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Sotheby's to offer three Victorian masterpieces from the Leverhulme Collection
James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot’s A Visit to the Yacht, estimated at £2-3 million. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- This December, Sotheby's will offer at auction three Victorian masterpieces: oil paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot, among the most important examples of their kind to come to auction. The three works, which have a total estimate of £9-14 million, come to sale from the Leverhulme collection, which was formed by the 1st and 2nd Viscounts Leverhulme. William Hesketh Lever, the 1st Viscount Leverhulme, was a driven and highly successful 19th century industrialist with a great eye and tremendous means, who during his fascinating life put together one of the greatest collections of English paintings ever assembled and created the purpose-built Lady Lever Art Gallery. Lever bought the Rossetti, which remained in his personal collection; additional master works, including the Tissot and Holman Hunt, were later purchased for the Leverhulme collection by his son William Hulme Lever, 2nd Viscount Leverhulme.

The paintings, from the Estate of the 3rd Viscount Leverhulme, are being sold by the Trustees of the 3rd Viscount Leverhulme Will Trust. Philip William Bryce Lever, 3rd Viscount Leverhulme succeeded to the title in 1949, becoming Lord Lieutenant of Cheshire a few months later and appointed a Knight of the Garter in 1988. He retained a handful of masterpieces at Thornton Manor where, as Lord Lieutenant, he had entertained Royalty and where he lived prior to his death in 2000. Following Sotheby’s sale of The Leverhulme Collection in June of the following year, the three paintings by Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Tissot, which are now offered for sale, were placed on loan at the Lady Lever Art Gallery by the 3rd Viscount’s Executors. They will be offered in Sotheby's Evening Sale of Old Master & British Paintings in London on 4th December 2013.

The sensuality of music fascinated Rossetti and A Christmas Carol is one of the artist's earliest of a series of half-length depictions of women in Venetian-style dress playing musical instruments. Estimated at £4-6 million, the 1867 oil on panel combines the central tenets of the emerging English Aesthetic movement: female beauty, music, and the fashion for exotic decoration and costume. The robed maiden in A Christmas Carol sits and plays a two-stringed mandolin, with her head thrown back and her throat full of song that rises to her parted lips. The tresses of her dark hair are pinned from her face with a spiral clasp of seed pearls; at her neck is a collar of emeralds that match the colour of her eyes, whilst the crimson lining of her gown echoes the blush of her mouth and the holly berries adorning the instrument. The frame features an inscription detailing the Vespers of the Christmas Day that his maid, ‘well-apparelled’, sings.

The model for the painting was Ellen Smith, a Rossetti 'Stunner'. The artist 'discovered' Ellen, a laundress, in a Chelsea street in 1863. Her features were soft and alluring, and in all the pictures that Rossetti conceived to display her beauty, she is enticing and unthreatening. Ellen appears to have been attracted to the financial benefits of posing as an artist's model and saw her new profession as a way of escaping the poverty of her vocation. A Christmas Carol was amongst Rossetti's last images of Ellen and one of the most elaborate of her he would ever make, depicting her face almost touching a silver icon of the Mother and Child against an sumptuous tapestry background. Rossetti's oeuvre can be interpreted as the artist's unending fascination with feminine beauty, and A Christmas Carol – one of the most important paintings by Rossetti to be offered for sale in recent history – occupies a distinguished position within it.

The picture passed through several hands before William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme purchased it at auction in 1917. It had previously been owned by George Rae (1817-1902), a wealthy Scottish art collector and one of Rossetti’s most enthusiastic patrons; he owned at least seventeen paintings by the artist. By the time Lever bought A Christmas Carol, he already owned two drawings by Rossetti and when the opportunity presented itself to buy a masterpiece, he determined to secure the work for his collection. Whilst many of Lever’s acquisitions went to his museum at Port Sunlight, A Christmas Carol remained in his personal possession at Thornton Manor for his private contemplation.

Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw by William Holman Hunt was painted in Fiesole, outside Florence, in the winter of 1869 and depicts an Italian peasant girl standing in a Tuscan landscape with a pet collared dove perched on her shoulder. A musical element links this work to the Rossetti, as the girl is singing to her feathered companion. At Fiesole, Hunt found models among the farming community who reminded him of the figures in his beloved Renaissance paintings. Three pencil sketches suggest that the subject of this work was inspired by an incident witnessed by Hunt. He considered his pictures of children commercially attractive and rivals to the children's portraits painted by Sir John Everett Millais. Hunt undoubtedly intended the subject of Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw to be picturesque and to suggest the continuing tradition of handicrafts in the region. The age of the girl, however, also implies a social comment about the working lives of children. The conditions children even younger faced in England were much harsher, and here the girl’s bright eyes, healthy complexion and fine clothing indicate contentment, a reading which is reinforced by Hunt’s use of the dove.

Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw was first exhibited at the inaugural exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 where it was shown in the principal and most prestigious room. The picture was well received by the art critics. It comes to the market with an estimate of £3-5 million and in its original gilt frame, decorated with medallions incorporating stylised daisies. Amongst the first owners of the work was John Francis Austen, a relative of the novelist Jane Austen. The painting remained in his possession until 1931, when it was sold at auction by his executors, and subsequently purchased on behalf of William Hulme Lever, the 2nd Viscount Leverhulme. It hung in the French Drawing Room at Thornton Manor. William Hulme Lever was the second generation of his family to own pictures by Hunt, and this was his first significant purchase. Other Hunt paintings from Lord Leverhulme’s collection were given to the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight; however, this picture remained in the family collection.

