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Gorer v Lever: Edgar Gorer and William Hesketh Lever - page 2

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The Richard Bennett Affair

The collection of another Bennett, this time Richard, would be Gorer’s next major acquisition, but one fraught with difficulty, not least as regards his relationship with William Lever. In a letter of 19th May, 1911, Gorer invited Lever to view privately the Richard Bennett collection of Chinese porcelain he had just acquired. 32 He followed up with a further letter of 6th June, in which he made it clear that this collection should not be confused with that of Sir William Bennett, for fine as this may have been, ’is entirely eclipsed by the present one, and it is admitted by such competent authorities as Mr. Claude Phillips, Mr. Roger Fry, and other art critics to excel even the great Salting collection (Fig.5).’33 The Richard Bennett collection was celebrated at the time as being ’classic in style’ and benefitting, it was claimed, from many pieces that had been directly imported from China.34 Bennett himself was owner of a chemical and bleaching manufacturing company in Great Lever, near Bolton in Lancashire, but was in the process of retiring to Thornby Hall in Northamptonshire at the time he sold his collection.35 Lever called upon Gorer un-announced the day following Gorer’s letter, at a time when Queen Mary was also viewing the collection and Edgar was unable to see him personally. One of Lever’s unmarried sisters (Emily or Alice), also visited on 8th June and gave Edgar the opportunity to encourage Lever to make a second visit: ’I suggested to her that I would be very grateful if, on the occasion of your next visit, you could give me an hour’s notice by telephone. My object in asking this is that I should like to have nobody in the galleries but yourself and any friends you may wish to bring with you, so that I could show you freely and comfortably the beautiful things.’ 36 As added bait he sent Lever a copy of the Illustrated London News, which carried a report of the collection and the latest Burlington Magazine, which contained a review of the collection by Roger Fry.37 Sometime in June, Lever decided to purchase the collection complete, although as will be explained, not outright.

Fig. 5. Ginger jar with cover RB No.1 (LL 72). Piece from the Richard Bennett collection catalogue.

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In the meantime, that June William Lever was raised to a baronetcy in King George V’s Coronation Honours list and was now Sir William.38 Whether Lever’s new social status influenced his decision to purchase the Bennett collection complete, will probably never be known for certain. However, Queen Mary’s obvious interest may have been instrumental. The Queen was an avid collector of Chinese works of art and her presence at the Gorer galleries to see the Bennett exhibition did not go unnoticed by Lever. Not only did he arrive on the day the Queen was viewing the collection, but it was a topic in Lever’s subsequent exchange of letters with Gorer. ’You are quite right, Her Majesty has quite a knowledge of Chinese porcelain, and discussed very fully with me the merits of many of the pieces. I think it not unlikely she will come again.’39 Queen Mary obviously expressed her concern over the dispersal of the collection and even its migration abroad, as Gorer wrote, what would be a controversial letter, to the Queen immediately after Lever’s purchase of the Bennett collection stating that it would be on permanent public view at Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight: ’Mr. Edgar Gorer feels that he may inform Her Majesty of this fact in view of the interest Her Majesty expressed when inspecting the Collection, and it will be perhaps a great gratification to know that this marvellous assemblage of art remains in our Country’.40 Such a loss was a distinct possibility as expressed in the Burlington Magazine article: ’Thus what was probably the last great private collection of early Chinese porcelain in England is doomed to dispersal or exile in America’. 41 Whether purely a promotional strategy on Gorer’s part, or a genuine attempt to preserve the collection intact and in England, or a combination of both, it worked and Lever commenced plans to have the collection installed at Hulme Hall, a community building situated at the heart of Port Sunlight, the village Lever had built for his workers (Fig.6).42

