Whistler and the Thames: Personal glimpses

Price's Candle Factory [166]

Price’s Candle Factory, 1876/1877, drypoint (G.166. state 3/13)

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (1943.3.8486)

WHILE we were hanging the Whistler exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, the local curators and technicians enjoyed identifying sites and situations shown in Whistler’s prints and paintings. One curator said that she and her parents had gone to Price’s Candle Factory, on York Road, Battersea, to buy candles when she was young. Price’s website gives the history of the firm (now based in Bedford) at  http://www.prices-candles.co.uk/history. Early publicity emphasized the quality of the light and ‘aesthetic’ beauty of Price’s candles. Whistler’s fine drypoint shows the array of warehouses, chimneys, and waterfront of the London works on the south side of the Thames. It also includes a barge, a small sailing boat, and – very faintly – three people in a rowing boat (who had apparently rowed away or sunk, or whatever, by the time Whistler completed the etching).

The Pool [49]

The Pool, 1859, etching and drypoint (G.49, state 6/6)

Colby College Museum of Art (2013.474).

WHISTLER’S friend William Michael Rossetti remarked that the artist’s etchings ‘have always shown a marked propensity for shore-life, river life, boat-life, barge-life – for everything which hints of old wharves, jetties, piers, rigging, bow-windows overlooking reaches of the peopled-stream, and that class of hard-fisted, square-shouldered, solid and stolid-faced men, on whom the odour of tar and tobacco is equally incorporate.’ (The Reader, 4 April 1863). Viewers recognised the river men, as vivid and familiar as characters in a Dickens’ novel. When the ‘Thames Set’ was finally published in 1871, an art critic, F.G. Stephens, wrote that ‘in Rotherhithe, ‘a skipper and his mate, smoke sedately, without the remotest idea on conversation’, and in The Pool, ‘a waterman in a lumbering wherry … is evidently sitting with some complacency for his “picture” as the artist willed’ (The Athenaeum, 26 August 1871).

EVEN today the truth of Whistler’s vision is appreciated by the successors of Whistler’s watermen. When he was hanging the etchings in the first room of the exhibition at Dulwich, the senior picture handler – Will Easterling – mentioned that both his father and grandfather had been watermen. His father Ray was a champion rower, winner of the race for Doggett’s coat and badge in 1960, and had competed in the Thames barge races. After seeing the Thames etchings at the Tate in 1994, Ray Easterling commented that Whistler’s etchings were the only ones that gave a true picture of what the Thames bargees and watermen were like – of what it was like to be a waterman working on the river at that time.  He thought the Whistler images were wonderful, giving a real and true picture of life on the Thames.



A video, starring myself (and Whistler, and my co-curator, Patricia de Montfort)!: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ctaRY3TxnU&feature=autoshare

M.F. MacDonald and P. de Montfort, curators: ‘An American in London: Whistler and the Thames’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 16 October 2013 – 12 January 2014: http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/exhibitions/coming_soon/whistler_in_london.aspx

Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, Meg Hausberg, and Joanna Meacock, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a catalogue raisonné, University of Glasgow, 2012, online website at http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk.

 The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp; including The Correspondence of Anna McNeill Whistler, 1855-1880, edited by Georgia Toutziari. Online edition, University of Glasgow.http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence

Glasgow University Library at


Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow at http://www.huntsearch.gla.ac.uk/Whistler

Freer/Sackler, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC at http://www.asia.si.edu/

Colby College Museum of Art at http://www.colby.edu/academics_cs/museum/collection/whistler/

The Art Institute of Chicago at http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/artist/Whistler,+James+McNeill

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC at http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/


Richard Dorment, Daily Telegraph:


Katherine Tyrrell’s Art Blog:


Eddy Frankel, Timeout:


Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times:


Adrian Hamilton, The Independent:


Martin Ballie, The Art Newspaper:


Ben Miller, Culture24:


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Whistler On Show

The first Whistler Blog, and my first Blog, is not clearly defined: I shall talk about Whistler, and Life with Whistler, and art – our ideas and projects, the art above all.


Opens 16 October!

It is countdown right now to an exhibition:  An American in London: Whistler and the Thames opens on 16 October at Dulwich Picture Gallery. It’s an elegant building in the green suburbs of deepest Dulwich, reachable by train and a brisk 10 minute walk, thus  combining art, exercise and food too (very good cafe).  We – curators Patricia de Montfort and I (both from Glasgow University’s School of Culture and Creative Arts)  – were invited by the Addison Gallery of American Art years and years ago to construct a dream list of works on and around the subject of Battersea Bridge and the Thames.  We then hurriedly reduced the list after working out how many works could actually fit the galleries (at Dulwich, the Addison, and the Freer Gallery of Art, which will eventually host the show). All was on hold until we knew for sure we had the necessary loans: wonderful impressions of the etchings, delicate lithographs, powerful drawings and gorgeous paintings.  Glasgow has been particularly generous, with loans from the Hunterian and the city: our good colleagues are marvellously supportive.

Writing the catalogue was long and had its moments of joy – exciting new discoveries, creative and satisfying exposition – and its hours of slog: getting all the details right, making sure we described exactly the right work of art, polishing, checking and copy editing. I reckon the computer changes things round overnight when we aren’t looking. Then we had a little fun, fitting everything into a model of the galleries, like playing with dolls’ houses.  We selected colours for the walls from Farrow & Ball; rejecting Mole’s Breath (the mind boggles) we chose Pigeon (funny pigeons they have in London) and Lamp Room Gray- actually soft light greys.  And now, the audio guide, just finished, and talking to the Press. I don’t understand why journalists write reviews a month before the show starts, before they have seen the catalogue, never mind the actual pictures.  It’s a shame because they are likely to go with pre-conceived notions rather than looking afresh. And that’s what doing an exhibition is about: encouraging people to look closely, to find fresh inspiration and ideas, to enjoy, whatever their interest and motivation. Come artists, students, collectors, dealers, scholars, locals, come all, and LOOK!

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