James Mcneill Whistler was a foremost figure in the artistic world, and
he always struck me as the most curiously satanic gentleman I ever saw.
He cultivated an upward turn of his dark eyebrows, he waved his long,
thin hands in a fantastic way, he shook his locks or passed his fingers
through them in a manner all his own, and appeared not only a _poseur_
in art, but a _poseur_ in literature, and a _poseur_ among men. This
probably added to his interest, for he certainly had a remarkable
personality, and a better half-hour could not be spent than in his
He was as cruel to his friends as to his enemies, as scathing in his
remarks, and yet at times almost maudlin in his sentimentalism. It
was quite delightful to hear him discuss his own work. His egotism
was—well, it was his own. His sweeping assertions were a revelation.
On my return from America in 1900 he told me that, “although an
American himself, he should never visit that country again, as there
was not an artistic soul to be found there.” And yet the purchasers of
a host of his pictures and etchings were Americans, as were many of his
One hesitates to tell any Whistler stories, there has been such an
extraordinary output. Many are doubtless apocryphal. I recall one or
two that I have heard from his own lips, or from the persons (often the
victims) chiefly concerned in them.
George Boughton, the painter, had a house on Campden Hill, designed
by Mr. Norman Shaw, R.A., and five or six steps lead to the hall, as
that eminent architect so often arranges. Whistler had been dining with
Boughton one evening, and, as he was leaving, he did not notice the
steps and fell down head first. The host was distracted and ran to
pick him up.
Whistler sat up on the bottom step.
“What a d——d total abstainer you must have had for an architect,
Boughton!” was all he said.
The famous “Peacock Room” at Prince’s Gate was a wonderful scheme
of decoration, peacocks’ eyes on a gold ground being its principal
_motif_. About the year 1880 the late Mr. Leyland, a wealthy shipowner
and patron of the arts, had taken this grand new mansion, and asked
Whistler to decorate a room. Jimmy, poor and out at elbows, as usual,
jumped at the idea, but no terms were fixed upon. The work began. It
was a prodigious undertaking, and the extraordinary and erratic little
man spent two years and a half over his grateful task.
Being at Prince’s Gate all day, and having the run of Leyland’s house,
Whistler had a hospitable way of inviting his friends to come and see
the room, and then he would ask them to stop to luncheon. This sort
of thing, which began occasionally, ended in being an almost daily
occurrence, and Jimmy used to hold a little levée every morning, when
subsequently three, four, and five people remained to luncheon. This
became too much for Mr. Leyland, and his plan for putting an end to the
campaign was a somewhat ingenious one.
Jimmy one day entertained four friends; the meal not being announced,
he rang the bell for the butler.
“When is lunch?” he asked.
“I have no orders for lunch,” replied the man with a stately air.
“Oh no, of course,” replied Jimmy, not in the least disconcerted.
“We’ll go along to such and such an hotel. Stupid of me to forget it!”
But it was enough, and though he pretended not to mind, and with that
delightful impudence for which he was famous turned it off, he never
forgave the incident, and determined to pay Leyland out. From that day
he took his own lunch in a little paper parcel, and sat and devoured it
when so inclined. On the next occasion Leyland came in to admire the
peacock decorations about the usual luncheon hour.
“_You_ will have some lunch, won’t you?” Whistler said.
Leyland looked surprised.
“Oh, please don’t refuse. It is always excellent, I assure you.”
Leyland looked still more uncomfortable.
Up jumped Jimmy, fetched his bag, and proceeded to untie his parcels,
“It’s all right, old chap, have no anxiety; it is my lunch, not yours,
and you are heartily welcome to it.”
When the work was accomplished which had taken so long Leyland wished
to pay the bill, and asked the artist what was his figure.
“I have worked a whole year and more,” Whistler said. “I consider my
services are worth two thousand pounds a year, therefore the figure is
two thousand five hundred pounds, from which you can deduct the few
hundreds you have given me on account.”
Leyland was horrified.
“Preposterous!” he said, “perfectly preposterous!”
Jimmy looked at him and drew himself up to his full height, which was
“I beg, Mr. Leyland, that you will accept as a gift the entire work of
my life for the last year and a quarter. I can compromise nothing.”
Once again Whistler scored and Leyland paid. His thanks to his patron
afterwards took the form of painting a life-size portrait of him as a
devil with horns and hoofs.
