Cotton to Gold – Two Temple Place – Jan 2015

Cotton To Gold The last time I visited Two Temple Place was in 2014 for their ‘Discoveries’ exhibition, it was right near the end of the exhibition run and I had been desperate to visit from the moment it had opened, but my youngest broke his collar-bone and it seemed to put the brakes on lots of things. I wasn’t going to let fate get in the way for the opening of their new exhibition – ‘Cotton to Gold’, I am here for a preview before it even opens, to say I am looking forward to it is a massive understatement. When I arrive the door is locked, it is like being invited round to a posh neighbours house and they are running late, have I got the wrong time? The wrong date?

Beautiful stained glass
Beautiful stained glass of Two Temple Place

I miss the door bell completely, who expects to ring a doorbell to visit an exhibition? After a few minutes a chap coming out lets me in and I am given a tour (thank you David!). I almost have the whole house to myself and it lends a nervous excitement to the experience. Two Temple Place is such an amazing building, on your first visit the exhibition can often play second fiddle as you marvel at the stained glass and the carved staircase of this beautiful house. You feel as if you are snooping in someone’s home, they have perhaps just popped out or gone to hurry along the servants making tea. You have a chance to see their ‘precious things’, to marvel at their strange and beautiful collections.

Cotton to Gold

‘Cotton to Gold’ is indeed an intriguing and beautiful showcase of the collections of the industrial north-west. It aims to celebrate the manufacturing heritage of Lancashire by highlighting the wealthy private collectors who became a new breed of industrial entrepreneurs. Their wealth and private collections eventually benefitting local communities as civic pride and philanthropic culture preserved an eclectic mix of paintings, rare books, Tiffany glass, coins, prints and drawings for future generations.

Looming large ethics and morals
Looming large, ethics and morals

The exhibition not only dazzles with treasures but tries to tell the story behind the collectors, the first we meet is Robert Edward Hart (1878-1946) whose passion seems to have been the history of the written word, he is portrayed as a philanthropic quiet man. But for me it is hard not to think about the deprivation and poverty of the thousands that worked in the cotton mills that paid for some of these items. A loom is placed centrally in the first display, a coil of rope a reminder of Hart’s own business background but I am not sure it adequately tells how those vast personal fortunes were made.

Rope and workers shoes a reminder of hard work and suffering
Rope and workers shoes a reminder of hard work and suffering

There are also to the modern eye the ethical considerations to collecting and displaying ivory, rare birds and Peruvian Mummies, but we can’t change the past we can only learn from it. It seems these ethical concerns are always topical, with controversies over BP sponsorship of the Tate, and companies still make eye watering profits on the back of dubious treatment of workers. Apple, who recently made the largest ever corporate first quarter profit, also accused of the poor treatment of workers exposed to chemicals in the manufacture of iphones. So perhaps we really haven’t learnt from the past at all, but I risk getting lost down the lines of what an exhibition should be – a moral tale or one based on the aesthetic beauty of objects, the wonder of artistic skill and the mindset of the collector.

2015-01-30 11.26.35
Many different treasures to behold

Putting these concerns to one side, I love the eclectic nature of the exhibition, never knowing what will meet you in each cabinet and surprise you round each corner. The very first cabinet gives you an inkling of what is in store: rare books; icons; coins; ivory; Tiffany glass; taxidermy: and Peruvian grave goods – items that are not often found sharing a cabinet.

Cotton to Gold

The books are beautifully illustrated, there are some rare examples to excite every book enthusiast. I love how the pages are often left open depicting life and death themes, it goes to the heart of the collector legacy, how these men have lived on through the gifting of their collections.

Book of Hours, late fifteenth century, France. A woman dances with the skeletal figure of Death
Book of Hours, late fifteenth century, France. A woman dances with the skeletal figure of Death. Blackburn Museum and Gallery

I thoroughly enjoyed how the coins are laid out, in a few steps you can run through the sweep of Greek and Roman rulers. Having just finished reading Allan Massie’s Augustus it was a real treat to see Augustus and Livia laid side by side.

Robert Edward Hart's coin collection, from the Blackburn Museum and Gallery
Robert Edward Hart’s coin collection, from the Blackburn Museum and Gallery

There are recognisable Japanese iconic prints, a few perhaps less recognisable but very intriguing all the same. I would love to know the story behind the dangling turtle! Then with one step you come face to face with Assyrian tablets from around 2300-2000 BC, it is hard to get your head round how old these beautifully carved clay pieces are. It is hard not to admire Hart and his quest to understand the earliest forms of writing.

