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Essays

Frank Partridge and William Hesketh Lever

Dr Yupin Chung, Department of History of Art, University of Glasgow

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A Narrow Escape

An old Chinese proverb says, 'Good luck comes after the survival of a terrible disaster.' This happened to Frank Partridge, 42, art dealer of 26 King Street, London and 741 Fifth Avenue, New York. On 1 May 1915 the Lusitania sailed out of New York and was torpedoed on the 7th by a German submarine U-20 off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland. The ship sank within 18 minutes. From 1,959 passengers and crew, Partridge was one of the 761 survivors.1| This dramatic scene was recorded in his memoirs, 'The return I expected to be a lonely journey, so it was with pleasure that I accepted the invitation of eight dealer friends I met in New York, who asked me to make up a party with them on the ship they were taking back to England. It seemed as if the voyage would be more entertaining than I had originally thought. I was wrong. The ship we had chosen was the Lusitania. I was the only member of our party rescued when the ship went down.'2|

The news report of Frank Partridge's narrow escape from the 'improbable event' described it as like a miracle and attracted Sir William Hesketh Lever's3| attention.

On 12 May 1915, five days after the tragedy, Partridge wrote to Lever: 'It is indeed kind of you and your letter cheered us up. While I thank God for having spared me my heart aches for those dear souls that have gone down.'4| One of those was Edgar Ezekiel Gorer (1872-1915), a renowned international dealer of Chinese art. Having survived the terrible disaster, Frank Partridge further stepped into the Chinese art market, took Gorer's leading role, and became a regular dealer of Chinese works of art to Sir William Lever.

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When young Partridge met the Soap King

Frank Partridge (1875-1953) was born in Hertford and grew up in a family of ten children, of which he was the ninth (Fig.1).5| His father Robert, a boot-maker with an excellent reputation for his craftsmanship, enlarged the small shop over the years and added departments for the sale and repair of ready-made shoes. He died when Frank was six. Frank's eldest brother, Robert, 21, kept the shoe business going, but after two busy years he decided to go to Australia to try his fortunes there. The eldest sister Emily decided to continue the business. Inspired by her customers' taste or her female intuition, she added an antique department next to the big front window where she displayed the boots and shoes. In a small glass case she kept a changing array of small antique china and jewellery pieces.

Fig 1. Frank Partridge as a young man. © Partridge Fine Art Ltd.

Frank was now about eight and, leaving his small private school, he might have been impressed by his sister's business idea. However in 1883 Frank's mother, Eliza, sent him to the London Orphans' Academy at Watford. Would the high expense of a private education pay off? He stayed for six years until he was 14 years old and later recalled: 'To me practice of knowledge is as essential as a knowledge of practice if a theory is to be understood and a job done well. To emphasise theoretical knowledge to the exclusion of practice, as they did at Watford, seemed to me to be useless. Something of each I thought to be required, a little theory and a lot of practice through which to thoroughly learn the theory.'6|

In 1889 Robert returned from Australia after six years. He had tried many jobs, but none had satisfied him as he had hoped they would. He met Doris Cohen who was the daughter of two London dealers and she introduced him to her family's shop where Robert learnt about antiques. Shortly after they were married, Robert and Doris took a small shop in Great Portland Street, where they quickly attracted attention through the fine quality of their goods. Doris understood the way the markets went much better than Robert did, because she had made contacts in the trade through her parents. Robert was serving a form of apprenticeship, first with the Cohen family, and then with his wife.

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Looking for a job with a 'knowledge of practice', Frank joined Robert around 1891-1892. In his memoirs he noted, 'I had to work hard with Robert. … From morning to night I was kept busy in the shop and in the store-room, brushing the shelves, fetching trays, carrying exhibits and lifting and shifting cases of china, which Doris had managed to buy cheaply at one of the sales.'7|

'One important aspect of antiques which I was fortunate enough to discover right at the beginning is that their genuineness can always be ascertained by he who has a real knowledge of the colours used on the originals, by the first craftsmen. It is a knowledge which can be acquired through personal experience, and not through theory; through one's own eyes and not by the books of others.'8|

After the youngest brother, Leonard, came to join Robert's business, Frank had some time to get out and see London and to experience himself as a 'young blooded dealer'. The most vivid memory he later described was going to the Caledonian 'Cattle Market'9| with his brother and trying to sell things there, but without financial success. In 1893 Frank was offered a job by an American dealer from Chicago who came one day to Robert's shop and asked him if he was interested in a new career. The Chicago of 1893 was a city of superlatives.10| It hosted the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, which was much bigger than London's Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, and even bigger than the 1889 Paris Exposition. Encouraged by Robert, Frank decided to go to Chicago to make his American dream come true and was happy to accept the conditions: ten dollars a week and free board.

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Unfortunately the dream soon turned into bitter reality. Frank didn't get paid as promised, and sadly he had to leave the shop, trying to survive in several jobs such as polishing furniture for an Italian and performing as 'England's Leading Comedian' for one night in a local theatre. He convinced a German antiques dealer of his skills and reliability by cleaning his horses and worked in his shop for a while, but when Frank's sister sent some money for the passage home he left America. Emily was waiting for him in Liverpool. 'I would not be seeking out a park bench to rest on, but that instead I would be going to sleep in the bed I had always known.' Young Frank Partridge started working again with Robert and Doris, but he had sworn one day to be a dealer himself.

Fig.2. Frank Partridge's first business card. It reads, "Frank Partridge, Dealer in Works of Art, 4 King Street, St James's, London, SW. Valuations Made. Collections Purchased.

Frank, who was now 19 years of age, met Minnie, who became his wife in 1894. They both worked for Robert and Doris until Leo, their eldest son, was about six. They decided to take the plunge and started their own business in 1900. Their premises consisted of a small shop in 4 King Street, St. James (Fig.2), an excellent area with Christie's auction house just a stone's throw away, but they had to put some of their own furniture in the shop to make it look full and impressive.

 

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Footnotes

  1. The Lusitania Resource

  2. GB Spencer, The Memoirs of the Late Frank Partridge, Essex, 1961, p. 34. Partridge's wife used to go with him to New York. Fortunately, she decided to stay in London and helped in welfare work. Partridge's family were waiting for him at home.

  3. William Hesketh Lever was created a baronet in 1911 and became Sir William Lever.

  4. Letter from Frank Partridge to William Hesketh Lever, 12 May, 1915, Partridge Papers, Lady Lever Art Gallery (LLAG) Archives, 17.4/A. Partridge 3959, hereafter cited as Partridge Papers. Five boxes are labelled: 17.4/A (1904-15), 17.4/B (1915-17), 17.4/C (1917-19), 17.4/D (1919-22) and 17.4/E (1922-26).

  5. According to published sources: The Times, Obituary, 11 August 1953, p.8 and 13 August 1953, p.8. GB Spencer, The Memoirs of the Late Frank Partridge, Essex, 1961. UK 1881 Census On-line. CARP

  6. GB Spencer, 1961, p.p.12-13.

  7. GB Spencer, 1961, p.19.

  8. G. B. Spencer, 1961, p.19.

  9. In the early 20th century, as the trade in live animals diminished, a bric-a-brac market developed which after the Second 10 World War transferred south of the river becoming the New Caledonian or Bermondsey Market. The markets finally closed in 1963.

  10. C. M. Rosenberg, America at the Fair: Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, p. 62.