The sale of the famous portrait of Carlyle gave Whistler one of
those opportunities in which he delighted. It was first exhibited in
Edinburgh, and the Edinburgh Corporation, wishing to possess this
masterful work, telegraphed to know what would be his lowest figure, to
which Jimmy replied by wire: “Terms a thousand guineas, to the tune of
This was pure cheek, for the picture stood at five hundred guineas in
the catalogue, and instead of replying how much less he would take for
it, as the canny city fathers desired, he had doubled the sum. Three or
four years later he sold that selfsame picture to Glasgow for the sum
of a thousand guineas.
When painting his delightful picture of Miss Alexander, Whistler took
about seventy sittings—a fearful ordeal. She told Phené Spiers that she
thought he often rubbed out a whole day’s work after she had gone.
Near the close of his life Whistler withdrew from London for a period,
living permanently in his rooms in the Rue du Bac, in Paris. I had not
seen him for seven or eight years when I met him again in May, 1900,
at a dinner-party at Mr. Heinemann’s in Norfolk Street, Park Lane.
How altered Whistler was—he had changed from a somewhat sprightly
middle-aged man to one nearer seventy.
His shaggy hair was grizzly grey, his round, beady, black eyes were as
clear and brilliant as ever, overhung by thick black brows. A bright
colour was upon his cheek, almost a hectic flush, if one may apply the
term to a man of his age, and there was the same vivacity about him
as of old. He was just as thin, and, needless to say, had not grown!
He was the same witty little person, with the same sharp, sarcastic
tongue. The artistic world had come to appreciate his work very
differently from of old, and already he was encountering what a rival
wit has pithily described as “the last insult—popularity.”
He had practically given up living in England, he said, with that
strong American accent which he never lost: Paris he “found so much
“There is not much wit in France now,” he remarked, “but there is
positively none in Britain. There is not much good literature in France
either, but there is less in England. People are all too busy trying to
fill their pockets with gold to have time to store their brains with
The conversation turned upon his studio. Speaking of students, he said:
“Oh, I like women ever so much better than men. They are finer artists;
they are more delicate, more subtle, more sensitive and artistic;
indeed, it is the feminine side of a man that makes him an artist at
all. Art is refined, or it is not Art. Man is not refined, except when
he copies woman.”
“That is all very well,” I answered, “but unfortunately there have been
so few great women artists.”
“Have there been many great men artists?” he enquired, with a little
twinkle; “because I think not. In fact, there has been just as good
work done by women as has ever been done by men in that line, and now
that more of them are taking up Art, and are breaking the trammels by
which they have been surrounded for generations, I shall be surprised
if the world does not produce better women artists than men. It is
in them; it is a born instinct. Love of refinement, beauty, poetry,
sentiment, and colour belong to woman. Cruelty, perhaps valour,
strength, and ruggedness, are on the man’s side.”
Encouragement goes a long way, just as human sympathy is the very
backbone of life. Poor Jimmy Whistler got very little of either until
his last few years. To the philosophy of youth everything matters, to
the maturity of old age nothing matters.
He was brilliant and vain. But then, all men are vain. It is the
prerogative of the male from the peacock upwards.
For some years Whistler had a little Neapolitan model, with very dark
hair and beautiful black eyes. His wife took great interest in her.
After his bereavement Jimmy felt he ought to continue to minister to
the welfare of the girl, who by this time had grown into a magnificent
specimen of a Neapolitan woman. She married when still very young,
and, being tired of sitting as a model, she asked her patron one day
to allow her to use his name if she started an atelier. “Might it be
called the ‘Whistler Studio,’ and would he himself come and see after
it and give instruction once a week?” Whistler approved of the plan and
The woman therefore took a studio in Paris, where the painter was
living, and at the end of the month, instead of having a dozen students
as she expected, something like a hundred had entered their names, all
eager to study under Whistler. On the strength of her success Madame
abandoned her simple clothes and appeared gorgeous in black, rustling
silk robes, in which she strutted about the studio and played the
_grande dame_. Whistler, as has been said, promised to attend, and
more or less he kept his word. The first day of his appearance the
great little man marched into the room occupied by the female students,
and, picking out one girl, sat down opposite her canvas, intending to
correct her work.
