Friday 23 August 2013

The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

Port Sunlight – the very name takes me back to my childhood; Sunlight soap, red blocks of Lifebuoy (used for personal hygiene before deodorants became commonplace among the working class) and the oval-shaped, almost translucent blocks of Pears soap, a luxury to most. I can remember my mother scouring the kitchen with Vim – do we really need our cupboards full of different cleaning products that we now stock up with on our supermarket trips?

When my family was using Lever Brothers products in the 1940s and ‘50s, I’m sure no one gave much thought to the man whose original vision created the multinational company – William Lever, later Lord Leverhulme. Now of course there is a wealth of information, in books and on the internet, about Lord Leverhulme and Port Sunlight Village, is an excellent source and also gives information on forthcoming events in the village such as the Heritage Open Days. William Hesketh Lever believed that ‘Art can be to everyone an inspiration’, although in the beginning he collected paintings for business reasons. Between 1886 and 1906, he spent £2m on advertising, buying paintings to illustrate his brands. By far the most memorable of these was Millais’ ‘Bubbles’, used to advertise Pears soap in 1914 and still instantly recognisable. Not all artists appreciated this use of their paintings – William Frith Powell, for example, objected to ‘The New Frock’ being used in this way. But Lever had hit on a very successful marketing tool; soap wrappers could be collected and used as vouchers to exchange for prints of these paintings. I remember something similar when I was a young housewife in the early 1960s when packets of soap powder came with plastic daffodils or tulips. Not as tasteful as prints of beautiful paintings, but it didn’t stop lots of housewives putting them in vases on their window sills. I can’t remember now which brand of soap powder they were given away with, so perhaps their advertising wasn’t quite as clever as Lever’s!

By 1912, William Lever was worth £3m, plus his income, and by 1925 employed 85,000 workers around the globe. His use of art in advertising had given him a taste for collecting and he had begun to buy for his own pleasure. His collection grew to contain 20,000 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, ceramics, textiles and ethnographic objects, many of which are on display in the gallery. As the collection grew, and to fulfil his ambition of sharing it with the public, it moved from the library to Hulme Hall, and eventually into the purpose-built Lady Lever Art Gallery, begun in 1913 and opened in 1922. He was the only British tycoon of his time to build a gallery.

My latest visit to the Lady Lever Gallery was primarily to view the drawings of the pre-Raphaelite Master, Edward Burne-Jones. These are described as ‘Independent artworks in their own right…Drawing for drawing’s sake’. We were lucky enough to be in the Gallery early in the day before it got busy and so were able to give these drawings the time and close attention they deserve. I was particularly drawn to the ‘Study of a Woman’s Head, profile to left’, dated the 1890s, it has an almost 3D quality, every hair on the woman’s head detailed. Burne-Jones was said to “idealise ‘helpless’ beauty”, but in another room, exhibiting his Preparatory Drawings and Sketches, he also depicts women as “powerful and dangerous”, as in his ‘Study to a Mermaid’s Head’. This is an exhibition well worth a visit before it closes.

On my visits to the gallery I always enjoy time viewing my favourite paintings in Lever’s collection, many hanging in the Main Hall. William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Scapegoat’; John Everett Millais’ ‘Apple Blossoms (Spring)’, and ‘The Black Brunswicker’; Walter Dendy Sandler’s ‘The End of the Skein’ – this painting intrigues me because of the shadow of an open newspaper lying on the hearth, did the artist change his mind? I love Bacon’s ‘The Wedding Morning’ and Joseph Farquharson’s ‘The Shortening Winter’s Day is near a Close’ – this because a large print used to hang over the fireplace of a dear friend who died in 2001. Frederic Leighton’s ‘Head of Spanish Girl’ reminds me of my Spanish heritage – I like to think that perhaps one of my forebears looked just like her. My husband’s favourites are Robert Van Herromer’s ‘The Last Muster’ and Briton Rivier's ‘Fidelity’.

All of these paintings tell a story, and I’ve used postcards of them in my U3A creative writing group as prompts for short stories – with excellent, imaginative result from the members. The frames of the paintings are also worth a mention, some of them being works of art in their own right.

Lord Leverhulme also collected 20th century paintings, some of which are displayed in the East Gallery. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit there had been a problem with a water leak and some paintings had been removed, but Dame Laura Knight’s ‘Ballet’ is still hanging.

All the gallery’s paintings can be viewed on, but as well as housing a world-famous collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the gallery also has five period rooms containing Neo-Classical sculptures, English furniture, tapestries, Chinese Art, etc – far too many interesting exhibits to do justice to them here, it’s necessary to pay many visits to appreciate the richness and diversity of the collection. I will mention one of my favourites – the statue of Kuan-Yin, Goddess of Mercy, from the Ming Dynasty. It is inscribed, ‘made by ten of the worshippers of the Temple, for the donor’. Unfortunately I don’t know which Temple, or who the donor was! I like Stella Benson’s description of Kuan-Yin, it begins, ‘Her hands are empty of weapons…’ and ends
‘She is still,
She is very still, 
She listens always.’

Ending the visit with our usual appreciation of the coffee shop in the basement, I was also amused to find that the doors to the Ladies toilets in the basement still have the brass machines that took payment of one penny. With its warning, ‘No bent or damaged coins’, it took me back to the days when ‘spending a penny’ was meant quite literally. Now it costs 30p to spend a penny in many public toilets – no wonder my grandchildren get confused!

