Frank Partridge and William Hesketh Lever - page 2
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Fig.3. Portrait of William Hesketh Lever (1897), by Samuel Luke Fildes (1843-1927). Mr. William Lever is shown as a prosperous and confident business man. (LL 3114)
Two days after the opening, the first customer to open the door was William Lever, later Lord Leverhulme (1851-1925). (Fig. 3) He started the conversation by asking, 'What is the price?'
Partridge: 'It is X.'
Mr. Lever: 'It is very reasonable! I haven't seen you before. You must be new here.'
Partridge: 'You don't remember seeing us when you were in my brother's shop - 19 St. James Street? We have just opened two days ago but are risking everything. We have the knowledge, experience and understanding required to make a success of antique dealing, but not the cash.'
Mr. Lever: 'You must continue. Work hard.'
Partridge: 'Would you like to be my sleeping partner?'
Mr. Lever: 'I will let you know tomorrow morning.'
The next morning, Lever came back at the promised time. As a forthright man, he came straight to the point: 'I will not become your sleeping partner. If I join you, it would discredit you with your other customers. Once they discover that I am behind you they would assume I was taking the first choice of all you have, and so lose interest in coming to you.'
Fig.4. A view of Frank Partridge's shop in 26 King Street taken on 14 Feb.1928. © Partridge Fine Art Ltd.
He then added: 'A customer likes to imagine he is exploring virgin ground. Take away this belief and his interest is half gone. However, I will look after you as much as I can without taking up the position of a sleeping partner.' Frank Partridge expressed his gratitude for Lever's financial assistance. Mr. Lever continued: 'What can you get for me?'
Partridge: 'There will be a large sale tomorrow. I wanted to attend but have reluctantly decided not to do so because of my shortage of capital.'
Lever put his hand on his shoulder and said, 'Go ahead and buy'.
Partridge attended the sale and bought goods to the sum of £1,500, upon which Mr. Lever commented: 'I liked it so much I bought the lot' and recommended the new shop to his friends.
Partridge learnt a lesson from this man who, in his 40s, was worth millions, but who had started as a grocer's assistant with nothing in his pocket. As a result of the success and expansion of the new business, Partridge was eventually able to move to 26 King Street in 1912 (Fig.4 and Fig.5).
Fig.5. Interior of the 26 King Street shop. This view was taken in the 1920s. © Partridge Fine Art Ltd.
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Mr. Negotiator for Lever: 'the collection that collected itself'
The growth of Partridge's confidence was based on purchasing at auctions on behalf of customers such as Lever, as well as having a fine selection of antiques in his shop. His talent in negotiating with other collectors for Lever was shown in 1910. A letter from Partridge to Lever on 14 February records his expanding trade after he had returned from America, where he opened up business premises at 741 Fifth Avenue, New York. He wrote, 'I have a Client who wishes to get him some Black Chinese porcelain and if you have any that you are willing to dispose of I can get you good prices.' The following day Lever wryly replied, '… I should not be willing to dispose of my black Chinese vases except at such extreme prices as I feel confident would make you unwilling to entertain the purchase.' Partridge thought that he was smart enough to negotiate, 'I have been up to see your Black Vases and I shall be much obliged if you will let me know your lowest price for the 5.' Lever showed his position as a serious collector of Chinese porcelain and wrote, '… I am not anxious to sell the Vases. It is not possible for me to put them on offer'. He suggested, 'If, however, you like to make an offer you are at liberty to do so. I may say, however, that there are six Black Vases you evidently did not see the Large Oviform Vase of Red Hawthorn (Fig.6: LL 6731) in the China Corridor.'
Fig 6. Large oviform vase of red hawthorn (LL6731)
Partridge created a reputation for Lever of being a celebrity collector of Chinese Art. For example, Lever's popular view of China was expressed in The Connoisseur, 1910, and highly praised by a female journalist Willoughby Hodgson. Partridge's strategy was to inveigle traders to spend their profits on amassing private hoards of treasures. It is interesting to speculate whether Lever was aware of Partridge's ability for negotiating between top collectors or not; for it is likely that Lever did not let Partridge sell his Chinese porcelain of famille noire to American collectors. There might have been other reasons, however: Lever may have been more impressed by Edgar Gorer's performance in the American market.
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In 1911, a letter reports a second attempt to deal in famille noire porcelain with Lever. Partridge wrote, 'I have just purchased a very fine Black Chinese Vase 21.5 inches height, which I should very much like to show you if you can spare the time to call'. Lever rejected Partridge's proposal, 'I am not adding to my collection of China at present.' Six months later Partridge again proposed another piece of china to Lever, 'I have just purchased a very fine plain white Ming Figure of Buddha. … I would like to hear if this is of interest to you.' Lever rejected it straight away, 'I am not a Buyer.' In fact at that time Lever was already involved in a 'liaison dangereuse' with Edgar Gorer and Richard Bennett.
Fig 7. Kangxi oviform jar (LL6750)
At length the first important Chinese porcelain piece was purchased by Partridge for Lever in June 1914 for his estate at Port Sunlight: a Kangxi (1662-1722) oviform jar and cover, decorated with a formal floral design in green on a yellow ground, (Fig.7: LL 6750) for the price of £220.
This sale was definitely important for their business relationship; Lever gave up his unintentional aloofness towards Partridge and even sincerely invited Mr. and Mrs. Partridge to dine with him.