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Mar 28 / Simon

Sir Peter Moores

Philanthropist and heir to the Littlewoods fortune who created Comp[ton Verney art gallery

Peter Moores, who has died following a stroke aged 83, was a multi-millionaire philanthropist who made funding the arts a life-time occupation, giving away most of his fortune.

Born in the well-to-do Liverpool suburb of Formby into a business empire created by his father and uncle in the 1920s, and was able to use his inherited fortune to pursue a serious love of opera and fine art. His most public benefaction was his conversion into an art gallery of a derelict 18th century Adam mansion at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, but much of his giving was confidential. “Most people aren’t as nutty as I am,” he once said. “Most people just want to give you the money and go away. I’m not like that”.

The family firm was Littlewoods, the football pools business created by John and Horace Moores in 1924 which expanded into mail order in 1932 and later into the high street in 1938. His father, Sir John Moores, who had himself had an elementary education but was to create the Sir John Moores University out of the old Liverpool Polytechnic just before his own death in 1993, was determined his offspring should reflect the social elevation of the family and sent his only son to Eton.

Peter had fallen in love with opera at an early age. “I don’t think it was the spectacle that drew me to opera, productions then weren’t particularly sophisticated” he said, “but it was the idea of ‘performance’, the singers creating characters and bringing the work to life that really attracted me.

“I grew up with my dad’s cupboard full of operas on 78 rpm recordings, and I had no idea what they were all about. I just started at one end of the cupboard and worked my way to the other; there was Caruso and there was Mary Garden, and there was Faust in Italian… I was fascinated by it, and I got used to opera that way.”

He went to Christ Church, Oxford, to read the operatic languages of Italian and German but left before completing his degree, exasperated with what he considered inadequate teaching (Oxford later awarded him an honorary MA). The impatience in his nature only partly mellowed with age.

Moores didn’t immediately go back to Littlewoods as his father wished but instead got in touch with an Old Etonian friend, George Christie, whose own father happened to own an opera house, Glyndebourne. He went to work there as a lowly transport manager but, observing how tough it was for performers and shyly approaching putative stars such as Joan Sutherland, Colin Davies and Geraint Evans, offered financial help in their struggling years. They remained life-long friends.

His admiration for the Christies and their achievement was great, but when he was approached with the suggestion that he help create an opera house himself at Compton Verney. He saw the proposition there as impracticable, requiring a complete new build with no obvious audience at hand. But he had had a dream of making an art gallery for Middle England, and began converting the old Palladian mansion there, in the Capability Brown modelled countryside.

From Glyndebourne Moores went on to the Vienna Academy of Music, first to make the tea and bring out the singers’ costumes but later becoming an assistant producer with the Staatsoper for three years where he produced the Austrian premiere of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. He then worked at the San Carlo Opera House, Naples, the Geneva Festival and the Rome Opera before, aged 25, he received the summons from his father to return to Liverpool and the family business. “The Opera in English series (produced by Chandos records from 1995 in association with Moores) is driven, I think, by Peter’s ferocious anti-snobbery on the subject, which many of my generation proudly share,” said the late opera critic at The Times Rodney Milnes. “Yet there’s the carriage trade as well – whoops, I nearly said elitist – 30-plus Opera Rara recordings, some featuring composers half of us have never heard of. Without Peter, there would be no Almeida Opera Festival, we wouldn’t have heard Rossini’s Otello at Covent Garden or Ermione at Glyndebourne”.

Moores became a director of Littlewoods in 1965, vice-chairman in 1976, and took over from his 81-year-old father as chairman of Britain’s largest private company the following year, in the shadow of a global recession. It was not a success, with profits dipping dramatically, and Sir John had to return to the helm. The complex family squabbles over the running of the firm escalated after Sir John’s death with Peter proposing himself for chairman but being blocked by his relatives. He resigned from the board, but a Stock Market flotation at the same time released a new wealth to Moores family members.

When he was 25, shortly after returning to work at Littlewoods, he bought a run-down nine-bedroom Queen Anne house near Wigan, Parbold Hall – “It was quite a mess but a solid, strong mess,” he said, “But I thought I could deal with it”. He did deal with it, restoring it in two years, and lived there for almost 60 years. He brought his Italian bride, Luciana Pinto, whom he had met during his opera-driven travels in Italy (they were later divorced and she died in the early 1990s) , to Parbold and it was where his children were brought up. Parbold was, recalls his friend Helen Anderson, a deep but private love of his. “He was there that he felt himself, restoring not just the house but the countryside around it”. He organised an annual fete for local charities in the gardens he created and extended the estate from 200 acres to 800. Where he would organise shoots that could yield 200 pheasants a day. He was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire in 1992

He sold Parbold as he approached his 80th birthday saying it was too large for a single man of his years, and in 2012 moved to a relatively small house in Oxford where he died.

