“NORTH EAST BY EAST”: WHISTLER IN THE CHANNEL ISLANDS

Note in Blue and Opal: Jersey

Note in Blue and Opal: Jersey (1881, watercolour, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, 04.83).

This lovely watercolour, with the tiny details of beaches, houses, reflections was painted with exquisite precision, and tints of delicate colour and signed with a jaunty butterfly that appears to be related to a star-fish.  The peaceful scene – undoubtedly painted under good calm conditions –  rather contradicts Whistler’s description of his experience of the Channel Islands.  He wrote to his beloved sister-in-law, Helen Whistler on 17 October:

‘I only got here on Saturday morning – after a trip – … of the wildest – … At Guernsey then I chucked up the game and went ashore – There I stayed and struggled with wind and weather – and paintboxes with that perseverance that is the peculiarity of this family, as you will know – … quite hopeless – After being whisked about on the tops of very grand rocks and nearly blown into the sea canvas and all and dragging myself each evening back to the inn a dishevelled wreck of fright and disappointment I ceased a career only fit for an accrobat [sic] and came over to Jersey remembering that you had said it was comparatively flatter! – Well it’s flat – or a bit of it is – … but the weathercocks in the place have played me another trick and gone round, the lot of them, to the East – North East by East! – and awful it is – cold as Venice in winter – and everything hard as nails – What shall I do! – not a single picture have I managed yet – though I have tried ever so hard – but that you know is no comfort for – have I not written it! – ‘mere industry is the virtue of the duffer’! – and poor as I am – well you know – how is my journey to be payed [sic] for! – It is true that I have partly discovered a little game in watercolors that may possibly be worked into one pound or so – but alas – what is that – However I shall still try – for a few days longer’

So, this watercolour is one of several – a ‘little game in watercolours’ – and it was exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery in the following year, 1882,  and possibly in Paris in 1887, and was eventually bought by the lithographer Thomas Way, to help pay for this and many other working trips to the shores of Europe.  And Charles Lang Freer bought this and many other beautiful works from Way, and bequeathed them to the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington where they reside in safety, free from wind and flood.

But what of the other ‘games’ played in the Channel islands? Whistler had told ‘Nellie’ that he had ‘lots of boxes and traps enough to produce a Gallery of chef d’oeuvres!’ but very few have been identified. Blue and Brown – San Brelade’s Bay was also shown in 1882 (the two  were dismissed in the papers as ‘slight sketches in water-colours!) and some oils were exhibited or recorded under titles that suggest they come from the same trip, including Bleu et argent: La Mer, Jersey;  Blue and Brown: The Little Bay and  Blue Wave: Near the Casquet Rocks.   The Casquet Rocks are a navigational hazard eight miles west of the island of Alderney and T.R.Way jr described the painting as a ‘vast deep blue wave’. If so, and if it was painted at sea, it was unusual but not unique in Whistler’s work, and it is an enormous pity that it has not been found!

Blue and Brown: The Little Bay was shown in Whistler’s one-man show at Messrs Dowdeswell’s gallery in Bond Street in 1884. It  inspired a dismissive description: ‘A few smears of colour, such as a painter might make in cleaning his paint brushes, and which, neither near at hand nor far off, neither from one side nor from the other, nor from in front, do more than vaguely suggest a shore and bay, was described as a Note in Blue and Brown . . . One who found these pictures other than insults to his artistic sense could never be reached by reasoning.’ Unfortunately this does not help to identify it! Whistler so enjoyed the review that he quoted it again years later, in 1892, at his major retrospective exhibition at Goupil’s: curiously enough it was used as a comment on another unidentified painting!

Finally Bleu et argent: La Mer, Jersey, shown at the Galerie George Petit in 1887, unfortunately inspired no reviews – at least none that I have found to far.  Just to complicate matters further, it is not certain whether it was an oil or watercolour! Given the title, which emphasizes colour, as was Whistler’s wont, over site, it could actually have been exhibited elsewhere, and could have survived under another title.  I would like to think so.  We will keep looking!

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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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