Mary Martin held her biennial art exhibition recently, from 29 May to 5 June, in its usual location, St Dominic village hall. I first went to an exhibition of hers about 20 years ago, by chance driving past on the last day. In those days (pre-children) we had a fair bit of disposable income, but unfortunately, as it was the last day, all the paintings were sold.
I’ve subsequently admired her work (in particular the very large painting which is on the wall of the barn at Cotehele), but it was only two years ago that I was able to find out about her exhibition in advance, so was able to go, this time on the first day. Lots of the paintings were sold then, too, but we have had one on our living room wall for the last two years.
This year, Virginia Spiers was kind enough to send an invitation to the private view on Saturday 28 May. Unfortunately I had already booked a holiday that week staying at Port Sunlight on the Wirral, but with some persuasion of family members I arranged to go down to Cornwall on the Friday night to attend the exhibition on the following morning. The paintings were sublime. I have a preference for the Cornish ones myself, but that’s because I think Mary captures the beauty of the Tamar Valley so well, and it’s an area I’m very fond of.
As a bonus, we now have to go back in a month or so to collect the picture we bought, and the fact we bought one helps justify our travelling from Surrey to Cheshire via Cornwall. We fortified our souls for the motorway journey to the Wirral by wandering round Cotehele Quay, garden, and Gallery, as well as having lunch at the Edgcumbe Arms
Port Sunlight is a wonderful place too. Driving up the New Chester Road I told my daughter that we were very nearly there, and her face fell, but turning off that main road into Port Sunlight is a little like passing through the back of the wardrobe, or stepping out of the shack when the tornado has passed. From the sort of drab, faceless twentieth-century ribbon development found on any arterial road in any conurbation, to late nineteenth/early twentieth century garden village, Nearly all the buildings are Grade II listed, although I was very disappointed with the Lutyens houses (disappointing on two levels – not as good as most of the other buildings in the village, and not anywhere near as good as anything else of his I’ve seen). Lever employed a number of the best architects of the day to design blocks of housing, and the effect is very pleasing, with no two stretches of buildings being exactly the same. The houses had bathrooms and gardens, and there were large areas of allotments for vegetable growing. It’s true to its ‘Garden Village’ label, as well, with vast areas of greenery and flowers.
There are things of historical interest in the surrounding area, too. Bromborough Pool has a model village, built for the workers of Price’s Patent Candle Company half a century before Port Sunlight, small but with its own school and church, and now looking a little forlorn among the retail and light industrial parks. Between Port Sunlight and Bromborough Pool, the bridge over the River Dibbins has World War II pillboxes. Driving through I had seen the two at either side of the southern end of the bridge, but it would appear that there’s one at the northern end too.
The Lady Lever Art Gallery is a nationally important gallery; the current exhibition is The Finishing Touch: women’s accessories, 1830-1940. The gallery has some excellent Pre-Raphaelite works, including, for example, The Blessed Damozel by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.
What’s astonishing is that this was all from the pocket of one man – William Hesketh Lever, later Viscount Leverhulme, and, not only did he build this company village, he also was a benefactor elsewhere, including his home town of Bolton. When he retired he bought the Isle of Lewis in Scotland.
The house we stayed in was wonderful, more nondescript than most in the village, but faultlessly appointed, and next-door-but-one to the museum; we spent two days just looking round the village at the houses, sculptures, war memorial, and gardens, and going to the gallery and museum. We also bought some Sunlight soap, and sampled the tearooms which are located in the old post office, opposite the station.
A Guide to Port Sunlight by Edward Hubbard and Michael Shippobottom is an architectural guide and history, but also has a couple of chapters designed to use while walking round the village making it a true guide.