ace moved to Sydenham, and was appointed as the secretary to the great Art Treasures Exhibition at Manchester. The same year, he became secretary to the NPG trustees when it was established in 1857 in a small, private house in Great George Street, close to the Houses of Parliament.
We have got used in recent years to the idea of the professional bureaucrat as a term of abuse, as if all bureaucrats are intellectually second-rate, interested only in the perpetuation of systems of existing management and not in innovation. But these art bureaucrats of early Victorian England were something else: tirelessly hard-working, writing books in the morning, serving on committees in the afternoon, endlessly networking and socialising in the evening, with a dedicated sense of mission to create and reform institutions of art for the educational benefit of a broad public. And I certainly do not think it is accidental that their activities, their sense of moral purpose, coincided with the reform of the civil service itself, the sweeping away of systems of patronage through the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854. The tidying of procedures, the organisation of systems of public management and the idea of public duty were not confined to art history.
However, I am conscious that as a system of historical explanation, to say that a widespread historical phenomenon such as the institutionalisation of art was the result of the agency of a small number of highly motivated individuals will be viewed by historians as intellectually suspect. There were very obviously wider forces at play.
The first of the wider forces was parliament. It is impossible to ignore the fact that parliament, following a quite heated argument and debate, agreed to the foundation of the National Gallery. It was not just a small group of self-interested individuals who were themselves already deeply involved in the art world, such as George Beaumont and Sir Thomas Lawrence, the then President of the Royal Academy, who led the move to found a National Gallery, but the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool himself, who wrote to the Duchess of Devonshire in support and chose to have himself painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence with the original charter of foundation in his hand. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Frederick Robinson, known as “Prosperity” Robinson, was able to give grants not only for the foundation of the National Gallery, but also towards the new building by Robert Smirke for the British Museum.
And a young backbench MP, George Agar-Ellis, later Lord Dover, combined his service in parliament with trusteeships of both the British Museum and the National Gallery, the formation of a collection of British art and the editing of Horace Walpole’s letters.
In the 1830s, after the Great Reform Act, a new class of idealistic and reforming MPs entered parliament, sparking a tremendous amount of involvement in state policy towards the arts. Peel took a close personal interest in the development of a new building for the National Gallery. There was detailed discussion of its design and cost in debates in the House of Commons. In July 1835, parliament established a Select Committee “to inquire into the best means of extending a knowledge of the Arts and Principles of Design among the people (especially the Manufacturing Population) of the Country; also to enquire into the Constitution of the Royal Academy, and the effects produced by it”. It asked for evidence to be heard from both Gustav Waagen, who spoke forcefully in favour of wider public access to the arts and to “the employment of artists in public buildings”, and from Leo von Klenze, the court architect of Bavarian King Ludwig who designed Munich’s Glyptothek and the Alte Pinakothek.
Nor did this level of parliamentary interest in arts policy diminish in the 1840s. The requirements of decorating the Houses of Parliament were what led to the establishment of the Royal Fine Arts Commission. Prince Albert brought a very Germanic view of the importance of the arts to his role as Prince Consort, collecting the works of Winterhalter and Landseer, and acting as chairman of the Royal Fine Arts Commission. Gladstone, in The State in its Relations to the Church, wrote how the state was able to offer “to its individual members those humanising influences which are derived from the contemplation of Beauty embodied in the works of the great masters of painting.” There were further Select Committees to investigate the possible relocation of the National Gallery. Throughout these discussions and debates there was a keen awareness of the educational benefits of museums and galleries and the improving advantages of wider public access to great works of art, which seems to have spanned the political spectrum. In 1844, Joseph Hume, the radical parliamentarian, was able to boast:
The notion that the English people were only fit to be trusted in particular places—that museums were only intended for the visits of the rich, and that those collections so calculated to improve the mind, and promote science, should only be open to men of birth and fortune, had wholly gone by. Although there is a presumption that parliament became much less interventionist during the 1850s, less troubled by the prospect of social subversion, there does not seem to have been much reduction in the cultural activities of the legislature in the establishment of institutions of art. In 1850, another Select Committee was established to decide the fate of the Vernon Collection. Lord John Russell, as Prime Minister, pledged public funds to relocate the Royal Academy into new premises apart from the National Gallery. In 1853, parliament established yet another Select Committee, this time, “To inquire into the management of the National Gallery; also to consider what mode the collective monuments of antiquity and fine art possessed by the nation may be most securely preserved, judiciously augmented, and advantageously exhibited to the public.” The Committee took evidence for four months before publishing a more than 1,000-page report. It was parliament, not the trustees, that was responsible for establishing the organisation and management of the National Gallery on a properly professional footing through the issue of a Treasury Minute in March 1855.
So, it was not just the officials who were industrious. They were under the close scrutiny of MPs who took a personal interest in all aspects of arts policy, including the conservation of paintings and—not always helpfully—the price of works of art and the arrangements for their acquisition. The institutionalisation of the arts was not a product of private initiative, but of the application of public policy to the improvement of the lives and welfare of the citizenry. No area of life was now immune from parliamentary action and MPs took a broad view of their responsibilities.
