Liverpool History Society Questions

A selection of Liverpool history questions submitted to the Liverpool History Society

Joesph Mayer`s Life

Hello Rob,

I have been following the postings on Jos Mayer and would like to find out more about his life.  Can you obligue?

Peter Falkner-Abbot.

Hello Peter,

Mayer’s benevolence and commitment to public enlightenment ensure his position as an important civic figure of the nineteenth century.

Joseph Mayer, (1803–1886) was collector of antiquities and works of art, and was born on 23 February 1803 at Thistlebury House, Newcastle under Lyme, Staffordshire, fourth son and the sixth of eleven children of Samuel Mayer (1767–1838), tanner, currier, and mayor of Newcastle under Lyme, and his wife, Margaret (1773–1859), daughter of John Pepper, architect.

Having attended Newcastle under Lyme grammar school, he moved to Liverpool in October 1821 at the age of eighteen. He began an informal apprenticeship as a silversmith under his brother-in-law, James Wordley (fl. 1817–1861), entering into partnership with him in 1834, and setting up on his own as a jeweller and goldsmith in 1844. He demonstrated a remarkable flair for business and the financial success he achieved enabled him to indulge a passion for archaeology and collecting which he had had since childhood. This had first manifested itself when he was eight when he acquired a small hoard of Roman coins and pottery sherds whose unearthing he had witnessed—a minuscule foreshadowing of the scale and comprehensiveness of the collections he later amassed, displayed to the public, and finally bestowed on the city of Liverpool.

Born into a radical and nonconformist family, Mayer was a natural patriot, and realized the value of cultivating learning and the arts among all classes in Britain. From his twenty-fifth year he contributed readily to loan exhibitions and made gifts to mechanics’ institutes. He was an exhibitor at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and at the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. He was sustained in his endeavours by the support of a wide circle of friends, distinguished by their contributions to archaeology, to historical studies, and as influential moulders of opinion in the decorative arts. The development of his collection was greatly furthered by a close collaboration, in particular, with Charles Roach Smith and Augustus Wollaton Franks. Mayer’s acquisition, in 1854, of the collection of Kentish antiquities excavated by the Revd Bryan Fausset was an outstanding event in the history of British archaeology, and his purchase in 1855 of the Byzantine and medieval ivories of Baron Gábor Fejérváry was an equally invaluable contribution to art collecting in Britain.

Mayer regarded his collections as a public resource which he willingly made available to those able to employ them to positive ends, and also funded several scholarly publications and sponsored archaeological excavations. His own contributions to literature were more modest, constituting a series of articles in the Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, of which he was one of the three founding members, on 20 March 1848. In 1855 he contributed a paper, ‘History of the art of pottery in Liverpool’ (revised edn, 1873), which remains fundamental to the study of the subject. Mayer was one of the earliest systematic collectors of ceramics, with important holdings of Liverpool porcelain and pottery, and a notable collection of Wedgwood wares. His most striking achievement in this connection was his discovery and acquisition of the vast hoard of documents of Josiah Wedgwood, the foundation deposit of the Wedgwood archive collection now at the University of Keele. Mayer generously put these papers at the disposal of Eliza Meteyard and advised, and assisted financially, in the completion of her Life of Josiah Wedgwood (1865). Mayer’s collection was first made accessible to the general public in May 1852, when he opened an Egyptian Museum (later the Museum of National and Foreign Antiquities) in Colquitt Street, Liverpool. In 1867 he presented the collection, then valued at £75,000, to the Liverpool Free Library and Museum. In recognition of the munificence of his gift and other services to the town, the corporation of Liverpool commissioned the life-size statue of Mayer by Giovanni Fontana in St George’s Hall, Liverpool. As with other surviving portraits, it reveals him to have been throughout his life a person of distinguished appearance, with an authoritative but sympathetic bearing. The Mayer collection continues as a significant constituent of the collections of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside.

The honour which Mayer most valued, however, was the fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries of London, awarded in 1850. In 1860 he was appointed captain of the Liverpool volunteer borough guard, and in 1864 captain of the 4th Bebington company of the 1st Cheshire rifle volunteers, a unit he had raised at his own expense. He had moved in 1860 to Pennant House, Bebington, Cheshire, where he continued his benefactions, endowing the borough with a well-stocked lending library, public gardens, and a lecture hall and picture gallery. Retiring from business in 1873, he applied himself, inconclusively, to writing a history of art in England, amassing more than 20,000 drawings, prints, and autograph letters, as well as continuing to collect works of art and antiquities. This collection, with an estimated value of £10,000, was dispersed by auction in Liverpool on 15–16 December 1887. He also collaborated with his nephew Frederick Boyle in the publication of two works which remain of permanent value in the study of the life and work of George Stubbs (1724–1806): Early Exhibitions of Art in Liverpool with some Notes for a Memoir of George Stubbs RA (1876), and Memoirs of Thomas Dodd, William Upcott, and George Stubbs RA (1879). In his retirement he pursued an interest in gardening, having in 1870 successfully cultivated in the open air the giant Victoria Regia water lily. He died unmarried at Pennant House on 19 January 1886, aged eighty-two, and was interred on 23 January 1886, at St Andrew’s Church, Bebington.

