Philanthropy and museums work well together. When needing to avoid paying taxes, what better way to protect assets than to invest money for the public good. The scope for philanthropy is broad and historically diverse. In 1739 Thomas Coran established the Foundling Hospital in London for orphans, while later in the century, William Wilberforce lobbied against slavery, and throughout the 19th Century numerous charities and trusts were established in the names of the rich and famous. Of museums, perhaps Getty’s in New York is the most renown.
One such British philanthropist was William Lever, an industrialist who established a soap factory in North West England, and built around it a garden village for his workforce: Port Sunlight.
In the middle of this picturesque village he purpose built a substantial museum, naming it the Lady Lever gallery after his late wife. He had collected art for some years to use for advertising his sunlight soap (there is a small exhibition about this) and as his wealth grew, he added to the collection more valuable artworks, especially by British artists, including the Pre-Raphaelites. He also acquired Chinese and Greek vases, and statues and busts.
The building, grand and classical, was commissioned in 1913 and built in the Beaux-Arts style, a French Neoclassical architecture popular in Paris. However, the building took time to be completed and was opened in 1922, several years after Lady Lever’s death.
Among the Ford Madox Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones (Pre-Raphaelites seemed to always have complicated names,) you’ll find an odd Turner, Constable, Gainsborough and Reynolds, the stalwarts of British Art. There’s plenty of Wedgewood too, some of which belonged to Charles Darwin, Josiah Wedgewood’s grandson.
There are statues (Roman) and furniture including a whole bedroom, and ornate cabinets. It’s not what I would call the finest examples of the great artists, as the best pieces are more likely to appear in National galleries, but for a provincial art gallery, built near a factory, and mainly for the enjoyment of the local inhabitants, it remains a fine example of what a philanthropist can achieve.
The gallery is part of the Merseyside Museums group, and is free to enter. Donations are welcomed, of course, so to some extent, we’re all philanthropists investing in a piece of the art world, and with the gallery’s commitment to the local community (it has regular art activities for children and special exhibitions) it’s a popular destination for a trip out.