TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE ROOT OF THE KENSINGTON JOB. PEERS, and more especially political peers, and most espe- cially political peers with an ecclesiastical turn of mind, should never cry in public. Worthy Lord Ebury has forgot- ten that excellent rule, and the letter to the Times, in which he rates the House of Commons and weeps over the wrongs of West end faneurs, will complete the disgust with which the public have begun to regard the Kensington machinery for the propagation of Taste. The Ministry, with that singu- lar inability to comprehend outside opinion which sometimes falls upon men, otherwise able, who have lived long in one circle, proposed an enormous grant, really for a bad building, but nominally for the promotion of science and art. The House, tired of artistic projects for the production of ugliness, impatient of semi-servile festivities, and disgusted with the eternal prominence of Mr. Colo and Sir Wentworth Dilke, to the delight of all sensible men angrily quashed the scheme. While it is still hailing sarcasms, out steps Lord Ebury, with- out an umbrella, and begins a monody which might suggest that of Marius amid the ruins of Carthage, only it is so much more like the scolding of an old woman over her pilfered basket of apples. "Where," asks the wrathful but saddened Baron, "where can those who were so forward in this cause point to a single place where it would be possible to hold a national fete worthy of the presence of Royalty, safe from the zontingencies of our changeable climate,—where an exposition of those endless forms of beauty included in our fruit and flower shows, the contributions to which come from every part of the country, could be held with any comfort to the spectators,—where there could be such fairs as those recently held in that great space for charities of national importance? . . . Are the Guards to give their next ball in Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's? Or where will these destructives find a suitable place for such an entertainment ?" That, then, is the notion of the coterie which Lord Ebury represents,—a national vote of half a million, made while Lancashire starves, in order to secure an aristocratic Cremorne, —a plot of garden amidst which the Upper Ten Thousand may wander without danger of contamination from people who can- not pay thirty shillings for the privilege of seeing them, with a casino on one side, in which the richest men in the kingdom may dance without paying for the beams which tremble under their weight. Suppose Parliament, on the same principle, buys the " Grecian " for the professionals, and " Highbury Barn" for all who pay the taxes Lord Ebury is so anxious to waste. It would be just as sensible and at least as justifiable as the scheme over which the Kensington clique are weeping, and which a Peer has been found to bewail.
Lord Ebury's letter is of itself a sufficient justification for Mr. A yrton's otherwise unwise motion. That calm personage, who is regarded in the House very much as a little white bull pup might be among mastiffs—the nobler beasts sniffing, but withal just a little afraid—moved on Monday, with that plebeian directness which in a country of "influences" and "compromises," and reticence generally, is so unspeakably embarrassing, that the Royal Commission of' 1851 should come to an end. The House listened to his sarcastic diatribe with a visibly keen enjoyment, and a sense that at last they were hearing the truth; cheered his strongest paragraphs, and then very properly voted him down by 165 to 42. For, in- deed, his proposal in its technical form was not without a trace of that " simplicity" which Democrats admire, but only Jacobins believe to be just. Parliament may lawfully do any- thing, but the House of Commons is not yet authorized to dis- solve a corporate body by resolution, or employ funds not raised by taxation without the formality of an Act, or the consent of the other branch of the Legislature. There are corporations in existence quite as obnoxious as the Royal Commission, but Parliament does not terminate or remodel even the Ecclesi- astical Commission without a full inquiry. A political guillo- tine is as foreign to our manners as to our instincts, and Mr. Ayrton must in his heart have felt surprised that even forty- two should have followed him into the lobby. Though his proposal, however, was impossible, his speech had the effect always produced when an audience feels that the true source of their grievance has been remorselessly laid bare.