“Give me your palette,” he said. “What is this? and this? and this?”
She told him the different colours.
“Hideous!” he replied, “and impossible! Where are so and so, and this
She had none of them. No one in the room was lucky enough to possess
the colours he sought, so Whistler sent out for them and chatted
pleasantly until the messenger’s return, having told the maiden in the
meantime to clean her palette of all the vivid hues she had displayed
upon it. The paints and the clean palette arrived together. Jimmy
arranged them according to his taste.
“Now,” he said, “that palette is fit to paint with, and so ends your
first lesson. Study it, and paint only with those colours until you see
Before the day was finished every girl had arranged her palette
according to the plan, and the men in the other room likewise followed
suit. When the artist paid his next visit to the studio, he found the
palette he had himself prepared fixed upon the wall and immortalised
with a wreath, while underneath was a label announcing, “This palette
has been arranged according to the regulation of James Whistler, the
Whistler’s marriage was the strangest affair in the world, for he was
probably about sixty at the time, and his bride, Mrs. Godwin, a widow,
although a pretty woman, was by no means young. Yet the romance and
enthusiasm they developed were delightful, and during the ten years
or so of his married life Whistler became infinitely more human and
contented in every way. They were very happy; indeed, his tender
solicitude for his wife’s welfare on every occasion, and his anxiety
and concern during her long illness, were a revelation to those who
only thought of Whistler as a quarrelsome egoist wrapped entirely in
himself. Hidden away, he had a kind heart, although he chose generally
to conceal it. His wife’s loss was the tragedy of his existence, and he
was never the same man afterwards.
Henry Labouchere wrote: “So my old friend Jemmy Whistler is dead. I
first knew him in 1854 at Washington. He had not then developed into
a painter, but was a young man who had recently left the West Point
Military College, and was considering what next he should do. He was
fond of balls, but he had not a dress-coat, so he attended them in
a frock-coat, the skirts of which were turned back to simulate an
“I believe that I was responsible for his marriage to the widow of Mr.
Godwin, the architect. She was a remarkably pretty woman and very
agreeable, and both she and he were thorough Bohemians. I was dining
with them and some others one evening at Earl’s Court. They were
obviously greatly attracted to each other, and in a vague sort of way
they thought of marrying. So I took the matter in hand to bring things
to a practical point. ‘Jemmy,’ I said, ‘will you marry Mrs. Godwin?’
‘Certainly,’ he replied. ‘Mrs. Godwin,’ I said, ‘will you marry Jemmy?’
‘Certainly,’ she replied. ‘When?’ I asked. ‘Oh, some day,’ said
Whistler. ‘That won’t do,’ I said; ‘we must have a date.’ So they both
agreed that I should choose the day, tell them what church to come to
for the ceremony, provide a clergyman, and give the bride away. I fixed
an early date, and got the then Chaplain of the House of Commons to
perform the ceremony. It took place a few days later.
“After the ceremony was over we adjourned to Whistler’s studio, where
he had prepared a banquet. The banquet was on the table, but there were
no chairs. So we sat on packing-cases. The happy pair, when I left, had
not quite decided whether they would go that evening to Paris or remain
in the studio. How unpractical they were was shown when I happened
to meet the bride the day before the marriage in the street. ‘Don’t
forget to-morrow,’ I said. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘I am just going to buy
my trousseau.’ ‘A little late for that, is it not?’ I asked. ‘No,’
she answered, ‘for I am only going to buy a new tooth-brush and a new
sponge, as one ought to have new ones when one marries.’ However, there
never was a more successful marriage. They adored each other, and lived
most happily together; and when she died he was broken-hearted.”
[Illustration: WALTER CRANE’S MOST FAMOUS BOOK PLATE]
One day I asked Walter Crane, who knew both Watts and Whistler more
intimately than I did, whether he could tell me something of these two,
so different from one another, and yet each of whom needs a prominent
place—the one in the painter’s Valhalla; the other, well, let time
decide in what niche and where Jimmy’s little statue shall command
“Watts was a most revered and generous friend of mine, I can
truly say, but as to Whistler, I never saw much of him, but I
always recognised his artistic qualities, though I was not of
his school. I think he regarded me as necessarily in a hostile
camp, artistically speaking, but it was not so. I can appreciate
Impressionism without decrying pre-Raphaelitism. As regards
Whistler and the Peacock Room, there was a panel at the end with
two peacocks (one with a diamond eye and one with an emerald eye)
fighting. Whistler is reported to have said that the one who is
getting the worst of it was Leyland and the conqueror was himself.
