The Man Who Cleaned Up the World; Peter Elson Looks at the Life and Work of Lord Leverhulme, Social Reformer and Eccentric

Daily Post (Liverpool, England), April 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Cleaned Up the World; Peter Elson Looks at the Life and Work of Lord Leverhulme, Social Reformer and Eccentric


Byline: Peter Elson

WITH huge wealth comes the pleasures of artistic indulgence. William Hesketh Lever, Merseyside's multi-national soap magnate and first Viscount Leverhulme,enjoyed such opportunities in abundance.

There were no obstacles to commissioning Britain's most famous portrait artist of the 20th Century,Augustus John, to preserve his image in oils.

John painted what he saw: a remarkably perceptive picture showing Lever's long grasping fingers,his bulging eyes and jowly cheeks not concealing the long,down-turned tight line of this mouth.

When the portrait arrived at Leverhulme's home,he was so appalled by what he saw that he cut the head out of the painting and stuffed it in his personal safe. Then,like a scene from a farce, his housekeeper later cleared up the mess. Thinking the frame had to be returned to John, she had the remains of the mutilated painting packaged up and despatched to him.

The great artist was furious and poured out his invective about the phi listine Leverhulme in the press. Satirists and cartoonists had a field day. Max Beerbohm,for example,drew John grasping Leverhulme by the arm, the latter recognisable by an empty square representing his head.

Lord Leverhulme was many things: son of a grocer, self-made man, soapboiler, social reformer, MP,philanthropist, tribal chieftain,multimillionaire, friend of kings and prime ministers and Lord of the Western Isles.

Even by the parameters of this simple list he was one of the most extraordinary men to leave his mark on the public and private face of Britain -literally and metaphorically.

Ideas and beliefs that were well in advance of their times, such as the welfare state, votes for women and workers' rights. He was also a leading exponent of enlightened self-interest (a favourite phrase),in which the business owner improved conditions for his workers. The pay-back being that the employees were fitter and healthier and therefore worked harder to the benefit of the business.

YET these worthy concepts spilled out of his imagination,jumbled up with others that were seriously hare- brained. Lever thought the world's problems could be solved by switching populations from one country to another. Another was that ballroom dancing could save the soul. He believed that the only way to sleep was outdoors in the wind and the rain -sometimes leaping out of his snow- covered bed at Thornton Manor,Wirral, top lunge into an icy cold bath.

He proved that the great British eccentric was not purely a product of the aristocracy whose ranks his family, thanks to his commercialacumen, eventually joined. As one bemused interviewer reported in 1910:``Mr Lever seldom does anything like other people.''

Lever's life ran from his humdrum Bolton boyhood to a business empire that straddled the world and whose legacy remains a huge economic force today. Far from being a tale of mere ruthless laissez faire capitalism,Lever's idiosyncratic behaviour and sense of natural justice meant that his life story was leavened with (often unintended) humour.

Adam Macqueen's biography, The King of Sunlight -How William Lever Cleaned Up The World, shines a spotlight on a world with sets of values and beliefs that are long gone.

He asks where Leverhulme's philanthropy stops and his social engineering begins. Is it right for an employer to dictate how his workers spend their weekends, or hire private detectives to make sure they are doing it properly,or check that their house windows are open by mid-morning?

As multi-millionaire with half a dozen houses and property on four continents,Leverhulme was a mass employer addressed as ``chief'' from the Mersey to the Congo.

Leverhulme's most obvious legacy is Port Sunlight, where his model village of architect- designed houses and his factory still thrive side by side.

At the village's centre is the Lady Lever Art Gallery,now part of National Museums Liverpool, which contains some of Britain's greatest art treasures. …

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