Tuesday, May 30th 2017
Today’s trip took us to a place that we have explored before but which easily provides interest for a return visit. Its name is Port Sunlight Village and its location is shown on the map below (click for Google Map):
We first took a bus that passed under the Mersey through the famous Queensway Tunnel and deposited us on the other side at Birkenhead. Here we changed buses but took a very brief look around before leaving. Here are a couple of things we saw:
This handsome red brick and terra cotta building was built in 1903 to plans by Thomas William Cubbon, described as a Scottish architect practising in Birkenhead with his brother John. As the lettering on the façade indicates, it was originally called the Birkenhead School Board Higher Elementary School, but in the interval between its foundation and now is has had various names and served various purposes under the local council. It is now a Grade II listed building.
Birkenhead Market was founded in 1835 but was expanded in 1845 to keep pace with the demands of an increasing population. Despite fires in 1969 and 1974, it still seems to be prospering.
Our first visit to Port Sunlight was 6 years ago – see Manchester 2011 – Day 2. As I recounted there, Port Sunlight was founded in 1888 by William Hesketh Lever, later 1st Viscount Leverhulme, as a site for the expansion of his soap manufacturing business and accommodation for his employees and their families. In what came to be commonly described as a model village, the housing was in advance of what was generally available to working families elsewhere in the country. A cottage hospital was provided and there was an emphasis on community with regular social events such a dances. Lord Leverhulme and his wife took part in the life of the village.
The village was laid out beautifully with rows of houses interspersed with gardens and green open spaces. Lever commissioned several architects and each range of houses was designed by a different architect though the principles of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement were largely followed.
What was it like to live there? It’s hard to tell, now that history has moved on. It was probably pleasant though I think the patriarchal and somewhat authoritarian regime would not find favour today.
As we proceeded to explore, we met one of the neighbours, a tortoiseshell cat. She1 was welcoming and enjoyed being stroked. How cats behave towards strangers is an indicator of how peaceful the neighbourhood is. If they are suspicious of you or, worse, run away as soon as they see you, it’s probably a rough area. If they come to you trustingly then the opposite is probably true. Allowance must be made, of course, for individual feline temperaments. Some cats just don’t like people and I, for one, do not blame them.
As mentioned, one of the appealing characteristics of Port Sunlight Village is the number of gardens and green spaces. This one, with an ornamental lake, is near the Lady Lever Gallery which was our main goal.
Beside the Lady Lever Gallery stands the impressive Leverhulme Monument. Lord Leverhulme died in 1925 and five years later, the monument, designed by Sir William Reid Dick (1878-1961), was raised, funded by contributions from the workface and their families.
Lever’s wife was Elizabeth Ellen Hulme (1850-1913). Their two names, Hulme and Lever, were combined in the name of their viscountship, Leverhulme. Lever had already been a collector and his collection formed the basis for the Lady Lever Art Gallery that he opened as a memorial to his wife in 1922. The gallery is a beautiful building in its own right (Grade II listed) and houses a collection comprising sculpture, paintings, furniture and other precious objects.
Like most galleries and museums, the Lady Lever runs visiting exhibitions alongside its permanent collection. Today it was showing an exhibition entitled Edo Pop, featuring wood-block art on popular themes, a genre popular in Edo (now Tokyo) in the 19th century. To be honest, this did not interest me greatly (a remark no doubt considered heretical by some) and I preferred to spend my time among the permanent exhibits, a selection of which appear below. (Yes, photography is permitted without flash.)
One of the gallery’s five ‘period rooms’, the panelling and contents belonging originally to a house in Chatham, Kent.
This depicts the goddess Venus in her aspect of ‘Venus Marina’, that is, Venue born from the sea.
I’m not alone in admitting to a soft spot for elephants (and to a concern for their threatened survival in the wild). This elephant apparently once decorated the altar in a Buddhist temple in China and would have carried vase on its back, the symbolic container of the Three Jewels, namely the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
Another the ‘period rooms, this one exhibits the style of the William and Mary period, 17th and 18th century.
This bronze sculpture by Jacob Epstein, Deidre, is a portrait of a member of the sculptor’s household between 1939 and 1942. Employed as a cook housekeeper, she frequently sat for Epstein as a model.
My favourites today, I think, are these two marble lions. Virtually mirror images of one another they were presumably meant to stand at either end of a mantelpiece or similar. Unfortunately, I neglected to take a copy of the label (if there even is one) and I therefore do not know their details. Lions are a popular subject for art, especially in those countries that, like Britain, take this animal as the national symbol. These lions are, to my mind rather unusual. While their mouths are open as though to roar, the expression on their faces seems one or worry or concern. Was this deliberate on the part of the artist?
This painting is unmistakeably a Rosetti and a pure example of the Pre-Raphaelite mood and style. The title means the ‘Sybyl carrying a palm frond’ and a further description of the painting will be found here. I will just say that on seeing the picture I assumed it was another ‘Jane’, that is a painting for which the model was Jane Morris, who is frequently depicted in Pre-Raphaelite works, but I was wrong. This time the model was Alexa Wilding, another of their favourites.
Port Sunlight Village has a museum that sets out the history and features of the village from its creation. More interesting, perhaps, depending on your tastes, is that one of the houses has been preserved or restored in its original condition and furnished plausibly, and can be visited. One notices that a few of the facilities, for example in the kitchen, are old fashioned, but on the whole it seems to have been spacious and comfortable.
The picture shows what would have been the parents’ bedroom in a family home. Though lacking some modern facilities, it is light, pleasant and comfortable. I particularly liked the stone hotwater bottle, having stubbed my toe more than once on one such as a child!
For our return to Liverpool, we decided to take the train and accordingly arrived at Liverpool Central Station. In the concourse we found a sculpture by Rick Myers entitled The Spirit of Liverpool. The creature depicted is of course a Liver Bird (‘Liver’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘fiver’), the semi-mythical bird that represents Liverpool.
There are usually two Liver Birds together, as on the city’s coat of arms, where each carries a blade of laver (edible seaweed) in its beak. The bird has been a symbol of Liverpool, it is thought, ever since it first appeared on the city’s charter given by King John in 1207. It seems the the model for the Liver Bird was the common cormorant, a bird whose hardiness and connection with the sea is a fitting icon for this unique and energetic maritime city.
To end with, I post without apology another picture of one of the lions that I liked in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. Raaa!
1I have no hesitation in saying ‘she’ because tortoiseshell patterned cats are always (except for very rare exceptions) female.