William Hesketh Lever, later Lord Leverhulme, was son of a wholesale grocer, born in Bolton in 1851. He joined the family business when he was sixteen and five years later his father made him his partner.
In the 1880s Lever became bored with grocery and began exploring the possibility of expanding into other areas. Lever eventually decided on soap and after leasing a chemical works in Warrington he started experimenting with different ingredients. He eventually settled on the formula of palm kernel oil, cottonseed oil, resin and tallow. Lever called it Sunlight soap and it was an immediate success.
He also had the revolutionary idea of selling it in pre-wrapped uniform bars rather than cutting it to size like cheese from a large block as had been the practice until that time.
He called it Sunlight Soap, the customers loved it, and he made a fortune.
The Warrington factory was not large enough to supply the demand and so Lever built a new one by the River Mersey in Cheshire. The new factory was at Bromborough Pool on the Wirral and coped ably with demand. He also created a model village called Port Sunlight to house his workers and eventually gave them the Lady Lever Art Gallery which enabled them to see beautiful works which would otherwise have been outwith their reach.
By 1895 the Port Sunlight factory was producing 40,000 tons of soap a year. Other products produced at Port Sunlight included Lifebuoy Carbolic Soap, Sunlight Soap Flakes and Vim. Lever gave a considerable amount of money to charity and his contribution to society was recognised by being granted the title Viscount Leverhulme. William Lever died in 1925.
In his early days as a collector, Leverhulme looked for images rather than art. He did however have a good eye, and went to the Royal Academy summer exhibition and bought pictures which could be used for business-boosting posters. For this reason in the gallery hangs The Wedding Morning by John Bacon, an innocent illustration of nuptial preparations in an ordinary home (accompanied by soap of course).
"It's only a moderate picture but very suitable for a soap advertisement." Leverhulme is said to have statedat the time. For his poster, he removed the clock from the fireplace and a cup and saucer from a table, and painted in bars of Sunlight soap.
By the mid-1890s he had become a serious collector with an appreciation of art for what it is. He gathered a sample of some of the grandest and finest furniture made in Britain in the 300 years to the beginning of the 19th century. He also acquired a huge amount of Wedgwood pottery (the World's finest collection - in blue, green, lilac and black), Chinese porcelain and Greek, Roman and Etruscan earthenware.
The Lady Lever Gallery is a wonder, an industrial magnate's tribute to his wife and a home to the pictures, furniture, sculpture, ceramics and antiquities that he collected almost obsessively. Others, such as Thomas Holloway, did the same but not on such a scale.
The gallery is at Port Sunlight, near Birkenhead on the Wirral. It is usually open from Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and on Sunday from 12noon to 5pm.