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Frank Partridge and William Hesketh Lever - page 3

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Dealer-collector relations, 1915-1924

A shift away from traditional forms of patronage (ie ceramics made to special order) to the public sale of works by aristocratic collectors to the members of the affluent middle classes may help to account for the rise of the commercial art dealer in the late 19th and early 20th century. Chinese art dealing remained an unregulated market - vis-à-vis other occupations or the selling of financial instruments - such that art dealers were probably self-selected. Dealers behaved as entrepreneurs, and their self-promotion and innovation were important in becoming successful market agents.29

Partridge was not from a privileged background which had a source of private wealth as a form of income. He seldom made direct acquisitions of art but operated on a commission basis between collectors, and dutifully acted as Lever's 'personal advisor' who supplemented Lever's own taste. With the money he used to 'recruit' Partridge, Lever gained cultural competence.

Fig.8. Figure of a Chinese Deity (LL 61).

Partridge would answer any questions about objects Lever requested; for example, about the history of a 'Chinese Deity on a dragon's head.'30 Partridge wrote, 'This figure represents the Chinese god of literature. … I bought it at Christie's on the 29th July'31 (Fig.8: LL 61). The figure of a Chinese Deity seems to offer a gloss that glitters: Partridge's explanation makes china appear a superb symbolic product. The Chinese god of literature becomes the iconic souvenir of a snobbish approach of collecting - simply an object of decoration.

Founded in 1766 by James Christie, Christie's has been 'a name and place that speaks of extraordinary art, unparalleled service and expertise, as well as international glamour'.32 From 1915 to 1924 Partridge purchased distinguished collections at Christie's for Lever; collections including those of Jeffery Whitehead (1915), Sir Trevor Lawrence (1916), Alfred. W. Stiff (1916), S. E. Kennedy (1916, 1918), C. S. Holberton (1918), and Robert H. Benson (1924).

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Partridge impressed Lever with his success in getting real bargains when he obtained some Chinese objects on the fourth day of the Whitehead sale, 11 August 1915. This purchase included three pieces of 'Black China' which made Lever most delighted: a deep bowl in a composite black background and a pair of square bottles cost Lever just £44. 2s. 0d including commission fee (Fig.9: LL 6734, Fig.10: LL 6735 & LL 6736). Other bargains were got at a small-scale auction sale of 'A Lady of Title's' collection on 14 March 1916, where Partridge purchased Chinese crystal and hardstone carvings for Lever.33

Fig.9.A deep bowl (LL 6734).

Partridge treated his counselling service for Lever with caution, 'I wanted to speak to you about a pair of important Chinese figures which the owner wishes to sell, but this matter will keep until I see you.'34 Partridge knew Lever's passion for Chinese blue and white vases but still courteously asked him to 'call in the next time you are in this neighbourhood.'35 Partridge's role in getting people to sign the contract was to be central to the success of the agreement.

During the First World War Lever's soap business was still growing,36 but he was very sensitive about prices and wrote a letter in an irritable tone, 'It is quite evident that War prices at the moment are not prevailing, but I believe that prices will come down very considerably this next year. We have not yet felt the real financial pinch of this War and people are becoming a little too optimistic. ... I am not at all carried away by the present prices prevailing for works of Art. Of course if all the works of Art are to go to America, America can pay any price but I should think even Americans will live up to their characteristic of not desiring to pay too much.'37

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Fig.10. A pair of square bottles (LL 6735 and LL 6736).

On Christmas Eve 1915 Partridge replied, 'I fail to see where you have any cause to complain with what you have bought.38 Lever explained, '… I am not complaining of 1915 and I am not complaining if the prices are high in 1916. I am like Mark Twain who was asked to speak about Heaven or Hell as to which he preferred, and he said he did not like to express any opinion as he had friends in both places. Your ideas as a dealer are centred in the Heaven of high prices, and as one who has been a collector for many years I have no reason to say a word against that point of view. Low prices may be H--l but I could be equally happy there in 1916 as I have been in 1915.'39

Fig.11. Cloisonné incense burner with Qianlong mark (LL 5916).

