a powerhouse of periods

Museums If you stand in front of the old main entrance to the Lady Lever Art Gallery, much of Port Sunlight behind you, its small, but well proportioned façade beckoning you forward, without the important tourist information giving the game away, you might wonder what lies within. A library perhaps, or a high quality bath house. In fact, within its stone walls, its founder William Hesketh Lever, the local soap magnet, collected together one of the most important art collections in our British isles, a powerhouse of periods that amazes those tourists who take the uncertain trip across from Liverpool.

Even if I hadn’t worked there briefly, indeed even if I hadn’t visited dozens of times before, I’m sure I would still be saying this.

In Public Art Collection In North-West England, Edward Morris dedicates six and half pages to the gallery in comparison to some of the others which share a similar footprint and only command a couple of sides. He has to. First of all there’s the history, of how Lever, having made his money from the success of Sunlight Soap became an art collector and philanthropist, amassing a large collection of art, initially as illustrations for his own advertising, slapping SUNLIGHT SOAP across the image of a washer-woman or whatever. After filled his various homes with Victorian and Italian art Lever commissioned his architects, William and Segar Owen to produce the building that now stands in the centre of the village he originally built for the workers from his factory in the late 1800s.

But Edward also has to deal with Lever’s impeccable taste. Many of the galleries I’ve visited would give their right wing and part of their café for something by many of the artists listed here. He mentions Frith, Leighton, Millais, Walker, Mason, von Hermomer, Burne-Jones, Holman-Hunt, Wilson, Reynolds, Romney, Stubbs. Ford, Goscombe John, Derwent Wood, Reynolds-Stephens, Pomeroy, Etty, Turner, De Witt but there’s also a Vigee-Le Brun, one of her best in fact, Lady Hamilton as a Baccante (clever Lever). When The Guardian’s political cartoonist Steve Bell drew ex-speaker Michael Martin on his hind legs in the middle of a barren landscape and apologised to Holman-Hunt, he was referencing Holman-Hunt’s The Scapegoat which usually hangs in the Lady Lever (unless its out on loan which it often is). There’s more splendour here than in the municipal art galleries or some major towns and cities.

So of course, with all of that in mind, another visit for the purposes of saying I’ve visited because I’m visiting all of the galleries listed in Edward’s book and so that I can write about it, there shouldn’t be much left for me to discover in the same way that I might discover at one of the out of the way places, even taking into account the rehangs and refreshes due to conservation and loans (no, The Scapegoat wasn’t there when I visited). I was wrong. What actually happened was that because I was paying a bit more attention, because I wanted to find something I hadn’t noticed before, all kinds of secrets were revealed, the kinds of secrets which only reveal themselves when you really are paying attention, in plain sight, but only noticeable if you know where to look. I still managed to fill pages and pages of my note book.

A typical example is in a room filled with Greek Pottery, there’s a woodland landscape by Joshua Reynolds, whose dark, forbidding forest is like a hundred childish nightmares inspired by the Brothers Grimm. Only the edges of the trees are visible against the black silhouettes of the trees, the only hope a pinpoint of light in the distance through which we can see blue sky and the road home. In the main hall, away from the luminous pre-Raphaelites, is a giant canvas by Hubery van Kerkomer, The Last Muster, in which an old solider has died during a chapel service and only one of the multitude of other Chelsea pensioners is aware of it. What gives the image such power is the scale of the painting, the mass of red tunics, the detail of the faces of these men betraying a life led, and the light which seeps in through the windows near the ceiling poignantly indicating twilight.

As I said, I have pages and pages of notes and I could regurgitate them all: my admiration for Philpots The Marchioness of Carisbrooke who judging by her clothing can afford the latest fashions but whose face suggests an empty life; how cleverly George Richmond has captured Napoleon reading his abdication letter just before being forced from office by coalition forces, still strong, still professional and business-like, perhaps sensing that his exile won’t last too long and he’ll be back in power within the year; at the bottom of a stairwell (unlabeled so I don’t know who the artist is) a cinematic image of Leonardo Di Vinci at court demonstrating a prototype for his new flying contraption to the rapt attention of some, derision of others, painting in such detail that you can almost see the fabric shifting within the space.

In the sculpture gallery which used to greet the visitor when they first entered the gallery. On one of the side walls, slightly unheralded, is a bronze figure of Psych sculpted by Francis Derwent Wood. This seems fairly innocent, well as innocent as a nude can be, until you spend time running your eyes up and down her torso and you realise just how erotically charged the piece is. In this realisation, Cupid’s consort is reaching up and lightly caressing the underside of her breast with her forefinger and she might well be standing up, but her face and body seen from below offer an impression of extreme orgasmic ecstasy. Only now do I realise that this is a theme running right the way through the collection; nearby Edmund Weber’s docile Hygeia is letting a snake drink from a dish, the kind of symbolism you don’t need to be a writer for the Erotic Review to decipher.

I’ll stop here. I think you get the idea.

The Lady Lever reminds me of the The Courtauld Institute of Art in London, another attraction and collection generally overlooked when people think of the galleries of the local area. Stepping in through the new entrance, just off to the side, through the new foyer and into the main gallery area which runs through the centre is to find yourself transported. This might not be some great Baroque cathedral or palace. It’s just unusual, even in these visits, to find a place which manages to cram so much great art into such a relatively small space.

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