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Palace Of Westminster (Furnishings)

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 15 July 1954

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Wills.]

11.18 p.m.

I wish to discuss this evening the question of the furnishing of the Palace of Westminster. The point of view which I particularly wish to emphasise is that of the Member who conducts constituents or visitors from abroad round the Palace of Westminster. I personally am extremely interested in this matter, having of late conducted a number of my constituents from the South Coast and also visitors from overseas round the Houses of Parliament. These people are immensely interested in seeing the buildings, but they sometimes feel that they would like to see something, or a reminder of something, connected with the past.

After all, this is the Mother of Parliaments, and is in many ways similar to Parliaments abroad, in France and in many other European countries where one finds some of the most delightful furniture and tapestry, and so on. But here in the Palace of Westminster we find really very little beyond the architecture of the last century. In 1834, the previous buildings were entirely destroyed by fire with the exception of Westminster Hall. The Houses of Parliament were then rebuilt, but, as far as one can see, though a great deal of attention was paid to the carvings, to the lighting, to air-conditioning and so so, very little seems to have been done with regard to the furnishings.

Over a period of time we have filled the building, especially the passages leading from the other place to the Commons, with a series of extremely ugly paintings, interesting because of the historical episodes they represent, but hardly capable of being said to be of any very great merit. Some of one's wretched constituents, who do not know very much about art, say, "How wonderful," or "How lovely." It is unfair to explain that they are extremely modern, anything but lovely and anything but good.

I recently went to a reception in the House of Lords—in a room which it would, perhaps, be wrong to refer to as a cocktail bar, but in which have been put some tapestries, which, I gather, have been lent by a noble Lord. They have made the room immensely more attractive to look at. I mention this because a former Member of Parliament—Mr. Trevor Cox, whom many hon. Members will remember and who, I hope, will be back here one day—reminded me how lovely the Palace used to be in the old days, as one can gather if one reads up the history of Parliament.

Nothing is to be found anywhere downstairs now, except a series of extremely dull prints, and poor Mr. Disraeli and poor Mr. Gladstone have nothing to show of themselves except a picture in the Dining Room and a series of prints in the Smoking Room, whereas in the old days, before the fire, there were all sort of historical backgrounds and matters of interest, such as paintings and tapestries depicting historical incidents and a variety of other matters connected with the past.

If, as I sometimes do, one brings up children from the country to see the Houses of Parliament, one realises how, after having read in their history books about all the different things that have happened, they would be particularly interested to see some evidence of that history. But there are very few things to show them. One of the few is the death warrant of King Charles I. That, unfortunately, is put away in the Library of the other place, and no more than six people can visit it at a time. With 20 or 30 children to show around it becomes an impossibility to show them this—in fact one is not allowed to take such a number to that part of the building. When one does take a few children to see it, one notices that what interests them most are the seals of the Commonwealth Members—Cromwell's supporters—who signed the death warrant. One asked me, "Oh, Sir, is that the King's blood," and they were all disappointed and rather sad to find that it is not.

If such things as this could be put in some place where they could be seen by visitors, it would considerably enhance the interest of people visiting the Houses of Parliament. We may be told that there is no room for a museum—but what about that large room, the Royal Gallery? As one goes along there all one can possibly show one's visitors is a picture of Waterloo on one side and a picture of Trafalgar on the other, and then tell one's visitors that when the President of France visited the Houses Parliament that was all he had to look at. Some French visitors will tell you that they do not mind looking at those pictures, because their ancestors were not followers of Bonaparte.

We could easily have a few small tables along both sides of the Royal Gallery, having on them such things as Charles I's death warrant, and the ordinary individual could then see them. That would immensely interest people. When people are taken downstairs and are shown the tallies—which, I think, were responsible for the burning down of the last Houses of Parliament—and the collection of medals which are displayed there, they are as fascinated as they are with anything they see en route. When one takes one's guests down below to luncheon or dinner parties, there is absolutely nothing to interest them on the walls.

When one goes upstairs to attend Committees, which may be interesting or extremely dull, and one looks round one sees absolutely nothing of interest. One walks along a corridor and one sees a fantastic picture of a hunting scene of no particular importance. It may be a fine painting, but one ought to be able to see many more things of national interest. The endless prints are in many ways insufferable.

If one tries to look into the past and find out what was here before the fire, one finds that one of the few things of interest left in the House is a complete file of "The Times" since it started in 1785. It is interesting to find a description in copies of "The Times" of what took place after the burning and what was lost, and I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary if anything could be done to trace some of the things that were lost at that time. As far as we can see, they were not burned. Nobody can complain of the fire having burned out so much of the past, but we can complain about a few things which survived and have not been traced that perhaps we could secure from outside sources.