It will be evident throughout this analysis of the institutionalisation of the arts that another motivator of change was competi-
Eastlake: Transformed the National Gallery
After the Great Reform Act, a new class of MPs entered parliament. They had a huge amount of interest in state policy towards the arts
25 September 2007
Standpoint tion with, and awareness of, what was happening in Germany. Nation states were in competition in their cultural policy, as they had been on the battlefield. A cartoon published in the 1820s compared the miserable accommodation of the National Gallery with the glories of the Louvre. There was a strong awareness among intellectual leaders of the 1830s when young men inspired by the writings of Coleridge, Kant and Schlegel would go to study in the university of Heidelberg, of what was being achieved in terms of the display of art in both Munich and Berlin. Schinkel’s great building for the Altes Museum on the banks of the Spree and von Klenze’s purpose-built Alte Pinakothek were the models for what could be achieved through a dynamic policy towards the display of art for public benefit. Younger MPs were aware of, and inspired by, the essentially German idea that cultural institutions could provide an important symbolic value to the effectiveness of the nation state.
My final determinant—but one of which I am less confident in describing—is the culture of utilitarianism. It was the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill that led to the belief in the improving role of art for wider purposes of public education. Parliamentarians such as William Ewart, Benjamin Hawes and Joseph Hume, the socalled Philosophical Radicals, led to the provision of public institutions of art, under the influence of utilitarian beliefs. They believed that art had a wide social, political and educational value, should be taken away from the clutches of the traditional connoisseurs and used, instead, as an instrument of social amelioration. They suggested the establishment of the Select Committee on Arts and Manufactures in 1835, and introduced the bill that led to the establishment of the Fine Arts Commission and supported the Museums Act in 1845. Cole was influenced by the utilitarians and met Bentham just before his death in 1832. He knew Mill reasonably well (certainly well enough to borrow money from him), became joint proprietor of the Westminster Review in 1840 and was quite a close associate of the social reformer Edwin Chadwick. They helped to inspire Cole’s belief in the need for a reform of English design. Cole cited Mill when seeking support for his programme of teaching at South Kensington describing him as “the first and most liberal of English writers on political economy”:
It is only necessary to refer to his work, where he proves that education is one of those things which it is admissible in principle that a government should provide for the people, and that help in education is help towards doing without help, and is favourable to a spirit of independence. I have made very little reference to the Royal Academy of Arts, the public institution of which I am the servant, and of what happened to it during this period. Why should this be? The answer is that the Royal Academy offers a very different model to the role of institutionalisation to that which I have described. The Royal Academy is an institution not of the early Victorian period, but classically of the reign of George III. Founded in 1768, it was the result not of parliamentary action, but of the community of artists going privately to the King, and it was he—without the intervention or involvement of parliament—who asked them to draw up a set of rules for their operation and who agreed remarkably generously to pay off any debts it incurred, which he did consistently in the Academy’s early years. In the 1830s, parliament was extremely irritated by the independence of the Royal Academy and it was attacked by writers such as George Foggo and the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, who viewed it as an instrument of private privilege, rather than of public benefit. The Royal Academy was wary of being incorporated into a new government building in Trafalgar Square as part of the National Gallery and felt that it was being co-opted by the state. Parliament asked for information about the finances to be laid before it and Sir Martin Archer Shee, the then president, simply refused. He regarded the Royal Academy as a private institution, which should not necessarily be subject to public regulation. When appearing before the Select Committee, he was sceptical that the creation of better premises for the National Gallery would necessarily produce an improvement in the state of art, describing it thus:
The Royal Academy [is] a much more important institution to the nation than the National Gallery; I look upon it that a garden is of more consequence than a granary; and you may heap up a hortus-siccus of art without producing any of the salutary effects which never fail to result from the operations of such a school as the Royal Academy. In other words, the Royal Academy stuck two fingers up at those who believed in wider public access to the arts and felt that providing better facilities for its study would not necessarily improve its practice. Indeed, there is a case to be made that the process of the institutionalisation of art did greatly increase the public knowledge and interest in art, but did not necessarily improve its creative practice.
As we approach the prospect of a change of government, and as the two parties face the problem of what they are going to do about the arts in an environment of substantially reduced availability of public funding, there may be benefits in looking back at the issues and debates faced by government and the House of Commons in the 1830s and 1840s.
We have had an administration over the last decade whose attitude towards the arts has been essentially utilitarian, sometimes nearly Benthamite in its belief that the essential value of the arts lies in its purposes of social amelioration. But alongside those who espoused these utilitarian beliefs in the 1830s were others who had a stronger and more idealistic belief in the arts as a source of moral and intellectual and, indeed, in many cases, religious uplift—a way of improving society through its culture.
We have in many ways lost the language needed to describe these idealising purposes of art in public discourse. But parliamentarians in the 1830s did not feel so constrained.
They perfectly understood that there were ideas and beliefs derived from the writings of Kant and Coleridge which were capable of providing a source, as well as a language, of public belief. I conclude by suggesting that it may perhaps be helpful nowadays, considering the sometimes arid language of current aesthetic discourse, to go back to those writers and thinkers for whom these issues were a subject of intense public debate and to think, once more, about the emblematic and moral value of arts institutions, instead of just their instrumental purpose. This is an edited version of a lecture given under the asupices of Gresham College in memory of Colin Matthew, the first editor of the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”.
25 September 2007
Henry Cole: A finger in every pie
We have in many ways lost the language needed to describe the idealising purpose of art in public discourse