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Theatre Museum Andsomerset House

Volume 888: debated on Friday 21 March 1975

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4.1 p.m.

I am glad to have the opportunity to present perhaps a rather more coherent case to the Minister on a subject for which he is directly responsible. In response to what the hon. Gentleman said in reply to my catalogue in the previous debate, I say only that we look forward to exploring his mind further in the future. Possibly we might even get the responsible Minister to the Dispatch Box.

The history of Somerset House and its partial release to the public covers a number of years. It was right back in November 1971 that I raised the subject in the House and my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) said that the Fine Rooms in Somerset House were no longer to be used for what he described as a "scandalous purpose ". I am sure that what the civil servants did in those rooms was entirely laudable, but it was scandalous that the rooms were being misused. We are all delighted that some years later we see these Fine Rooms restored, although we have not yet dealt with the question of the terrace. That was promised to the public in November 1971, as was the courtyard.

Somerset House might be described as London's very own stately home. It was released to the public as a result of a parliamentary campaign considerably aided by the Evening Standard, and that newspaper is not uninterested in what is happening now. The building was released to the public and then came the question of what to do with the Fine Rooms. I put a number of ideas forward to the then Minister. They would all have involved the furnishing of the Fine Rooms and their use for a variety of civilised purposes. It was with something like dismay that I learnt that the Conservative Government proposed to house the theatre museum at Somerset House, because there was not enough space there and the rooms were quite unsuitable for the display of the vast wealth of material, most of which was designed to be seen in artificial light and the world of make-believe of the theatre.

The prospect of the Fine Rooms being blacked out and their splendid interior decorations obscured in a vain attempt to create the atmosphere of the theatre filled me—if I may use a somewhat theatrical expression—with horror. I gather that such are the restrictions rightly placed upon the use of the Fine Rooms, together with the absence of any adequate storage space or rooms for research or administration, that those who were at first delighted at the thought of a per- manent home for the extensive and growing national collection now have grave misgivings about Somerset House. They have publicly stated their gratitude—and very grateful they are—but they have also publicly politely requested that consideration be given to a far more satisfactory alternative—indeed, I believe an ideal alternative. I hope that the Minister will make clear that nothing that any of us is doing in any way endangers the theatre museum trustees' hold on Somerset House, but it is the alternative that I ask him most forcefully to consider.

There has been intense public interest in all this matter, and the Greater London Council has produced imaginative proposals for much of the old Covent Garden Market area which adjoins the Royal Opera House and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Last Monday we voted money for an extension to the Royal Opera House, for the site purchase. Not far from there stands the disused flower market. For the benefit of the uninitiated, that is not the large building standing in the middle of the square. It is another building in the corner of that area, on the very edge of Theatreland.

There are no firm proposals for the future use of the flower market, although I gather that the imaginative GLC is open to suggestion. The GLC kindly allowed me to see it last Tuesday. Above ground there is a great glazed hall, not unlike one of the plant houses at Kew. However, it is not the great glazed hall that is the principal attraction for those who want to see us have a fine theatre museum in the right place in London. The attraction is below ground, where there are 40,000 sq. ft. of unadorned fruit storage space, brick built and some 10 ft. high, with no constraints whatever save pillars widely spaced, and the whole area has infinite theatrical possibilities. It might almost have been designed as a whole series of theatre sets.

It is no secret, from published correspondence, that many concerned with the future of the theatre museum regard this flower market area, particularly the sub-ground area, as absolutely ideal. Of course there is space, not in the main great glazed hall area but adjoining it—it is an L-shaped area—where one could have administrative offices and research rooms above ground and where also one might see the Theatre Institute, which has had a letter published in The Times today, finding itself with a home. The whole thing could be a splendid theatre centre, right in Theatreland.

London is surely unique in the wealth of its theatre. How right it would be that we should have a theatre centre a theatre museum, where we would be able to recreate the past—and experiment for the future, because that is equally important.

Why is this matter urgent? It is urgent because there is to be an exhibition of the Royal Institute of British Architects in the flower market before very long. Obviously, certain works will be necessary in order to produce that exhibition. It would be quite possible for these works to be done in a way which would be complementary or sympathetic to the eventual setting up of the theatre museum in this building and particularly in the large storage area beneath it. Therefore it is important that an initiative should be taken.

Quite a lot of people in public circles are interested in this and are not unsympathetic. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us today that he will at least consider the suggestions which I believe have been made to him. I know that the Department of the Environment has never been particularly happy about the prospect of the theatre museum being at Somerset House, simply because it was not likely to he an adequate site for it, and nor would the introduction of the theatrical material have added anything to the splendour of the Fine Rooms. Indeed, it might even have detracted from them.

Ministers have a habit of putting down proposals made by back benchers, or, indeed, by Front Bench Members, on the ground of cost. I wonder whether any real attempt has been made towards comparative costings. I put it to the Minister that a great deal of money has already been spent on Somerset House, which will never be wasted because the Fine Rooms have been restored, and so much else there besides them.