Cotton to Gold
Thomas Boys Lewis’s Japanese prints – Blackburn Museum and Gallery
Anyone explain this one to me?
Anyone explain this one to me?
Assyrian clay tablets, part of Hart's Collection at the Blackburn Museum and Gallery
Assyrian clay tablets, part of Hart’s Collection at the Blackburn Museum and Gallery

In the hallway, the exquisite beauty of nature in some truly huge bugs and beetles is mirrored in the Art Nouveau styled Tiffany Mosaics. I wished there were more to see (mosaics not bugs), their iridescent colours were captivating.

I wonder if pests get pest damage
I wonder if pests get pest damage – Arthur C. Bowdler’s Beetles, Blackburn Museum and Gallery
The Tiffany Mosaics are stunning and vibrant
The Tiffany Mosaics are stunning and vibrant – Joseph Briggs Collection, Haworth Gallery

Upstairs it is hard to believe there is even more to captivate the visitor. Taxidermy nestled in the protective panelled walls, the traditional display cases, housing ivories and Tiffany glass, are a great choice and really evoke the era of the gentlemen collectors.

Beautiful traditional display cases
Beautiful traditional display cases – George Eastwood ivories – Towneley Hall
I have found a little Turner
I have found a little Turner

I notice a tiny, proud bust of JMW Turner peering out, and no wonder he exudes pride, he looks across at 10 of his own watercolours adorning the walls on loan from Blackburn Museum and Towneley Hall Gallery. But of all the treasures in the room I am drawn to the Millais drawings. They are just wonderful, one in particular stands out for me, it is amazing how such erotic power and beauty can be achieved from light and shade, from pencil and chalk.

What can Turner see from his perch?
What can Turner see from his perch?

Those muscular forms could not be in more stark contrast to the shrivelled, fragile Peruvian mummy brought back by William T. Taylor from his travels and adventures (I have not included a picture). My ethical concerns are piqued again, whereas with the British Museum, mummy  Ancient Lives, I felt a scientific investment and respect to the display, this feels a little voyeuristic to me, but then I have always struggled with the display of human remains. Then I see Taylor’s diary on llama skin, sometimes you forget the age of discovery and thirst for knowledge that often pushed these collectors. It is easy to look back and be judgemental. The diary charms me and strangely reminds me of my daughter’s diary at home (thankfully) not real llama but just as furry.

WT Taylor's llama skin diary
WT Taylor’s llama skin diary
I am not sure what animal this fur came from!
I am not sure what animal this fur came from!

I spent too long at the exhibition and I write too much now, but there was still much I didn’t really look at or read up on. But that is why Two Temple Place and their regional exhibitions are so wonderful, it is about laying a trail of breadcrumbs back to the original homes of all these collections. It is a teaser show to whet your appetite and to direct you where to find more.

Whilst I talked at the beginning about my unease at the source of these industrial magnates fortunes, you have to be thankful for the legacies that enable us to see these treasures today. While every day more stories of regional museum cuts hit the headlines and museum collections are sold off, we have to be mindful of the intent and efforts made by those early collectors. That philanthropic legacy is more important than ever and Two Temple Place play an important role in keeping the awareness of these treasures raised.

What illustrates it most for me is the famous print in the exhibition “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai, they day before I went to Two Temple Place my daughter had rather coincidentally brought home her very own version. I now can’t wait to take her to see this, to bring it to life for her. Inspiring the next generation and giving them access to beauty, to history and to nature is what these collections have to be all about. If we don’t preserve them and share them now when they are under such threat, how will my daughter be inspired to paint her next great masterpiece.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai
The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai
Can you even spot the difference!
Can you even spot the difference!

xxxxxxxxxxxxx

Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West  – Two Temple Place 31st-Jan to 19th April 2015

Free – for opening times please check the website – Two Temple Place

To find out more please see

Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

Haworth Gallery

Towneley Hall – Pennine Lancashire Museums

4 comments

  1. Temple is one of my favorite areas in London, but I must admit I didn’t know this place. I’ll add it to my list of things to see in London ( Gosh, this list is becoming longer and longer..!)

  2. Hi, You asked about the turtle in the japanese print. It is actually a paper turtle and I believe it is a symbol of good luck in Japan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s