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William Lever’s collecting of Famille Noire porcelain - page 3

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William Lever's purchase of Famille Noire porcelains

At first sight, William Lever's collection of Famille Noire porcelain is no more unusual than any other collections of this ware, since a lot of comparable pieces can be found in several contemporary British collections; however, it is an interesting facet of Lever's accumulation of this particular ware that it commenced at a slightly later stage than that of his fellow British collectors. Around the turn of the past century, the collections most renowned for Famille Noire in Britain were the Gow, Davies, Franks, Salting and Trapnell collections, most of whom produced representative catalogues.

The pieces in the Salting collection were acquired mainly between the 1870s and 1890s, and were displayed in the South Kensington Museum, later to become the Victoria and Albert Museum, from the 1880s onwards. The collection from George R. Davies was first illustrated in 1882,15 Alfred Trapnell produced his catalogue in 190116 and the collection of the scholar and Keeper of Antiquities in the British Museum, Augustus Wollaston Franks was published early in 1876.17 The Leonard Gow collection, which was also comparably rich to the Lever collection in the Famille Noire type, was compiled as a catalogue only in 1931, which corresponds more accurately to Lever's time of collecting.18 Apart from Franks and Salting, who were a scholar and an eccentric collector and connoisseur respectively, the other three men were successful businessmen, George R. Davies being a merchant of cotton goods, Alfred Trapnell owned a metal smelting business, and Leonard Gow was a shipping magnate and Glasgow businessman.19

It is claimed in the existing literature that Lever enjoyed buying from well-known collectors,20 and the reason for building his own collection of Famille Noire might have resulted from the fact that he had studied the catalogues and pieces from the collections of Davies, Gow and the like. That these fellow collectors were successful entrepreneurs like Lever himself, could have spurred such an interest further. It can also be assumed that William Lever had seen the magnificent display of the Salting collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum at some point, which might have set off his curiosity towards Famille Noire and given him an incentive to buy those black wares himself.

His first documented purchase of a Famille Noire vase is acknowledged for the year 1907, significantly late in comparison to the other collectors; Lever started collecting Chinese porcelain only from 1894 onwards, at a time when most major collections of Famille Noire in Britain were already well-established.21 Most of his significant purchases in Chinese porcelain were made from 1913 onwards, when a general drop in prices was occurring, of which he could take advantage.22 Lever seemed to have been initially cautious in accumulating black wares, when it is revealed in a letter to a certain Mr. Fox '…but as I am unable to see the China it is not possible to avail myself of it in this case owing to the fact that Black Ground Porcelain is difficult to decide upon without personal inspection…'23 Nonetheless he eventually acquired 26 pieces altogether, the bulk of which was purchased 'wholesale', together with the majority of the Chinese collection of Mr. Richard Bennett in 1911.

It was mentioned by the dealer James Henry Duveen that William Lever, or Lord Leverhulme, was an extremely clever and cool-headed businessman, and that he bought expensive things to get publicity. However Duveen himself contradicted this assumption in revealing that to his personal knowledge Lever passionately loved beauty of form and colour. He was said to have made mistakes in purchases after having realised that some dealers were making great profits out of him, for that reason he had to rely on his own judgement which often resulted in the purchase of doubtful objects.24

If Lever relied on entirely on his own judgement when purchasing Famille Noire we do not know. It is however an unwritten fact that the dealers he was predominantly buying black vases from, Edgar Gorer and Frank Partridge influenced and advised him extensively on general purchases and especially in Frank Partridge's case it seems that he knew what type of ware Lever wished to complement his collection with.

At the time when Lever collected the majority of his black ground porcelains he had become much more systematic towards collecting as well as in recording the provenance of his pieces, which resulted in detailed inventories and files on his accounts and correspondence with dealers. 25

When returning to his first documented object bought in 1907, we discover the tendency towards aesthetically pleasing objects.

This vase is a typical example to be found in many collections with a wide range of Famille Noire porcelains, such as the Salting and Franks collections, or the Frick collection in New York. It is one of those pieces that can be with most certainty be categorised as not being of the Kangxi period. First of all, the shape, called a yen yen, although originally Kangxi, lacks the substance of a Kangxi piece and the balance between upper and lower body is not convincingly carried out. In comparison to documented pieces of the period, the whole decoration is far too crowded and the rocks look unnaturally flat.

Fig. 2 Trumpet-Shaped Famille Noire Yen Yen vase with prunus blossom, rocks, trees and birds, LL 6130, © National Museums Liverpool

On the whole, the image does not evoke the idea of being alive and the composition misses the elegant flow of authentic Kangxi. Colour is another aspect to bear in mind when investigating the authenticity of Famille Noire: the black ground on later Famille Noire items is usually very glossy and thick such as in this case, and differs from the originals in that respect. Many further pieces in the collection reveal similar features.

In terms of further purchases of Famille Noire, and of other items of porcelain, Lever bought the majority of pieces from the Richard Bennett collection wholesale. Bennett (born 1849) was also a Merseyside businessman, managing a company for bleach and chemicals called John Smith Jun. & Co. in Little Lever near Bolton, also known as the Great Lever Bleach works, in production from 1836 to 1961. Bennett was an interesting character in that he tended to dispose of his collections once he had completed them. Amongst those were a collection of manuscripts and fine violins.26 Richard Bennett is a rather mysterious character, as no details on his motives for buying Chinese porcelain and selling it again are known.