What about the cost in the flower market? That is up to the Minister to decide. Various figures have been bandied about. Unless a detailed study has been carried out by the Government Department or by the Greater London Council, the Minister should go into it with great care and at least tell us today that he is prepared to do it. There are a number of interested parties. He is the man to act as the chairman of the discussions.

I am sure that the Minister will not find the Greater London Council unsympathetic, because I believe that the council, has fairly fluid plans for the future of the whole Covent Garden area. If we could have the theatre museum and the other institutions that I have mentioned—the institute particularly—housed in the flower market area, we should have the finest theatre museum anywhere, certainly in Britain, and it could be the finest thing of its kind anywhere in the world.

I hope that the Minister will grasp the opportunity, which probably will not present itself again, because if the theatre museum is put into Somerset House it will never be a satisfactory affair there and Somerset House will not be enjoyed to the best possible advantage.

In conclusion I want to say a few words about Somerest House. There have been some very powerful letters in the Press from important people in the world of the arts suggesting that Somerset House should house a Turner exhibition. It is right that there should be a substantial amount of Turner's work on view at Somerset House if it is to be used as a picture gallery and, I hope, furnished.

After all, Turner exhibited when the Royal Academy was situated at Somerset House, but so did many other distinguished painters. It would perhaps be an idea, though I put it to the Minister for experts to decide, that Turner should be included substantially in an exhibition which could begin with those who started the Royal Academy and be representative of the whole period when the academy was at Somerset House.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, which is responsible for the theatre museum, also owns a splendid collection of furniture and other works of art which would look well if displayed at Somerset House. I have no wish to criticise that great institution, but I am sure it would agree with me that some of the furniture displayed in its series of faked-up period rooms at the Victoria and Albert looks awful in those conditions and could look quite splendid if given a proper setting.

It is important also to recognise that Somerset House is not really suitable for the sort of gallery that could become absolutely crammed with people, as we have seen recently at the great Turner exhibition. The floors would not stand it. The place is best suited for what I would describe as gentle use.

Crowds would come to Somerset House if the courtyard were cleared of cars in the evening. I see no reason for having any cars on the courtyard in the evening. Why not a concert in the evening this summer in European Architectural Heritage Year? Surely if the Minister gave the car owners due notice the cars could be cleared from the courtyard. A concert could be held or son et lumiere and that kind of thing.

What about the terrace? In 1971 the then Minister said that it was only a matter of time before the terrace was opened. Surely the public could be given access to the floodlit terrace and be allowed to walk through to look down to the river below.

I would not want to move all the occupants out of the rest of the building. There is a splendid historic reason why the Inland Revenue should be in the rooms which were created for it along the river front. It will be recalled that the Inland Revenue sent a man out to buy a clock. The clock he bought was made by Mr. Tomkin. That gives some indication of the Inland Revenue's antiquity. Though we may do battle with it from time to time, it is separate from the Treasury and we would not like it to be back in Whitehall. Its presence and the other things which are at Somerset House, including the Probate Registry, do not prevent the use by the public of the terrace.

What about the Minister's role in this? I believe that this is where his civilised and civilising Department should reside, in Somerset House, in modest offices but close enough to benefit from the Fine Rooms and in contact with the public whom he seeks to serve. Surely not for him for ever the remoteness of upstage Belgrave Square. He must feel uncomfortable there. Let him come closer to the people and let him see them from his window every day. Let him walk through the Fine Rooms full of fine things and see people enjoying them as he goes down to Parliament. Only then will he begin to understand what his job is all about.

4.16 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) for raising this subject. I wish that it could have come up on some other occasion, but I am particularly grateful to him for the manner in which he dealt with the subject. He said many things which I find worthy of close consideration, but I would remind him that

"Hearts just as pure and fair
May beat in Belgrave Square
As in the lowly air of Seven Dials"
—or anywhere else in London. I take the point that for my Ministry, with all its advantages, there is much to be said for Belgrave Square, although it is a little far out.

May I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was a haughty hereditary earl in "Iolanthe" who spoke those lines. The Minister is a man of the people.

Yes, but I am occupying Belgrave Square, and there is some significance in that perhaps.

The location of the theatre museum has been, as the hon. Gentleman said, a matter for continuous public comment since the Turner exhibition at the Royal Academy. But for that exhibition—and a very splendid one it was—it seems unlikely that there would have been any question of housing Turner in Somerset House. That the exhibiton coincided with the preparation of the Fine Rooms with a view to housing the theatre museum was a cha ice. However, the force of the gale is not reduced by the fact that the wind bloweth where it listeth. Its force is so great that almost all the artistic weather vanes including this morning a distinguished body of trustees, have swung round and now are wondering whether Some: et House is the right place for a theatre museum or whether it should not be put to the most popular of uses, housing a permanent Turner exhibition.

Since 1973 both the previous administration and the present Government have stated in Parliament on several occasions that it is their intention that the theatre museum should be installed in the Fine Rooms at Somerset House. The first statement to this effect was by the then Minister of State, Department of the Environment on 24th May 1973, and, as the hon. Gentleman has fairly pointed out, this was a statement not by the present administration but by the previous Government. The most recent was my own Answer to the hon. Gentleman on 4th March.