“We were not intimate friends—only acquainted. Although I always
realised his distinction as an artist, I could not extend my
admiration to the man, and I think he only cared for worshippers
and even these he tired of.”
One of my cherished possessions is the book-plate here shown which
Walter Crane designed for me. He is probably the best _Ex Libris_
draughtsman of the day, and he himself thinks this is the best
book-plate he ever drew. At his request it was reproduced on wood, and
while it has delighted its possessor, it will surely be admired by all
for its intrinsic merit.
To explain the riddle of its symbolism.
On the right-hand side is the crest of the Harleys; on the left,
the arms of the Tweedies. At the top the Medusa head and three legs
represent Sicily. At different corners are implements, trappings,
and odds and ends from various countries I have visited. The lamp
of learning is burning brightly, the wreaths of fame, the book of
knowledge are there, and a little ship is sailing away into the
unknown; while below—and surely this is brilliant imagination—lies
the world at my feet. This was sent to me with the following letter,
written in the neatest and most brush-like of caligraphy:
“13 HOLLAND STREET, KENSINGTON.
“_Nov. 12, ’05._
“DEAR MRS. ALEC TWEEDIE,
“I have pleasure to send you my design for a book-plate in which
I have endeavoured to explain in symbolical way your literary
activities and your triumphs of travel.
“Trusting it may not be unpleasing, believe me, with kind regards,
“Yours very truly,
At a later date, on returning a book, the kind originator of my
treasure added some notes in pencil about this particular kind of work;
notes quaint and full of pith as the writer’s drawing.
“You have given me a handsome certificate as a book-plate designer
and I must live up to it, though, so far, book-plates have only
been a small part of my work. I am not always _Ex Libris_, but like
a rest inside the pages, you know, letting one’s fancy loose, both
as a writer and as a decorator and illustrator. All the same, there
are moments when one is inclined to shriek, with Hilda in Ibsen’s
_Master Builder_, ‘Books are so irrelevant,’ and, again, at other
times to say (with Disraeli, was it not?), ‘When I want a book, I
will write one.’”
Another note given below enclosed his own book-plate:
“I send you my own book-plate with the greatest pleasure. It has
been done some years, and I do not think it is as nice a one as
yours—though I say it! I am glad that yours not only pleases you,
but your friends. I don’t know whether you saw it in the _Arts and
Crafts_, but it was there.”
As to book-plates, seeing that books are a particularly treasured
kind of personal property and cannot yet be considered as communal as
umbrellas; and because borrowers of books like long leases, but are
generally provided with short memories, the possibly harmless, but
certainly most necessary, book-plate has a distinct _raison d’être_.
Furthermore, they afford an opportunity of embodying in a succinct,
symbolic, and decorative form the concentrated essence of the
character, performances, career, and descent of the book-owner or
lover. Thus book-plates acquire a certain historic interest in course
of time, and may from the first possess as well an artistic interest;
but this, naturally, depends on their design and treatment.
Next appears a notable figure thrown upon my cinematograph stage by the
rapid process of setting free successive memories.
Watts. For a lover of pictures, what recollections that name implies!
How many and varied the styles, how many and varied the subjects, that
in turn have found expression and thus sprung into life on the easel of
this great painter.
It happened that on June 1st, 1886 (the anniversary of my birthday), a
friend took me to the studio of Mr. Watts to see him at work, a note of
which incident lies before me in a big, round, girlish hand.
To begin with, the charming house in Melbury Road, Kensington, with its
large studio and spacious picture-gallery, seemed exactly the right
home for a great artist.
At this time the master was working on what appeared, to my young
mind, a ghastly subject—“Vindictive Revenge,” depicting a vulture of
human form tearing to pieces a victim, whether man or woman escapes my
memory. Horrible, and in no way satisfying to my reason. On another
easel was a huge sulphur-coloured canvas showing a dying man sitting in
his chair with a majestic woman’s figure standing by his side. Lying on
a table near was a sketch (later exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery) of
a most quaint and antiquated musical instrument that was used in the
larger picture. This instrument resembled a wooden bowl, its aperture
covered with a stretched skin, on which the shaggy hair was left, and
the strings were passed over a few holes in this skin.