Fig. 6. Hulme Hall - this view was taken in 1902

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Lever’s purchase of the Bennett Collection for a phenomenal sum of ’275,000, was by no means straightforward and would eventually lead both Lever and Gorer to the brink of a court case. The contract between Lever and Gorer was a curious one and was what Lever himself described as an ’Option Purchase Agreement’, whereby he paid Gorer in twenty monthly instalments of ’13,750, free of interest over five years, after the fourth instalment of which he would be given the option to return the collection to Gorer. The price included the delivery and installation ’...of the entire Collection by the end of August next [1911], supplying the necessary show Cabinets, in Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight.’43 Lever explained in a letter to Richard Bennett that this expedient was necessary for a number of reasons, not least his inability to pay the full purchase price immediately because of his business commitments in Africa and also because he wished to examine the porcelain carefully and put his own valuation upon it, something he had not hitherto had the opportunity to do. Gorer, he said, had won his confidence because of the confidence that Gorer in turn had shown in both the quality of the porcelain and its value. 44

Both Lever and Gorer entered into the installation and display of the collection with some gusto over the next few months. By 7th July, Gorer had received plans of Hulme Hall from Lever’s architect and was concerned to receive correct information as regards the space available: ’My desire is for this collection of yours to be displayed in the best possible manner, both for educational purposes and for the most advantageous way of showing these beautiful objects’’ Lever’s reply illustrates clearly his engagement with the whole process: ’I have marked the gallery in which I propose to place the collection of China with red ink crosses in each corner. It is the main gallery in the Hulme Hall. The walls are covered with Eighteenth Century pictures, and round the side there are pieces of English Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, cabinets and commodes and various specimens of Chinese porcelain, blue and white, and powdered blue. You will note that the gallery measures approximately 45 feet wide by 95 feet long. It is top lighted, as you will remember.’45 Later in July he sent Gorer fresh plans he had prepared which showed the position of a pillar not originally included and the layout with additional cases and again at the beginning of September he was concerned over the safety of one of the shelf fixings and case design.46 Lever’s enthusiasm and eye for detail recall the origins of Port Sunlight, where sketches executed in red and black ink on foolscap survive of his original conception of the site and its potential, to be finished by his architect William Owen (Fig.7).47 Lever had always been good at drawing and had, at one time, aspired to be an architect.

Fig. 7. A China display in Gorer cabinets.

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The installation of the Bennett collection in Hulme Hall took place during September. However Lever was already concerned about press speculation relating to his purchase of the Collection. A letter from Lever to Gorer on 14th July recorded his initial concerns over a leak to the press. This was followed by a letter from Gorer of 6th September informing Lever that Duveen of Liverpool had learnt of his purchase. Throughout October there were further leaks. On 5th October, Lever was forced to issue a denial of ownership to the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury, claiming the collection was on loan and he was not the lender. Later that month, Lever’s acquaintance and fellow collector, James Orrock (1829-1913), met Gorer. Although Gorer later denied that he had disclosed Lever’s name to Orrock, Lever had received information from one of Orrock’s friends, the artist Sir James Linton (1840-1916), that gave him suspicions: ’I do not know what passed in conversation between yourself and Mr James Orrock, but I do not think that Mr Orrock has any secrets which he keeps from Sir James Linton.’.48 A begging letter that Lever had received from a Mr H. Harvey Robins of Bath on the 5th October, questioning the morality of expending such a huge sum on porcelain, did not help matters either.

All the while, Gorer was himself becoming agitated. Amid the speculation, he was keen for Lever to acknowledge ownership. Such a move would not only make it difficult for Lever to invoke the option to return the collection after the fourth instalment, but it would, as Gorer saw it, confirm the collection’s quality and significance. As he wrote to Lever: ’To be quite frank, the difficulty as far as I am concerned could only arise in the event of your availing yourself at the end of the year of your option to return the collection for me to re-sell. In this event, and with matters left as they now stand, I know I should find very great difficulty in doing business with it’.49 Lever remained adamant that he would not change his position, ’or modify in any way the agreement’, inflaming Gorer’s agitation, which only became worse when Lever criticised him for revealing the sale to the Queen so peremptorily, literally on the day following the signing of the agreement.50 Gorer pointed out that he had copied the letter to Lever and that he had agreed to inform the Queen, which Lever was quick to deny: ’I cannot agree with you that I had consented to your immediately informing the Queen at the time of our interview, which took place within a few minutes of the signing of the Agreement’.51 A veiled threat of legal action by Gorer was modified and the two men eventually met and came to terms towards the end of October and there the matter rested. Gorer was about to leave for America and Lever for South Africa.

