Exhibition Review: Port Sunlight

It is a truism to say that art and commerce are closely related: under capitalism, artists have to earn enough to live, commercial galleries have to survive, and other galleries often need to attract sponsorship from companies. Rarely, though, is the relationship quite as close as that involving William Lever (1851–1925).

Lever was the son of a wholesale grocer, and he expanded the family business by having soap manufactured in pre-wrapped bars. Then he set up the firm of Lever Brothers, which made the soap itself, initially in Warrington but then at a larger purpose-built factory on the Wirral. He used the brand name Sunlight, and the area where the factory was situated was termed Port Sunlight. As his company expanded, both in Britain and overseas, employing 85,000 workers at its height, he became immensely rich.

His initial interest in art was to buy paintings that could be copied and have the word ‘Sunlight’ and an advertising slogan added, so that they could be used as posters. One of the best-known was based on the painting ‘The New Frock’ by William Powell Frith (who objected to the use of his art for commercial purposes). Later Lever acquired a taste for collecting, and built up a substantial collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, textiles and porcelain. Much of this can be seen at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, which opened in 1922. There are many portraits, such as one of Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante, and a number of works by Pre-Raphaelites such as Rossetti and Burne-Jones (both associates of William Morris).

Many of Lever’s workers were housed in the specially-built Port Sunlight village. A few minutes’ walk from the art gallery are the Port Sunlight Museum and a worker’s cottage. It is often described as ‘an original garden village’, but it was run in a very authoritarian way: for instance, all the houses had gardens but tenants were not allowed to keep chickens in them, and there were strict rules on taking in lodgers. Houses were rented from Lever Brothers, and losing your job meant losing your home. The ideas behind the village were not just philanthropic, as Lever believed that children who lived in a slum would grow up to be ‘a danger and terror to the State’.

Lever Brothers became part of the giant Unilever company in 1930, and from 1979 houses in Port Sunlight were sold when they became vacant, as Lever’s paternalistic approach to housing his employees had long been unfashionable. The village now looks like a rather anachronistic settlement, though both art gallery and museum are well worth visiting.