My noble friend Lord Strabolgi also explained once again in the other place on 10th March, and particularly in relation to the idea that a Turner museum might be established in Somerset House, the reasons for the Government's confirmation that Somerset House should house the theatre museum, not Turner or anyone else. This is not to say that I ever thought at any time that Somerset House was the ideal solution for a new theatre museum. The decision was taken in the knowledge that the Fine Rooms would impose certain limitations on the way exhibitions might be mounted and the extent of the collections which could be shown. But the theatre interests and the Victoria and Albert Museum welcomed the original decision, and work has proceeded on this basis with a view to opening by the autumn of 1976. At present, the project is at the design stage.

Pressure to move the theatre museum from Somerset House has rested on two main grounds. One is that it is not a suitable place for it; the other is that it would be a good place—instead of its contemplated use—to use for a permananent exhibition of the works of Turner. These arguments ignore the reality that there is, as I have already said, a previous commitment by Governments of both major parties—the hon. Gentleman's as well as mine—to Somerset House as the most practical venue for the theatre museum.

As regards a Turner museum, before he was swept away by the gale, the chairman of the trustees of the Tate Gallery, in his introductory remarks recently to the biennial report of the gallery, dealt with the facts. All sorts of allegations have been made about the intentions expressed in Turner's will. What is certain is that the will was disputed and that the subsequent settlement was endorsed by Parliament.

Turner's paintings and drawings are widely dispersed among private as well as public owners. Among the latter, the most important are the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery of Scotland.

There is no power to compel private owners to give up their paintings to a new Turner museum. New legislation would be needed if this were to be done, and the Government have never considered proceeding on such a course. In addition, the major building programme for which I am responsible has already, at a time of scarce capital resources, enabled extensions to be undertaken at both the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery. While these are not specifically to house the works of Turner, the extra space available to the two galleries will enable them to improve their conservation facilities, and, in the case of the Tate, show the Turners on a scale and in surroundings which it has not been possible to achieve before.

I am aware that a number of theatre people have, perhaps rather belatedly, realised that the Fine Rooms at Somerset House do not provide the ideal background for a theatre museum. Personally, I expressed the view long before I was appointed to my present position that what was needed was a combined theatre institute and museum in Covent Garden. I take the view that, important though a theatre museum is, it is even more important to provide an adequate infrastructure for the thriving British theatre. Many countries on the Continent of Europe have a far greater infrastructure of aid and of substance, with a much smaller theatrical achievement on the top of it, than we have, and I believe that, with our major theatrical achievement, it is high time that our theatre was provided with the sort of institutional background—including, for example, a library—which it deserves but which at present it sadly lacks. Incidentally, I said this when I was Chairman of the Theatres Advisory Council and when the market was still in Covent Garden.

However, when the museum interests were offered by the hon. Gentleman's Government the opportunity of going to Somerset House, they jumped at it, and those of us who were more interested in the service of the living theatre than in the commemoration of its past raised no objection. We hoped and said that perhaps this would make it easier for a theatre institute to be established in due course when the market vacated the Covent Garden area. That point, as the hon. Gentleman said, is made again this morning in a letter to The Times.

The various theatre interests might now believe that there is an opportunity to develop these ideas again. Whether this is feasible or not, however, is a matter not primarily for me in my present capacity, although, here again, this is an area in which Ministers in different Departments must co-operate and talk to one another and work together.

I am ready to consider whether any alternative is possible which can be accommodated within available resource s and which can better meet the needs of the theatre museum, both as to time and as to accommodation. I am in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and with the Greater London Council about the possibility of using the undercroft, as it is called, of the flower market at Covent Garden. Further work would be needed to establish whether this is a real possibility, and I cannot, therefore, go further than that at present, save to say that it is likely that such work may be undertaken.

There are those who take the view that permanent exhibitions of the work of a single artist, however major, tend to do him a disservice—and I think that I detected a note of that thought in what the hon. Gentleman said. It is felt by many people that after a time an attraction wanes and that the occasional assembly of the works as was done at the Royal. Academy lends an excitement to an occasion which a permanent exhibition can never enjoy.

If it proves possible to find alternative accommodation for the theatre museum or, better still, for a combined theatre centre, including an institute or a museum, responsibility for the use of the Fine Rooms at Somerset House would then return to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, when it basically still is. In such circumstances, I should be glad to consider with my right hon. Friend, provided that resources are available—this is the key question, because the resources required for such a move would be much greater than are now required in respect of Somerset House—what contribution the national collections might make—the Tate has indicated its readiness to cooperate—both to showing the rooms to their best advantage and to future exhibition arrangements, of whatever nature might ultimately be decided.

That is as far as I can go today. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is as far as the Government could reasonably be expected to go in present circumstances.

With leave of the House, perhaps I might thank the Minister for what he has said. He has shown that he has an open mind and is prepared to consider my suggestions, which have been made before by many powerful people outside. We look forward as soon as possible to a further statement from him when he has had a chance to do the work that he said he will do.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Four o'clock.