The art of advertising

Forget Don Draper and the ‘Mad Men’ of 1960s New York, to see a true pioneer of modern advertising look no further than Bolton businessman William Hesketh Lever. Lets take a closer look at how he started his world class art collection, all in the name of selling the humble bar of soap!

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So how do you sell soap through art? In 1887 entrepreneur Lever started buying paintings from art exhibitions in London. There’s nothing unusual about this, many wealthy business owners have invested in art collections. However in those early days Lever had an eye for a particular type of painting.  

Lever’s company Lever Brothers manufactured Sunlight Soap, a popular household brand. The first paintings he bought featured women and children in pristine clean clothing, to show the benefits of washing with a good bar of soap. 

Lever had the pictures copied for his advertisements, adding the Sunlight brand name and slogan. Most artists didn't mind Lever using their art in this way, although there were exceptions.  

Between 1886 and 1906 Lever spent more than £2 million on advertising. He encouraged his customers to collect prints reproduced from his collection. Soap wrappers contained vouchers that could be collected and exchanged for prints, a promotional incentive idea that is still used today! 

While Lever started collecting art for business reasons, as he grew richer and more confident he began to buy a wider variety of artworks and other objects simply because he liked them. Let's take a look at some of his early purchases, which kickstarted his vast collections. 

This is the Way we Wash our Clothes by George Dunlop Leslie 

painting of a girl washing clothes in a basin with a bar of soap and advert using the image with 'Sunlight Soap' and teh name of the painting overlaid

Advertisement reproduced with kind permission of Unilever plc and group companies

In 1887 this was one of the first paintings that Lever bought for advertising purposes. The artist’s close friend and neighbour, James Hayllar, painted a very similar picture called Soap Suds around this time, which was also sold for use as an advertisement. Hayllar’s painting however was bought by Lever’s rival, TJ Barratt, to advertise Pears soap. 

A Dress Rehearsal by Albert Chevallier Taylor 

women in a cottage watching a woman swirling round in a new white dress

Lever renamed this painting The Wedding Dress and used it with the motto ‘As good as new’. 

The New Frock by William Powell Frith 

painting of a girl lifting her apron to show off her smart dress by an advert using the image with text overlaid: Sunlight Soap, "So clean"

Advertisement reproduced with kind permission of Unilever plc and group companies

Lever bought this painting at the 1889 Royal Academy Exhibition and immediately reproduced it on Sunlight Soap advertisements, like this one from the Illustrated London News, 15 March 1890, with the captions ‘Sunlight Soap’ and ‘So Clean’. Frith protested that his art had been degraded by the connection with advertising. Lever however argued that the wide distribution of Frith’s work in advertisements actually enhanced the artist’s reputation and generally spread an interest in high quality art. 

Quite Ready by Philip Richard Morris 

small girl in a smart white dress and bonnet, sitting on the bottom of the stairs with a small dog as if waiting to go somewhere

No advertisements using this painting have been traced but it is highly likely that it was bought for this purpose. 

The Wedding Morning by John Henry Frederick Bacon 

women helping a bride get ready, one is adjusting her dress as she lifts her veil

In his diary Lever described this painting as “only a moderate picture but very suitable for a soap advertisement”. For the adverts bars of Sunlight Soap were substituted for the clock on the mantelpiece and the cup and saucer on the table. You can see them in the advert at the top of this page and the details below.

details from newspaper image showing bars of Sunlight Soap added to a painting

Details and full advertisement at top of the page reproduced with kind permission of Unilever plc and group companies

Blue and White by Louise Jopling 

Women washing up at a large blue and white bowl on a table, with similar patterned crockery on shelves behind them

This enduring image of cleanliness will be familiar to many people who saw it proudly framed in Hyacinth Bucket’s home in the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. Lever renamed it Home Bright, Hearts Light and had a carton of Sunlight Soap added to the table for his advertisements. 

Besieged by Arthur John Elsley 

woman at a wash tub, waving two small children and their dog away with a wet rag

A bar of soap was added to this painting for advertisements. 

Girl with Dogs by Charles Burton Barber

small girl in a smart dress, holding a puppy, with a dog and another puppy standing by her

This painting appeared in adverts from around 1901, with the title ‘The Family Wash’. 

His Turn Next by Frederick Morgan 

small boy in a bath tub reaching for a puppy that a small girl standing next to him is holding. There is a bar or Pears soap by her feet

While many paintings shown here were bought and then adapted for advertisements, this painting actually includes a bar of soap inscribed ‘PEARS’. This and the fact that there is no record of this painting being shown at any public exhibitions mean it was probably painted specifically as an advertisement. It was used to advertise Pears soap, before Lever bought it in 1916 as part of his takeover of the company A and F Pears.