Only a short blog entry today, but there’ll be another one along soon. Not content until we’re awash with culture, off we go to yet another Art Gallery our second in less than a week. Two art gallery visits in a week sounds rather more impressive than the wider context of two Art Gallery visits this year.
Our very good friend Sheila accompanied us. She claims to be extremely cultured and her wisdom is legendary.
The Lady Lever Art Gallery is delightfully situated in one of the most beautiful villages we have ever visited and we have been back here many times. The Gallery and Port Sunlight Village were both founded on soap.
William Hesketh Lever was born in Bolton and started out working in the family grocery business. One of the products they sold was soap, which, at that time, was poor quality stuff that was cut off a large block in the shop. He hit on the idea of selling a pre-packaged, good quality product. Initially he had it manufactured for him but as demand grew in 1888 he set up Lever Brothers with his brother James to produce the soap themselves in a new factory on the Wirral.
The village was built alongside the soap factory to house his workforce and the name Port Sunlight came from the main product, Sunlight soap, the foundation of the Lever Brothers’ business.
Please indulge the subsequent lavish encomium, but I really love visiting here.
Lever was influenced by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, who looked back to a golden age of “Merrie England” where happy peasants lived and worked in a “green and pleasant land”. Lever’s stated aims were ‘to socialise and Christianise business relations and get back to that close family brotherhood that existed in the good old days of hand labour’ and build a rural environment with green spaces and allotments where his workers would be able to grow their own food.
This alliance of what would later be called Socialist ideals with hard headed business acumen was not uncommon at the time – George Cadbury’s Bourneville village comes to mind – but William Lever was a forerunner of Prince Charles being passionately interested in architecture. Hence Port Sunlight is a mixture of many different styles of buildings with over 30 architects given licence to design their own versions of ‘vernacular’ English style.
Over time a war memorial and the Lady Lever art gallery, opened in 1922, were built, adding to the splendour.
At the time of our visit the village now contains over 900 houses - over 2,000 lucky people live here - all set amidst a flower bedecked expanse of open landscaping. This was probably the first purpose built garden village and on a sunny day like today it looks gorgeous.
Over 300,000 visitors come every year to marvel as we did. We decided to enter the Art Gallery by the side entrance rather than climb the steps. This route took us through the café and the gift shop, thus catering for both my favourite and least favourite areas of any public building.
The reason behind our visit was the Rembrandt in Print exhibition of 50 outstanding prints from the Ashmolean Museum, displayed together for the first time to mark 350 years since his Rembrandt's death in 1669. I have been to the Ashmolean in Oxford a few years ago, but don’t recall Rembrandt’s work being displayed on that occasion.
Better late than never, here it was in Port Sunlight.
We know Rembrandt’s reputation as the greatest painter of the Dutch Golden Age, but he was one of the most innovative and experimental printmakers of the 17th century. It was fascinating to view these prints at close quarters, especially as magnifying glasses were made available to view the fine detail.
Rembrandt’s epigones are legion, but having seen the works of the Master Artist at close quarters I realise their efforts are light years removed from his genius.
When I returned my borrowed magnifying glass I asked one of the museum staff what I thought to be a very intelligent question. Not related to Rembrandt at all, strangely enough, but merely an enquiry concerning the whereabouts of the Adam Room having read in the Museum Guide about the best collection of Wedgwood jasperware anywhere in the world.
‘Just go out there, turn left, left again, go straight on and it’s the third room on the left’ she said, or something very like it.
I followed the instructions exactly and emerged on the far side of the room I had recently vacated.
Marigold was busily pointing out the finer points of a nude sculpture of Antinous, a young man immortalised in marble for being the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. I got the impression my two companions were lowering the cultural tone by remarking on the manner in which the sculptor had economised in the use of marble in certain areas!
A woman out of my sight behind another statue said, very clearly, ‘You can’t miss her, she’s wearing a commode.’
Kimono? Possibly. A camisole perhaps? But, she said ‘commode’ very clearly.
I sometimes fear for my sanity as I do seem to concern myself unduly with overheard snippets taken wildly out of context.
The museum guide passed by and asked if I had enjoyed the Adam Room. I was reluctant to confess my failure to find it, fearing another barrage of go left, right, then left instructions, but she offered to escort me. There are times when looking slightly vague is helpful.
‘Pity my confrère isn’t in today,’ she said as we walked left, then right, then left again, ‘she is a real Adam expert.’
My confrère! You don’t get to hear that in the check out queue in Lidl. I doubt you’d hear it in Waitrose actually.
Culture done for the day we drove around for a bit admiring the houses. Sadly, the original raison d'être of Port Sunlight’s existence, housing employees skilled at making soap, is no more. The factory remains, but soap is no longer made here.
My friend Peter was one of the very last soap makers. His final months at work were spent training his replacements in a factory in Prague. Nowadays actual bars of soap are rarely found in our supermarkets as people are switching to shower gels, moisturisers, liquid soaps and body washes.
The first Lord Leverhulme, William Hesketh Lever, conceived the idea of manufacturing sweet-smelling soap at the end of the 19th century after seeing the repulsive offerings available in his father's store in Bolton.
He called his first product Sunlight, the advertising slogan being: ‘Why does a woman look old sooner than a man? Answer: Because she doesn't use Sunlight.’
Personally I think his advertising agency weren’t up to much.
Lifebuoy was added to the production line in 1894 and Lux in 1929. All gone now but the ‘soap factory ‘ at Port Sunlight is still going strong. Port Sunlight has been the centre for the industry’s Research and Development programme for over 100 years.
Think of brands like Dove, Sunsilk, Domestos, Comfort, Surf and Signal; they all have Port Sunlight technology inside. I know you’re all wondering where polymer deposition technology, used in 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner was invented.
Yes, of course it was at Port Sunlight.
My mate Peter knew everything there was to know about making soap, his life’s work, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to transfer his skills on site. Port Sunlight today employs a multi-national community of over 750 scientists who have 200 PhDs between them.
If you’re thinking of a science based career, give Unilever a call.