The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler

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Documents associated with: Winter Exhibition, Society of British Artists, London, 1886-1887
Record 18 of 23

System Number: 11433
Date: [4 December 1886][1]
Author: JW
Place: [London]
Recipient: William Thomas Stead[2]
Place: [London]
Repository: Published[3]
Document Type: PLc

In your courageous crusade against the Demon Dulness and it's preposterous surroundings, I think it well that there should be delivered into your hands certain documents for immediate publication, that your readers may be roused quickly, and hear again how well fenced in are the foolish in strong places - and how greatly to be desired is their exposure, discomfiture, and death - that Truth may prevail. It happened this way - The criticism in the Times[4] of Saturday, called for instant expostulation, and my answer [5]was consequently sent in to the Editor, who forthwith returned it, regretting "that its tone prevented its appearance in the paper." . . . I thereupon withdrew to write the following note[6] to the Editor in person: -

Dear Sir -

Permit me to call your courteous attention to the fact that the enclosed letter to the Editor of the Times, is in reply to an article that appeared in your paper - and that as I sign my name in full, I alone am responsible for its tone or form; indeed, that such is its tone and form because it is my letter. In common fairness the answer to, or comment upon any statements made in your paper should be published in your paper, as proper etiquette prevents its insertion in any other journal. Also you surely would not propose to dictate certain forms or styles in which alone the columns of "The Times" are to be approached - as who should say all other savour of sacrilege! - or acquiescence alone would do - and you would have to write all your letters yourselves. My letter concerns the effect produced by criticism of a commonplace and inferior kind, wholly unworthy the first paper in England - and I am startled to learn and still unwilling to believe, that "The Times" would shun all ventilation and refuse to publish any letter as its sole means of screening its staff or protecting its writers. I submit that the tone of my letter sins against no laws that are accepted in antagonism - that it offends in no way the etiquette of attack known to gentlemen. I beg, therefore, again that if there be still time for its insertion, you will have it printed in your issue of to-morrow, or will say that it shall appear in the Times of Thursday morning.

I am, dear Sir, very faithfully,


I was now told, "with the Editor's compliments," "that my letter should be considered ." Taking this in complete good faith I left the office to discover the next day in print, a remnant of the letter in question, that, by itself, entirely did away with sufficient reason for its being there at all. The two ensuing notes [7]explain themselves:

"The Editor of The Times has inserted in to-day's paper[8] the only portion of Mr. Whistler's letter of November 30 which appears to have any claim to publication."

Printing House Square, Dec. 1, 1886.

"Dear Sir -

I beg to acknowledge the consummate sense of opportunity displayed by the Editor of The Times, in his cunning production of a part of my letter - Amazing! Mes compliments!"


Without further comment I hand you a copy of the rejected letter.

To the Editor of the Times. -

Sir, -

In his article upon The Society of British Artists[9], your Art gentleman ventures the opinion of the "plain man." That such opinion is out of place and stultifying in a question of Art never occurs to him, and it is therefore frankly cited as, in a way, conclusive. The naïf train of thought that justified the importance attached to this poor "plain" opinion at all, would seem to be the same that pervades the writing throughout; until it becomes difficult to discover where the easy effrontery and self-sufficiency of the "plain one," nothing doubting, cease, and the wit and wisdom of the experienced expert begin - so that one unconsciously confounds the incautious critic, with the plausible plain person, who finally becomes the same authority. Blind plainness certainly is the characteristic of the solemn censure upon the fine work of Mr. Stott[10], of Oldham - plain blindness the omission of all mention of Mr Ludovici's dainty dancing-girl[11].

Bewilderment among paintings is naturally the fate of the "plain man," but when put forth in the Times, his utterances, however empty, acquire a semblance of sense; so that while he gravely descants with bald [p. 2] assurance upon the engineering of the light in the galleries, and the decoration of the walls, the reader stands a chance of being misled, and may not discover, at once, that the "plain" writer is qualified by ignorance alone to continue.

Permit me, therefore, to rectify inconsequent impressions and tell your readers that there is nothing "tentative" in the "arrangement" of color, walls or drapery - that the battens should not "be removed" - that they are meant to remain, not only for their use but as bringing parallel lines into play that subdivide charmingly the lower portion of the walls and add to their light appearance - that the whole "combination" is complete - and that the "plain man" is, as usual, "out of it." -

I am, Sir, &c,


The question of fair dealing and good manners in this matter I could not leave in better hands than your own, and I will only add that hitherto I have always met with the utmost readiness on the part of the press to reeceive into their columns any reply however opposed to asseretions of their own. Surely it is but poor policy, this peremptory attempt to maintain in authority the weak and blundering one, that he may destroy himself and bring sorrow upon his people. Rather let him be thrust from his post, that he may be "brayed in a mortar[12] among wheat with a pestle" - that the Just be assuaged and foolishness depart from us.

This document is protected by copyright.


1.  4 December 1886
Date of publication (see below).

2.  William T. Stead
William Thomas Stead (1849-1912), editor of the Pall Mall Gazette from 1883-1890, founder-editor of the Review of Reviews in 1890 [more].

3.  Published
Published in the Pall Mall Gazette, 4 December 1886, p. 6 with salutation and signature omitted. A version published in Whistler, James McNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, London, 1890, pp. 199-202, under the heading 'A Played-out Policy', had minor grammatical and textual variations including 'his preposterous' for 'it's preposterous' and 'Times' for 'Times of Saturday', and included the salutation 'Sir'.

4.  Times
'Society of British Artists', Times, 27 November 1886, p. 9 (see #09473).

5.  my answer
JW wrote to George Earl Buckle (1854-1935), editor of the Times from 1884-1912 [more], on 30 November 1886 (#09473).

6.  following note

7.  two ensuing notes
#11409, #11418.

8.  todays paper
Times, 1 December 1886.

9.  article upon the Society of British Artists
'Society of British Artists', Times, 27 November 1886, p. 9. This was a review of Winter Exhibition, Society of British Artists, London, 1886-1887. JW's Harmony in White and Ivory: Portrait of Lady Colin Campbell (YMSM 354) was exhibited as 'unfinished', a term which the critic felt applied to all his exhibits. JW was seen as a great contrast to his predecessor, John Burr, 'the painter of good little Scotch lassies and of the prettiest and most unimpeachable of peasant idylls' (ibid). However, as the new President, JW was commended for the hanging and selection of work. The critic approved the reduction in the number of pictures, hung in two or three rows rather than from floor to ceiling, with light directed on them by the use of a velarium hung from the ceiling.

10.  Mr. Stott
William Stott of Oldham (1857-1900), genre and landscape painter [more]. His painting W. Stott of Oldham, A Summer's Day (z203) was targetted by the Times as 'the most expensive, and the least beautiful picture in the exhibition.' (ibid).

11.  Mr Ludovici's dainty dancing-girl
Albert Ludovici, Sr (1820-1894), genre painter [more].

12.  brayed in a mortar
'Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him.' Proverbs 27.22.