About the artwork
There are several portraits of William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925) in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. This one by Augustus John is the most unusual and intriguing of them all. Although Lever commissioned John to paint the picture and must have been familiar with the artist’s style he was dissatisfied with the end result.
In fact, Lever was so unhappy with the finished work that he hid ‘the face’ from public view. His treatment of the picture and John’s response set-up a heated conversation in the press about the rights of the artist in contrast to the rights of the owner. The whole episode reveals much about the artist and patron relationship.
Lever decided to commission another portrait in 1920. There may have been several reasons why the time seemed right for this. Lever was now a man of nearly 70 years of age who had built up a highly successful, worldwide company, Lever Brothers. He may have sought to record his position at this time in his life. He was also in the process of building the Lady Lever Art Gallery and may have planned to secure a more up-to-date portrait for its displays. Whatever the reason Lever decided on Augustus John (1878-1961) to do the painting.
Augustus John was the leading society portrait artist of the inter-war years. Born in Tenby the son of a solicitor (not a gypsy as John sometimes claimed) he trained in Wales and then from 1894 until 1898 at the Slade School of Art in London. After a relatively quiet start as an art student he became the star pupil of the teacher Henry Tonks and produced highly accomplished drawings. He started to exhibit regularly at the New English Art Club and elsewhere.
At the age of 23 John came to Liverpool to work as an art instructor at the art school affiliated to the University College, known affectionately as the ‘Art Sheds’. The job had been secured for John by D.S. MacColl artist, writer and supporter of Philip Wilson Steer. John was only in Liverpool for eighteen months, January 1901-July 1902, but it was during this time that he first embarked on large scale, official portraiture with pictures of Chaloner Dowdall, later Lord Mayor of Liverpool, and his wife. By the end of the First World War, John was well-known as a painter of celebrities. His flamboyant and charismatic character coupled with his energetic painting technique appealed to many.
Why did Lever select John? In many ways he might have seemed too expressive and modern for Lever’s rather traditional taste. However, Lever would have been well aware of John’s reputation and indeed may have met him during his time in Liverpool. Lever may also have been influenced by the recommendation of his friend and political ally Lloyd George. Augustus John had painted George in 1916 in aid of Red Cross Funds.
To secure the commission Lever used his friend A. Wilson Barrett, editor of the magazine 'Colour'. Lever wrote to him on 25 June 1920 asking Barrett to arrange for a three-quarters length portrait of himself by John. The arrangements were complete by 29 June and the portrait by 1 September. Writing to Barrett about the finished work Lever described it as ‘humbling to the pride’, and a ‘ chastening thought’.
On 7 September Lever wrote to John asking that the portrait be sent directly to his Lancashire house, The Bungalow at Rivington. As Lever’s son describes it wasn’t,
‘ …. in his mind to hang it there, for the reason that he reserved the walls of The Bungalow almost exclusively for tapestries, needleworks, etchings, engravings and old prints. He had the picture sent there because he was not pleased with it….’.
Lever, disconcerted and perhaps humiliated by the work decided to hide it away from public view in his safe. When he realised that the painting would not fit the safe due to internal compartments he acted on impulse and cut the head away from the rest of the picture and placed it in the safe.
The remainder of the picture was left in its packing-case. When Lever had left The Bungalow, his housekeeper found the packing-case and seeing it marked-up returnable had the case nailed-up and sent to the artist.
The portrait obviously wounded Lever. Its informal style and boldness, coupled with the honest depiction of an aging man may have been too raw for Lever. But perhaps more shocking for Lever was that the sitter appears not confident and bold but reflective and sad.The sitter was not the young successful businessman as depicted in Luke Fildes earlier portrait study but someone who had been affected by time and experience.
1920 was also an unsettling year for Lever. Lever Brothers had purchased the African Niger Company at an inflated price and coupled with falling share prices generally the company was under extreme financial pressure. At the age of seventy having built a successful company Lever, at a time when he might have thought to take things easier, was forced to work hard again to secure its future.
We can only imagine Augustus John’s reaction on opening the packing-case to find half of the portrait. He wrote to Lever demanding an explanation and threatening the widest publicity. Lever replied with a friendly, conciliatory letter but not giving a real explanation for his treatment of the artwork.
In fact, he asked John to keep the whole matter quiet. John felt strongly that the owner of a painting didn’t have the right to damage it in such a purposeful and blatant manner. There was the whole issue of the integrity of the work and the rights of artists to express their vision and creativity.
John gave the story to the 'Daily Express' where it first appeared on 8 October then more fully on 15 October. The story was hotly debated in the national and international press and art students in London and Florence demonstrated in support of John. John was appalled at the strength of reaction and fled to the coast.
There was a widespread expectation that John would invoke radical change for artists by fighting a court case to establish the rights of the artist. John couldn’t bear the thought of a Whistler/Ruskin type court case and let the whole matter fall into abeyance.
His humour got the better of him though and he exhibited the remaining section of the portrait with the title ‘Lord Leverhulme’s Watchchain’. In 1954 the two sections of the painting were joined together again. You can see the join line quite distinctly on the painting today.
As for Lever, he must have been uncharacteristically glad to hear of industrial unrest when the miners’ strike of 1920 shifted his name from the front pages of the papers.