Science and technology has long gone hand-in-hand with arts and culture. Although now they’re seen as rivals for funding and prestige, in fact historically these two things have been inextricably linked. Fiction, for example, has presaged the future shape of technological development, whilst those making their fortune from scientific endeavours invested their new wealth in cultural pursuits. So our modern obsession with technological progress, which so marginalises the arts, is somewhat misguided and I’ve written before about the value of cultural expression when all that scientific endeavour rages at the freedom of the individual.
This new exhibition at Two Temple Place weighs in on this debate with a look at the collections of leading eighteenth and nineteenth century industrialists based in northern England. Gathering pieces from Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington and Towneley Hall in Burnley, this interesting exhibition demonstrates how closely related technological development and investment in the arts were at this time, and it’s also fascinating to see the impetus Britain’s role in the Empire and exploration gave to the types and variety of artefacts that were collected. What could seem like a showcase of the riches of wealth industrialists actually tells an interesting story about philanthropy and the donation of great swathes of cultural goods to local museums and town halls to benefit the community.
This eclectic exhibition is loosely held together by the incredible book collection of Robert Edward Hart which appears in most of the rooms, taking us from intricately decorated Books of Hours from across medieval Europe, to incredible first editions of Shakespeare, Byron, Spenser, Swift, and Milton. Clearly the progress of the written word was something that drove the international-nature of his collection which also included Assyrian tablets from the early days of the history of writing and a number of beautifully illustrated books from Persia. All of this is juxtaposed with a large loom and coil of incredibly thick rope to emphasis the work that paid for his hobby.
Prints were also among the most popular items to collect and again these are threaded through the exhibition to showcase the diversity of interests among industrialists. Some of cotton-magnate Thomas Boys Lewis’s extensive archive of Japanese prints of everyday life from around 1700-1900 are displayed in the first room including the famous Hokusai wave (recently depicted in Lego by Nathan Sawayer). Upstairs are some early Turner watercolours collected by brewer Edward Stocks Massey who bequeathed a large sum to Burnley as long as his pubs kept their licenses. Turner’s subjects include some regional sea and landscapes as well as pictures from the Holy Land.
My favourite prints are the John Everett Millais images from the1840s owned by Wilfred Dean, a wash boiler manufacturer. The pictures are delicate black and white sketches of a man from the same series and they really are stunning, particular male nude with head supported to the right where the muscles of the back are brilliantly drawn. There are also some quirky animal art-works by Edward Landseer and a wall of book illustrations owned by James Hardcastle, all of which again emphasise the broad range of influences on the nineteenth-century collector.
But it’s not just art on display and no exhibition on this era would be complete without a fair amount of taxidermy and some natural history displays. The Victorians were fascinated by the natural world and Darwin aside there are lots of examples of their interest in understanding and documenting other species, both in the UK and further afield – In Wives and Daughters (for example), the hero Roger is a science scholar who grows close to the heroine Molly through their mutual interest in the natural world and Roger’s African expedition. Back at Two Temple Place, George Booth’s collection of birds is shown as well as Arthur C. Bowdler’s glass cases full of beetles from around the world but it will be William T. Taylor’s preserved Peruvian mummy from the twelfth-century that will stick in your mind along with his llama-skin bound diary.
Another of my favourite collections is the Tiffany vases and mosaics owned by Joseph Briggs, at one point assistant and good friend of Louis Tiffany himself. Near the lower staircase are several mosaics of flowers and birds which have a lovely pearlescent quality while in a cabinet on the first floor are some beautiful pieces, including the large Peacock Vase from 1900-1910 showing how Tiffany experimented with pattern and design of his coloured glass. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek aspect to this section as the Aquamarine Paperweight Vase has an extended base section that looks like a fishbowl.
At times wandering through all these amazing things it’s hard not to spare a thought for the working conditions of the people in various mills and factories whose labour paid for all these incredible gifts to the nation that they almost certainly never enjoyed, while their entrepreneurial bosses scoured the globe for exciting nick-nacks. And perhaps you don’t get a sense of any conflict that the newly rich faced with the established aristocracy who would almost certainly resent any encroachment on their ancient rights and privileges.
Yet that doesn’t detract from neatly arranged exhibition that draws strong links between Britain’s changing place in the nineteenth-century world and the diversity of interests that provoked. For what else is a wealthy industrialist to do with his money but buy objects displaying his wealth and taste (always an important element for aspiring gentlemen in this era)? Above all it reiterates that indissoluble connection between arts and science, showing clearly how they continue to inspire and reflect one another, if only we continued to recognise and promote the unquestionable value of cultural expression in the modern world.
Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North-West is at Two Temple Place until 19 April and entry is free.