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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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5th November 2003 - Fireworks

Every November Britain commemorates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot on Guy Fawkes Night.

Guido ('Guy') Fawkes (1570-1606) was a sixteenth century Catholic revolutionary who had served in the Catholic Militia in the Netherlands before coming to England to join the plot (in 1604) to destroy the Houses of Parliament and King James I. However Fawkes was captured at around midnight on 4 November and was forced to confess. Fawkes was finally executed in January 1606. In 1605 on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot being foiled, bonfires were lit to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes and fireworks were let off in celebration all over London - these celebrations have continued ever since.

Within the edition of Whistler's correspondence there is but one direct mention of this national festivity, in a letter of 3 November 1894 from David Croal Thomson to Whistler, where the London art dealer mentiones

"my wee lassies who are very well & very happy looking forward to Nov. 5th for fireworks & Guy Fawkes"

(GUL MS Whistler T161)

However, Whistler was well acquainted with the incendiary nature of fireworks, as his picture Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket was to prove. This painting, a representation of a fireworks show at the Cremorne Gardens, was attacked by Ruskin in the July 1877 number of Fors Clavigera, and Whistler subsequently sued. When the case came to court in November 1878, when questioned over the manner in which he had represented the scene, and the way in which it might be perceived by the viewer, Whistler remarked wryly:

"I have known unbiased people express the opinion that it represents fireworks in a night-scene."

In one instance Whistler was also questioned derisively by defense lawyers on an apparent 'mark' in the sky in his representation of the Battersea Bridge (Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge):

"What is that gold-coloured mark on the right of the picture like a cascade?"

"The 'cascade of gold' is a firework."

(see Robin Spencer, Whistler: A Retrospective (New York, 1989), pp. 128-33)

Whistler was successful in winning the case, but his awarded damages of just one farthing left him in financial ruins; and Ruskin's physical and mental health deteriorated sharply during the run-up to the trial. It is then surely true that one should never play carelessly with fireworks.