As Lever predicted, prices of Chinese objects rose in 1916 and the objects on offer seemed to become even better in quality. The first sale of that year was the collection of Sir (James John) Trevor Lawrence at Christie's on 29 May. The son of Sir William Lawrence (1783-1867), Serjeant-Surgeon to Queen Victoria and Louisa Lawrence (1803-55), a renowned orchid grower, Sir Trevor (1831-1913) was himself trained as a surgeon, before becoming an MP and eventually President of the Royal Horticultural Society.40 He was a well-known collector of objets d'art, particularly oriental, and especially Japanese art, western porcelain and old lace.41 Some items from his collection are now in the Victoria and Albert and other museums. Partridge reported to Lever, '… all the Oriental Porcelain ... in my hands and you can rest assured I will do my very best for you.'42 After the auction Partridge wrote, 'One or two of the lots which we liked fetched fabulous prices; this was caused by 2 rich men bidding against one another; on the other hand most of the other lots realized about half of what I marked them. If I have spent too much money you must send me a wire in the morning and I will stop, but as I told you these opportunities do not come along very often and it is money well laid out.'43 Lever was engaged in an ambiguous purchase decision and did not have adequate information; at the same time, the buying task was complex and repeat business was possible. From the Sir Trevor Lawrence sale Lever bought many examples of fine and rare imperial cloisonné enamels (Fig.11: LL 5916) and widened the scope of his collection.

Fig.12. Fahua vase of double gourd shape (LL 6067).

One month later, through Frank Partridge, Lever bought a series of fahua pieces (Fig.12: LL 6067) from the S. E. Kennedy Sale on 21 June 1916. Partridge described how difficult it was to get a piece. He and rival London art dealer John Sparks44 were bidding for the same lot 182 (Pair of Figure of Kylins): 'I'm sorry the Auctioneer did not see my bid and was knocked down for 42 gns, however Sparks had a Commission for it so we should not have got it … we were lucky to get anything at all at our prices.'45 Lever spent £1,351. 7s. 0d in total.



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  1. See Derrick Chong, Stakeholder Relationships in the Market for Contemporary Art, in Iain Robertson Understanding International Art Market and Management, London: Routledge, 2005, p. 94.

  2. A. J. H. Howard to Partridge, 7 August, 1915, Partridge Papers. Howard was the Curator of Hulme Hall Art Gallery.

  3. Partridge to Howard, 9 August, 1915, Partridge Papers.

  4. For further details see Christie's website

  5. Partridge to Lever, 16 March, 1916, Partridge Papers.

  6. Partridge to Lever, 3 November, 1915, Partridge Papers.

  7. Partridge to Lever, 3 March, 1916, Partridge Papers.

  8. Lever was highly praised for his soap business. Mrs. Partridge (Minnie) to Lever, 17 November 1915, Partridge Papers.

  9. Lever to Partridge, 22 December, 1915, Partridge Papers.

  10. Partridge to Lever, 24 December, 1915, Partridge Papers.

  11. Lever to Partridge, 28 December, 1915, Partridge Papers.

  12. Sir James John Trevor Lawrence was the son of Sir William Lawrence and Louisa Senior, the daughter of a successful Mayfair haberdasher who had bought a country estate, Broughton House, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.  

  13. See Marcus B. Huish, Catalogue of the Collection of Japanese Works of Art formed between 1869 and 1894 by Sir Trevor Lawrence, Privately Printed, London, 1895.

  14. Partridge to Lever, 29 May, 1916, Partridge Papers.

  15. Partridge to Lever, 31 May, 1916, Partridge Papers.

  16. Further information of John Sparks Ltd.  

  17. Partridge to Lever, 22 June, 1916, Partridge Papers.