This is a review of a building, an exhibition, and a couple of catalogues.
Two Temple Place is a spectacular medieval fantasy of a mansion, located on the Embankment. It was built between 1892 and 1895 for William Waldorf Astor, is now run by The Bulldog Trust, and is open to visit, free of charge. It is well worth a visit for its opulent interior alone, but it also regularly hosts exhibitions and events, is used as a wedding venue and as a film location (it is now firmly on the Downton Abbey trail).
The interior decor is a work of art in itself, with carved panelling, stained glass and sculpture – even doors inset with cast bronze scenes from Arthurian legend. An exhibition has to work hard to makes its effects felt in such a setting. It might seem a little daunting and ecclesiastical, even, but I found it welcoming and luxurious – I felt that it is a place where I could definitely grow old gracefully, given the requisite fortune and army of staff.
The exhibition currently on display there certainly fits the bill, and it reveals some deeply hidden treasures of the national patrimony. Cotton to Gold brings to London some of the treasures from the municipal museums and galleries in Lancashire endowed with the magnificent collections left to them by local businessmen.
Just as fascinating as the items on display is the history of their original owners. From the late 18th century on, the textile trade in Lancashire was at the heart of the industrial revolution, and huge fortunes were made (and lost, of course) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, from cotton and associated industries. The children of the early entrepreneurs, educated and enjoying a comfortable income, were able to pursue their own interests, and many became collectors, of artworks and other precious objects. This self-realisation was combined with a certain philanthropic sense. One could say it was a skewed one – the rapid growth of the industrial towns of the north-west led to poor housing, overcrowding, ill-health and poverty. It is ironic how the notable philanthropy of the successful in business was applied to the ills it had created – schools and orphanages, but also the improvement of the public realm, by the gift to municipalities of buildings and parks (Townley Hall in Burnley is the great example) and the endowment of libraries, museums and galleries. They could be said to have caused the evils they then attempt to remedy, but the taste of the powerful determined the shape of their support for their workers and their fellow-townsfolk. I think they recognised the deeply personal nature of their particular collecting obsession by passing on their collections to their local museum, library or gallery. Making the collection is a labour of love, and leaving it in the family is an almost certain guarantee that it will within a generation or two be sold or dispersed (the faith that that would not be the case with a local council may prove to be misplaced in some cases, and at least one disposal is documented in the very informative exhibition catalogue). Now, the challenge is to recognise that these collections may have national, or even wider importance, and so exhibitions like this one are invaluable in making their existence more widely known.
Cotton to Gold displays the riches from the collections of ten benefactors to three galleries (Townley Hall, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery and the Haworth Gallery in Accrington). The collections cover rare books and manuscripts, coins, Japanese prints, Turner watercolours, and archaeological finds from across the world (including the most shocking exhibit, an Inca mummy, along with the llama-skin-bound expedition diary of its collector), and that mainstay of the museums of my childhood, cases and cases of taxidermy. (Out of fashion now, many of these collections have been disposed of, but they begin to acquire a separate layer of meaning, as part of the social history of collecting, display and learning, so those collections that remain are probably safe. This does not mean I enjoy looking at them after all, though.) The first object we encountered, that was attracting almost as much attention as the rest of the contents of the room put together, was a Lancashire power loom, there to demonstrate the source of the wealth that acquired all these beautiful objects.
My favourite collector is R E (Edward) Hart of Blackburn, of the family firm that invented the particular strong and flexible power rope that drove the many thousands of looms and spinning machines in Lancashire. His interests are close to my heart – he made a magnificent collection pertaining to the history of writing, from Assyrian clay tablets, through papyrus and scrolls, medieval manuscripts, incunables and rare books of later periods. The gems of his collection were on display at Senate House Library a couple of years ago, and I was able to buy the catalogue* on my visit to Temple Place, which I thoroughly recommend. It contains my favourite anecdote about him. An antiquarian bookseller had a collection of early German blockbooks to sell, separately or together. His client, Edward Hart came to see them, and agreed to buy the collection as a lot, at a reduced price. He had come with a leather bag, which proved to contain the £25,000 he offered for the collection, in £1 notes. When asked why he chose to pay in cash, he said that he did not want his bankers to know how much he was spending on books. Hart was also a collector of rare coins, taking some pains to collect the coins of all the Roman emperors, and the the English and British monarchs (which means I have seen, at a very appropriate time, a gold coin from the reign of Edward V).
Edward Stocks-Massey, whose Turner watercolours are represented, left these with a huge cash gift to the town of Burnley. He was a brewer, however, and seeing the influence that the Temperance movement was having over local politics, he made it a condition that the cash gift would be reduced by over £1000 for every public house in Burnley that had its licence withdrawn by the council. This endowment is still supporting purchases for the museum today.
The final collection I shall single out is that of Jospeph Briggs, who left Accrington in his teens to seek his fortune in the USA. He became the trusted partner of Louis Comfort Tiffany, and a noted artist in glass and mosaics in his own right. After Tiffany’s went bankrupt as a result of the Great Depression, Briggs managed to salvage his collection of over 100 pieces of glass and mosaic and bring them back to Accrington, where they can now be found in the Haworth Gallery, the most important public collection of Tiffany glass in Europe. The examples brought to London for this exhibition were spectacular.
I am delighted that these collections, so little known outside their region, are beginning to be studied and documented for the wider public. This exhibition, full of the most wonderful objects, brings just a tiny portion of them to London, and tempts me to go North-West and see more. The catalogue lists the exhibits, illustrates some choice examples, but is most enjoyable for its little vignettes of the featured collectors, their lives and interests. It is rather moving to note that, in a couple of cases, little is known of the life of the benefactor, which gave me much pause for thought as these are people who were contemporaries of my grandparents and great-grandparents, and who died in the 20th century. Unvisited graves, and all that.
The exhibition continues at Two Temple Place until 19th April – I do recommend it, but even after it is finished, the building that housed it is a hidden gem in a quiet corner of London, and well worth a visit for its own sake.
*Blackburn’s ‘Worthy Citizen’: The Philanthropic Legacy of R.E. Hart. Edited by Cynthia Johnson and Sarah J. Biggs. An Institute of English Studies Publication. London: University of London, 2013. 53pp
The image of Two Temple Place is taken from Wikimedia Commons