Another Whistler exhibition is now open, at the Blue Coat gallery, during the Liverpool Biennale. Whistler spent a significant amount of time in Liverpool during the period 1870-1875, when his chief patron was the Liverpool ship-owner Frederick R. Leyland. He was commissioned to paint portraits of the family and spent weeks, which turned into months, in the luxurious surroundings of the Leylands’ home, Speke Hall, which is hardly surprising : its a wonderful half-timbered house, now managed by the National Trust.


Speke Hall: The Avenue, etching and drypoint, 1870-1878, (G.101 9/14)

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (Acc. no: WAG 9066)

Image credit: photography@liverpoolmuseums.org.uk


Speke Hall, photograph credit: M.F. MacDonald, Whistler Etchings Project, University of Glasgow

 Whistler’s portraits were painted partly at Speke, partly in London, and only the portraits of Leyland himself and his wife Frances could be said to be completed. The splendid Symphony in Fleshcolour and pink: Portrait of Mrs Leyland is now in the Frick Collection, New York, and Arrangement in Black, the portrait of Leyland, in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Thus, since neither gallery can lend, they can never be re-united.

However, the Blue Coat has brought together some of the etchings and drypoints that Whistler made at Speke Hall- including the beautiful drypoint of Frances Leyland, The Velvet Dress, and these set the scene for a focus show on Whistler as artist, designer, and promoter of his vision of art.

Velvet dress

The Velvet Dress (Mrs Leyland), drypoint, 1873/4 (G.120 5/7)

Hunterian Art Gallery (GLAHA 46774)

Photo © The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow 2014

A spectacular recreation of the Fighting Peacocks panel from the Peacock Room, as painted for F.R.Leyland’s London house, was painted by set designer Olivia du Manceau (with occasional input from enthusiastic Blue Coat staff) and it is a delightful surprise to come on this up a flight of stairs in the galleries. The original was moved to the Freer Gallery of Art a century ago, but for a few months we can enjoy this vivid and painterly response to it (complete with blue and white Chinese porcelain on the shelves)  in Liverpool.


Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, 1876-77 (above, and detail, below). Reproduction by Olivia du Monceau, 2014. Installation view from Liverpool Biennial 2014. Photographs by Roger Sinek.


Central to the Blue Coat show are photographs, drawings and caricatures of Whistler, and the sharp, witty, serious, perceptive words of the artist himself. Whistler brings art to life: a picture of both the artist and his life and art emerges from the works and words as you go through the show. Here are his exuberant comments to the American sculptor Thomas Waldo Storey on 5 February 1883, describing the exhibition of his Venice etchings at the Fine Art Society:

Well great Shebang on Saturday 17. Feb – Opening of Show and Private View – “Arrangement in White & Yellow”. … in Bond Street – where I have won my battle and am on good terms with the Fine Art Society … All the World there – Lady Archie – the Prince – … great glorification – and the Butterfly rampant and all over the place! I can’t tell you how perfect – though you would instinctively know that there isn’t a detail forgotten – Sparkling and dainty – … and all so sharp – White walls – of different whites – with yellow painted mouldings – not gilded! – Yellow velvet curtains – pale yellow matting – Yellow sofas and little chairs – lovely little table yellow – own design – with yellow pot and Tiger lilly! Forty odd superb etchings round the white walls in their exquisite white frames – with their little butterflies – large White butterfly on yellow curtain – and Yellow butterfly on white wall – and finally servant in yellow livery (!) handing Catalogue in brown paper cover same size as Ruskin pamphlet!!! And such a catalogue! – The last inspiration! – … I take my dear Waldo, all this I have collected of the silly drivel of the wise fools who write, and I pepper & salt it about the Catalogue under the different etchings I exhibit! – …I give ’em Hell! …The whole thing is a joy – and indeed a masterpiece of Mischief!’

 The Blue Coat show focuses on Whistler’s designs for exhibitions, and includes rare sketches, watercolours, and etchings that were shown in Whistler’s distinctive artist-designed exhibitions.  For instance, he designed a velarium to hang over the exhibition rooms of the Royal Society of British Artists, during his brief and stormy interlude as President of the society. His proposal for a Patent application is on view, as is the Blue Coat’s evocative recreation of the velarium, a muslin cloth hung as a canopy from the ceiling and effectively diffusing the light and focussing attention on the works of art, and not the spectators.


James McNeill Whistler: exhibition view at the Bluecoat for Liverpool Biennial 2014.

Photograph by Mark McNulty.

As you see in this photograph, the spectators found plenty to enjoy, challenge and discuss in this exhibition. Go and see what you think!


James McNeill Whistler, The Blue Coat, School Lane, Liverpool, curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Rosie Cooper. Liverpool Biennial, until 26 October 2014

Whistler’s letter to Waldo Storey is listed in:

The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp. On-line edition, University of Glasgow.

About mfmmacdonald

I am an artist and art historian, and my research is focussed on the work and life of James McNeill Whistler. Based in the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, I am Director of the Whistler Paintings and Etchings Projects. These blogs are informal, and, I hope, interesting and even quirky discussions of individual works and events related to Whistler.
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