From time to time, the charitable foundation, the Bulldog Trust, opens the charming Two Temple Place for excellent exhibitions. This one is no exception. ‘Cotton to Gold’ brings together some of the extraordinary collections of wealthy philanthropists who made their fortunes in the Industrial North West. The collections were generously loaned by the Blackburn Museum, the Art Gallery at Towneley Hall, and Hawarth Art Gallery.
Robert Edward Hart
A fourth-generation ropemaking industrialist from Blackburn, Hart had one of the greatest collections. It includes 800 printed works and thousands of coins dating back as far as 461 BC. His love of books, in particular, saw him amass ancient Arabic and Persian books, Assyrian clay tablets and Medieval manuscripts. Of particular note are the richly illuminated copies of the Book of Hours, which provided a marker of the times, day and night, for specific prayers. There are rare copies of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’ and William Shakespeare’s Third Folio. There are also illustrated books by William Morris and Edward Burne Jones.
There are other less weighty, but no less fascinating, tomes. Sebastian Brant’s satirical ‘Stultifera Navis’ (Ship of Fools) examines human folly, such as the ‘making [of] useless books’, the dangers of ‘new-fangled ways’ and ‘much Babbling’. ‘The Dandie’s Ball’, explores the danger of dandyism, which might result in fainting, either from non-eating, or tightly laced clothes. More seriously, the ‘Art of Dying’ (1495), outlined the elements required for a good Christian death. These included conquering temptations such as impatience, spiritual pride and avarice – an interesting one (see below).
Thomas Boys Lewis
A cotton manufacturer and philanthropist, Lewis retired at the age of 51 and spent the rest of his days collecting. Among other things, he acquired religious icons from Russia, Greece and Turkey, and 1,000s of Japanese prints, including works by Hokusai and Hiroshige. The craft of woodblock printing, popular throughout the 17th to 19th century, was known as ‘ukiyo-e’ or ‘pictures of the floating world’. It influenced artists, including Van Gogh, the composer Puccini, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Before ‘Peak Stuff’
Arthur Bowder collected 4,200 specimens of beetle, and George Booth liked the birds (stuffed). William Taylor brought back an 12th-century mummified body of an Incan nobleman. Thanks to textile designer Joseph Briggs, Accrington was home to the largest Tiffany glass collection in Europe.
Assuaging the guilt?
A working cotton loom stands at the beginning of the exhibition as a reminder of the source of such wealth. The machines were mainly worked by women (a single weaver in charge of eight looms could weave a mile of fabric a week), while male ‘tacklers’ acted as supervisors or mechanical support, with children as young as nine to assist.
The reason for the philanthropy – gifting entire collections to the nation, Hart’s patronage of orphanages, Wilfred Dean’s involvement in the development of the Towneley Art Gallery – may have been to assuage guilt; vast fortunes (avarice?) were made on the backs of poverty-stricken workers, but the collections themselves are real treasures.
Cotton to Gold
Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West
31st January-19th April 2015
Two Temple Place, WC2R 3BD, 020 7836 3715, www.twotempleplace.org