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The Lady Lever Art Gallery reopens after a stunning £2.8 million refurbishment

PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 April 2016

The newly refurbished Lady Lever Art Gallery. Photograph by Pete Carr

The newly refurbished Lady Lever Art Gallery. Photograph by Pete Carr

(c) Pete Carr - http://www.petecarr.net

As the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight reopens after renovation, Martin Pilkington considers Lord Leverhulme’s legacy and how he used fine art to market his soap products.

The Wedding Morning, 1892, John Henry Frederick Bacon ? Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Bought from the RA to use in Sunlight Soap adverts. Lever said it was ‘only a moderate picture, but very suitable for a soap advertisement’.The Wedding Morning, 1892, John Henry Frederick Bacon ? Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Bought from the RA to use in Sunlight Soap adverts. Lever said it was ‘only a moderate picture, but very suitable for a soap advertisement’.

The first Lord Leverhulme’s impressive legacy was his business empire, academic endowments, donations to the nation, and most enduringly his wonderful Port Sunlight village, built to house his workers.

The South End galleries at The Lady Lever Art Gallery there have just reopened after a stunning £2.8 million refurbishment to extend them to their double height, previously blocked by late-1960s suspended ceilings.

Gone is the chocolate brown paint and flat fluorescent lighting and extra natural light now floods the galleries and bounces off pale walls.

‘We wanted to get the spaces back to the original architectural intent. We knew buried beneath the 1960s work were fantastic spaces that William Hesketh Lever had a hand in designing,’ says Sandra Penketh, Director of Art Galleries at National Museums Liverpool: ‘We also wanted to display the collections fittingly, putting great pieces in elegant spaces.’

Bubbles, 1885-6, John Everett Millais. Reproduced by kind permission of  Unilever. Famously used for marketing purposes - he actually bought it with the Pears Soap company who already used it thus.Bubbles, 1885-6, John Everett Millais. Reproduced by kind permission of Unilever. Famously used for marketing purposes - he actually bought it with the Pears Soap company who already used it thus.

Lord Leverhulme, as he was when the gallery opened in 1922, used his astounding wealth to purchase eclectically: ‘He was probably the last great multi-disciplinary collector this country has had, other than the Royal Collection, in that he collected broadly - paintings, sculpture, ceramics...’ Sandra explains.

Nevertheless, there was logic to his acquisitions. He was fascinated by the craft skills of artists, and how art was presented to the observer: ‘He favoured highly designed, highly decorated things, and was incredibly interested in 18th-century country-house design, how art was presented in great houses of that period.’

He was also intrigued by the way outside influences, including Chinese art, impacted on British artists, hence the world-class collections of Chinese porcelain and of chinoiserie; and by the great moments in British artistic history reflected here for example in portraiture by 18th century greats like Reynolds.

There was a third element to Leverhulme’s collecting: ‘He said art can be an inspiration for everyone, “within reach of us all,”’ adds Sandra. He put art in reach of potential customers for their benefit and his own: ‘He started collecting seriously to promote his business - he collected scenes of washing or children, family scenes like weddings to help promote his product. And he was one of a group that included the Beechams who used fine art to popularise their new products - new types of soap for him, new medicines for the Beechams. They looked for ways to make them acceptable. Lever in particular really understood marketing and branding.’

The New Frock, 1889, William Powell Frith ? Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Much to the artist’s annoyance Lever used the picture in an advert captioned ‘So Clean.’
The New Frock, 1889, William Powell Frith ? Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Much to the artist’s annoyance Lever used the picture in an advert captioned ‘So Clean.’

So it’s likely many visitors to the refurbished gallery – their numbers expected to rise substantially thanks to the improvements – will recognise Millais’ Bubbles more for its lengthy use advertising Pears Soap than as a pre-Raphaelite masterpiece. Leverhulme used William Powell Frith’s The New Frock for another advert, much to the artist’s chagrin. Leverhulme won the argument – and it was Leverhulme who made the millions.

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