Ethel Whibley, née Birnie Philip, was the daughter of the sculptor John Birnie Philip and Frances Black. She was one of ten children. Her sister Beatrix married the Aesthetic Movement architect and designer E. W. Godwin in 1876 and then married Whistler in 1888, following Godwin's death. Another sister Rosalind was appointed Whistler's executrix at his death. Ethel married the English journalist and writer Charles Whibley in 1894.
Ethel, Whistler's sister-in-law, was nicknamed 'Bunnie' by the artist. Before her marriage she worked for a time in 1893-4 as his secretary. During this period Whistler painted a number of full-length portraits of her, including Mother of Pearl and Silver: The Andalusian (YMSM 378), Sketch for a Portrait of Miss Ethel Philip (YMSM 386), Sketch of Miss Ethel Philip (YMSM 387), Red and Black: The Fan (YMSM 388), Harmony in Brown: The Felt Hat (YMSM 395), Miss Ethel Philip Reading (YMSM 417), Rose et or: La Tulipe (YMSM 418) and Harmony in Black: Portrait of Miss Ethel Philip (YMSM 419). With the exception of Mother of Pearl and Silver: The Andalusian (YMSM 378), these portraits were amongst those remaining in Whistler's studio at his death in 1903 and were bequeathed by his ward Rosalind Birnie Philip to the University of Glasgow in 1958.
Ethel also posed for a number of drawings and prints, including Mrs Whibley (M.1414), Rose and Silver: Portrait of Mrs Whibley (M.1415) and Mrs Whibley (K.441). In 1890 Whistler made a lithograph of her, Auguste Delàtre (K.26), which was published in the Studio.
Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995.