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  1. Edgar Gorer to William Lever, 19 May, 1911, Gorer Papers. Gorer succeeded received a number of distinguished guests at the Private View on 24 May, including the Duchess of Northumberland, Lords Balcarres, Basing, Boston and Kitchener, the Countess of Harewood, the Chinese Minister and the Spanish and Russian Ambassadors, ’Court Circular’, The Times, 25 May, 1911, p.13.

  2. Edgar Gorer to William Lever, 6 June, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  3. W.G. Gulland, Chinese Porcelain, Vol.2, London, 1902, Preface, p.xxxi.

  4. See Richard Bennett entry on CARP. Despite their closeness geographically, it is not known whether Lever was acquainted with Bennett as a businessman before this date. A few years earlier Bennett had formed a collection or rare books which he sold through Sotheby’s and acquired by J.Pierpont Morgan.

  5. Edgar Gorer to William Lever, 8 June, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  6. ’Masterpieces of Chinese Ceramic Art’, Illustrated London News, 27 May, 1911, p.p.770 and 792; Roger Fry, ’Richard Bennett Collection of Chinese Porcelain’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol.19, No.99, June, 1911, p.p.132-37.

  7. 20 June, 1911.

  8. Edgar Gorer to William Lever, 10 June, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  9. Edgar Gorer to Her Majesty the Queen, 7 July, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  10. ’Masterpieces of Chinese Ceramic Art’, p.770. According to the article, the proceeds from the exhibition were to be donated to the National Art Collection Fund.

  11. Hulme Hall was completed in 1901 as a canteen for his female staff, but by 1910 had become a precursor of the Lady Lever Art Gallery. See Edward Hubbard and Michael Shippobottom, A Guide to Port Sunlight Village, Liverpool, 1988 (rev.ed., 2005), p 46; Edmund Williams, Port Sunlight: The First Hundred Years, 1888-1988, Lever Brothers Ltd, 1988, p.50.

  12. Letter of Agreement, 6 July 1911, Gorer Papers, LLAG Archives. For a full discussion see also Oliver Impey, ’Lever as a Collector of Chinese Porcelain’, Journal of the History of Collections, Vol.4, No.2, 1992, p.p.234-235. A further letter from Gorer to Lever of 13 July, 1911, also reveals that he had paid Bennett an initial ’75,000 for the collection and that it was Bennett who agreed to the deferral payment scheme for the balance. Image from: 'Yesterday's Wirral: Port Sunlight A Pictorial History 1888 to 1953', by Ian Boumphrey and Gavin Hunter. First Published 2002, Reprinted 2009. p. 39.

  13. Lever to Richard Bennett, 27 October, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  14. Lever to Gorer, 10 July, 1911, Gorer Papers. It is clear from Gorer’s reply on 13 July, that Lever was closely involved, even to the approval of the design of the display cases. The ’Gorer cases’ as they became known, are still in use at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

  15. Lever to Gorer, 26 July, 5 and 9 September, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  16. Adam Macqueen, The King of Sunlight: How William Lever Cleaned up the World, London, 2004, p.60. See also Williams, Port Sunlight, p.9.

  17. Lever to Gorer, 9 October, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  18. Gorer to Lever, 7 October, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  19. Lever to Gorer, 11 October, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  20. Gorer to Lever, 12 October and Lever to Gorer, 13 October, 1911, Gorer Papers.