Gorer v Lever: Edgar Gorer and William Hesketh Lever
Professor Nick Pearce, Department of History of Art, University of Glasgow
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Edgar Ezekiel Gorer (1872-1915), was the son of Solomon Lewis Gorer (1842-1907),
a one-time tobacconist, silversmith and jeweller. Although Solomon was born in Brighton,
Sussex, the Gorer family had both Dutch and Russian ancestry and were probably part
of an early wave of Jewish immigration in the late 18th and early 19th century,
many of whom settled in English ports and growing seaside resorts, such as Brighton.
By 1871, Solomon was living in Kensington High Street and working as a tobacconist,
but by 1886 he was listed as an 'electro plater, water gilder, working silver smith,
jeweller and gold and silver refiner', with premises at 113 Edgware Road, London.
The firm had expanded by 1889 to additional premises at 433 The Strand, which was
a 'fancy jeweller' whose speciality was 'artificial diamonds lustrous as brilliant'.
By 1895, the firm had located solely to The Strand and the following year
Solomon made a move to 59 New Bond Street, where he opened as a silversmith alongside
his son Edgar, who was listed as a dealer in 'oriental works of art'.
By the time of the final move of both Solomon and Edgar to 170 New Bond Street in
1899, the Indo-China Curio Trading Company, as Edgars side of the business had
become, was occupying both 58 and 59 New Bond Street. In 1900, the two
businesses became S. Gorer & Son, interior decorators providing specialist
oriental decoration and the 'Indo-China Curio Trading Company', the proprietor of
which was Edgar Gorer.
Fig. 1. Edgar Gorer as a young man with his mother, wife
Source: The University of Sussex Library, Special Collections
It is clear from this sequence of events that Edgar was the driving force behind
the establishment of S. Gorer & Son (also known as the Indo-China Curio Trading
Company), as both interior decorator and dealer in 'Oriental' works of art. By 1896,
Edgar was in his mid-20s and already displaying the flare and ambition that would
characterise his later career. In 1902, Edgar married Rachel Alice
Cohen (1873-1954) and the two moved to a large detached house at 45 Netherhall Gardens
in South Hampstead which would remain the family home for the rest of Edgars life.
Over the next few years, S. Gorer & Son maintained a steady, if unremarkable,
position as a 'Fine Art Dealer, Chinese & Japanese Works of Art a Speciality',
until about 1905, when there is a noticeable and systematic increase in activity
and profile. It is likely that Edgar had been steadily taking charge of the business
since his marriage. Solomon died in retirement in Eastbourne on 11th October, 1907.
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S. Gorer & Son began to make their mark from about 1905. It was in this year
that the firm was listed as making substantial purchases at the Huth Sale in May.
Louis Huth (1821-1905), was a merchant banker who collected Old Master
and modern paintings, furniture as well as Chinese porcelain and was a friend and
patron of James McNeill Whistler. On the first day of the Sale, art dealer Frank
Partridge made history by topping the bidding in acquiring the now famous cobalt
blue 'Hawthorn Jar' for Â£5,900 (Duveen was the under-bidder), but Gorer was successful
in bidding on the second day when he acquired a pair of powder-blue with famille
verte enamel dishes for 360 guineas. Porcelains of the Kangxi (1662-1722),
Yongzheng (1723-35) and Qianlong (1736-95), periods would dominate the market both
in Britain and America up until the First World War and this predominantly 'millionaire's
taste' was what dealers such as Gorer and Duveen promoted and supplied.
Fig. 2. A blue-and-white Chinese porcelain garniture of three jars and two beakers.
Kangxi period (LL 96-100). Example of a typical Kangxi piece.
By May the following year, Gorer had purchased the Trapnell Collection of Chinese
porcelain, which, as the advertisement announced, may be viewed 'on presentation
of a visiting card only'.This was one of Edgars innovations.
No longer was it necessary to make an appointment or pay a fee; this was an opportunity
for the lady or gentleman, perhaps new to collecting, to come and browse what promised
to be an extensive display. Edgar also published a catalogue of the Trapnell Collection,
the first of a series of lavishly illustrated sales catalogues he produced.
Like Duveen, he recognised the importance of these publications as both promotional
material but also as a way of producing a standard reference which collectors might
use as a benchmark against which they could measure their own collection and perhaps
add to it. S. N. Behrman recalled Mrs William Randolph Hearst as saying that her
husband and his friends had a fondness for catalogues: 'They were going after anything
that had a book to it'. Duveen recognised this, so did Edgar Gorer, who
would issue a string of similar publications between 1906 and 1914.
The 'positioning' of S. Gorer & Son had begun and continued with a lavish spread
in the April 1906 issue of The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, the leading
art journal in Britain.
