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Royal Gallery: Daniel Maclise Paintings

Volume 765: debated on Monday 2 November 2015


Asked by

To ask the Chairman of Committees what progress has been made on the restoration of the Daniel Maclise paintings in the Royal Gallery.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his timing, because I am pleased to tell the House that the Works of Art Committee has agreed to a conservation programme to clean, conserve and improve the presentation of the two Maclise paintings. The work will be carried out over a four-year period and will start in the summer of 2016.

My Lords, I am most grateful for that excellent Answer from the noble Lord. After the pictures have been restored, will they be protected for future generations?

Yes, my Lords. We are very grateful for the research project that was undertaken by the students of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences and by the Curator’s Office here. A great deal more has to be done to find out exactly what damage has been done to the paintings from environmental factors, such as coal and the like, and from work that has been done since on varnishing the paintings. Once that has been done—we believe that a great deal of the original paint is intact—we will make sure that we preserve the paintings for future generations.

My Lords, there is a very powerful artistic reason for undertaking this conservation. These pictures are not simply triumphalism; they have a kind of visionary humanitarian quality to them because they depict the suffering, and what Wilfred Owen called the pity, of war. However, because the colours have faded so much, that precise aspect is very downgraded, so this is very welcome news.

My Lords, that is so. Not long after the paintings were completed, there were complaints about the degree of dirt, which affected the quality of the paint. We will be carrying out pilot studies with a view not only to doing as much as we possibly can to preserve the original paintings but to making sure that they are as good as they possibly can be, given their age.

My Lords, does the Chairman of Committees agree that it is because we have this unique works of art collection that reflects our heritage that so many people want to come and visit the Houses of Parliament? Does he also agree that over the years it has been the hard work of many Members of this House in raising, and indeed donating, money that has enabled us to carry out conservation work without drawing considerably on the public purse?

The noble Baroness knows a great deal more about this than I do, but she is of course entirely right. As a House, we are very dependent on fundraising for this work. In recent times, it has not been possible to provide money from the Budget for it, so we are very dependent on fundraising to carry on the excellent work that this House does, not only on these Maclise paintings but on some of the frescos that are very much in need of preservation.

My Lords, can the Chairman of Committees tell us whether we will still be here when this work is completed, or is this building continuing to fall down around us—as I found this morning when I could not get in at the normal entrance? One of our colleagues pointed out to me that Red Benches states that work is being done on re-cant accommodation for the House of Lords? Will the Chairman of Committees give us a brief update on how things are going in respect of re-canting us somewhere else?

My Lords, it is true that there is a major programme of work across the whole estate and that there will have to be decanting from building to building, but this is being handled with the Chief Whips of the political parties and the Convenor. We are handling it as carefully as possible. I hope I will be here when the work is finished. Whether I shall be in this position I know not.

My Lords, I do not think that we need worry about the triumphalism. President Valéry Giscard D’Estaing once told me that, at school, he was taught as a little boy that the Battle of Trafalgar was a minor naval engagement in which the British were stupid enough to lose their admiral.

Does the noble Lord agree that those frescos are a true inspiration—one of the greatest inspirations in this Palace? Can Maclise’s story act as inspiration for the current House of Lords? After all, he was treated appallingly by the Government of the day. He suffered disgraceful financial meanness on the part of that Government. His instructions were ill prepared and badly handled. He was taken for granted, and when he protested, they responded simply with abuse and outright threats. And yet, his work proved to be of immense service to the nation. Does the noble Lord think that we, the current House of Lords, can draw inspiration from that prominent example?

Well, this is a new experience for me. It is true that many artists are not valued until they are long dead. Maclise deserves great credit because he had to research the water-glass method that had been developed in Germany but had never been used here. He wanted to make sure that it was possible to convey not just the drama of war but the complexity and the tensions. To do that, he had to paint bit by bit. That was where the water glass came in, because it was able to preserve the paintings. On the rest of the noble Lord’s question, I hope he will excuse me if I pass.

My Lords, is the Chairman of Committees aware that I hosted a dinner in the Peers’ Dining Room for Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge—my college—which was founded in 1596, and that the oldest painting in Parliament is the one of Queen Elizabeth which is located in that Room and was painted in 1596? Is that painting being preserved well enough?

Oh, my goodness me. I think that I will do some homework—I hope the noble Lord will allow me a little time to do that. I will then write to him, and I will put a copy of the letter in the Library.

I wonder whether I might trespass on the Chairman’s knowledge a little further and ask him whether he knows what has happened to Lord Carrington, who was hanging quite happily outside the Bishops’ Bar but has now disappeared. Can the noble Lord tell me where he has gone?

My goodness, I can see that my weekends will have to be devoted to these paintings. I am afraid that I am not well placed to respond, but I will make sure that the noble Baroness gets a reply.