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The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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14th March 2003 - The Mikado Opens

In the middle of the 1880s, when the craze for Japanese paraphenalia was in full force and when art and objects from the Far East were prized, a new operetta was performed which would take London, and later the world, by storm. Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado opened at the Savoy Theatre in London on 14 March 1885, and would run for almost two years (672 performances) in its first production alone. In October 1886 (GUL Whistler D136) Helen Lenoir (of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company) even suggested that she might be prevented from joining Whistler as early as she had anticipated on his proposed tour of the United States "owing to the continued success of 'The Mikado'" (in the end Whistler's tour did not take place anyhow).

Legend has it that inspiration for The Mikado first came to W. S. Gilbert when an antique Japanese sword, which hung on the wall of his study, fell unexpectedly from its place; Gilbert took this as a sign that it was time for him to write a Far Eastern story. In and around London of the time it was relatively easy to research the arts, devices and lifestyles of the Japanese, as besides the interest in Japonisme shown by the British, there was also a large number of Japanese immigrants in the city (one centre of this community being in Knightsbridge).

Whistler's interest in Japanese art had its origins in the early 1860s. For example in 1864 he painted Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, a picture which featured items from Whistler's collection of blue and white vases prominently. By the 1870s Whistler's understanding of Japanese principles of design had matured, leading for example to the artist adopting a radically flat picture plane, particularly in his Nocturnes. In 1876 Whistler began work on designs for his famous Peacock Room, the "immediate inspiration [for which] ... was evidently Japanese art" (Whistler, Dorment and MacDonald, 1995, p. 167).

During June 2003 special screenings of Whistler-related films will take place in Glasgow; the programme will include a showing of Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan drama Topsy Turvy.