Also in this section…?

Essays

Gorer v Lever: Edgar Gorer and William Hesketh Lever

Professor Nick Pearce, Department of History of Art, University of Glasgow

Page 1 | Page 2| | Page 3| | Page 4|

On the morning of 7th May, 1915, the New York Times carried the announcement of a lawsuit taken out in the U.S. Supreme Court by British art dealer Edgar Gorer against fellow art dealers Henry J. and Joseph J. Duveen of Duveen Brothers1|. Later that afternoon, American composer Charles Ives was waiting on the platform of Hanover Square train station in New York, when the crowd spontaneously broke into singing the gospel hymn The Sweet By and By. News had been received in America of the sinking of the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland by a German submarine just a few hours 4 |previously. 1201 men, women and children lost their lives in the catastrophe and the spontaneous hymn singing witnessed by Ives and captured in the powerful third movement of his Second Orchestral Set, was one of a series of personal and communal responses to the tragedy from all around the world2|. One of those who perished on the Lusitania was Edgar Gorer. Gorer had initiated the lawsuit against the Duveens before boarding the 1st May sailing to return to London. According to some, Gorer was at the time fighting to save his reputation as perhaps the most successful international dealer in Chinese works of art then in business and against a rival - the Duveen Brothers - whom Gorer, ironically, had sought to emulate. Edgar Gorer's career was a remarkable one, not least in its meteoric rise, its often colourful episodes and its fateful end.

Beginnings

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 Brighton3|. 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 Edgar's 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 'specialité 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 and sister.

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 Edgar's 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.

Back to the top|

Growing Success

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 £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 Edgar's 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 Edgar's 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 £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 beautiful objects'. 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.

Back to the top|

Gorer's skill in interior decoration, emulated that of the firm's 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 rejected. 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 Gorer's 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.

Back to the top|

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 £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 entrée 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.

Page 1 | Page 2| | Page 3| | Page 4|


Footnotes

  1. 'Rival Sues Duveens Asks for $575,000', New York Times, 7 May, 1915, p.1.

  2. Charles Ives, 'From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose', Orchestral Set No.2, 3rd movement (1919). Ives wrote: 'As I came on the platform, there was quite a crowd waiting for the trains, which had been blocked lower down, and while waiting there, a hand-organ, or hurdy-gurdy was playing in the street below. Some workmen sitting on the side of the tracks began to whistle the tune, and others began to sing or hum the refrain. A workman with a shovel over his shoulder came on the platform and joined in the chorus, and the next man, a Wall Street banker with white spats and a cane, joined in it, and finally it seemed to me that everybody was singing this tune, and they didn't seem to be singing in fun, but as a natural outlet for what their feelings had been going through all day long. There was a feeling of dignity all through this…the chorus sounded out as though every man in New York must be joining in it.' John Kirkpatrick (Ed.), Charles E. Ives Memos, London 1973, p.p.92-93.

  3. P.B. Medawar, 'Peter Alfred Gorer 1907-61', Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol.7, November 1961, p.p.95-109, p 95. For a discussion of early Jewish settlers in Brighton, see Geoffrey Alderman, Modern British Jewry, Oxford 1992, p.p.19-20.