Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames (16 October 2013 - 12 January 2014) opens today at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London.  The exhibition is also being shown at a later date in two prestigious American Art Galleries, namely:
I went to see it last week and I highly recommend it to all lovers of drawing, etchings, lithographs and drawings and paintings of the Thames.

As we were reminded on the curators' tour, as an etcher, James McNeill Whistler has always been thought of as the successor to Rembrandt (I looked this up and came across The Great Painter-Etchers - available to download and a good read!).  He's certainly incredibly impressive and this exhibition is a masterclass in providing resource material to study his preparation and approach to picture making.

The other aspect I love about Whistler is the way he used the masters of ukiyo-e - in particular Hokusai and Hiroshige - to influence his paintings - particularly their composition.  This is most dramatically demonstrated in Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (Tate Britain) which has been used as the motif for the exhibition - and can be seen in the photograph below.

The introduction to the exhibition by its two Glasgow University based curators Professor Margaret F. MacDonald, who is a world authority on Whistler, and Dr Patricia de Montfort was both very informative and less heavy-going than some I've been to.   Their new blog linked to the exhibition is called James McNeill Whistler and his Art.  They've also written the catalogue which links to the exhibition.

Glasgow University has a major resource base related to Whistler:
Curators of the exhibition - Dr Patricia Montfort and Professor Margaret F McDonald
Standing in front of Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge
The curators have been working on the exhibition for some 9 years with a bit of a blip for the economic crash. They're also the authors of the accompanying catalogue which is very readable and does the reader the courtesy of both following the themes of the exhibition and providing a catalogue for all the images! (Regular readers will recall I've been less enthusiastic of some catalogues of late).  Readers visiting the exhibition in London may be a bit puzzled by some of the images - however the exhibition changes slightly when it goes to the USA.  There are images which can only travel within the UK and images which cannot leave the Freer.

Key points about the exhibition 

  • it reflects a body of work by an artist who lived next to or near the Thames and drew and painted it repeatedly over a period of over 40 years (1859-1902)
  • it shows Londoners what the Thames and its river traffic looked like in the latter half of the 19th century - and as it underwent the changes associated with eg the construction of the Embankment and the replacement and rebuilding of bridges
  • the exhibition enables study of how Whistler developed his approach to art, in terms of subject matter, composition and technique.  
  • It includes a considerable amount of information about the Thames Set, Nocturnes, various methods of printmaking and the development of artwork associated with Battersea Bridge
  • the works by Whistler in the exhibition are a mix of etchings, paintings - in both oil and watercolour, drawings in charcoal and pastel. 
  • the artwork is supplemented by photographs of the Thames during the era showing images of the locations, bridges, types of boats and watermen he was portraying and maps of the area covered by Whistler in drawing and painting the Thames.  
For me the only thing it lacked an annotated map locating image to location.  However the narratives for each image certainly made up for this in terms of identifying precisely what the image is of and where it was located.

So on to a bit more detail about the exhibition....

The Thames Set

The first room is dedicated to the Thames Set (which I've written about previously - see Whistler Month: The Thames Set, Etching Papers and watermarks and Whistler Month: Thames Views).  You can also see the Thames set online

In 1861, Whistler completed the series of Sixteen etchings of scenes on the Thames 1871 which has subsequently become known as the ‘Thames set’.   This was the first 'product' he produced after settling in London in 1859.  Fourteen etchings from the series are on display, including Rotherhithe (1860), an etching closely related to Wapping (1860-64), the innovative oil painting of the same year which features Whistler’s mistress ‘Jo’, which is also in the show.
The set comprises : Thames Warehouses [46], Old Westminster Bridge [47], Limehouse [48],Eagle Wharf [50], Black Lion Wharf [54], The Pool [49], Thames Police [53], W. Jones, Lime-Burner, Thames Street [55], J. Becquet, Sculptor [62], Rotherhithe [70], The Forge [86], Millbank [78], The Little Pool [79], Battersea Dawn (Cadogan Pier) [95], Old Hungerford Bridge [76] and Chelsea Bridge and Church [102]. (James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings - A Catalogue Raisonné)
[This is a page on the Glasgow University site about Whistler and his production of etchings which tells you how to make an etching and this is an image of Whistler's etching tools.]

Prof. McDonald told us that there are some 10k impressions of Whistler's etchings in existence and they do vary in quality because all were hand pulled. The display here comes from a particularly good set which belongs to The Lunder Collection, Colby College of Art in Maine which have been mounted in a very Whistlerian type of frame.  They look very attractive as well being very good examples of this set.

