Tuesday, 5 July 2011

William Hesketh Lever: The Napoleon of Soap

William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925)

a veritable Napoleon in his grasp of all factors dominating any problem to be tackled (1)

North West England Tour Part 3: The Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight on the Wirral.

A special place, visited many times since I was introduced to it by friends some 25 years ago; but this time, attempting to guide Albert Benhamou and in unequal competition with his satnav, we temporarily lost our way among the pleasant streets of Port Sunlight.

The Napoleon Collection

Lord Leverhulme had a life long passion for Napoleon which the Lady Lever Art Gallery would not wish to make too much of.

So in the sculpture gallery the busts of Napoleon, numerically in the ascendant, are intermingled with, among others, those of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott, Marie Antoinette and another hero of Lever's and of fellow Liberals of his generation, the Grand Old Man, William Ewart Gladstone.

Napoleon and Gladstone.

So to the Napoleon Room, now about half its original size, and rather crammed with furniture and other objects which are observed through an open doorway.

The Napoleonic association with most of these objects is unfortunately rather questionable. Some certainly came from Malmaison, and some were once owned by Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon's rather unlikeable uncle, but there is in all honesty little here to excite that kind of Napoleon enthusiast who would like to see, touch, smell and of course photograph things seen, touched, maybe smelt, although not photographed by the great man himself.

What to me at least is more interesting in this case is the subject rather than the object of the passion, if such it was.

Miniature portraits of Napoleon's family.

On the left of the doorway to the Napoleon Room,

overlooked on previous visits,

evidence I think of the depth of Lord Leverhulme's interest in Napoleon,

which is to some extent obscured by the artistic eclecticism on display in the gallery as a whole.

In the centre of the wall opposite is William Quiller Orchardson's St. Helena 1816 - Napoleon dictating to Count Las Cases the Account of his Campaigns. My earlier blog, Soap, Art and Napoleon: The Lady Lever Art Gallery contains a better image.

This painting is now flanked by portraits of Wellington and Nelson, the decision I suspect of some Museum director trying to achieve political balance.

The Napoleon Room also contains a little known painting by George Richmond, the nineteenth century portrait artist, of Napoleon reading his letter of abdication. This painting, overlooked unfortunately by Albert and I, used to be hung close to a bust of Lord Leverhulme himself, in Thornton Manor, his house on The Wirral.(2)

Outside the Napoleon Room, and apart from the busts there are other Napoleon objects, including two death masks.

Not enough here perhaps to excite the most devoted Napoleon enthusiasts, and I have to admit that my attachment to this gallery has more to do with its other collections: the nineteenth century art, the Wedgwood, and the Chinese collection in particular.

The model village which Lever created, with the Art Gallery at its centre, is itself worth a visit, as too is the Port Sunlight Museum opposite.

Thoughts on Lord Leverhulme and Napoleon

The appeal of this Napoleonic collection for me lies more in what it suggests to us about Lord Leverhulme, and about the enduring fascination of Napoleon for a section of English society throughout the nineteenth century and up to the First World war.

Significant I think is the presence of this fellow, whom I do not recall having noticed on previous visits:

Oliver Cromwell no less,

would not have been welcomed in the homes of many people, wealthy or otherwise,

and certainly not in staunch Tory or Anglican households. (3)

Nor I think in Catholic households, but that is another issue!

The missing piece in the jigsaw is almost certainly Lever's nonconformist roots: he came from a Congregationalist background.

In our secular age it is difficult, perhaps even for art historians, to appreciate that deep divide in English life, culture and politics between established church and nonconformity which endured well into the twentieth century.

The words attributed to Isaac Foot, staunch Methodist, famous West Country Liberal, and father of Michael Foot, perhaps best summed it up:

"I judge a man by one thing, which side would he have liked his ancestors to fight on at Marston Moor?".

I think I can guess how Lord Leverhulme, despite his ecumenical approach to religion, would have answered that question.

