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From the British Museum to the Lady Lever

6 May 2009 by Sam

entrance to the Lady Lever Art Gallery

Here’s the latest report from art historian Eleanor Beyer. Eleanor usually works in the British Museum’s conservation and science department but has been visiting the paper conservation department up here in the National Conservation Centre. During her time at National Museums Liverpool she has had a look round our art galleries. Here’s what she thought of the Lady Lever:


“The Lady Lever Art Gallery sits in a village designed by Lord Lever. He aimed to have every local facility his soap factory workers might wish for in Port Sunlight, so the gallery, like the local library, was purpose built to serve his employees. The gallery appears like a mausoleum to the objects, from outside and inside with its low height, shallow dome and columned entrance, one expects it to be much older due to the style. It is in fact reinforced concrete which was the best available material at this date, clad with Portland stone on the outside. With such an enthusiastic collector and his fascination with architectural design it should be the ideal gallery space particularly with the purpose built interior spaces and design. For instance the main gallery space is the ideal height for some wonderful paintings by Edward Burne-Jones, and the small galleries for the ceramics displays.

Coming from a much older museum I was curious to see how this worked, although there were still problems with the building, much of Lord Lever’s forward thinking had paid off. For instance, with few windows the gallery has more room for hanging pictures and displaying objects. Lever was visually astute and the things he collected were visually attractive (like the soap adverts) and at the same time as being of academic interest. Much of the collection itself is relatively hardy – since ceramics and most nineteenth century paintings were mainly painted in durable materials – therefore if humidity levels fluctuate these types of objects can cope. However some more fragile collections have since had to be removed, such as works on paper and embroideries, and the walls in the main gallery are no longer black. The British Museum is a far larger museum, with an even more diverse collection, from ceramics to other more fragile objects like the mummies, and ancient wall paintings. The architects of the British Museum appear to have aspired to grandeur and style for the building: environmental control had yet to become a concern in the early nineteenth century!

On a basic level Lever’s gallery showed me how one individual could make it happen – interest in design as well as providing a collection for everyone. Lever had one advantage – the gallery was built to house his collection, not to house future unknown objects.”

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