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The Royal Fine Art Commission reconsidered

Paul Finch
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Paul Finch reads an intriguing new history of the design watchdog that advised 20th-century governments on the quality of public projects

I was fascinated to read the recently published history of the Royal Fine Art Commission in the 20th century, written by Robert Bargery. He worked at the commission and for a period at its successor body, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). After a period as director of the Georgian Group, he is now executive director of the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust – a rather grand charity (patron the Duke of York, president Lord Foster, chairman Stephen Bayley) created in 1987 to separately promote the ethos of the old RFAC.

The 19th century Fine Art Commission was created at Prince Albert’s behest, to advise on the installation of art, sculpture and furniture in Barry and Pugin’s Palace of Westminster redesign, following the fire of 1834. After Albert’s death, the commission petered out, but the idea of such a commission was revived after the First World War. It was largely inspired by the US Commission of Fine Arts, created in 1910 to advise the federal government on the quality of public projects.

From modest beginnings in 1924, our version included as commissioners a roll call of the great and good, the vast majority men. From Aston Webb, Blomfield and Lutyens in the early years, successors included Holford, Kenneth Clark, Fry, Henry Moore, Summerson, Gibberd, Esher and Betjeman. Under its last chairman, Lord St John of Fawsley (1985-1999), luminaries included Whitfield, MacCormac, Hopkins, Terry, Ritchie, Cullinan, Morrison and Stansfield Smith.

If you succeed in improving (or blocking) a poor project, the last thing you do is crow about it

Bargery’s account is intriguing and generally fair-minded, noting failure as well as success, but rightly drawing attention to successes often untrumpeted. That is the nature of independent design advice: if you succeed in improving (or blocking) a poor project, the last thing you do is crow about it. Anyone with an interest in the political context within which the RFAC did its work will want to read this well-illustrated book. 

Reading the book, I couldn’t help recalling the last party of the RFAC, in its Lutyens-designed St James’s Square home. Lord St John held the event to mark the final report of the commission. His guests included Margaret and Denis Thatcher, Lord Carrington (‘the only man in London who makes even me feel humble’) and the man responsible for ending the commission, culture secretary Chris Smith.

It fell to him to make the speech congratulating the commission on its report and, indeed, on its 75 years of public service. St John responded and introduced the final speaker Peter (Lord) Palumbo, whom he described as ‘what I think of as Chairman Emeritus of the Arts Council … emeritus … isn’t Latin a wonderful language? It confers dignity without specific responsibility’.

Peter made a brilliant concluding speech, starting with the elephant in the room: if the commission had been doing such a good job and, indeed, had done so for most of the century, why was it being abolished? Chris Smith’s rictus grin was a sight to behold.

The last Palumbo laugh-line concerned a conversation with two of St John’s commissioners, discussing the chairman: ‘They said they would follow you to the ends of the earth. Not out of conviction, but curiosity.’  

Retrofit projects in themselves are not the only way of reducing the impact of buildings on carbon generation. I recall discussions at CABE about advocating a planning requirement in respect of major non-residential new buildings: that applications should show that the building could be readily adapted for an entirely different use, thereby reducing the chances of premature demolition. I still like this as an idea. 

Design Champion: The Twentieth Century Royal Fine Art Commission 1924-1999 was published on 1 May by the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust

Paul Finch is a former chairman of CABE 

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