UNIVERSITY of GLASGOW

The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Documents associated with: Hunt, Edmund Aubrey
Record 8 of 16

System Number: 13167
Date: [11 June 1888[1]]
Author: JW
Place: [London]
Recipient: [none]
Repository: Glasgow University Library
Call Number: MS Whistler PC 10/4-5
Document Type: PD[2]


THE RISE AND FALL OF THE WHISTLER DYNASTY.
AN INTERVIEW WITH EX-PRESIDENT WHISTLER.

The adverse vote by which the Royal Society of British Artists transferred its oath of allegiance from Mr. Whistler is for the time the chief topic of conversation in artistic circles. Whether the British Artists' taste has tired of light comedy and yearns for the "serious drama" once more, or whether, as the side that is "in" declared the other day, wounded pride and an empty exchequer are responsible for the phenomonal blizzard that has for some time been raging in Suffolk-street, we do not intend for the moment to inquire. But inasmuch as we have already laid before our readers a report emanating in the first instance from the "Conquering Hero" faction, we instructed our representative to visit Mr. Whistler to obtain his explanation of the affair.

"The state of affairs?" said Mr. Whistler, in his light and airy way, raising his eyebrows and twinkling his eyes, as if it were all the best possible fun in the world; "why, my dear sir, there's positively no state of affairs at all. Contrary to public declaration, there's actually nothing chaotic in the whole business; on the contrary, everything is in order, just as it should be, and as is always the case in the event of a downfall of any kind. The survival of the fittest as regards the presidency, don't you see, and, well - Suffolk-street is itself again! A new Government has come in, and, as I told the members the other night, I congratulate the society on the result of their vote, for no longer can it be said that the right man is in the wrong place. No doubt their pristine sense of undisturbed somnolence will again settle upon them after the exasperated mental condition arising from the unnatural strain recently put upon the old ship. Eh? what? Ha! ha!"

"You do not then consider the society as out of date? You don't think, as is sometimes said, that the establishment of the Grosvenor took away the raison d'être and original intention of the Society - that of being a foil to the Royal Academy?"

"I can hardly say what was originally intended, but I do know it was originally full of hope and determination, and that is proved, don't you see, by getting a Royal Charter - the only art society in London I believe that has one. But by degrees it lapsed into a condition of incapacity - a sort of secondary state, do you see, till it acknowledged itself a species of crêche for the Royal Academy. Certain it is that when I came into it the prevalent feeling among all the men was that their best work should go to 'another place.' I felt that this sense of inferiority was fatal to the well-being of the place, don't you see - very well. And for that reason I attempted to bring about a sense of esprit de corps and ambition, which culminated in what might be called 'my first offence' - by my proposition that members belonging to other societies should hold no official position in ours. I wanted to make it an art centre," continued Mr. Whistler, with a sudden vigour and earnestness for which the public would hardly give credit to this Master of Badinage and Apostle of Persiflage; "they wanted it to remain a shop, although I said to them, 'Gentlemen, don't you perceive that as shopmen you have already failed, don't you see, eh?' But they were under the impression that the sales decreased under my methods and my régime, and ignored the fact that sales had declined all over the country from all sorts of causes, commercial and so on, don't you know - very well. Their only chance lay in the art tone, for the old-fashioned pictures had ceased to become saleable wares - buyers simply wouldn't buy them. But members' work I couldn't by the rules eliminate - only the bad outsiders were choked off."

"Then how do you explain the bitterness of all the opposition?"

"A question of 'pull devil, pull baker,' don't you see - and the devil has gone, and the bakers remain in Suffolk-street! Ha! ha! Here is a list of the fiendish party[3], who protested against the thrusting forth of their president in such an unceremonious way - Alfred Stevens, Waldo Story, Nelson Maclean, Theodore Roussel, Macnab, Ludovici, jun., Starr, Francis James, Rixon, Aubrey Hunt, Lindner, Girardot, Ludby, Arthur Hill, Llewellyn, Symons, C. Wyllie, A. Grace, J. E. Grace, J. D. Watson, Mortimer Menpes, Jacomb Hood, Thornley, J. J. Shannon, and Charles Keene. Why, the very flower of the society! And whom have they left - bon Dieu! whom have they left?"

"It was a hard fight, then?"

"My dear sir, they brought up the maimed, the halt, the lame, and the blind - literally - like in Hogarth's[4] 'Election;' they brought up everything but corpses, don't you know! - very well."

"But all this hardly explains the bitterness of the feud and personal enmity to you."

