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Gorer v Lever: Edgar Gorer and William Hesketh Lever - page 3

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Gorer v Lever

Part of Gorer's obvious agitation had been fed by a rumour, circulating at the time, that two figures representing the Buddhist deity Vajrapani in the Bennett collection, purporting to be Ming period, were in fact modern. These figures were promoted by Gorer as being the jewels in the Bennett collection, advertised in the Illustrated News article as being on a par artistically with the Venus de Milo (Fig.8).52 James Henry Duveen related that Gorer described them as 'The Malevolent Gods' because of the trouble they were causing him, and Duveen himself claimed that figures like these 'had come comparatively recently from the same kiln as that which supplied a similar figure bought by Bob Partridge at Maple's for a matter of £18.'53 It may have been J. H. Duveen who first spread the rumour as he was named by Gorer as someone who knew of Lever's purchase early on and who wrote to Lever claiming that his name was being maligned in connection with the leaking of Lever's name.54 Duveen may not have been the culprit, as another dealer, Thomas Larkin, wrote to Lever in very portentous terms in July, intimating that he wanted to speak to Lever privately as a long and trusted friend and they both arranged to meet at Lever's London home, The Hill, Hampstead later that week.55 We do not know what was said during the meeting but Gorer, who was to meet Lever the day following Larkin's visit, had been questioned about the authenticity of the figures and a pair of yellow vases and felt it necessary to follow up his verbal reply with a written one: 'The figures are undeniably of the Ming period, in original state, and as regards the porcelain of the very highest type. Further, that they are the greatest examples of Chinese ceramic art extant.'56 Lever obviously remained unconvinced as later in November he asked Gorer to offer duplicates for sale from the Bennett Collection and the 'two large Ming figures'. 57

Fig. 8. One of a pair of Vajrapani figures, supposedly described by Gorer as 'The Malevolent Gods'.

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These 'Malevolent Gods' would dog Gorer over the next few years, but in the short-term, he had more immediate problems with which to contend. On 6th January 1912, Lever and his wife, Elizabeth, embarked upon a visit to South Africa. Lever Brothers had already invested in new works at Congella, near Durban and were now expanding with a new factory at Salt River, Cape Town.58 Lever, or rather Elizabeth, was to open it. On the voyage over, Lever had plenty of time to consider things, not least his huge expenditure the Bennett Collection.59 On 20th January, from on board the RMS Armadale Castle, Lever wrote to Gorer that 'after the fullest consideration', he would not be purchasing the Bennett Collection. This was a bombshell for Gorer, who wrote back pointing out to Lever that this was a pre-emptive decision as the fourth instalment had not yet been made as per the Agreement.60 Lever responded by explaining that his letter was intended to be the earliest intimation that he was going to exercise his right after the fourth instalment to be relieved of the Collection. 61 In quick succession, Lever made his third and fourth instalments, the fourth instalment being accompanied by an instruction to sell the whole of the Collection. 62

On 8th July, 1912, Gorer initiated legal proceedings against Lever: 'Having regard to your specific statements that you had not purchased the Collection you have as our Client has pointed out in the course of his correspondence with you, so seriously prejudiced his position as to forfeit the right to call upon him to sell the Collection and he has instructed us to institute proceedings.'63 The Counsel engaged were two legal heavyweights: F. E. Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) acting for Lever and Sir Edward Carson, who had made his reputation in the notorious Oscar Wilde case in 1895, for Gorer. However, at the eleventh hour on 19th April, 1913, Edgar Gorer withdrew his action, although custody of the Collection prior to its re-sale was a matter for the courts to decide and Mr. Justice Darling found in Gorer's favour.64 It was at this moment that, through his solicitors, Lever requested that he be allowed to select a portion of the collection for retention, which Gorer agreed to.65 Fifty-one items were retained by Lever, the value of which amounted to the £55,000 Lever had already paid in instalments. Gorer shipped most of the remaining part of the Bennett Collection off to America, where he was building a steady reputation. This final episode in Gorer's career will be discussed below.

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'Sheer Cleverness and Courage'

The Bennett Collection debacle virtually ended Lever's relationship with Gorer. There were the occasional exchanges of letters prompted ostensibly by opportunities to purchase, when, for example, in March 1914, Gorer wrote to ask whether Lever was interested in reselling the black vase with dragon from the Bennett Collection which John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was keen to acquire. With some satisfaction he boasted to Lever that 'I sold the entire collection of my Black porcelains to Mr Rockefeller'.66 Lever declined to sell. Early the following year, Gorer again made a tentative enquiry as to whether Lever would be interested in acquiring the Morgan Collection.67 Lever was not.

