In 2008 Liverpool was named European capital of culture. This may have raised a few eyebrows `down south` but the truth is that the city has long been a patron of the arts. You may or may not be a fan of the medieval symbolism, bright hard palette and penchant for dreamy damsels with big eyes and big hair that characterises the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as they rather self-importantly styled themselves), but what brings The Walker Art Gallery`s exhibition "Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion" http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/exhibitions/preraphaelites alive is its exploration of art patronage in the era of the great Victorian industrialists.
London`s Royal Academy (`RA`) had begun by treating the upstart PRB with contempt. Not so in Liverpool. They had set up their own Academy which put on an exhibition every Autumn, welcoming unsold work from the RA`s more famous Summer Exhibition.
“We are saying that Liverpool was a hugely significant place for the pre-Raphaelites,” said the curator Christopher Newall. “There was a tradition of art collecting that led to great things … but more than that there was a freedom of spirit, an intellectualism, a non-conformism and self-confidence that allowed this style of art to prosper.”
Behind the Liverpool Academy was a veritable slew of wealthy industrialists who embraced the rebellious PRB and started collecting their work with ingenuous abandon. The soap magnate, Lord Lever. The Birkenhead banker, George Rae. The tobacco merchant, John Miller. The ship owner, Frederick Richards Leyland. The brewer, Andrew Barclay Walker, (whose cash founded the Gallery itself). The walls of their mansions were stuffed with PRB work. Self-made men, they came to the world of art with no elitist preconceptions and they warmed to the PRB`s non-conformism. Even today the PRB enjoys a mixed reputation amongst art cognoscenti, but it has mostly been popular with the `man in the street`. In similar vein, these no-nonsense northern capitalists simply liked what they saw - realistic figurative images with vivid colour and a compelling narrative - and promptly bought what they liked.
Yesterday it was announced that British Home Stores was going into bankruptcy, the victim not only of an outdated retailing product but of a series of rapacious owners who had milked the brand at the expense of its customers, its employees and indeed its own survival. MP`s have called this "the unacceptable face of capitalism".
I can`t answer for the business ethics of The Walker`s Victorian Liverpool magnate-art-benefactors, and no doubt there was a touch of self-interest and status-seeking in their patronage, however there is no doubt about the wonderful legacy that they have left us. Is this `enlightened capitalism`? Maybe, maybe not. But for those of us who are lucky enough to enjoy this show, it is most assuredly `acceptable`!