What it was called or whence its origin history does not relate. It had
probably been picked up as a curio for its quaint appearance, but Mr.
Watts disclaimed being a collector of such, telling me that his house
would have been long overfilled had he given rein to this hobby, unique
in the way it carries one on and on.
In the gallery in Melbury Road hung all manner of pictures and numerous
portraits, amongst which I recognised those of Tennyson, the Prince
of Wales, his former wife Ellen Terry, and Violet Lindsay—one of his
favourite models—besides many more; but almost seventy were then being
exhibited at Manchester, which somewhat denuded the walls.
In personal appearance Watts was a gracious, kindly old gentleman, with
white hair and a closely trimmed beard. He wore a tight tweed suit and
a scarlet ribbon loosely tied round his neck, besides a black velvet
skull-cap, head-gear of so many “old masters.”
Here it seems permissible to quote a message from that great artist,
when he was ill, delivered by Alfred Gilbert at an Art Congress.
He urged “the importance of making the aims and principles of art
generally understood. The stumbling-block to the English was the
practical: all that did not present the idea of immediate advantage
seemed to them impractical. Till the love of beauty was once more alive
among us there could be little hope for art…. The art that existed
only in pictures and statues was like a religion kept only for Sundays.”
Like all other first impressions, this visit to the studio stands out a
clear and vivid sketch in my mind. Everyone must have enjoyed meeting
Watts, but to those workers who use the pen there is always a kindred
interest, an alliance of aim with the brothers of the brush, besides
the inspiring pleasure derived from the presence and helpful words of a
master of his art.
From 1886 to the year of grace 1910 is a leap indeed: all but a quarter
of a century! Likewise, from the awe-inspiring canvases of Watts,
the master, to the witty, delightful, crisp illustrations of that
past-craftsman of Art, Harry Furniss, is a change of subject well-nigh
as great. At the thought of him gravity forsakes one’s visage, gives
way to a smiling mien and expectation of wholesome fun, of delicate
What a worker, oh, but what a worker! as the French would phrase it, is
the well-known and popular _Hy. F._
I think I can lay claim to being a fairly busy person, but I feel
ashamed, stunned, when I think of the stupendous amount of work
accomplished by Harry Furniss. Anyone who has seen those five hundred
illustrations to the eighteen volumes of Dickens must have admired
the delicate draughtsmanship, the characterisation, the comedy and
tragedy, and, above all, the penmanship of the artist. Five hundred
illustrations! Yes, nearly all full-page, most of them containing
several figures, and yet—but read in his letter below.
No wonder he was up with the first streaks of dawn for months, no
wonder he became ill. Harry Furniss achieved a Herculean piece of work,
if ever artist did.
“THE MOUNT, HIGH WICKHAM,
“_May 7th, 1910_.
“DEAR MRS. TWEEDIE,
“Just received yours. Nothing I could enjoy better than to enjoy
your hospitality for a few days—but alas! I have my nose to the
grindstone again. Another big work. I _must keep_ at it until I
“If I should find myself away from the British Museum print-rooms
(where I fly for references), I shall certainly walk in some
afternoon and have tea with you. At present I am here for the next
six weeks with models every day. I have to get them from London and
pay them whether I work or not.
“Glad you like my Dickens. I shall go down on my knees when I see
you (you will have to help me up again, though, as I have the gout)
and _swear_ the truth, which is, I illustrated the whole of Dickens
between the 1st of May last year and New Year’s Day. Eight months,
having it read and re-read as I worked, and yet I am alive!
“You do not say how you are, but I do hope your eye trouble is over.
“Yours very sincerely,
Later in the autumn, accompanying a brief note snatched out of the
over-busy worker’s day, is the expressive sentence, scribbled beside a
pen-and-ink sketch of Father Time bearing the artist’s easel upon his
back, as the patriarch squats and smokes, and H. F. breathlessly paints:
“Still working _against_ Time.”
Doubtless he will go on doing so all his life, five hundred new
illustrations for Thackeray later being but an episode, and yet he
found time to illustrate many of his letters to friends: I have many I