The extraordinary events surrounding the Bennett Collection provide some interesting pointers to Gorer's character and his relationship with his clients. As already discussed, Gorer was ambitious and talented. He had, as James Henry Duveen observed, 'forced himself into a leading position amongst London art dealers by sheer cleverness and courage', but he was often rash.68 According to Duveen, Gorer had admitted as much: '“One of the greatest factors in my success”, he once told me, “has been courage in buying and selling. I have always admired your late uncle, Sir Joseph Duveen; I take him as my pattern”'.69 Gorer's emulation of Sir Joseph Duveen may also have had its roots in both men's origins - they were Jewish. In Edwardian Britain and in America, being a Jew placed you in an ambiguous position, made all the more so by a significant Jewish representation in a growing plutocracy which was supplanting the traditional landed aristocracy. The internationalisation of business and opportunities for real talent brought many Jewish businessmen to the fore. King Edward VII's biographer, T. H. S. Escott was typical when he observed that the Social control of London was divided 'between the Semite and the Yankee', but he was quick to acknowledge that this brought advantages: 'such humanising elements that leaven London today largely come from the Jewish element… Say what you will, the Jews are the salt of smart Society' and without their patronage 'English art and music could scarcely live in the English capital…' 70 Other comments were less generous, particularly when the King was seen to be surrounding himself with powerful Jewish businessmen. Lord Balcarres, from an old Scottish family, noted that 'at Aldershot they called out “King of the Jews”… there is much dormant anti-semitism…' 71

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The tightrope that both Gorer and the Duveens had to walk was that they needed to appeal to both old and new money and to steer themselves through a gamut of prejudices that ran through British society in it widest sense. They represented both rising talent and business and they also served it, feeding off and encouraging its growing excess. H. G. Wells caught the mood of the period perfectly in his commentary upon the fall of traditional English Society, Tono-Bungay, 'We became part of what is nowadays quite an important element in the confusion of our world, that multitude of economically ascendant people who are learning how to spend money. It is made up of financial people, the owners of the businesses that are eating up their competitors, inventors of new sources of wealth such as ourselves; it includes nearly all America as one sees it on the European stage. It is a various multitude having only this in common; they are all moving, and particularly their womenkind are moving, from conditions in which means were insistently finite, things were few and customs simple, towards a limitless expenditure and the sphere of attraction of Bond Street, Fifth Avenue, and Paris. Their general effect is one of progressive revelation, of limitless rope.' 72

As Meryle Secrest has written of Sir Joseph Duveen's son, Joseph Joel (later Lord Duveen of Millbank), he did not pretend he was not a Jew. 'His father had transcended his origins and social handicaps and been accepted in the highest circles, and so would he'.73 She also notes that although he had been married in a synagogue, there was no evidence that he was observant.74 Gorer mirrored Duveen as much in his life as he did in his career. Edgar was actually born Ezekiel Edgar, but seems to have inverted the order certainly by the time he entered business and the original name of the firm S. Gorer & Son, soon became simply Gorer as the business became more successful. Again, although Edgar was married at Hampstead Synagogue in 1902, there is no evidence that he was practicing. His wife, Rachel Alice Cohen, known as Rée, had trained at the Slade School of Art as a sculptor and was a close friend of, and correspondent with, the writer and poet Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), as were her sons, Geoffrey, Peter and Richard.75 This long-standing relationship with Edith Sitwell provides a good example of how well the Gorer's had assimilated into upper-class English life, as does the education of their sons, two of whom attended Charterhouse, the third, Westminster and all of whom went on to Cambridge and distinguished careers. 76

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In business Gorer's emulation of Duveen can be seen in the way in which he attempted to manipulate the market - in his case for Chinese works of art and porcelain in particular. His promotion of the Bennett Collection is a case in point, but he attempted to replicate the effect with other collections, notably that of George R. Davies (Fig.9), which he acquired in 1913 and which was accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue and the Henry Sampson collection, consisting of 943 pieces of predominantly Qing porcelain and 'considered to be the finest private collection' in America, which he purchased in January 1914 for an estimated £220,000.77 He also made newsworthy purchases at Christie's in June 1914, paying 4,800 guineas for a famille noire beaker vase, the highest price ever paid for such a piece in England and 4,400 guineas for another beaker with yellow ground. 78

Fig.9. Pair of Gourd-shaped vases decorated in underglaze cobalt blue, from the George R. Davies Collection.

