I love reading the daily ‘Did you Know?’ facts on the Wikipedia homepage. I enjoy storing useless knowledge that wouldn’t even benefit me in a pub quiz. A couple of weeks back they published one which really astonished me – ‘Flaming June’ by Lord Leighton, one of the masterpieces of nineteenth century art, was valued at just £50 in the mid 1960s. It failed to make it’s auction reserve price and went unsold.
Should I be surprised no-one could be arsed to shell out? This was the same decade that the St Pancras Midland Grand Hotel, one of the greatest buildings in England, was slated for demolition. If a public outcry hadn’t prevailed, it could well have been replaced with another leaky, flat-roofed breeze block box.
During my visit to Port Sunlight’s Lady Lever Art Gallery, this useless fact pops back into my head. I’m looking at an enormous piece by Lord Leighton, entitled ‘Daphnephoria’. I guess its not hard to see why tastes changed so much. To 60s eyes, Victorian art belonged to a rarefied world of hypocritical moralizing, in which the Classical past was fetishized and females existed for largely decorative purposes. Ideals of beauty were linked to often darker notions of racial purity, and art was formulaic and centred on acceptance into a strait laced Royal Academy. Lord Leighton and his ilk attained the distinct aroma of cobwebs as the twentieth century advanced.
By the 1960s, there’d been two World Wars to puncture the idealism, and the Empire was dissolving. Modernism had emphasized that form should follow function, hence decoration and whimsy, narrative and Classical ideals were laid aside. Pictures like Daphnephoria began to look like overcooked tripe.
These days, it’s safe to say a Leighton picture would fetch a hell of a lot more than £50. Critical and popular opinion has shifted once again, and while no-one would ever say that Daphnephoria was avant-garde, it’s over the top Classicism is what makes it delicious. Modernism was all very well but it’s clear we’ve become nostalgic again for stories, for pattern and ornament, for columns and gold brocade, for complexity and, OK maybe yes, for whimsical things. The Lady Lever Gallery is full of those things.
Stepping off the train at Bebington station, a few stops past Birkenhead, I enter Port Sunlight, a slightly disconcerting purpose built turn of the century village. It’s a leafy mock Tudor garden suburb that looks like a cross between a Sylvanian Families toy town and a Helen Allingham watercolour. I’m lucky with the weather- today it’s literally a town of sunlight. The glow bathes the quirky architecture and generous green spaces.
Lord Lever established this village as a home for his workers, who were all to be employed at his nearby factory producing Sunlight soap. Every house was architect designed and built to exceptional standards. Different architects designed different streets to ensure each vista would be unique. There was a school, a hospital, a concert hall and – of course – an art gallery. Lever believed his workers should be exposed to the finest things and at the end of his life gifted his vast collection to the workers in his village, housed in a beautiful museum, purpose built in Classical style.
The gallery is the crowning glory of the Port Sunlight scheme, containing a dazzling display of paintings, sculptures, tapestries and furniture. An attendant offers me a map, but I decline, opting instead to wander through at random and resign myself to this odd Victorian kaleidoscope where famous sits alongside forgotten, and where masterpiece sits cheek by jowl with doggerel. Therein lies the fun, you see.
It is clear from a glance that Lord Lever’s tastes tended toward the conservative. This is stating the obvious. There are several pieces by William Etty – fashionable in his day but less so now. His bloodless history paintings such as ‘The Judgement of Paris’ haven’t aged well and now look like something off a Pirelli calendar. They are thinly veiled soft porn, with characters that look as if they’ve never seen sunlight.
There are also all the things you’d hope to see in a collection like this, however – hidden gems that you can approach with fresh eyes and fall in love with. There’s the rather wonderful frivolity of ‘Daphnephoria’ – so huge you feel you could step right into it. Or, close to this and perhaps easy to miss, a small but evocative piece by George Dunlop Leslie depicting a sunrise at Bushy park.
Meanwhile, in a dark corner, sits Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Robert Baddeley performing in character on the London stage. There is a lovable Hogarthian grit to it which makes it stand out a mile from the fawning flattery of other eighteenth century period portraits.
In the main hall is a late work by Holman Hunt, ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower.’ It’s a portrayal of choristers singing to the rising sun on May Day, a wonderful mash-up between pagan and Christian traditions that Hunt clearly enjoys. There is a freshness and verve to the colours that shames many of the other pictures alongside it. The choristers’ faces, each painted from life, are doe-eyed and kitsch, giving the whole piece a slightly weird air, like they’re part of some Japanese horror manga – captured one frame before the giant killer robot stomps into view. This slightly bonkers picture is presented in a gigantic copper frame, designed by Hunt and adorned with Pagan motifs of leaping salmon and frogs.
Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelite peer John Millais is also well represented in the gallery. I’m greeted by the sight of his immensely famous late work ‘Bubbles’, a piece I’ve frankly always loathed. This sticky, sentimental piece introduces, however, another interesting and unignorable subtext which hangs over the Lever collection – advertising.
‘Bubbles’ entered the collection when Lever purchased the Pears soap brand, who had used the picture in its adverts. The Pears ads are among the earliest examples of branding anywhere in the world.
Lever’s entire impulse to collect art found its origins in his rivalry with Pears. He began to hunt for images which, like the Millais piece, could be used to sell Sunlight soap, meaning that in effect the Lady Lever Gallery owes it’s entire existence to the birth of advertising.
The gallery labels inform me that Lever’s approach was to buy up suitable work, have it engraved (with suitable additions such as bars of soap etc) and then mass produce these in ads. At least one painter, William Frith – whose work ‘A New Frock’ was an early candidate for this treatment – protested vigorously and unsuccessfully at the unwanted re-purposing of his work.
The rules were obviously different back then, but as a working illustrator I can’t help but sympathise with Frith. These days if I sell an original, copyright law protects me against the purchaser modifying and reproducing my art. It seems as though he lacked this automatic recourse.
After my enjoyable visit, I sit in the café enjoying a coffee and planning out this blogpost in my head. I’m pretty sure how I’ll conclude it. I know I’ll definitely want to praise Lord Lever for his philanthropy, and for the Port Sunlight scheme. What factory owner these days would spend such vast amounts to ensure their employees are well housed, with access to education, healthcare and the arts? Yet there lingers something else in the very back of my mind… a bell tolling at the mention of the Lever Brothers company, something I read years ago. I drink my coffee and try to remember what it was.
As I catch my train at Bebington, it comes to me in a flash. I once read a book called ‘Inside the Third World’ which asked what factors had contributed to the financial denudation of certain places in Africa and Asia, where other places such as Japan had flourished. The answer was of course extremely complex and multi-faceted, but Colonial exploitation was a factor. I research a little more, and find I’ve remembered correctly. Lord Lever and his successors in the company (now Unilever) relied on Congolese palm oil to produce their product. This was produced in plantations under Belgian rule which are said to have relied on forced labour. Some estimates put the overall death toll on these plantations up in the millions. I guess this is the really thorny contradiction at the root of this gallery and it’s fluffy kitsch Victorian paintings. Maybe Port Sunlight helped Lord Lever sleep at night. Maybe that’s what it was for.