one, half of them. They are all at present in New York in a building. They will never come out of that building again. I think it is a most dangerous thing to allow the treasures we have of that sort to disappear. It is an easy matter to protect them in the way I have indicated. The Trustees of the British Museum and the National Gallery are certainly not gentlemen who would be likely to be dragooned or seduced into making these arrangements, but, of course, very great pressure can be brought to bear upon any trustees. It may not be beyond the hounds of possibility that one day we may have a Lord Chancellor or a Speaker of the House of Commons who does not know or care what a primitive or an incunable means. I think we must look forward a little to the future and try to protect ourselves.

The only other point is that this is the centre of the Empire, travel is extraordinarily cheap now-a-days, and we might well prefer people to come here and look at the things in their own home. I am told by the noble Earl that, as a rule, the chief profit in these exhibitions is gained by the lending country rather than by the country in which the exhibition is held. Supposing the Soviet Government, which has recently lent us some remarkable objects of art for the exhibition in Burlington House, were to ask for a similar loan, it, would be extremely difficult to refuse their request. Anybody who has lived, as I have, for many months in St. Petersburg (as it was then called) knows what enormous variations of temperature you have between the artificially highly-heated rooms and the incredible cold outside. This would play havoc with many objects of art in a very short time. I do not suppose that it is any good going to a Division on a matter like this now, but I think it is only fair to enter a protest against the too wide words, in my view, which the Trustees of the British Museum and the National Gallery have proposed to accept from the Government.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.


My Lords, I have consulted Lord Hailsham, and he has consulted noble Lords opposite, and I gather that February 4 would be a convenient date for the Committee stage of this Bill.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before five o'clock.