Sourced from my battered, well worn Volume of  Oxford DNB

Rob Ainsworth
Programme Secretary & Web Administrator
Liverpool History Society

02/12/2009 - Posted by | Joesph Mayer`s Life | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. jelycons said…

    At the half yearly General Meeting of the Members of the Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution in September 1828, held in their premises over the Union News Room, it was announced that among various other donations to the school during the previous six months, was one of “eight plaster casts from the antique, by Mr J Mayer” (ref Lpool Mercury 12 Sept 1828 LIVERPOOL MECHANICS’ INSTITUTION).

    In 1840 The Lpool Mechanics’ Institution held their 1st Exhibition of Arts and Curiosities etc. in their new building at the top of Mount St. The Exhibition opened on 19 June, and it was reported (Lpool Mercury 26 June) that a great number of the exhibits in the Antiquarians’ Room were contributed by Joseph Mayer.

    In the March 1842 Annual Meeting of the Friends and Subscribers of the Lpool Mechanics’ Institution, it was stated that a 2nd Exhibition was to be held in June (Lpool Mercury 11 March 1842). The contents of the Sculpture Gallery were discussed and it was stated that the Committee had not considered themselves justified, by the state of the funds, in adopting the suggestion of their predecessors for the purchase of Casts of the Elgin Marbles, for which spaces were left when the Gallery was built. The report of the 1842 Exhibition (24 June Lpool Mercury) does not mention Joseph Mayer, but comments that a number of casts from the Elgin Marbles have been purchased by the Directors for the use of the pupils of the Institution.

    In 1844 Joseph Mayer was joint Hon.Secretary for the Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution 3rd Exhibition, opened on 20th June 1844, held in their building at the top of Mount Street.(Advert Lpool Mercury 21 June 1844).

    One of the Exhibition Displays was the “BELZONI CASTS – These interesting relics of the Tombs of Thebes (being the original Casts taken by Belzoni himself) the unique records of a civilisation that has passed away, have fortunately been secured for the Exhibition”

    The Edtorial description/comment on the Exhibition describes the position of these Belzoni Casts, it being in the Art Room above the Main Entrance to the Institution, as will be remembered by those ex pupils of the Liverpool Institute High School today.

    The comment also gives a more detailed description of the Casts and their Exhibition in the Egyptian Hall, London (Piccadilly 1821-1823) and states that the Institution has purchased the original Casts, and they believe them to be the only casts of their kind in existence. The Mount St Exhibition of June 1844 also has many other items on display from Ancient Egypt.

    It was in 1852 that Joseph Mayer opened up his Egyptian Gallery for public viewing, just a few months before the first Liverpool Public Library/Museum opened at the Union News Room in Duke St 1852/53.

    After the Public Library and Museum moved to their new premises in William Brown Street, Mayer in 1867 donated his Collection of Art, Antiquities,and Ethnology for display there. When Mayer died in 1886, his will offered to the Museum those parts of his collection which had not already been given, but the offer was refused due to the attached conditions, and eventually those items were sold off at auction (ref The History of Liverpool World Museum – Lpool History Society website)

    The Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution of course later became the Liverpool Institute High School. When I was a pupil at the Liverpool Institute, we had Casts of the Elgin Marbles around the walls of the Art Room – in the position of the Belzoni Casts as described for the 1844 Exhinbition. A couple of these Elgin Cast were saved/reclaimed after the conversion of the Mount Street building to LIPA in the 1980s/90s and are now exhibited in the “Covered Yard”

    It is possible the Casts reported as donated by J Meyer in 1828 were in fact the Belzoni Casts as exhibited in 1844 and which probably were an early part of Mayer’s Egyptian Collection.

    Are there any records of Mayer’s Collection or of the first joint public museum in the Union News Room / Mayer Building ?

    Is there a catalogue of Mayer’s items that were auctioned ?

    What happened to those unique Belzoni Casts ?

    It was probably the success of the Exhibitions held at the Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution that led to the popular demand for the Public Liverpool Museum being set up

    Jelycons-ex Liverpool Institute pupil.

    Comment by Jelycons | 31/01/2011 | Reply

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