Thursday, 10 February 2011

Port Sunlight Enlightened

The existence of Port Sunlight poses questions about paternalism and philanthropy. Lever’s intention to house his workforce in clean and spacious surroundings with community facilities was amply realised for the minority who could be accommodated. What was more problematic was his plan to micro-manage their lives and promote self-sufficiency, thrift, sobriety together with an appetite for high culture and moral values. A free lending library, a college offering evening classes in modern languages, business studies, engineering and chemistry were provided for the cultivation of the intellect while a swimming pool, gymnasium and playing fields encouraged healthy pursuits. As a pragmatist Lever could afford to compromise on sobriety and the Bridge Inn served alcoholic drinks when it opened in 1900. There was no compromise on culture and the art gallery project was single-mindedly pursued for over a decade up to the opening ceremony in 1922. It has been pointed out elsewhere that the classical design of the museum building more closely resembles American galleries of the period than those closer to home. This would seem to follow from the fact that American museums often owed their existence to individual benefactors. This was much less common in Britain where benefactors on the scale of Lever were comparatively rare.

Whether the museum succeeded in creating a taste for visual culture in the local community is difficult to assess. While the museum was under development and construction (1913-1922) Lever began by setting aside items from his personal collection for future display but he also purchased artworks specifically for the museum, sometimes to supply greater chronological depth (ceramics and furniture) and sometimes because he guessed they would enjoy wider popularity (arms and armour) with the public. In 1900 Lever paid for 1,600 Port Sunlight employees to visit the Exposition Universelle in Paris where the dignity of their deportment and serious mindedness was reported in glowing terms by Le Figaro. Lever took the opportunity to do a little shopping on his own account and came away with the marble and bronze sculpture, Salambo, based upon Flaubert’s novel of the same name of 1862 that is now the centrepiece of the rotunda at the Lady Lever Art Gallery. This confirms Lever’s susceptibility to the charms of the unclothed female form when presented in smoothly contoured marble surfaces in the name of Fine Art. In an era of prudery, such a display of glacial eroticism would be certain to command public attention.

Other aspects of Lever’s collecting activities throw light on his business practice. The ethnographic collection, mainly African and South Pacific in origin came from the overseas trips that Lever made to the far flung corners of his world-wide commercial interests. Visits to the vast palm-oil plantations established in 1911 and company town (Leverville, formerly Lusanga) in what was the Belgian Congo were especially productive. The Masonic relics tell a different story. There was a cluster of Masonic Lodges at Port Sunlight for managers, supervisors and workers respectively, actively encouraged by Lever, himself a Mason since 1902, as an instrument for promoting hierarchies, respect for authority and high standards of personal conduct. Lever’s personal collection of Masonic regalia was greatly augmented by some shrewd acquisitions at bargain prices from a disgraced confidence trickster, Albert Calvert (1872-1946). Calvert needed funds to pay £10,000 in compensation to the sister of Russian Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, whom he had defrauded on a grand scale, which led to a forced dispersal of an unrivalled collection of relics.

As a collector, Lever had a weakness for the gigantic and his purchase in 1890 of Frederic Leighton’s huge painting, The Daphnephoria, (just visible on the far wall of the gallery photograph) left him with a problem. An attempt to display this grande machine on the walls of Hulme House (the dining hall for female employees) was unsuccessful – the vast looming presence of Leighton’s vision of classical festivities was not conducive to consumption and digestion of food. Determined to share the wonders of Leighton’s procession of comely youths and maidens with the widest possible audience motivated Lever to begin planning his own purpose-built gallery. It may be that Leighton’s remote and emotionally detached paintings were much to Lever’s taste or he may have pursued them for their fashionability but the Lady Lever is well supplied with examples. Lever also collected society portraits by the likes of Lawrence and Gainsborough, landscape paintings by Constable, Wilson and Turner and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, especially of the morally uplifting variety. Most of the figures inhabiting these paintings were clad in historic costume and thus removed from the audience’s daily experience. Only a few examples portrayed something approaching contemporary dress (Millais’s Apple Blossom or Gregory’s Boulter’s Lock). The single glowing exception to all the chaste imagery was to be found in the languid sensuality of Alma-Tadema’s Tepidarium, a reclining female nude whose modesty is scarcely protected by a strategically positioned ostrich feather that reads as an enlarged version of the pubic region it purports to conceal. A crowd-pleaser for certain.

Evidence of the impact of the museum on the inhabitants of Port Sunlight has not been found. It is plausible that for every local resident for whom it was a source of pride there would be a significant number for whom it was money wasted that would have been better employed by adding it to their wage packet. Despite the fact that Lever often offered conditions of employment far superior to his competitors the demands of the working day, not to mention compulsory cultivation of the allotment left little time or energy for cultural activity. As the decades passed the reputation of the Victorian art at the heart of the gallery rapidly declined and first hand experience of the hand crafted luxury items on display would have seemed very remote from the lives of local visitors. Since the 1960s when it appeared most notable as a monument to dubious taste and lunatic ambition it has risen steadily in public esteem in step with the general rehabilitation of Victoriana and now additionally benefits from the charm that distance lends to the view.

The War Memorial (1916-21) with its regiment of sculpted bronze figures by Goscombe John probably comes closest to uniting the tastes and concerns of the paternalistic provider and the surrounding community. Every community deserves visible expression of the respect due to relatives, colleagues, friends and neighbours whose lives have been lost in defence of the nation but few are favoured with such an ambitious but simultaneously intimate memorial as this one. Children and adults, servicemen and civilians, male and female, all play their sculptural part in the defence of the village and all are realistically portrayed without distortion or sentiment and therein lies the emotional authority. Of all the civic memorials and projects at Port Sunlight this one has the greatest integrity and authenticity.

Port Sunlight today is a conservation area managed by the Port Sunlight Village Trust in accordance with a 2007 Conservation and Management Plan (CMP). Home ownership is subject to restrictive covenants that, among other things require residents to observe specified colour schemes when repainting their property and follow detailed guidance when planting front gardens. Lime mortar must be used when re-pointing brickwork. A detailed survey in 2006 identified a variety of concerns about maintenance and the incremental disappearance of original features and the plan was put in place to address them. Two paragraphs from the CMP throw light on some of the social tensions arising from the evolution of the village from rental to owner occupation. Redrow Homes have recently built 12 houses (described as The New Heritage Collection) in a feeble approximation of “Port Sunlight Style” that look a lot more Redrow than Port Sunlight. The Trust has recently upset many residents with plans for an additional 12 family houses on vacant land on the former Gardeners’ Store at the south east corner of the village.

The Public Consultation Exercise revealed tensions between existing older residents and young people “invading” the Village from outside areas. It is noticeable that the Village has very few facilities for young people. There is no playground or space where they can congregate safely. At the public meeting the suggestion of providing more facilities for young people, including a playground, was very strongly resisted. The impression given was that young people should not be attracted into the Village and should be “encouraged to leave”. Many of the residents at the consultation event confessed to being “threatened” by the presence of young people in the Village.

If Port Sunlight is to avoid being classed as a “Retirement Village” then it must seek ways to incorporate new developments which cater for families with children and younger couples/single people. There should also be an element of more “affordable housing”, possibly using ‘shared equity’ models to encourage people into home ownership who would otherwise be unable to afford a property within the Village.

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