The 2nd Viscount Leverhulme also acquired James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot’s A Visit to the Yacht, estimated at £2-3 million. The visually splendid oil on canvas was purchased from the Leicester Galleries in 1933 and shows a group of figures assembled on the deck of a boat framed by a dramatic network of masts and ropes, each detail exquisitely rendered. Tissot had arrived in London in the spring of 1871 and was drawn to the river Thames as a subject. He chose the stretch of bustling commercial docksides between Tower Bridge and Greenwich, which had immediate appeal for an English audience. In the present work he has achieved the suggestion of a photographic snapshot in the apparent indifference and detachment of the figures who are not so much composed as captured unawares, and thus Tissot leaves the viewer guessing as to the narrative. The man in the foreground leans in towards the woman, as if to impart some muttered secret, whilst she remains slightly aloof from him. The couple at the edge of the picture both gaze outward onto the sea of ships, with their backs to the viewer and to one another. The young girl reclining in a bentwood chair appears overcome by lassitude as she engages onlookers directly.

Tissot had faced the challenge of adapting his work to a new viewing public on arrival in London. By 1873, the date suggested by scholars for when Tissot painted A Visit to the Yacht, the artist had abandoned clear narratives in favour of the uneasy atmosphere and psychological tension that we see in this work. The title poses more questions than it answers and the disparity between the suggestion of a pleasurable visit and the scene before us only serves to emphasise the ambiguity of the work.

Tissot was hugely successful in England and it was during his time in London that he met the woman who was to be the great love of his life, Kathleen Newton. Kathleen became his muse; he painted her consistently throughout the late 1870s and never fully recovered from her death in 1882. At one time, Kathleen was believed to have been the model for the central female figure in A Visit to the Yacht; however, subsequent scholarship has generally not recognised any visual similarities between the figure in this work and those works in which there is no question that Kathleen is the woman depicted.

William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme
The Leverhulme name is synonymous with one of the greatest collections of English paintings ever assembled by an Englishman: William Hesketh Lever, the 1st Viscount Leverhulme, creator of the magnificent Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight, which was subsequently given to the nation. Lever was a self-made industrialist, arguably the greatest of his generation. He made a fortune by producing a household commodity – soap, and it was with the proceeds of this industry that he indulged his passions for philanthropy and fine art with a fervent enthusiasm.

The Lever family originated from Bolton in Lancashire in the 17th century. William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925) worked in his father’s wholesale grocer’s business where he conceived the idea of marketing a more conveniently packaged soap under the ‘Sunlight’ brand name. He and his brother, James Darcy Lever, acquired a small soap works in Warrington in 1885 and Lever Brothers was founded. The rapidly growing population of towns and cities filled with factories began to wash more regularly; seeing a gap in the market for soap that was affordable to everyone and that would lather in any type of water, Lever patented a new recipe that would outsell all other brands. The company grew quickly and moved to a purpose-built factory on the River Mersey in 1888. Lever soon created not only a thriving business on the new site but the model village of Port Sunlight, which included an art gallery. With the move to the Wirral, Lever bought Thornton Manor, a modest Victorian villa conveniently close to his developing works and village. A passion for building fuelled a twenty-five year sequence of campaigns on the property, and Lever’s growing collections demanded expansion.

Fundamental to Sunlight Soap’s success was Lever himself, the driving force of his company. Indicative of Viscount Leverhulme’s character is the fact that he slept in an open bed on the rooftop above the grand rooms of his home, with only a simple canopy to protect him from the ravages of wind, snow and rain. He would rise at 4.30am every day – without fail – and plunge into a marble bath filled with cold water to prepare him for the day ahead. His passion for business and philanthropy was equaled by a desire to accumulate works of art encompassing exquisite ceramics, Napoleonic furniture and the best examples of British art. Lever showcased his eclectic collection amid the grandeur of the rooms at Thornton Manor, beneath his simple outdoor bedroom. Over a period of about thirty years, he amassed over 20,000 objects and one of the greatest private assemblages in the country, a testament to his belief in art’s power to ‘enlighten and ennoble’.

William Lever was a Liberal MP for the Wirral constituency, became a baronet in 1911, was created a peer as Baron Leverhulme in 1917 and was elevated to Viscount in 1922. He was the first industrialist to create a multi-national company whose interests spread across the world, particularly to America and Africa. Following his death in 1925, Lever Brothers merged with the Dutch company, Margarine Unie, forming the huge enterprise of Unilever.

Lever created the purpose-built Lady Lever Art Gallery to allow the public access to his collection. It took the place of the earlier Port Sunlight art gallery (housed in Hulme Hall) and was in keeping with a distinctly American practice of building galleries around business tycoons’ collections. The bulk of the best pictures were given to the gallery where they remain today: its crowning glories include Frederic, Lord Leighton’s The Daphnephoria and The Garden of the Hesperides, Rossetti’s Sibylla Palmifera and Millais’ The Nest and The Proscribed Royalist. The gallery also houses a diverse collection of furniture, tapestries, Wedgwood, Chinese ceramics, and sculpture.

A handful of masterpieces remained at Thornton Manor until Sotheby’s 2001 sale of The Leverhulme Collection, when they were loaned by the trustees of the estate to the Lady Lever Art Gallery. The three paintings by Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Tissot are only now offered for sale.

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