Whistler and the Thames - Thames Set
If you're not familiar with Whistler's work the main thing to appreciate is that he is the most superb draughtsman.  Over and above his skill with a line, he also has total command of choice of subject matter, composition, and tonal variation.  All in all he is an artist who teaches you a lot just by looking at his work.  The works are small but there are excellent reproductions in the catalogue for closer study over time.

In addition to that, he's also true to his original training in topographical etching - all the scenes are very accurate.

I confess one of my long term aims is to map all the etchings on to an old map of London c. 1860!

The task is complicated by etchings being the reverse of the view he was drawing.  The one below is from the balcony of the Angel Public House in Bermondsey - which sits right over the river, and which I know well from younger days.  Below is the Whistler etching - flipped horizontally to give the correct view - and here's a link to a photo of the view from the same balcony today.  Both have the dome of St Paul's on both.  Of course Whistler's view predates Tower Bridge - and the Shard etc!

Rotherhithe by JM Whistler
etching from the Thames Set - reversed to compare with scene today

The next room is devoted to paintings of the Thames.  To be honest I wasn't so enthralled by these but I suspect that was the colour palette.

Paintings of the Thames
(left) Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge - painted from Lindsay Row, looking south to Battersea
Centre) Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach - this is the view down river from Lindsay Row
(right) The Last of Old Westminster - the bridge was being replaced and was covered in scaffolding
The paintings of the river are complemented by historical photographs hung throughout the exhibition.  These help to place Whistler’s work into the social context of the Chelsea neighbourhood where he lived and worked.  They also show parts of the Thames which feature in his paintings.

There were also some old maps which helped to locate where he lived - in Lindsay Row - relative to Battersea Bridge

Whistler lived in Lindsay Row - just to the left of Battersea Bridge
He was painting the bridge from his studio!
If he looked the other way he could see Battersea Reach and the industrial area of Battersea
His paintings of the Thames began to look rather different later on after the advent of a Japanese influence on his painting.

Whistler paintings becoming influenced by Japanese composition and design
In one room are two very famous paintings involving figures - Wapping and Symphony in White #2. I've long liked the Wapping painting - not least because I've sat on that balcony of the Angel Public House in Bermondsey. Every time I look at it I marvel at the traffic on the Thames at that time.

The woman featured in both paintings is Joanna Heffernan who was his mistress at the time.  One of the bonuses of the research for this exhibition is that the curators were able to identify the Japanese image which is seen on the fan she holds in her hand - and which is now seen to the right of the painting.

Wapping and Symphony in White #2 The Little White Girl
The exhibition includes a room of Nocturnes and Lithographs. He started painting "Moonlights" in 1871. Whistler's Liverpool patron suggested the term "Nocturnes" and that was the name of his paintings of night thereafter
A nocturne is an an arrangement of line, colour and form first.  The picture throughout is a problem I attempt to solve.
Nocturnes and Lithographs
On the right is Nocturne Grey and Gold: Westminster Bridge
I really liked the lithographs that he did from the Savoy Hotel a lot.

In particular I loved the 1896 lithograph of The Thames drawn direct on the stone. There's an immense amount of 'colour' in this monochrome print. Whistler refused to have it printed after his wife's death and most impressions including this one were pulled posthumously by Frederick Goulding who printed Whistler's Thames Etchings

The Thames (1896) 
The last room is devoted to Battersea Bridge - highlighting the impact of Japonisme
 on his work in terms of composition culminating in Nocturne Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge - which is the motif for the exhibition.  It's very clear that endless studies and drawings of the bridge were done before he painted it properly.

Drawings, pastels and etchings of Battersea Bridge

Links to previous posts about Whistler

I've written extensively about Whistler on this blog.  In 2007 I did a major "learn all I can about Whistler" project and documented the results on this blog - and these are the posts I wrote at the time
The project also resulted in a website About James McNeill Whistler which contains lots of links to other places you can see artwork by Whistler. 

Footnote: The Royal Society of British Artists RBA had its first meeting on 22 May 1823 and received a royal charter in 1887 when Whistler was the President.  This is ironic really when you think about it - given Whistler was an American by birth!

Details of the exhibition
  • An American in London: Whistler and the Thames Exhibition dates: 16 October 2013 – 12 January 2014
  • Tickets Book online at Or by phone on 020 8299 8732 | Full Price £11 (£10*) | Senior Citizens £9 (£8*) | Unemployed, disabled, students £6 (£5*) | Children and Friends Free | Audio-guide: £3

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