London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

Cotton to Gold: industry turned into collection story, at Two Temple Place, London.

David Franchi – Monday, 23rd February 2015.

The exhibition “Cotton to Gold” is a remarkable experience, at Two Temple Place, London.

Katshushika Hokusai Mishima Pass in Kai Province, from the series Fugaku Sanjürokkei (36 Views of Fuji), c.1826-33 Woodblock print Lewis Collection Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

Katshushika Hokusai,
Mishima Pass in Kai Province, from the series Fugaku Sanjürokkei (36 Views of Fuji), c.1826-33 © Lewis Collection
Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

“Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West” is focused on the legacy of some Lancashire tycoons, wealth people who accumulated a significant quantity of artworks during the early years of the last century.

The exhibition “Cotton to Gold” tells the story of the Pennine area of Lancashire, where, from the middle of the 19th century, the manufacture and commerce of cotton textiles boomed. Running this business was a group of magnates, who emerged also as private collectors. They amassed fine works that were competing with the best collection in the UK.

Cotton was introduced in Britain in the sixteenth century. It succeeded, at the expense of wool, because it was cheaper, easier to be processed and to be cleaned. The Pennine area was very well located and good organised to respond to this growing demand for cotton cloth.

The mills could count on local coal mines or good rivers and streams. Liverpool docks allowed the importation of raw materials and a quick export of finished products. The technologies and the high level of engineering in the North West supported this industrial success. The workforce needed caused a large scale of migration from the rural areas to the cities. It was an appalling movement of people that also created poverty and social disadvantage.

The gap between rich and poor widened and it was of discomfort for the late Victorian society. The great prosperity reached represented both opportunities and responsibilities. The newly rich got involved in a lavish life style, but however, Christian principle of charitable duties led them to return some money to the community, for instance opening schools or hospitals.

Charitable actions may have eased the moral debt of the wealthy magnates, in an effort to realise a sort of ethical fairness with labourers. According to this approach, the idea of a philanthropic legacy became a fact.

Many of the collections displayed in Cotton to Gold were donated to local museums by collectors, during their lifetime or after their deaths.

The legacies are still held by the partners of this exhibition: Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery; Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington, and Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum in Burnley.

The wealth of the North West started to lower with the First World War because of difficulties in export, so that

John Everett Millais, Male nude study, c. 1847 © Dean Collection, Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum

John Everett Millais,
Male nude study, c. 1847 © Dean Collection,
Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum

foreign production started. In between the First and the Second World War, the production constantly reduced, over 300,000 workers left the industry, and some 800 mills closed. Ironically, it was in part the export trade of Burnley power looms that had equipped foreign nations so well to compete. By 1958 Britain was a net importer of cotton cloth.

The “Cotton to Gold” exhibition draws on the holdings of these museums, focusing on eleven local magnates, exploring their outstanding and sometimes particular collections. Everyone of the magnate collected according to his own taste and preferences.

The collection of the books of Robert Edward Hart is notable in quality, spanning from almost the entire story of the written word, from Assyrian tablets to 19th century editions printed on ink and paper, passing through Medieval miniatures. He also collected coins, including Greek, Greek Imperial, Romans, Byzantine and British.

Thomas Boys Lewis was a passionate of Japanese prints, of which he collected over 1,000, from early 1700s to the nineteenth century. He also left a group of Orthodox Christian icons, made between the late 1600s and the early 1800s, and originating in Greece, Russia and the Eastern Mediterranean.

J.M.W. Turner, Tynemouth Priory, c. 1822, Donated by E.L. Hartley © Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

J.M.W. Turner,
Tynemouth Priory, c. 1822, Donated by E.L. Hartley © Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

Edward Stock Massey was one of the most charitable collectors. In 1904, he disposed to leave a weird, but honoured, bequest of £125,000 to the administration of Burnley. The massive amount of money today is still providing fund for purchases. At Two Temple Place, his collection of J. M. W. Turner watercolours is displayed.

George A. Booth gathered an extensive collection of taxidermied birds and mammals over a period of thirty years. The most substantial gift of Arthur C. Bowdler was a collection of beetles, a very popular hobby at the time. The collection of George Eastwood is made of ivory works from the 1700s to the 1900s, made across Europe, Africa, and Asia.

William T. Taylor offered Towneley Hall Museum several gifts from his most recent trip to Peru, including a preserved mummy of a twelfth –century Incan nobleman and several huacos, ceramics artefacts often found in burial sites. Additionally, on display the diary of his Peruvian expedition a book extraordinarily bound in woolly llama skin.

Wilfred Dean was a passionate of drawings. Remarkable is his collection of Millais, a Pre-Raphaelites artist. Jesse Haworth, instead, preferred to gather print and engravings of Sir Edwin Landseer. James Hardcastle amassed small drawings and paintings made for book illustrations. Joseph Briggs brought together an important Tiffany glassware collection, including mosaics, vases, and wall -tiles.

It is nothing new people spend their money in artworks, for instance see the patricians of ancient Rome. Nowadays, we are assisting to the same phenomenon, rich buyers are rocketing the market. Which is also raising questions about art or market: which one is prevailing? And about emerging artists are they keen to money or to production?

‘Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West’ shed lights on the history of an area of Britain. Through donations, it describes an historical period of a specific area, that however concerns us all and that explains our present.

Moreover, the venue where it is located is wholly appropriate. Two Temple Place is a spectacular neo-Gothic mansion on London’s Victoria Embankment that was property of William Waldorf “Willy” Astor, 1st Viscount Astor. When he bought the mansion, he commissioned an extensive $1.5 million renovation. The house was designed by John Loughborough Pearson, to be used primarily as Astor’s HQ office. Astor had immigrated to England from USA in 1891. He probably was the richest man in the world and no expense was spared when work began on Two Temple Place in 1892 and it was finished in 1895. Today the mansion is owned and run by the charity the Bulldog Trust.

The exhibition ‘Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West’ is ongoing until 19th April 2015, at Two Temple Place, Temple, London.

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