About the Gallery
The Lady Lever Art Gallery can be found in Port Sunlight, Liverpool. This isn’t any ordinary suburban town; instead, it is a peaceful village and community complex, built by Sunlight Soap and Unilever entrepreneur Lord Lever, at the end of the 19th century. Lord Lever was to Port Sunlight what John Cadbury was to Bournville, constructing an idyllic home and living environment for his factory workers.
Situated at the end of a tree-lined avenue sits a classically inspired building of reinforced concrete clad in Portland stone. Dominated by six Ionic columns paired with a low dome profile, the gallery was specifically designed to not overpower the rest of the delicate architecture in Port Sunlight village. Lord Lever commissioned the design in 1913 in memory of Lady Lever who had recently passed away. It was built between 1914 and 1922, however construction was slowed due to the outbreak of the WWI. The gallery was designed to house the Lever’s extraordinary art collection, displaying everything from Wedgwood Jasperware to ancient Roman sculpture.
The Pre-Raphaelites really steal the show at the Lady Lever Gallery. She had an eye for contemporary art, and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was no exception. Formed in London in 1848 by seven artists, most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, their paintings can be viewed as a reaction against the slipping standards of British art.
One of the first and most striking paintings in the main hall of the gallery is Hunt’s ‘The Scapegoat’, 1854-55. The colour pallet of luminous purples, oranges, and greens is mesmerizing, and it’s impossible not to question why this disorientated goat is crouched on a salty, desolate plane. It was in fact painted on the shores of the Dead Sea in Israel, with the mountains of Edom in the background.
During his stay, Hunt found that on the Day of Atonement, the temple congregation would send out a goat bearing a piece of scarlet cloth on its head, as pictured, which symbolised sin. If the cloth turned white, it was believed that the sins were forgiven. This story resulted in the word “scapegoat” developing the meaning of someone who takes on the sins or hardships of others, or someone who is unfairly blamed. Religious symbolism depicted through seemingly secular imagery was central to Pre-Raphaelite painting.
One of my favourite works of the collection was by John Everett-Millais, most famous for the beautifully tragic painting ‘Ophelia’, on display in the Tate Britain. ‘Lingering Autumn’, 1890, is one of his lesser known works that was painted during a stay in Perthshire, Scotland.
The delicate rendering of ferns and undergrowth in soft autumnal tones of orange and red make the artwork stand out from across the room. Inspired mainly by his time spend hunting, fishing and shooting in the great Scottish wilderness, Millais channels the expressive bleakness and simultaneous warmth of the changing season. The small figure of a young girl, possibly modelled by Effie Stewart, the daughter of a local ploughman, carries a pale of water barefoot across the marshy landscape. The positioning in the gallery of this painting is interesting.
It hangs behind Jacob Epstein’s sculpture, ‘Deidre’, 1942. This bronze bust with a green patina is expressive and modern, with cartoon-like features. It has a certain beauty which simultaneously intrigues and revolts the viewer. It is a perfect contrast to Millais’ warm, idyllic landscape.
Frederic Leighton’s painting ‘The Daphnephoria’, 1876, encompasses the left centre wall of the main hall. At first glance, you might think it’s a classically inspired Renaissance painting, but it is in fact an exceptional Pre-Raphelitesque work. The soft and voluptuous treatment of figures is unmistakably inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, but it is Leighton’s call to Classicism that makes this painting so unique.
Unfortunately, it was hard to fully enjoy this painting, amongst others, because the gallery glass is so reflective. This isn’t helped by the harsh lighting throughout the gallery, and it is a shame that the bright glare interrupts the viewing of many of the gallery’s wonderful paintings.
Dotted around the walls are some hidden gems of British painting. Turner’s ‘Falls of the Clyde’, c.1840, is a stunning example of the artist’s later, and most popular period. It embodies his instantly recognisable, abstracted style of wild and rugged landscapes. You can almost feel the water spraying off the canvas.
Another fantastic painting on display is Constable’s ‘The Glebe Farm’, c.1830. The paint and brush seems to have attacked the canvas in this sketch which became a finished painting. It is much more loose and energetic than Constable’s more typical, considered landscapes, but it is all the more charming for the booming clouds, and dramatic sky in this fluid style.
Discoveries of the Collection
I always love discovering artists that I haven’t heard of before visiting a gallery. My discovery of the Lady Lever was John Phillip. A Scottish colourist best known for his portrayal of Spanish life, Phillip’s paintings vibrate with energy and intrigue. ‘La Lotería Nacional’ shows a humming street of Spaniards buying lottery tickets.
An oil on paper sketch, this work has a vivacious quality where, the more you look, the more you see. The darker interpretation of a mediterranean colour palette flawlessly encapsulates bustling Spanish life, in a painting style which adds more than a photograph ever could.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the Lady Lever Gallery’s collection of Wedgwood. If you haven’t heard of it, you’ve almost definitely seen it. Lord Lever was a particular fan of Jasperware Wedgwood, which is a type of porcelain usually in pale blue, pale green, or black, which is elegantly decorated with intricate white figures and scenes. The collection has many different Jasperware objects, from fireplace surrounds, to tea sets, to cameos, to vases. My preconception of porcelain collections as dry and uninspiring was truly revoked by these delightful pastel decorations.
The gallery’s hang style is old fashioned, with paintings piled on top of each other hung from a picture rail, making it hard to see the highest paintings. That being said, the crowded layout suits the Victorian period of the works. It is very traditional, but I think it could be enhanced by less “brutal” hanging chains, which appears clunky and dated.
Some of the artworks are also placed in questionable places, like above high doors – I would say that if there isn’t room to hang a painting in a location where it can be seen and enjoyed, don’t hang it at all! I think the gallery team has attempted to combat the glare by hanging works at forward leaning angles, but it is a futile effort. It is a shame that some paintings don’t exhibit their full potential but, and my overall impression is that the gallery could be “freshened up”.
The Lady Lever Gallery has some superb examples of British art. From undiscovered masters like John Phillip, to everybody’s favourites like Millais and Turner, the gallery really has something for everyone. I felt inspired by the Wedgwood collection, and moved by the beauty of the extensive Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
Although the gallery could do with a fresher take on some of the more traditional aspects, it is a wonderful day out that leaves you feeling like you’ve walked through the art world of Victorian Britain. Not to mention, the admission is free! If you’re looking to escape the bustle of Liverpool, a day trip to the gracefully nostalgic Port Sunlight and Lady Lever Gallery is an absolute must.