The art dealer Edgar Gorer (1872-1915) bought the Bennett collection of porcelain and produced a catalogue with splendid pictures in order to attract a buyer.27 He found a suitable client in William Lever who agreed to buy the collection in instalments. During this business transaction, several misconceptions and misunderstandings between buyer and seller occurred that even led to a lawsuit, leaving Lever to buy only a portion of the Bennett collection, retaining about 51 pieces.28 The transactions of the sale were finally completed in 1913, and Lever was said to have spent the sum of £ 275.000 on it. (This was the original total - Lever only spent a fraction of this in the end.) The pieces from the Bennett collection also included ten of the Famille Noire pieces that are now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Deriving from this purchase, most unusual in comparison to other collections of Famille Noire is probably the following object:

Fig. 3 Saucer-shaped Famille Noire dish with five-clawed dragons in the centre, LL31, © National Museums Liverpool

This saucer-shaped dish with an everted rim bears the central composition of five-clawed dragons, chasing a pearl in clouds and flames. The decoration of the rim is reminiscent of the pieces seen before, as it displays blossoming flowers. The black ground on this piece is not as lustrous as in the already shown examples, but what strikes about this dish is the colour green which is presented in various shades.

The green does not correspond to the well-known hue of the original Famille Verte type as it is much more washed out and translucent. This one factor does not necessarily mean that the object is not originally Kangxi, however it seems to be one of very few examples of a large scale dish produced in the Famille Noire palette, which somehow singles it out, and enhances its uniqueness in terms of its authenticity. Roger Fry commented on the beauty of this plate comparing its matte quality to a Greek vase. Balance and rhythm of the design would show impeccable taste, and Fry further remarked that the plate was said to have belonged to the emperor Kangxi himself. From where Fry obtained that information we unfortunately do not know. 29

In his catalogue to the Bennett collection, Gorer also categorised the piece as Kangxi and he remarked on its extraordinary size, being the largest dish of Famille Noire known at the time.30 The dish furthermore bears a Chenghua mark, which is not an uncommon feature of many black ground pieces and it was suggested by Jenyns that the potters tried to say 'This vase is so good that it might have been the production of the Hsüan Tê or Ch'êng Hua.'31 For certain, these marks led to many misconceptions amongst dealers, and Gorer often made the mistake in believing that he dealt with an original Ming piece, apparently unaware of the fact that pieces of such composition were not being produced during the Ming period.


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  1. Catalogue of a collection of Chinese porcelain lent for exhibition to The Liverpool Arts Club by George R. Davies, Esq., compiled by Charles T. Gatty, London 1882; compare also Gorer Edgar and Davies George R., Collection of Old Chinese porcelains formed by George R. Davies, New York 1913

  2. Trapnell Alfred, An illustrated catalogue of Chinese pottery and porcelain, forming the collection of Mr. Alfred Trapnell, Bristol 1901 and Gorer, S. & Son, The Trapnell Collection of Old Chinese Porcelain, exhibition sale catalogue, 1906. In the introduction the exhibition is described as 'the collection formerly belonging to Alfred Trapnell…[who] spent over thirty years in forming this collection'.

  3. Catalogue of a collection of Oriental Porcelain and Pottery lent for exhibition by A.W. Franks, London 1876

  4. Hobson, R.L., Catalogue of the Leonard Gow collection of Chinese porcelain, London 1931

  5. For biographical details on the collectors compare the website CARP (Chinese Art - research into provenance)

  6. Compare Impey Oliver, "Lever as a collector of Chinese Porcelain", 1992, p. 234

  7. Compare Index to early invoices 1894 - c. 1905 (AC Tait) in the Lady Lever Art Gallery archive; according to that index Lever bought a pair of Old Nankin Ginger Jars, each with wood cover, for £ 105 on 12 April 1894, from Agnew's.

  8. Medley Margaret, "Chinese Art in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight", in: Transactions of the Oriental Ceramics Society, Vol. 44, 1979-80, p. 3

  9. This quotation was reproduced by Margaret Medley in her contribution to Lord Leverhulme, founder of the Lady Lever Art Gallery and Port Sunlight on Merseyside: a great Edwardian collector and builder: paintings, sculpture, ceramics, furniture and architecture:12 April-25 May 1980: an exhibition/presented by Unilever to mark their Golden Jubilee, 1930-1980, p. 86

  10. Duveen, James Henry, Collections and Recollections. A century and a half of art deals, London 1934

  11. This idea is recorded by the former Curator of the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Lucy Wood, in: Wood Lucy, "William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme. The collector", in: The Catalogue of the Leverhulme collection sale held by Sotheby's at Thornton Manor, Wirral, Merseyside, 26-28 June 2001, Vols. I & II, Vol. I, p. 24

  12. Impey, "Lever as a collector of Chinese porcelain", 1992, p. 234

  13. Gorer Edgar, Catalogue of the collection of Old Chinese Porcelain formed by Richard Bennett, Esq., Thornby Hall, Northampton, London 1911

  14. Compare the file LLAG 4691, 1968 for correspondence between Lever and Gorer and sale details, Lady Lever Art Gallery archive

  15. Fry Roger, "Richard Bennett Collection of Chinese Porcelain", in: The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 19, No. 99, June 1911, p. 134

  16. Gorer, Catalogue of the collection of Old Chinese Porcelain formed by Richard Bennett, Nr. 338

  17. Jenyns, 1951, p. 36