The origin of the Kensington job, of the Horticultural Gardens, of recent fetes, of the plan for a West-ead ere- morne, and of the much larger ideas which are to be "developed according to the assistance received from the public," is the Commission of 1851. That body, having the assistance of the Prince Consort, whose name is now used so incessantly by men without a tithe either of' his ability or his moderation, was as successful as the Commission of 1862 has been the reverse. They made money fast, and they used it shrewdly. Their profit on the Exhibition amounted to some 180,000/., and aided by Government with a grant of 175,000/. more, and compulsory powers of purchase, they laid hands on a tract of land which proved an excellent investment. So rapidly has its value risen that, after selling the site of the South Kensington Museum for 40,000/. below its value, and the building site for 140,000/. under the price obtainable for the fee simple— which the country, however, has not obtained—they are, by Mr. Lowe's confession, in possession of 300,0001. more, and a reversionary right to the Horticultural Gardens, worth, should they ever be abandoned, at least as much again. There are twenty-two acres of them, saleable at least at 15,000/. an acre after all encumbrances are cleared off. Those figures imply an immense success, and it is simply ridiculous to abuse the Commission for a display of business faculty which, in an individual or a body owning estates, would be considered worthy of all commendation. Bishop Blom- field has been praised to the skies for management less supremely successful, and when Mr. Gladstone men- tioned that the Governors of Bartholomew's added fifteen per cent. annually to the value of their estates, country gentlemen listened with faces glistening with awe and envy. But the possession of this large sum has tempted the Com- mission to assume a position in which they have become as great a nuisance as if they had been an ancient charitable trust. The money cannot be divided, or applied to the National Debt, or loft idle, or even—to the credit of the Commission be it spoken—eaten up in dinners. It must, un- less Parliament otherwise decide,—and that by Act, not reso- lution,—be applied to purposes connected with science and art; and so the Commission, conscious of funds, and egged on by people who are most of them sincere alike in their wish to propagate Taste and to live by the new evangel they preach, have set themselves up as a kind of quasi-official department devoted to the furtherance of projects which are sometimes genuine plans, and sometimes only jobs. The Kensington Museum is of the former kind. It is an excellent collection, which may be made better, which has been lodged in a bad but large and inexpensive building, and which is very fairly attended by the people, whose trustees the Commissioners are. If Museums are useful at all, as the experience of civilized men seems to prove, the abuse poured on that parti- cular Museum is absurd. The Horticultural Gardens, on the other hand, are, we fear, of the latter and baser sort. The garden is a wretched Sahara of a place, as bare as Kensal Green, too near the London smoke, and entirely use- less to the people, whose rights have been acknowledged in the gratis admission to the Museum. The money came partly from sixpences, partly from a Parliamentary grant, and both considerations ought to have prevented the greed and exclu- siveness from which the managers cannot be exonerated. They talk a great deal of the Prince, but it certainly was no idea of his to shut the people out of a national place of recreation, nor would he have permitted an entrance-fee half as high again as the charge for an opera stall to a ceremonial in his own honour. The managers, doubtless, sneer at Lord Shaftesbury, who on Weduesday did their true work by distributing, amidst a scene absolutely touching, prizes to the poor for the best flowers grown in garret windows. This, however, may be remedied, but not so the incessant attempts which the Commission are compelled by their position to make upon the national purse. They want, of course, like all living bodies, to have a raison d'être—to do something, and work being, as they think, scarce, they are very apt to do mischief. Moreover, assuming from their history and social position the rank of a department, they have none of the responsi- bilities of one, and their ideas, therefore, are apt to be as large as those of a Government, yet unrestrained by the responsibility of finding funds. They think in hundreds of thousands, and Parliament must always be asked to help to realize the thought. That would be all very well were they a department, for even Mr. Cowper can now and then be coerced into forgetting the interests of that exceptional gold mine of his which he calls "unexpended balances," but they are not a department, and their effort to exercise the power of one always degenerates into an intrigue. They are prominent men, and command votes ; they are courtiers, and can use and misuse the name of a Prince who, had h lived, would have kept them in order; they are ready writers, and can put out prospectuses under more dignified forms veryt adroitly indeed. The consequences are—first, a permanent inclination to drive the nation into art expenditure faster than it is willing to go ; and, secondly, a deep irritation among politicians, who see that they are being perpetually "let in" for some plan or other by a body which is and is not Parliamentary, and which they, therefore, suspect, like all other bodies in that position, of a tendency to intrigue. The result is that in fifteen years of existence they have sickened the nation of the very words "art and science," till they have brought about a dangerous revulsion, and the House of Commons, in its disgust of frippery, is half inclined to pro- hibit ornament. From the nature of the case the Commission must continue in the same course, and though Mr. Ayrton's resolution was unjust, we believe with him that the best service the Commissioners could do to their great cause would be to commit in the most decorous manner an act of corporate suicide.