"What? Don't you see? My presidential career had in a manner been a busy one. When I took charge of the ship I found her more or less waterlogged. Well, I put the men to the pumps, don't you understand, and thoroughly shook up, you know, the old vessel; had her re-rigged, re-cleaned, and painted, don't you see - and finally I was graciously permitted to run up the Royal Standard at the masthead, and brought her fully to the fore, ready for action - as became a Royal flagship, don't you see. And as a natural result mutiny at once set in!

"Don't you see," he continued, with one of his strident laughs, "what might be considered, by the thoughtless, as benefits, were resented, by the older and wiser of the crew, as innovations and intrusions of an impertinent and offensive nature. But the immediate result was that interest in the society was undeniably developed, not only at home, but certainly abroad - don't you know. Notably in Paris all the art circle was keenly alive to what was taking place in Suffolk-street; and, although their interest in other institutions in this country had previously flagged, there was the strong willingness, you know, to take part in its exhibitions, do you see? For example, there was M. Alfred Stevens, who showed his own sympathy with the progressive efforts by becoming a member. And look at the throngs of people that crowded our private views - eh? - ha! ha! - don't you see - what! But what will you! - the question is, after all, a purely parochial one - and here I would stop to wonder, if I do not seem pathetic and out of character, why the Artist is naturally an object of vituperation to the Vestryman?- Why am I - who, of course as you know, am charming, why am I the pariah of my parish? -

"Why should these people do other than delight in me? - Why should they perish rather than forgive the one who had thrust upon them, honour and success!"

"And the moral of it all?"

Mr. Whistler became impressive - almost imposing - as he stroked his moustaches and tried to hide a smile behind his hand. "The organization of this 'Royal Society of British Artists,' as shown by its very name, tended perforce to this final convulsion, resulting in the separation of the elements of which it was composed. They could not remain together, and so you see the 'Artists' have come out, and the 'British' remain - and peace and sweet obscurity are restored to Suffolk-street! - Eh? eh? Ha! ha!"


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Notes:

1.  11 June 1888
'Pall Mall Gazette June 11.' and 'Pall Mall Gazette June 11 88' are written in the margins.

2.  PD
First published in Anon., 'The Rise and Fall of the Whistler Dynasty. An Interview with exPresident Whistler,' The Pall Mall Gazette: An Evening Newspaper and Review, vol. 47, no. 7249, 11 June 1888, pp. 1-2. This relates to JW's resignation from the Presidency of the Royal Society of British Artists on 4 June 1888 (see Minutes of the Council of the RBA, #13402) which was followed by the resignations of a legion of his supporters, the list of names given here. JW's version of events as reported in the Pall Mall was published in Whistler, James McNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 2nd ed., London and New York, 1892, pp. 205-10. Also published in Thorp, Nigel (Editor), Whistler on Art: Selected Letters and Writings 1849-1903 of James McNeill Whistler, Manchester, 1994, and Washington, 1995, pp. 112-16.

3.  a list of the fiendish party
Alfred Émile-Léopold Stevens (1823-1906), history and portrait painter [more]; Thomas Waldo Story (1854-1915), sculptor [more]; Thomas Nelson MacLean (1845-1894), sculptor [more]; Theodore Roussel (1847-1926), painter and print-maker [more]; Peter Macnab (d. 1900), landscape and rustic genre painter [more]; Albert Ludovici, Jr (1852-1932), painter [more]; Sidney Starr (1866 or 1867-1925), painter [more]; Francis Edward James (1849-1920), landscape painter [more]; William Augustus Rixon (fl. 1880-1936), landscape painter [more]; Edmund Aubrey Hunt (1855-1922), landscape and rural painter [more]; Moffat Peter Lindner (1852-1949), landscape and watercolour painter [more]; Ernest Gustave Girardot (1840-1904), genre and portrait painter [more]; Max Ludby (1858-1943), landscape and genre painter and engraver [more]; Arthur Hill (fl. 1858-1893), landscape, genre and portrait painter [more]; Sir William Samuel Henry Llewellyn (1858-1941), artist [more]; William Christian Symons (1845-1911), painter and designer [more]; Charles William Wyllie (1853-1923), land and seascape painter [more]; Alfred Fitzwalter Grace (1844-1903), landscape and portrait painter [more]; James Edward Grace (1851-1908), landscape painter and illustrator [more]; John Dawson Watson (1832-1892), painter and illustrator [more]; Mortimer Luddington Menpes (1860-1938), artist [more]; George Percy Jacomb Hood (1857-1929), genre painter and graver [more]; Charles Thornely (b. ca 1832- after 1898), painter of river and coastal scenes [more]; James Jebusa Shannon (1862-1923), genre and portrait painter [more]; and Charles Samuel Keene (1823-1891), etcher, cartoonist and illustrator [more].

4.  Hogarth's
William Hogarth (1697-1764), painter and engraver [more].