Those brought up in a culture in which Cromwell was a hero not a villain, who saw history in terms of a struggle for freedom against despotic monarchs, and contemporary politics as a struggle against Tory parson and squire, were inclined to have a more favourable view of Napoleon, who had created a society open to talents and protected the rights of property, than those on the other side, and a far more favourable view too than the emerging socialist left, to whom Napoleon was a counter revolutionary and a militarist and, like the Liberals themselves, on the wrong side of the class divide.

There was never any doubt where Lord Leverhulme stood politically: a loyal Liberal, elected reluctantly in 1906 to Parliament, a supporter of the creation of a state pension and of votes for women, although a suffragette burned down one of his houses, and concerned like Gadstone to find some solution to the Irish problem. His paternalism and imperialism, evident in his company's much criticised dealings with native labour in the Congo and his well meaning but disastrous attempts at social engineering after his purchase of the Isle of Lewis, were part of the same territory as his philanthropy and his concern to improve the lot of his workers, of which the village at Port Sunlight and the Lady Lever Art Gallery were shining examples. By any standards he was one of the most remarkable people to emerge in that short period when British industry and innovation still dominated the world.

Lord Leverhulme died of pneumonia in 1925, the same illness which in 1913 had struck down his wife, to whom the Art Gallery was a memorial. Sleeping and bathing in a room open to the elements could not have helped.

30,000 people are said to have attended his funeral.

The Company he founded lives on, bearing his and his wife's names, and the Leverhulme Trust still offers support for education and research. (4)
1. Attributed to Thomas Mawson, Landscape Architect who had worked for Lever, cited in Adam Macqueen, The King of Sunlight, How William Lever Cleaned Up the World (Corgi, 2004) pp 155-5.

2. "Lord Lever’s bust stood next to Napoleon reading his letter of abdication(1860, oil on canvas) by George Richmond, where the words ‘Napoleon/care sat on his faded cheek’ are hidden from view on the reverse of the stretcher.The bust of Elizabeth {Lever's wife] was next to Millais’ painting of another Napoleonic subject, The Black Brunswicker (1860, oil on canvas), a picture of fated love that stresses the private, domestic repercussions of war, where a woman clings to her lover, trying to prevent him leaving for the battle of Waterloo. Alison Yarrington, ‘Solvitur ambulando’: Lord Leverhulme, Sculpture, Collecting and Display

3. Alison Yarrington again, in her study of Lord Lever's collection which perhaps raises as many questions as it answers, points out that at one point in his Music Room there was a life size bust of Cromwell next to Lever's own bust, and close by was Ford Madox Brown’s St Ives A.D. 1630– Cromwell on his Farm. Yarrington op cit

4. Lever was raised to the peerage as Viscount Leverhulme in 1918. Hulme was his wife's name.


Unknown said...

I found your blog via My Napoleon Obsession, and I thought I'd just say thanks for excellent posts. I loved the video of St Helena - it's a longstanding goal of mine to go there some day.

All the best,

Hels said...

I know Port Sunlight quite well, and really enjoy the concept and reality of a planned town. In particular Lady Lever Gallery, which is super.

But I am not quite sure why Lever was passionate about Napoleon. Was the long dead French leader some sort of political hero, or military hero, or even artistic role model?

John Tyrrell said...

Hi Hels,

You don't half get around for someone who lives the other side of the world! Like you I love the Lady Lever Gallery, which is only an hour's drive from me, and as I have got to know more about him I have also come to admire Lord Lever, for all his faults.

I think these "why" questions are almost impossible to answer. Much of my blog has been given over to demonstrating the attraction which Napoleon had for many people in the UK, particularly in the century after his death. I have tried to situate Lever in the context of Liberalism and Nonconformity, but maybe that is still not sufficient explanation. I guess Lever was a bit like Napoleon: a man who rose from relatively humble beginnings with a propensity for benevolent dictatorship and an Enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of society! I would be surprised if it was as a military hero that Lever admired Napoleon, although that was undoubtedly the root of Churchill's admiration of him.