Gold to Guilt

Cotton to Gold (Two Temple Place, London, 31 January-19 April 2015)

“Doubtless prompted by the hardships endured by the workers, the industrialists of the North West supported a wide range of cultural causes that benefitted the inhabitants of the cotton town.”

This exhibition brings together the collections of several textile, rope and other industrial magnates as donated to their local museums — the Townley Hall, Burnley, the Haworth Art Gallery, Accrington and Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. If you want to know what surplus labour is, have a look at this.

In the Good Old Days, the artisan weaved in their own home, but the process became machine-led and stream-driven and centred on the factories in ever-growing towns, especially in Lancashire. Try this: “One machine could produce around 40 yards of plain weave calico each day.” A single worker could operate eight machines. Calico is presumably made from cotton, that just happened to be lying around. Or brought in from the colonies. We’ll come back to them. Nearby there are the clogs worn by men, women and children in the factory – I forget whether the factory is for rope or textiles, but it hardly matters. The cotton rope on display is “less likely to break while powering the looms, thereby increasing productivity and profit.”

And, presumably, be safer for the workers. If that matters. I suppose it does.

One of the industrialists amassed a collection of eight hundred books, including rare early editions of Chaucer and Spenser, a Third Folio of Shakespeare, a Torah, books in Arabic and from Persia, Buddhist texts… Frankly he couldn’t have read chunks of it — his workers were presumably illiterate on the whole. There’s a first edition of Gulliver’s Travels. Covets.

We have coins and icons and stuffed birds — the collector preferred paintings but still had a range of corpses, a fan of leucistic specimens apparently — and Millais drawings and Japanese prints and Turner watercolours (who doesn’t have one?! I’ve seen thousands of the buggers in municipal galleries) and ivory carvings. There’s a warning about this but there’s an Incan corpse from the twelfth century collected by William T. Taylor, who appears to have been involved in archaeology, but more to the point worked in hydroelectric dams in Kashmir, Nepal, Mexicon and Peru. Apparently “he seems to have paid scant regard to the claims of the local people to the objects he brought back.” No shit.

At the start, the curators claim that “the exhibition highlights the circumstance of the exceptional accumulation” of objects. To a point, yes, to a point.

The industrialists put money into galleries and museums, as well as into churches and cathedrals. They endowed schools and … orphanages. How many of the orphans worked in the factories? How many were orphaned by the factories?

At the same time, one has a sneaking respect for the owner of Burnley Brewing Company, Edward Stocks Massey (whose legacy was used to buy other collections), who promised a large sum of money to the Burnley Corporation, but the amount would drop every time one of his 150 pubs lists its license. Fortunately for Burnley, he died fairly soon.

Of course, very few museums have ethical collections. It’s just that it is rarely so flagrant and hinted at but not entirely visible. There are undoubtedly some beautiful objects here — for me the highlight is a rather crappy Blake drawing. As proven by many dozens of municipal galleries, industrialists had lousy tastes (or kept the good stuff).*

The downfall came in the 1940s when India, apparently the destination for fifty per cent of Lancastrian cotton, boycotted it. The market fell and there were times when a factory a week closed. Bloody colonials, with their demands for independence…
* In this, of course, I may well be being unfair to self-made men. But made on the back of the labour of others.

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