Presented as a visit by an anonymous author to the Gorer premises at 170 New Bond
Street, it was in all likelihood, a piece prepared by Edgar himself, appearing as
it does as part of the front advertising matter of the Magazine before the articles
proper begin. This was again a part of Edgars new promotional strategy. In the
pages Gorer offered the collector the opportunity to buy top quality items with
very little effort. 'A firm such as Messrs. S. Gorer & Son in other words,
The Indo-China Curio Trading Company of 170 New Bond Street, London, W., who are
direct importers of every description of high-class Oriental works of art, serves
to effect an excellent purpose between the source of export and the buyer'.
The article continued: 'Messrs Gorer deal only in the finest examples of old and
modern curios and objects of art from China, Japan and India. There is no other
similar house in London which in any way approaches them either as regards their
immense stock or their scope of influence. The works of art are exhibited on three
splendid floors, and represent a probate value of Â£100,000'. There then follows
a brief history of ceramic making in both China and Japan and a list of the range
of wares on display, which included bronzes, lacquer, enamels and ivory.
Finally, there is mention of Gorer as cabinet makers and as interior decorators.
The firm will undertake to provide display cabinets in keeping with the objects
they sell: 'Messrs. Gorer are also high-class decorators: they not only execute
work in any style, but they make a speciality of using their great knowledge of
Oriental art in utilizing many of the schemes and suggestions taken from the most
Two watercolour illustrations are included as examples and show a style of display
that reflects an Aesthetic Movement Chinese Chippendale hybrid, popular before
the Great War.
Fig. 3. A Study. Watercolour of a proposed room design by Gorer. Illustrated in
the Burlington Magazine. April, 1906.
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Gorer's skill in interior decoration, emulated that of the firms greatest rival:
Duveen. Joel Joseph Duveen (1843-1908), the founder of the Duveen empire, had recognised
the importance of providing a complete service for his clients, setting off the
objects they sold to best advantage. As James Henry Duveen observed, although this
work was not greatly remunerative, it did reinforce Duveen's taste and that included
his taste in the works of art he sold. Edgar clearly recognised the importance
of this and while Duveen promoted the 'Dutch and Flemish Renaissance' styles that
included heavy panelling that suited the Old Master paintings they predominantly
sold, Gorer sought to engage with, as he saw it, a style more appropriate to the
objects he sold.
Gorer boasted many satisfied customers, which included the governments of Australia,
Southern Nigeria, the Gold Coast and the British government, 'on the occasion of
their exhibit at the great Glasgow Exhibition'. In the early years
Gorer promoted this aspect of their service on their letter-head where they were
described as 'Cabinet Maker & Decorator'.
The offer of a complete service was a gambit used on William Lever, when Gorer approached
him in 1909. This was not the first time that Gorer had approached Lever. In 1906,
Lever was offered a piece from the former Lelong Collection in Paris, which he firmly
Gorer maintained an infrequent correspondence thereafter, suggesting pieces and
sending a copy of J. F. Blacker's Chats on Oriental Porcelain, which had just been
published (and which Edgar reveals he has edited), all without success. Then in
1909 he tried another approach by suggesting the importance of display for any collector.
This letter provides the clearest description of Gorers interior decorating service:
'For some years past', he wrote, 'I have done a great deal of high-class decorative
and cabinet work for my various clients, but I have not made a prominent feature
of this as I originally started the workshops as a hobby and because I found it
was absolutely impossible to get effective show cabinets made properly in this country...
The work entrusted to me has increased so much that I have found it necessary to
fit up show-rooms on these premises, and I have engaged Mr. Albert Van der Velde,
who was for many years with Messrs. Hampton and Messrs. Roumy, to take charge of
this department'. He continues: 'Mr. Van der Velde is a most competent decorator,
having thorough knowledge of all the styles of the different periods, and for artistic
draperies and hangings he could not be equalled. I should be gratified if at any
time you may have any decorative or cabinet work if you will allow him to call upon
you with the object of taking particulars so as to submit designs and estimates
for what you may require done. I may say that in no instance will charges be made
for these drawings or estimates'. Later that year Gorer sent Lever
some samples of his work, a portfolio of illustrations, probably not dissimilar
to those reproduced in the Burlington Magazine article. Whether Gorer was
aware of Lever's passion for design and planning or not, this was a trump card to
play. More than the process of collecting itself, Lever seemed to obtain the greatest
pleasure from conceiving and achieving the perfect display, whatever the material.
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Although Lever made no immediate response to Gorer's letters, the seed was planted
and the following summer he purchased a blue & white beaker vase for Â£350.
This was from the Sir William Bennett Collection, a part of which Gorer had just
secured and which went on show during May and June of 1910. The exhibition was accompanied
by an illustrated catalogue written jointly by Edgar and his client (Fig.4).
Fig. 4. Supper set from the Sir William Bennett Collection.
Sir William Bennett (1852-1931), was an eminent London surgeon who had built up
a distinguished collection of predominantly Kangxi period ceramics and had been
a client of Duveen Brothers. The acquisition of such a collection
must have delighted Edgar, not least because it was to be the platform from which
he launched his entre into the American market. Gorer is said to have been instrumental
in taking the best of the Sir William Bennett collection to the U.S. where it formed
the nucleus of some of the finest American collections.
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