HL Deb 21 March 1988 vol 495 cc7-9

2.52 p.m.

Lord Airedale asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether in seeking to confer statutory powers on the trustees of the three English national galleries to sell pictures from their collections they will impose a condition that such power shall not be exercised in the case of particular pictures given and accepted on the understanding that they were gifts to the nation to be kept on public display.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the National Gallery, Tate Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are at present unable to dispose of any unwanted items from their collections, whether by sale, gift or exchange. The provisions which the Government intend to introduce would remove what we believe to be an unnecessary obstacle to sensible collections management. The existence of an enabling power would not, however, invalidate individual agreements between donors and trustees about the conditions under which particular pictures were accepted into the collections.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for that encouraging reply. Are we not under the difficulty that boards of trustees cannot bind their successors and, without the authority of Parliament behind them, trustees will not be able to give the absolute assurance, which a prospective donor may demand, that a picture will never be sold? In consequence, we might find that some gifts which the trustees would dearly love to have will not be forthcoming.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I believe that in a way I answered that supplementary question in my Answer. The existence of an enabling power would not invalidate agreements between donors and trustees about the conditions under which particular pictures were accepted into the collection. That would also apply to trustees accepting new gifts into collections for the future, if they felt that they were in a position to provide such an undertaking.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, in view of what the noble Lord said about management, will the Government confirm that the trustees will not be required by the Treasury to dispose of works of art in order to pay for essential building repairs and special acquisitions?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the funds received from the sale of any unwanted items are to be ploughed back specifically into the collection and will not be available for spending on running costs of the building, maintenance and so on.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, I should like to support what the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, has said about incorporating a general principle into the law on this matter binding trustees. Is it not a case, as my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham might put it, of quis custodiet ipsos custodies—in other words, can you trust the trustees?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am sure that all your Lordships will agree with me that over a very great length of time trustees' record of public service in many of the great national institutions and collections has been a very fine one.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I understand that the pictures given by donors will probably be excluded in the legislation. Will the Government also exclude all those pictures now in the three galleries to which members of the public, including children, have contributed with donations ranging from large to very small; for example, the two paintings by Stubbs "The Haymakers" and "The Reapers" and also Constable's "The Opening of Waterloo Bridge"? If the Government intend to exclude those, which they should, what is the point of bringing forward this very bad legislation?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the disposal provision we have in mind is very carefully constrained. One of the criteria in the National Heritage Act 1983, on which we shall base the legislation, is that the item in question should be judged unsuitable for the collection and can be disposed of without detriment to students or other members of the public. I am sure that all the pictures to which the noble Baroness referred will be covered by that description.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that acceptance by a gallery of a gift has an implied condition that it will be retained and shown to the public?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am unaware of any great work of art that has been disposed of from a public collection in this country to the detriment of the national collection.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, have the Government had any success in persuading galleries to lend to other institutions those pictures and so on which they cannot show? Do they not agree that it is almost as bad to imprison pictures unseen in cellars indefinitely as it is to sell them?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I should be very happy to answer a Question on that subject if the noble Lord would like to table such a Question.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that anybody who is as fortunate as I was some years ago to visit the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad will see there a substantial collection of very valuable paintings by artists such as Rembrandt that were sold to Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Is it not a tragedy that on that occasion those paintings were sold? Should we not be talking about preserving all of our heritage and not disposing of any of it on a commercial basis?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am slightly mystified by the noble Lord's question. I was unaware that Rembrandt was an English artist.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I was not referring to Rembrandt as being an English artist.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one of the dangers is that artistic tastes change? Is he aware that in the 1920s paintings by Gainsborough were extremely expensive in real terms compared to the present time? Is there not a danger that paintings will go out of fashion and be sold and then come hack into fashion and we shall regret their sale?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the last time the subject was raised, my noble friend Lord St. John brought up the example of the pre-Raphaelite pictures which were considered very unfashionable 30 or 40 years ago. Of course in that case the trustees, when discussing the matter as a whole, decided quite rightly—which is why one has a board of trustees—to preserve the paintings.