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!


  1. How do I contact you?
    Val's brother

  2. Hi there. You can contact me at jcarmensmith(at) (change the (at) to @). Look forward to hearing from you.