The opulent late-19th century mansion at 2 Temple Place in London is an appropriate setting for the exhibition “Cotton to Gold”. The richly-decorated Gothic Revival building reflects the wealth of its original owner William Waldorf Astor, one of the richest men in the world at the time. The current exhibition shows how nineteenth century industrialists of northern England spent their new wealth on collecting fine art and other objects including books, glass, prints, watercolours, ancient coins, natural history specimens and icons – an astonishing range of artistic and historical treasures which are now housed in different museums across the north of England and are shown together for the first time in this exhibition in London.
These wealthy industrialists donated their collections to museums in the areas in which they had located their factories and in which their workers lived, thus in death they gave something back to the communities which had contributed to their wealth. The result is that Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery is home to an collection of rare books including a Third Folio of Shakespeare and a first edition of Gulliver’s Travels, Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington contains the largest collection of Tiffany glass in Europe, while Towneley Hall in Blackburn has a collection of international art including prints of Landseer’s work, watercolours by JMW Turner, male nude drawings by Millais, and more than 1,000 Japanese prints including works by Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Some of the collections are more esoteric and include stuffed birds, beetles and a Peruvian mummy.
Hopefully this exhibition will raise awareness of these museums, which are relatively little-known outside northern England and encourage visitors to go and see what other treasures they hold.
“What visitors to “Cotton to Gold” will take away is not only a snapshot of the cabinets of Burnley, Blackburn and Accrington, but the realisation that there are hundreds of such smaller museums and galleries conserving local legacies of world-class importance.” (Claudia Pritchard in The Independent).