The most outstanding things are the tapestries. We know that the other place had a most wonderful collection of tapestry at that time. They were of the 16th Century. I believe that they were presented by the Dutch to this country. They dealt with episodes connected with our great naval successes of that period. There is a description of one tapestry in "Tapestry Weaving in England" by W. J. Thomson, which states:
"…a small fragment had been cut out of one of the hangings to make way for a gallery at the time of the trial of Queen Caroline and, having been secreted by a German servant of the Lord Chamberlain, was sold by him to a broker who offered it to the Government for £500. It was ultimately bought by the Bishop of Llandaff who presented it to the Corporation of Plymouth."
It would be most interesting if the Ministry of Works could do something to find out what happened to it. Plymouth denies completely having received it. There was a correspondence on the subject in "The Times" in 1935. Nobody knows where it has got to, but everybody who is supposed to have got it denies it.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one or two of the tapestries which were saved from the fire are at Hampton Court, but it is completely denied by the authorities there that they are in that Palace. Surely one cannot completely lose tapestries like that. They cannot have just disappeared. Could not the Ministry of Works do something about it and try to find out where these tapestries are, recover them and bring them back to the Palace of Westminster where they were originally hung?

Many things were saved from the fire. One reads of the famous table of the House of Commons of that day. The more one studies this matter the more uncertain one becomes about it. One starts off by being told that it was the first piece of mahogany that ever came to this country, in the time of Queen Elizabeth, and from that day when it was made into a table for the House it was used right through the time of Cromwell. It was the table from which Cromwell ordered "that bauble" the Mace to be taken away. That table was not burned in the fire. All we know about it is that it was put up to auction and sold at that time.

There was another table which was used in the House of Commons from about 1702 onwards. The nearest I have been able to get to tracing the history of that table is to find that it is now in the cloak-room downstairs. We throw our coats on it. It bears marks to this day showing where the Mace used to stand on it. Is that really its final end? Is that really where it should have got to? I have been looking at a variety of documents and find that this caused quite a lot of Questions and Answers at different times. In the latter part of the last century Mr. Plunket, the Minister in charge of these things, who was the Member for the University of Dublin, told us:
"The table now placed in the tea room…is the table used in 1706 until the fire of 1834. To meet the requirements of the union between England and Scotland, Sir Christopher Wren was employed to enlarge and reconstruct the internal fittings and furniture by which St. Stephen's Chapel was adapted for the reception of the House of Commons, and Sir C. Wren's arrangement and fittings remained without material alteration until the burning of the Houses of Parliament. The table corresponds both in ornament and workmanship with the style which belongs to the commencement of the last century, and it can be identified with the table represented by the artist Hickel in his picture of Pitt addressing the House of Commons, presented to us by the Emperor of Austria.
The table contains the recess in which the Mace was placed when the House went into Committee, and the brass sockets which receive the metal work which ran round the table where the Mace was deposited. And, to complete the authentification of the table, I may mention that one of the officials in attendance at the Office of Works assisted in dragging the table out of St. Stephen's Chapel whilst the fire of October, 1834, was proceeding. It was taken then to the Office of Works, where it remained until the other day, when I had it brought down to this House."
A further letter of 21st November, 1951, signed by Mr. Barker written from the Ministry of Works stated that:
"The table was a great deal damaged during the first four years it was back at the Houses of Parliament, and in 1894 the damaged feet, which were also rotten, were removed and replaced by a 6 in. high platform which, I presume, is still there. The view was then expressed that the turned feet and castors which were removed were not in fact original. As you probably know, before the war the table stood in the House of Commons Library but was taken to Aberystwyth as a safety measure. It was returned in 1945 to the Library, and was placed in the Oriel Room…"
Since when it has been removed downstairs, and has an inscription:
"This is the table of the House of Commons which was used in Saint Stephen's Chapel. It was dragged out of the House during the fire of 1834. It was made C 1730 and is of great value apart from its unique historical associations."
At the moment it is tucked away in the waiting room where we throw our coats. That is one of the things we could find out more about and about which we could do something.

I have studied these things and find that just after the fire there was a tremendous auction in the Speaker's House. I gather that the whole of the Speaker's House was at that time pulled down and Mr. Speaker Manners Sutton, afterwards Lord Canterbury, very properly had gone off for a rest at the time. He had gone to Brighton and special messengers were sent to him—there was no Brighton Belle or Pullman train in those days. He found that everything was pushed into his house. Afterwards it was decided that Mr. Speaker should have another house and all the furniture was sold. Whether it was his private property or not, there was a great deal of beautiful stuff.

I make one or two suggestions for the future. I have been discussing the matter with those running the National Gallery. I gather that at present some half of the pictures at the National Gallery are not hung as there is not space for them. They are getting some 60 new pictures every year and there is no place for them. The National Gallery is discussing the question of an annexe. Why could we not have a few here and have some really worthwhile pictures of prominent members of both Houses in the past and have them hung upstairs?

On 21st April last year, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Horace King) brought up this question on an Adjournment debate. He was told that there was no room for a museum, as he suggested. I am not suggesting a museum. I am suggesting that, in such places as the Royal Gallery, we could have interesting tables with manuscripts on them like the King Charles death warrant I have referred to, and in St. Stephen's Chapel, which is now the waiting hall, there is no reason why we could not have some of these things instead of the ghastly pictures and frescoes. In the Committee rooms, we could have the most beautiful things possible. I got an answer from the Ministry of Works, only the day before yesterday, to say we have not got enough pictures. There are some in the National Gallery, and in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and other places.

