James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American-born artist who lived for most of his life in London. He was a leading exponent of the “art for art’s sake” movement. Probably his most famous painting was of his mother. The painting is popularly known as Whistler’s Mother, no surprise there, but the name given to it by the artist was Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, and it hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This winter the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London is hosting a major exhibition based around the many works that Whistler produced on the theme of the River Thames in the second half of the 19th century.
Margaret and myself were fortunate to be invited to a private showing organised for London-based alumni of the University of Glasgow. The University is the acknowledged centre for research and knowledge of Whistler and Glasgow’s Professor Margaret MacDonald is the curator of this exhibition. We had a basic knowledge of the artist and his works from visits to galleries in Europe and North America as well as to the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery on the University of Glasgow campus, but we had no specific expectations for the evening. It was one of those events that one goes to simply out of a love of art. In the end, we came away totally amazed and exhilarated at the breadth and quality of Whistler’s works and determined to seek out more. And, I have been inspired to start planning some walks along the Thames to compare the river of the late 19th century, as depicted in his works, with the river of today. Watch out for the blogs!!
Let’s start with the gallery. The Dulwich Picture Gallery is in South London and easily accessed via a 15 minute train journey from London Victoria. It is the oldest art gallery in England and is one that has been on my list of “places to visit” for some long time. So just going there was important. To quote from their website :-
Dulwich Picture Gallery houses one of the world’s most important collections of European old master paintings of the 1600s and 1700s……….. The paintings are housed in the first purpose-built art gallery in England, designed by Sir John Soane in 1811.
The permanent collection is outstanding and liberally sprinkled with the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Lely, Gainsborough and Reynolds. Rather eerily, there is a mausoleum containing the remains of the gallery’s three founders, Noël Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois, art dealers, and Desenfans’s wife Margaret Morris, the heiress of a Welsh entrepreneur, who provided both the drive and the finance. It relies entirely on natural light from some narrow windows and a high skylight. On a winter’s evening it is not far short of pitch dark inside but very moving.
So that’s a quick take on the gallery, but the reason for being there was Whistler. The evening was introduced by Professor David Gaimster, Director of the Hunterian which is home to the world’s largest permanent display of the works of Whistler (and incidentally also the largest single collection of the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh). He in turn introduced Margaret MacDonald the curator of tonight’s exhibition, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames.
They explained that Whistler had spent a lot of his life in London and, more specifically, near the Thames in Chelsea. The river provided him with inspiration for many hundreds of works. In those days the Thames was a bustling river with hundreds of boats, large and small, plying their trades. Whistler was fascinated by the changes of atmosphere, colour and light from season to season, and also by the people who worked on the river itself and on the shoreline. Many of the works depict scenes on the Chelsea (on the north bank) and Battersea (on the south bank) stretches of the river but others cover the river and environs from Greenwich downstream almost to Wandsworth upstream.
The first room houses a collections of prints from etchings (using acid to burn drawings in copper) and drypoints (using a steel needle to make drawings in copper). Whistler employed both techniques in any one picture. The etchings depict predominantly working scenes at places such as Black Lion Wharf, Limehouse, The Pool, Billingsgate and Eagle Wharf. Some of these places have long since gone but others exist to this day. I will be doing a bit of research in this area soon especially as it seems it will involve visiting a number of historic public houses, purely to follow in Whistler’s footsteps.
One room is dominated by a vividly colourful painting entitled Wapping. The vast majority of the works in the exhibition are either monochrome etchings or canvases in shades of blue and grey. Wapping stands out through Whistler’s use of colour, even bright colours. It depicts a busy river scene as seen from The Angel pub in Bermondsey across the river from Wapping. In the foreground, on the balcony of the pub, are two men and a woman. The picture is on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Bridges form a running theme throughout the exhibition. Westminster, Vauxhall, Battersea and Albert bridges appear on a number of occasions. Two sketches show the Old Hungerford Bridge, opened in 1845 as a pedestrian bridge and designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and its replacement the Charing Cross Railway Bridge opened in 1864 to accommodate the railway line leading into Charing Cross Station. Another view of the railway bridge is from a balcony of the Savoy Hotel where Whistler stayed for a short time in later life. This sketch is named after a detail from the foreground, Savoy Pigeons. Yes, they were as much a feature of late 19th century London as they are today.
The centrepiece of the last room is a two-panelled folding screen nearly 2 metres high depicting the Battersea Bridge, Blue and Silver: Screen with Old Battersea Bridge. The Old Bridge was a wooden structure and dated back to 1771-2 and the room contains many variations on the theme. He used the high arches of the bridge to frame other structures including The Albert Bridge and Chelsea Clock Tower, along with a variety of boats including a number of Thames Wherries, the typical small boats that carried goods and passengers and which were rowed by one or two oarsmen.
There hasn ‘t been time to write about the impact of Japanese art on Whistler’s own works nor of the remarkable detection work of the curator who managed to find the actual Japanese fan being held by Whistler’s mistress in Symphony in White No 2: The Little White Girl in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Finally, I should mention the excellent captions that go with each and every work in the exhibition. Also, the catalogue is a work of art in its own right with superb detail. This is a truly outstanding exhibition and highly recommended to anyone who has time to visit Dulwich before the 12th January 2014.