School hopes to clean up with Pears soap painting

Auctioning the famous picture could earn #163;150,000 for primary

Jerome Monahan

A school in one of the most deprived parts of Blackpool is set to receive a significant funding boost if all goes to plan at a London auctioneer next month, where a painting depicting a well-scrubbed Victorian boy preparing to defend his wicket will be up for sale. Valued at up to #163;150,000, it has hung in Thames Primary's hall for the past 86 years.

Captain of the Eleven, by Royal Academician Philip Hermogenes Calderon, became one of the most famous images of the late Victorian and Edwardian period after being used in a pioneering advertising campaign to promote Pears soap.

"It was later bought by a local councillor, who presented it to the school, which was in his ward, in 1926," said headteacher Tracy Harrison. "We have long known it is a valuable painting, but the priority is providing the best possible facilities. Ours is a 19th-century school with some classrooms in need of modernisation and, if (the painting) reaches its estimate of #163;100,000 to #163;150,000, that's what the money will contribute to."

Owning a sizeable (1.5m by 1m) Victorian canvas is not without its problems and the picture is going on sale in the face of increasing insurance costs.

"It also needed restoration," said Ms Harrison, "and as part of preparing it for sale, Bonhams (the auctioneer) have had it lightly cleaned and details such as a wall and colourful flower bed behind the boy have appeared."

The decision to put the painting up for sale had to be agreed by a meeting of Thames Primary's governors. "They were unanimous, recognising that the money we might make could be put to good use and also knowing that the picture was becoming a drain on our resources," said Ms Harrison. "For their part, Bonhams have reduced their sales commission to single figures and have also arranged the making of a reproduction of the picture for the school."

The painting, completed in 1882, is already attracting plenty of interest, according to Bonhams' director of 19th-century paintings, Peter Rees, in part because of its important association with early advertising.

"It was bought by Pears' managing director Thomas Barratt, who was skilled at spotting works that might help in the marketing of their famous brand of clear soap," said Mr Rees. "[It] was given away free as a print in the 1898 Pears Christmas annual and became one of the most reproduced images of the early 20th century, appearing, for example, on presentation cricket bats."

The image, idealising Victorian notions of clean-cut masculine endeavour, has little point of contact with the challenges facing Thames Primary's pupils in the early 21st century. The school serves a deprived and highly transient population within walking distance of Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Half of its 424 pupils are entitled to free school meals and a high proportion have special educational needs.

"The picture is not an important feature in our children's lives and there's a good chance many would not even notice it going," Ms Harrison said. "Although (the pupils) play rounders and other games in our small playground, we do not have the kind of green space depicted in the picture. We have to use the local high school's grounds for our sports day."

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Jerome Monahan

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