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?
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’ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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