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The Hope Collection – the legacy of a great collector

In July 1917 William Hesketh Lever purchased a group of antique and Neo-classical statues, Greek vases and Egyptian antiquities from a sale at Christie’s.  For Lever, the sale was the first real opportunity he had during his time as a collector to purchase a group of outstanding ancient art. He knew that the works would add considerably to his planned displays for the Lady Lever Art Gallery, which at the time was still under development, helping to explain the influence of ancient art on the development of British style.   Even more significant was the provenance of this group; they had all belonged to Thomas Hope (1769-1831) one of the great British collectors and champion of refined, classical taste in Regency England.

Thomas Hope was born into a family of wealthy bankers who were of Scottish origin but who had settled in Amsterdam. The bank, Hope and Company, was founded by Thomas’s grandfather. Hope was extremely well educated and from his later teenage years furthered his experience by travelling extensively throughout Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. He lived for a year in Constantinople and spent lengthy periods in Italy, Greece, Sicily, Syria and Egypt. His existing knowledge of art and history - his family were already notable art collectors - was encouraged to flourish during these journeys. He soaked up the atmosphere of the ancient cities and landscapes, fuelling his love of the classical. As a result he became an avid collector and patron of things ancient and classical. He purchased antiquities; he patronised contemporary sculptors including Flaxman, Thorvaldsen and Canova who worked in a Neo-classical style; and remodelled and furnished his homes to reflect his taste.

In 1795, concerned at the prospect of an invasion by Napoleon’s advancing armies, the Hope family left their home in Amsterdam and moved to London.  Once in London, Hope started to collect antiquities seriously, perhaps influenced by the English fashion for sculpture collections. He travelled to Rome with his brothers Henry Philip and Adrian Elias, to purchase works from Roman collections and from the newly excavated ancient sites. Restorer-dealers were important go-betweens in such deals. The acquisition of the imposing figure of Antinous (now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery’s collection) in 1796 by the Hope brothers, is a good example of a purchase from this period. The figure was most likely to have been found during excavations at Roman Vecchia in about 1794, but it was restored and cleaned by a dealer and sold under the auspices of a discovery from the highly regarded ‘Hadrian’s Villa’.

Once settled in London, Hope purchased in 1799 a grand mansion house at Duchess Street, just off Portland Place. The house had been built by the fashionable architect Robert Adam in 1768. Hope immediately set about remodelling it to fit in with his taste and to provide a suitable setting for his growing collections. The redevelopment took five years. In tandem, Hope continued to acquire artworks. 

In this house he created rooms to show off his sculpture, Greek vases, Egyptian antiquities and other art works. These ‘display’ rooms, which could be walked through as a continuous set of galleries, were grouped together on the first floor of the residence. Each room was decorated in a manner sympathetic to the art works.  Sculpture, for example, was shown in the predominantly yellow ‘Statue Room’ where, “ ….the walls were left perfectly plain, in order that the background against which are placed the statues, might offer no inferior ornaments or breaks, capable of interfering, through their outline with the contour or more important works of art….”.  A number of the sculptures now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery were displayed in this area.

Adjacent to the Statue Room was the Picture Gallery, which was fitted out in a Greek architectural style with details borrowed from different buildings in Athens. The overall look of the room was very much like a temple. Peculiarly, given the title of the space, the paintings on the walls were hidden behind curtains.   The 'Archaistic Statue of a Maiden' and the 'Lotus Vase' from The Lady Lever Art Gallery were displayed here.

An Egyptian Room painted in pale yellow, blue-green, black and gold was decorated with a large frieze of figures from Egyptian papyrus rolls and a ceiling with criss-cross decoration. The materials used in the room were highly exotic and associated with Egyptian monuments: granite, porphyry and basalt. Amongst the antiquities displayed here were at least two of the four canopic jars eventually purchased by Lever from the Hope sale. 

Perhaps the most unusual room in Hope’s mansion was the ‘Star’ or ‘Flaxman Room’. This space was dedicated to the display of John Flaxman’s sculptural group of Aurora and Cephalus, one of the most beautiful sculptures now in the Gallery’s collection, which was purchased by Hope in the early 1790s. For Hope the room was meant to suggest the moment at which the goddess of morning announces the approaching day. The glamorous aesthetic of this room included azure, black and orange satin curtains draped over mirrors edged with black velvet.  

Three further rooms displayed Hope’s collection of over 1,500 Greek vases, many acquired from Sir William Hamilton in 1801. A group of these makes up part the Lady Lever Art Gallery’s Greek vase collection.

Hope opened his house to visitors from 1804 and it became a popular destination for the Regency social and intellectual elite. The layouts of the rooms and the details of their decorative motifs were also made more widely available through Hope’s influential book 'Household Furniture and Interior Decoration' published in 1807.  Hope continued to work on the display of his collections and interiors at his country house the Deepdene near Dorking Surrey. Indeed a proportion of his collection was moved there in 1824. It was from here that the Hope pieces now on display in the Lady Lever Art Gallery were retrieved in 1917 after the family’s fortune had waned and the contents of the house were sold. For Lever, it provided the opportunity to purchase a small proportion of Hope’s huge collection, but a proportion that reflected the very best of Hope’s taste.