Vol. 27 No. 2 · 20 January 2005
In Port Sunlight

The art collection of a soap magnate

Peter Campbell

1188 words

Two signs point to Port Sunlight as you drive up the A41. The first (a blue one) sends you to the factory, the second (a brown one, indicating a cultural monument) sends you to the village and the art gallery. If all British manufacturing disappeared the map would still bear the name of a bar of soap.

It was not making the stuff but the idea of packaging it under the name ‘Sunlight’ that set the enterprise going. What had, up till then, been cut from a block by the grocer would be wrapped as cakes and sold as a branded product. A brand, at its simplest, combines a manufactured item and a name. The name can outlive the product. It can become generic, as ‘Hoover’ did, or it can establish meanings which no longer apply to the original (a Rolls-Royce is no longer, I’m told, the Rolls-Royce of cars). In Port Sunlight, art, advertising, commerce and philanthropy are intertwined.

Branding Sunlight Soap was the idea of William Hesketh Lever. He entered his father’s wholesale grocery business at the age of 16. The firm Lever Brothers was founded in 1885 when he was in his early thirties and, with his brother, bought a small soap works in Warrington. In 1887 they moved to a site at Bromborough Pool, a tidal creek on the River Mersey, beyond the jurisdiction of the Liverpool port authorities. There, on a greenfield site adjacent to a private wharf, they built a factory. Hard up against the gates William Lever created the model village of Port Sunlight. The village with its new housing and pubs and clubs was intended as a contribution to the well-being of employees. Indirectly and incidentally it advertised the product; its existence suggested a general benevolence, rather like that implied by ads which say your butter comes from happy cows.

The company no longer owns Port Sunlight – it was handed in 1999 to a Village Trust which oversees the affairs of the community – but it is still, in outward appearance, pretty much as it was in 1925 when Lever died. The wide streets and strips of unfenced lawn between footpaths and houses are well manicured. Although most of the 900 houses are now privately owned, the gabled terraces and substantial public buildings – some in brick, some half-timbered, some in stone – still have the slightly unreal homogeneity of a prewar Hollywood re-creation of an English village. In 1915 Lever wrote: ‘The picture of a cottage crowned with a thatched roof, and with clinging ivy and climbing roses and a small garden foreground suggesting old-fashioned perfume of flowers and a home in which dwell content and happiness appeals straight to the heart of each of us.’ In Port Sunlight, with the help of a number of architects (there is a terrace by the Liverpool architect Charles Reilly and a row of houses by Lutyens), he achieved that chocolate-box vision, although it is tempered by firm planning (broad streets not twisting lanes) and Arts and Crafts taste (no thatch, as it turns out, not much clinging ivy).

The architectural ideal is one to which the residents are still loyal. That most of them are at loggerheads with the Trust over the design of new housing planned for a site on the edge of the village proves it. The social ideal was less durable. The village no longer draws its life from the factory (the theatre doubled as a staff canteen); nor is there a Port Sunlight militia. From the outside at least, the houses look small, which sets Port Sunlight apart from middle-class speculative developments like Bedford Park and Hampstead Garden Suburb. The accommodation, like that in many ancient alms-houses, is mean by current standards – social reality has outpaced the products of benevolent industrial feudalism.

Lord Leverhulme called the Neoclassical gallery he built to house his extensive collections the Lady Lever Art Gallery in memory of his wife. It stands among Port Sunlight’s English-vernacular terraces like a grande dame at a village fête. What it contains, however, is a reminder of a time when popular taste and the taste of a rich collector could have much in common.

Soap, art and advertising made early if uneasy alliances. When Pears used Millais’s Bubbles in their advertising they added a cake of their soap in the foreground – an early example of the ‘product placement’ still forbidden on television. The exploitation of the picture brought Millais flak from the profession. Lever began buying pictures which could be used in advertising in the 1880s. Frith complained vigorously when his picture of a little girl holding up a dress, which he had called Vanity of Vanities, All Is Vanity, was renamed The New Frock and used to sell Sunlight Soap.

The professional instincts of a brilliant marketer of soap are more likely to colour his interest in art than those of, say, a steel tycoon. Lever had a sense of what people want, and our wants are rarely as practical as a bald description suggests. We want clean clothes, but within that simple desire lie images of crisp starching, of linen whiter than white. Advertising suggests imagined outcomes. Lever’s description of a rose-wreathed cottage stands to the housing he had built as the little girl in her white frock does to the daily wash.

So when one finds among the paintings in the gallery objects for luscious and indulgent imaginings of the kind now diverted into television, cinema and photography – glistening Etty nudes, unlikely Classical idylls from Alma-Tadema and Leighton, 17th-century French aristocrats in candle-lit classic-serial interiors by Orchardson – one has the sense of current indulgences prefigured. These pictures, all very considerable exercises in the craft of painting, are, for us, tainted by an unreality which can seem pernicious. A Constable sketch hanging nearby, and even Edward John Gregory’s jolly picture of boating on the Thames, Sargent’s picture of a boy by a river and Munnings’s Friesian Bull, all of which say more about the look of things and less about dream worlds, are not so embarrassing.

Lever’s collecting was not limited to such things. His taste for 18th-century portraits and English furniture in general matched that of tycoons on the other side of the Atlantic. The furniture is of the grandest and displayed in rooms lined with panelling and tapestries – dim, because things fade in bright light, but for that reason rather lugubrious. There are rooms of Wedgwood, including rather more Jasperware than any except experts will have need for, but also four very fine – and very pretty – enamels by Stubbs, painted on Wedgwood plaques.

Port Sunlight, both the village and the gallery, offers a portrait of its maker. It is unusual for so substantial an English collection to have no basis in aristocratic connections – even the Dulwich collection was gathered together for royalty. Neither does it (if one excepts the pictures bought for advertisements) reflect, as the Soane Museum does, a professional life. The final effect is of benevolent innocence and child-like acquisitiveness. I know of no other place where I feel such a snob and where snobbishness feels such a thin emotion.

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