Tuesday 13 August 2013

From Lighthouses to Cemeteries!

Today, I’m speaking to John and Diane Robinson.

John and Diane, your book, Lighthousesof Liverpool Bay, is beautifully produced and for someone like myself, with no previous knowledge of lighthouses, or the lives of lighthouse keepers, it makes for very interesting reading. It portrays a lonely, arduous and often dangerous way of life that now belongs to maritime history but which would have been of tremendous importance to people like my grandfather, a seaman with the Liverpool-based Larrinaga Shipping Line.

Can you tell me something about how the book came to be written – did the idea come from a personal interest, or were you approached by the publisher, Tempus Publishing Limited?

It all started with family history research when it looked as if Diane’s ancestor, an overseer of the embankment, lived at Leasowe lighthouse. So one day we called in at the lighthouse and Eric, the chairman, persuaded us to join the Friends of Leasowe Lighthouse. John did some research, at Merseyside Maritime Museum archive, on the keepers of the light and wrote a little booklet. After that we were hooked. We gave tours of the lighthouse, helped set up an archive and eventually we went on to research the wider aspects of what we now realised were Liverpool lighthouses.

How did you set about your research? How much were you able to discover from local archives?

Having already discovered that the Maritime Museum held the papers of the Dock Trust, which preceded the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, we began researching the minutes of the Dock Committee in particular, finding all references to the building and maintenance of the port’s lighthouses and the hiring and firing of keepers, etc. We also found much valuable material at Liverpool Record Office and various record offices and libraries in Wales and on Merseyside.

Did you actually visit the site of each former lighthouse?

Yes. In fact we stayed in a keeper’s cottage at Point Lynas lighthouse. We were in the West Cottage and the sunsets were wonderful. Each evening we’d watch the dolphins playing off the point. The walks are marvellous, too. Even today it’s very isolated, but for the keepers it must have been a really remote place. Lynas was one of the earliest of Liverpool’s lighthouses and it was, since the 1780s, a pilot station where pilots boarded ships to take them into the port. However, the present lighthouse, as is the case with many of Liverpool’s lighthouses, is not the original building. Although the buildings at Lynas are privately owned now, the automated light is still in operation. We enjoyed standing under the light as it flashed into the darkness. Fortunately, the fog horn never sounded while we were there.

I was intrigued to read that Ormeshead lighthouse was eventually converted into a bed and breakfast establishment – were you able to stay there? If so, knowing its past history, how did the experience affect you?

We’ve stayed there twice, in two different rooms. The Lamp room is now a sitting room. It’s 325 feet above the sea and is particularly atmospheric on a stormy winter’s night. As we sat, cosy and warm while rain beat on the window, we felt for the poor keepers holding on tight as they cleared the snow from the outside of those great windows!

Lighthouses of Liverpool Bay, is full of human interest stories, were there any humorous moments during your travels, or poignant ones?

For Diane in particular, New Brighton lighthouse was terrifying to get into because it was Liverpool’s only rock lighthouse. So, twice a day it’s surrounded by the sea. All of Liverpool’s other lighthouses are land-based. When the tide’s out, it stands in a waist-deep moat which you have to wade through to get to a wooden ladder. This has to be lashed to the base of the fixed iron rungs that lead to the doorway, thirty feet above the water. At the top of the iron ladder you must haul yourself onto a narrow platform in front of the great iron door. Once inside, you get a real insight into the cramped conditions in which the keepers worked and lived.

It may seem a big leap from lighthouses to cemeteries, but there is a link between your two interests. You both belong to ‘The Friends of Rake Lane Cemetery, Wallasey’, and I see from your website that a past keeper of New Brighton lighthouse, John Thompson Francis, is buried in this cemetery. The cemetery also has other strong seafaring links, with many monuments connected with major maritime disasters of the early twentieth century. I believe The Friends lead regular, themed walks exploring these; perhaps you could tell me more about this aspect of your involvement? Who decides on the format?

The format for walks has evolved into ‘Sea Disasters’ (Titanic, Empress of Ireland and Lusitania, all three have lots of local connections), ‘Local and Maritime History’ (includes The Wallasey Hermit, the pilot boat tragedies and the training ship Indefatigable). The two World Wars are also available, depending on the interests of those on the walk. Usually we end at the cemetery chapel, which has been rescued by Father Paul and his congregation and converted into a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church.

Do you have a group of volunteers who lead the walks – and how many people usually take part?

It’s usually just Diane and John and our chairman, Mark Joynson. Numbers vary. It could be just two people or a group of up to twenty.

Are these walks advertised and is it necessary to book a place in advance?

They are currently advertised in the Wirral Heritage Open Days booklet and on the internet and are available on request.

I believe that you have also undertaken research in connection with the cemetery on behalf of others; from how far afield have these requests come?

We’ve had requests and donations from all over the world, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, the USA. Often they have also given us extra information about the cemetery’s history and the people buried there.

I note from your website that you also hold monthly meetings, are these open to the general public?

Yes, we’re happy to see anyone with an interest in the upkeep of the cemetery.

Finally, which came first – Lighthouses of Liverpool Bay, or your interest in Rake Lake Cemetery?

The lighthouses came first, about fifteen years ago. The Friends of Rake Lane Cemetery started about five years ago.

Thank you, John and Diane, for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope your answers will encourage many more Merseyside people to take an interest in our historic maritime past.

Lighthouses of Liverpool by John and Diane Robinson