He was a trustee of the Tate Gallery form 1978 to 1985, a governor of the BBC from 1981 to 1983 and a director of Scottish Opera form 1988 to 1993.

By the time he had joined the Littlwoods board he had already created the Peter Moores Foundation “to get things done and open doors for people”, especially in the fields of opera and the visual arts. Although the foundation gave away £231 million in its 50 years, those looking hopefully for grants were firmly informed in writing: “General applications for grants are not encouraged and are unlikely to succeed”. The foundation was not only concerned with art and music but gave grants, in particular, to young people involved in education, health, social and environmental projects.

Moores also devoted much time and money in Barbados, where he had a home, with a scheme to encourage more efficient agriculture in the West Indies and another to encourage young Afro-Caribbeans to stay in education longer.

He effectively started business studies at his old university by endowing a faculty directorship and chair in management studies, which later became the Saïd Business School and which in 2004 launched a Peter Moores Lectureship in Chinese Business Studies, another of his interests. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum until last December, said: “Everybody knows the operatic Peter Moores but at the British Museum we know the Asian Peter Moores. He has of course developed the spectacular collection of Chinese bronzes at Compton Verney, but he’s also helped the British Museum to add some great Chinese bronzes to its own collection”.

The Peter Moores Foundation continued to widen its interests, funding on one hand a bursary in fine art at the University of Ulster in Belfast and on the other supporting the scheme to build teams of young windsurfers. It helped ChildLine in its campaign to prevent of child abuse, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Development Trust. Meanwhile, more than 200 singers were helped by the foundation’s scholarships set up in 1971.

He wound the foundation up in 2015 with a Swansong Project to provide funding to the eight UK opera companies the foundation had been associated with over its half century, to allow them to stage work they would otherwise be unable to present. “The foundation has always been a ‘hands on’ charity”, he said in 2013, “initiating ideas, identifying where help could be given and projects advanced, rather than one that waits to ‘rubber-stamp’ (or not) requests for help. I wanted a broad scope for the foundation, to support and initiate projects in education, health, community work and the visual arts as well as in opera”. The late Sir Charles Mackerras, the conductor, was a close friend. “Peter knows about music,” he said. “He can talk as an equal to all these singers and musicians. We feel we’re talking to a colleague”.

With his West Indies connections Moores was also conscious of the role Liverpool had in the slave trade and in its consequences in the Caribbean, so that in 1994 he initiated the permanent Transatlantic Slave Trade Gallery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum. “A lot of people saw it as a hot potato, which of course it is” he said. “I’m not terribly interested in the sociological effects in Britain. I simply wanted to open a book that had been resolutely closed”. It was so successful that it was expanded into the International Slavery Museum, opening in 2007 as part of National Museums Merseyside.

In 1993 the foundation acquired Compton Verney but it took another 11 years to renovate the derelict old house and add a purpose-built art gallery ready for opening by the Prince of Wales. It got an RIBA award. Through the foundation he had been collecting art for years and furnished Compton Verney with Neapolitan art, 1600-1800, late medieval German paintings and sculpture, archaic bronzes and pottery from China, British portraits and furniture from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and British Folk Art, mostly centred on the Andras Kalman Collection which the foundation bought to prevent it being split up and sold abroad. In all he poured more than £60 million into the project.

He continued to collect for the gallery, each new piece spending a month with him “so I can get to know it” and then being forwarded to Compton Verney. He was often there himself, quizzing visitors on why they had come, what they had enjoyed, and whether they would come again. “That’s my public” he said. “People who feel they don’t know enough to go to conventional museums; people without prior knowledge.”

Awarded a CBE in 1991, he was knighted in 2003. He married Luciana Pinto in 1960 but the marriage was dissolved in 1984. He leaves a son Alexis, a farmer, and a daughter Donatella who works in the charity sector.

Sir Peter Moores, philanthropist, was born April 9, 1932. He died on March 23, 2016, aged 83. §