Another possible approach is making this need public and getting people to lend things, not to give them, to the Houses of Parliament. At Carlton Gardens, where the Foreign Secretary lives at present, there are pictures and furniture, lent by a peer of my acquaintance, who closed down his house, because he could not afford to live there any longer. He lent his pictures to the Ministry of Works and they decided to put them there. I know of other cases. The Arts Council told me about some, they are most interested in this matter. They pointed out that another gentleman with a lovely tapestry which he did not want hung in London because of the smoke and smog has offered it to be hung elsewhere. There may be others. Those are a few suggestions. Another friend of mine has already promised a Holbein of Cranmer on loan. There used to be an arts committee of the House, and it might be an idea if we could have an arts committee again. This could be of immense interest not only to the children who read about history but see nothing of it when they come here, but also to adults and foreigners.

Might I add one suggestion? The most historic place by the Palace of Westminster is the River Thames and while one sits on the Terrace one faces only a blank wall. If there is money in the future, I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will consider raising the floor level, so that those who sit on the terrace may see the river.

11.39 p.m.

I am sure we have listened with interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling). He has certainly carried out some very interesting researches, and we shall certainly consider his numerous suggestions. The suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) was recently put to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works and, although there are certain practical difficulties, this is a suggestion we shall continue to explore.

I ought to say at once that the Palace of Westminster, as it existed before the fire of 1834, was very different from the Palace today. In those days, I suppose it was a more leisurely and recreative place than it is today. Be that as it may, it certainly lacked the many offices and amenities which we now enjoy. Its chief features, as the hon. Member may know, were the House of Lords, Princes Chamber and St. Stephen's Chapel—which was then used as the debating chamber for the House of Commons—and, of course, Westminster Hall. Westminster Hall and the Crypt Chapel, for all practical purposes, were all that survived the devastation of 1834. In another place the famous tapestries which depicted the defeat of the Spanish Armada were destroyed. I should like to emphasise that, so far as we can judge, the artistic losses of the House of Commons were not very great. My information is that there was precious little—or little that was precious—in the House of the Commons at that time to be destroyed. In the light of what my hon. Friend said, that may be a slight overstatement, but I believe it to be broadly true.

My hon. Friend asked about the possibility of pictures being loaned to the Palace by the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery. I need hardly say that there is a Bill governing that matter at present before the House. Clause 4 of that Measure would enable the Trustees to lend pictures for display in public buildings, including the Palace of Westminster, though I must say that that provision is likely to prove controversial. I believe that it was controversial in another place, and it may well be here. It is perhaps rather too early to say what the outcome will be.

My hon. Friend also suggested that there were many people who might be willing to lend or to donate paintings and tapestries for use in the Palace of Westminster. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Works and his predecessors in office, and indeed the authorities of the House, have always been glad to consider such offers. There are many embellishments in the Palace at present which have been benefactions from various people, far too numerous to mention at this time of night. In all, we have about 1,100 pictures in the Houses of Parliament. This figure includes more than 100 oil paintings and 69 mural paintings.

This is not an easy subject. There are many difficulties. My right hon. Friend is not convinced that present-day conditions are suited to the hanging of tapestries. Nowadays the House of Commons is used extensively both by hon. Members and by visitors, and in some parts of the House at least tapestries would collect a considerable amount of dust and tend to become unhygienic.

Another difficulty is that it has not always been easy to discriminate as one would wish in accepting works of art. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that many of our prints and paintings are, as he implied, either boring or inartistic. No doubt my hon. Friend also wondered about funds for the purchase of further embellishments. I am bound to say that my right hon. Friend has no funds for this purpose. Anxious as he is to do all he can, by decorative and other means, to sustain the beauty and the dignity of the House—without, of course, converting it into an art gallery—his first obligation is to preserve the fabric of the Palace and to ensure that the amenities of the House are compatible with the needs of hon. Members. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend has devoted a great deal of time to improving the decorations and the display of works of art both here and in Government buildings.

For some time past he has felt that many of the portraits and prints of statesmen which now hang in our part of the Palace rather give the impression that British history stopped in about the year 1900, because we have remarkably few portrayals of great Parliamentarians of the first quarter of the present Century. It would be difficult to find pictures here of any Prime Minister after Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, or of men like Sir Edward Grey, Lord Birkenhead, Sir Austen Chamberlain, Mr. Keir Hardie and Mr. Lansbury, to whom the 10-year rule certainly does not apply.

In these circumstances, my right hon. Friend has sought the agreement of the authorities of the House to the appointment of a small committee of hon. Members for the specific purpose of recommending what pictures we should include in our collection, where they can be obtained, and where they should be hung It may well be that many of our present portraits could give way to eminent statesmen of a later period. I am glad to tell the House that my noble Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) has agreed to serve as chairman of this committee. I believe also that the Lord Great Chamberlain has been thinking on similar lines about the pictures elsewhere in the Palace, and since eminent Members of this House are sometimes called to another place possibly joint steps for reviewing our collections may be desirable.

I am grateful to my two hon. Friends for taking part in this discussion, which will, I think, prove useful. We shall be glad to consider the many points which they have made as a result of their researches.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.