This continued his advocacy of brilliant and eye-caching Qing porcelains, which he had attempted to boost a few years earlier with the publication of his (and James F. Blacker's) Chinese Porcelain and Hard Stones, produced by antiquarian booksellers Bernard Quaritch in a finely illustrated two-volume edition.79 Obviously intended to be the last-word on the subject, the book was nevertheless heavily criticised by R. L. Hobson of the British Museum, who damned the text as being 'hardly worthy of the brilliant objects which it describes' and criticised the authors, with some academic hauteur, for being optimistic in their attributions and using such meaningless terms as 'Ming Period', which 'though prevalent in auction catalogues and trade descriptions, their appearance in any serious work is to be deprecated'.80 Gorer bridled at such criticism and replied somewhat aggressively to Hobson, who nevertheless stood his ground. 81

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  1. 'Masterpieces of Chinese Ceramic Art', p.770.

  2. James Henry Duveen, Secrets of an Art Dealer, London, 1937, p.261. Duveen provides a full, if sometimes inaccurate, account of the Lever-Gorer affair, see p.p.263-68. He also claimed that the figures had originally been acquired by his cousin, probably Henry, who, once he realised they were doubtful, had sold them quickly 'as speculative goods', p.p.265-66.

  3. Gorer to Lever, 6 September, 1911; Jack Duveen to Lever, 26 October, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  4. Thomas Larkin to Lever, 17 July, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  5. Gorer to Lever, 24 July, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  6. Lever to Gorer, 13 November, 1911, Gorer Papers.

  7. See William Hulme Lever, Viscount Leverhulme By His Son, London, 1927, p.p.151-52.

  8. Lever to Gorer, 20 January, 1912, Gorer Papers.

  9. Gorer to Lever, 16 February, 1912, Gorer Papers.

  10. Lever to Gorer, 27 February, 1912, Gorer Papers.

  11. The third instalment was made on 4 April, the fourth on 4 July, 1912.

  12. Harris, Chetham & Cohen, Solicitors, to Lever, 8 July, 1912, Gorer Papers.

  13. 'Law Reports, May 23: Summary of the Day's Cases' The Times, 23 May, 1913 p.37 and 'The King's Bench Division: The Richard Bennett Collection, Gorer v Lever', The Times, 24 May, 1913, p.37.

  14. Simpson North Harley & Co., to Gorer, 24 May, 1913; Gorer agreed on 3 June, Gorer Papers.

  15. Gorer to Lever, 14 March, 1914, Gorer Papers.

  16. Gorer to Lever, 12 January, 1915, Gorer Papers. The American financier, John Pierpont Morgan died in 1913 and his son, John, wanted to sell his father's Chinese porcelain collection to pay New York State inheritance tax. Henry Duveen, not Gorer, eventually acquired the collection and sold it piecemeal to J.D. Rockefeller, Henry Clay Frick and P.A.B. Widener. See Gerald Reitlinger, The Economics of Taste, Vol.2, London, 1963, p.p.213-14.

  17. Duveen, Secrets, p.260.

  18. Duveen, Secrets, p.261.

  19. T.H.S. Escott, King Edward and His Court, London, 1903, p.224-5, quoted in J. Mordaunt Crook, The Rise of the Nouveau Riches, London, 1999, p.155.

  20. Quoted in Mordaunt Crook, The Rise, p.156.

  21. H.G. Wells, Tono-Bungay, London, 1909 (reprinted 1964), p.212.

  22. Meryle Secrest, Duveen: A Life in Art, Chicago, 2004, p.350.

  23. Secrest, Duveen, p.151.

  24. See Victoria Glendinning, Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions, Oxford, 1981.

  25. Geoffrey Gorer (1905-85) was a writer and social anthropologist, Peter (1907-61), an immunologist and Richard (1913-94), a horticulturalist.

  26. George Reynolds Davies (1844-1918), was a Cheshire cotton merchant. Henry Sampson (1838-1914), was President of Alden Sampson & Sons, oilcloth manufacturers in New York. See 'Sale of a Porcelain Collection (From Our Correspondent)', The Times, 17 January, 1914, p.7 and 'Art Notes. Sampson Collection of Chinese Porcelains to be Shown Here', New York Times, 16 January, 1914, p.8.

  27. 'High Prices for Porcelain - 4,800 guineas for a Chinese Beaker', The Times, 18 June, 1914, p.10.

  28. Edgar Gorer & J.F. Blacker, Chinese Porcelain and Hard Stones, 2 volumes, London, 1911.

  29. 'Reviews and Notices', The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol.20, No.105, December, 1911, p.p.177-79.

  30. Reviews and Notices', The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol.20, No.107, February, 1912, p.p.290-93.