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Supply—Report—Royal Academy

Volume 49: debated on Wednesday 24 July 1839

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The report of the Committee of Supply was brought up and read.

On the vote for 84,000 l. for public buildings being read,

considered it a matter of great importance for her Majesty's Ministers to consider whether it were right and proper, that one half of a building intended for the use of the public should be occupied by the Royal Academy, when the president and council of that Academy had refused to give any account of their revenues and expenditure, or the proceedings of the association, although they enjoyed advantages conferred on no other public body. He understood, that that refusal on their part was in consequence of a legal opinion they had received, that the occupancy of a public building worth 3,500l. of yearly rent was not receiving public assistance. The Academy had 50,000l. in hand, while the public were greatly in want of additional accommodation for the exhibition of works of art. It was important to mention, that before the Academy obtained possession of the building, it was asked by his hon. Friend, the Member for Bridport, whether it was to be understood, that they were to hold that occupancy as a matter of right, or to give way when they might be required to do so by the public exigencies. The answer given was, that they would have no right to occupy longer than the public convenience would allow. If the Royal Academy were to be allowed to receive such benefits from the public, they ought to give something in return. But when be saw the Royal Academy imitating the example of Mr. Stockdale in refusing obedience to the orders of the House, he did trust, that property which had cost the public 43,000l. would be made available for purposes of public utility. The Government had of late taken steps for throwing open the various public depositories of works of art. That did the Government great credit. It had opened the proper avenue to the improvement of the public mind, and had adopted the sure way to remove that reproach which had been cast upon the people of this country by foreigners, that they did not possess a taste for the fine arts. The truth was that the people had been rigorously excluded from admission to those places where they could enjoy an opportunity of improving themselves; but no sooner were they thrown open, on terms at all within their reach, than the whole of such places had been crowded. Look at the National Gallery—or let them go to Hampton Court where there had been 18,000 visiters, and so many as 3,000 in one day admitted free. He had no doubt if the public exhibitions and other receptacles of art in this country were thrown open to the people, that they would readily avail themselves of the advantages.

said, the hon. Baronet, the Member for the University of Oxford, being absent, who had undertaken to state the case for the Royal Academy, on which they expected to show the reasons why the order of the House of the 14th March should be rescinded, he did not feel himself in a situation to give any opinion upon the subject. There was one part of the speech of the hon. Member, however, which he thought himself bound to notice. The hon. Member had said, that the Academy had refused to give information to the House. Now, there were two ways of doing that. The first way was to refuse to give the information asked for; the other was to put it respectfully to the House, by petition, whether it were expedient, that the House should persist in ordering them to make the returns. Now the Royal Academy had adopted the latter course, and had presented a petition to the House, stating they had already furnished a great deal of information, in returns to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and in the copious evidence given by the president and officers of the Academy before the Parliamentary committee on the fine arts, by which means all their rules and regulations had been laid open to public inspection. They respectfully express their hope and trust, that the House would be pleased to rescind the order of the 14th of March. Therefore the Royal Academy had given reasons, be they good or be they bad, why they expected the House would rescind that order. He thought that was a very different course from refusing to give information, as stated by the hon. Member for Kilkenny, and he thought it was not fair to discuss the question further until they had heard the hon. Baronet, the Member for the University of Oxford.

complained, that the hon. Member for Kilkenny had taken an opportunity, in the absense of his hon. Colleague, to go into the whole of this case. It was well known, that the Royal Academy had been provided with apartments in Somerset-house by George the 3rd, that they had been removed from apartments to which they had a long established right to suit the public convenience, and placed in inferior apartments. He apprehended when his hon. Colleague had an opportunity of meeting the hon. Gentleman face to face, he would satisfy the House, that the production of the accounts would be attended with great disadvantage to the interests of the fine arts in this country.

would reserve all further observations till the discussion on his motion for enforcing the order for the production of the returns. But he might observe, in the mean time, that his object had been completely misunderstood. What he asked was, that her Majesty's Ministers would adopt measures to turn the Royal Academy out of the building as interlopers.

said the hon. Member for Kilkenny, though he said it was not his wish, on the present occasion, that the House should decide upon the question, evidently wished them to conclude that the Academy was in the wrong, and that therefore they should be turned out. He would therefore give a short explanation of the right of occupancy of the Royal Academy. The Royal Academy had been, for a considerable time, in possession of apartments in Somerset-house, which they occupied merely by consent of the Crown, without any legal right of property, and subject to the risk of being removed at a minute's warning—although he was far from saying that the exercise of that right would have been either just or proper. When the transference took place, it was distinctly stated in the official communications which passed upon the subject, that they held the new apartments on the same footing and title, and no better condition than they had to those in Somerset-house; and that, indeed, was admitted in their petition. They stated, in fact, that their long occupation in Somerset-house gave them a moral, if not a legal right, to those they had received in exchange. If, however, they were to admit that doctrine—of a moral right converted into a legal right—it would be attended with most extensive and, indeed, dangerous results to the interests of the public in those buildings. Several other bodies had apartments in Somerset-house—the Royal Society, and various others. He was very sorry to hear it stated in that House, that it could be considered in any respect doubtful whether the public had a full right to resume possession of its own property whenever the public service required it. As to the time of exercising the right, it was a matter for consideration; but as to the absolute right, he claimed it on the part of the public, and should not hesitate to use it on any fitting occasion. The hon. Member for Kilkenny seemed to think it necessary to use the right, irrespective of any conflict between the House and the Academy, because there was, according to his hon. Friend's statement, no room in the National Gallery for the public pictures. That was not so. As a trustee of the National Gallery, he could state, that there was not only room for the pictures, but for any more which the public might choose to have, or which private individuals might do them the favour of bestowing on them. Therefore this was no argument for dispossessing the Royal Academy.

Vote agreed to.