The Long, Strange History of Phase II

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Good Things for the CBLDF


First Quarto: The Savoy


Part II



    [What I used to call “gut instinct” back in my atheistic days has been replaced by a sharper and more specific impulse which is irresistible in all particulars and which leads me through my Deistic-centered life like a carrot dangled before a donkey. I hardly notice how effortlessly everything falls into place around me, in the course of the average day, just through maintenance of my schedule of prayer, fasting, alms-giving, reading aloud of scripture, etc. Of course what is interesting is that the impulse—in subjective experiential terms—is not altogether different from its diametric opposite: temptation.  Such was certainly the case with the TurnerWhistlerMonet exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario in its closing weeks.  As I mentioned in one of the (relatively) early form letters, I had gone with Chester Brown with the specific intention of seeing the exhibit and had found it too crowded to get in. I was philosophical about my disappointment—I had, after all, seen the Barnes exhibit of Impressionist paintings only a few years before—but found, after I got home, that I was a good deal less philosophical than I had expected to be and set about going through AGO channels (via fax) so that I might see the exhibit the week following. It was unprecedented, unexpected and somewhat troubling that I was willing to go back to Toronto on successive Wednesdays.  If I was just following the Deistic carrot, that was fine, but there seemed a more real danger that I might be backsliding and choosing transient pleasures over my work, rebelling against what I should do and instead doing what I wanted to do.  It’s something I watch out for very carefully and work hard to avoid.  

    Phase II was beginning to take shape in my mind at the time—I’ll be writing more about the exact process by which it took shape more specifically under “Fourth Quarto: Neil, Neil, Neil”—but I had no idea, until I saw the exhibit, that it would have any application to what was evolving in the work half of my brain.

  I should mention here that, in order to refresh my memory of some pertinent facts, I dug out my copy of Stanley Weintraub’s Whistler (paperback edition published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside Limited, Toronto, 1988: an old friend of a book that Gerhard had unearthed on his post issue-300 Voyage to the Bottom of the Storage Room at home) and ended up reading the entirety of the section on the Peacock Room, then the “Oscar and Jimmy” chapter and finally just capitulated and—over the last day or so—read the whole thing straight through even though it would be stretching a point to say that I needed to have my memory of Whistler’s story that thoroughly refreshed for me. It’s an amazing story of an amazing life and I get swept up in it at the least provocation as is also the case with the Legend of Oscar Wilde.)


   James Abbot Whistler and Oscar Wilde’s lives interwove from about the late 1870’s onward.  Mr. Weintraub makes the excellent point that Wilde was originally a member of Whistler’s circle of acolytes and in a most particular way which set him apart from the maitre’s other pupils: Wilde—barely past college age—was really the first London critic to capitulate whole-heartedly and unreservedly to Whistler’s viewpoints on painting and aesthetics, breaking ranks with the London mindset of the time as exemplified by the exacting standards of the Royal Academy which held that there were specific elements which went into the making of a good picture, foremost among these a narrative subject (usually classical, historical or Biblical) and a level of finish to the picture that was expected to verge on the photographic.  I’m not sure that Wilde actually agreed with Whistler so much as he saw that running contrary to the pack was working for Whistler the public figure—in ways important to Wilde—so he thought he might as well be the next one into the metaphorical á rebours pool. 


(I should mention at this point that, personally, I come down on the side of the Royal Academy more often than not, seeing Whistler’s interesting speculations and innovations as being fine as far as Whistler and his sort go, but, overall? disastrous for the general state of art—while freely admitting that there are some very good Impressionist and Expressionist pictures. As an example, I can admire the early Picasso and the transitional Picasso but by the time we arrive at that point where the pictures’ subjects have degenerated into vaguely (and often not so vaguely) surrealistic compositions of brightly-coloured geometric shapes, I have gotten off the train several stops back. I can admire the work of Marcel Duchamp up to and including “Nude Descending a Staircase” and then, for me—as with Pablo Picasso—we enter the heart of the Emperor’s New Clothes territory.  I see the overall movement pioneered by Whistler and championed by artists like Picasso and Duchamp as extremely democratic insofar as vague swatches of colour—being described and accepted as Art—allows rather more vast constituencies of the populace to call themselves Artists, but, for me, a really good Royal Academy picture with full finish (that is, no brush strokes visible, all colours seamlessly blended into a coherent approximation of the life-like)…well, to me there’s just no comparison. An Impressionist painting I’m pretty sure I could do myself, even with no painting experience: by contrast, a painting on the scale of standards demanded by the Royal Academy exists on such an elevated plane of accomplishment that I would no more pretend to attain to the same category than I would attempt to teach myself to play a complex violin concerto over a weekend.  I’m still interested in the (in my view, on-going) debate taking place in Whistler’s frames of reference but I consider those frames of reference to be on a much lower artistic plateau.  That is, I still hold to the Victorian assessment (against which Whistler fought so bitterly—and, ultimately, successfully!) that most Impressionist paintings are good ideas for paintings, colour sketches, oil sketches or whatever else you want to call them but I think it silly to compare Impressionism with actual finished pictures. And even sillier to favour any colour sketch over a finished Royal Academy painting in doing so.)


      Although Turner and others (such as Degas) had themselves broken ranks with the Academy viewpoint in this exact frame of reference, they were considered the exceptions which proved the rule (or, if you share my perspective, the thin end of the wedge or the Trojan Horse). A number of Turner’s canvases are so vague as to be virtually non-existent (I’m thinking in particular of Sun Setting Over a Lake (Fig.1) whose title I read at the exhibit and looked at for about ten seconds before murmuring “If you say so”) and yet Turner was a favourite of Ruskin, Ruskin whose accusation against Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” with Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. (Fig.2) formed the basis of Whistler’s ill-advised libel suit which made inevitable his bankruptcy. I suspect it was the sheer unfairness of this brand of critical hypocrisy which led Whistler to be so publicly vocal on behalf of his own viewpoint, writing more than his body weight in abrasive and antagonistic letters to the editor in reaction to every snide reference to himself and his work (and eventually collecting many of them as a book which he called The Gentle Art of Making Enemies—a title which, personally, I don’t think was improved upon until Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People) with a rapier-like wit and unmatched capability for phrase-making. He became a prolific letter-writer largely through necessity because—for literal decades in London—every reference to Whister and his work could be best described as snide.  Of course, this “quarrelsomeness” would also prove to be his undoing as he resorted to the criminal courts on several occasions and often on the most specious of legal grounds (such as his singular conviction that just because someone had paid him to produce a work of art that didn’t entitle them to ownership of it). 

     It seems to me that Wilde largely swam in Whistler’s wake—a pilot-fish to Whistler’s killer whale—for the first few years of their ill-fated friendship until Wilde had determined for himself that he could successfully purloin Whistler’s “act” for his own and improve on it by being a) exponentially less abrasive and b) more fatuously charming.  Which he did.  Of course where Whistler was actively fighting an all-out war against a specific perception of art—one man against the entire British Empire Perception of Art History, essentially fighting daily for his professional life until well into his sixties (when he basically won) and that the resulting notoriety was, for him, an annoying but inevitable by-product of that war—Wilde, it seems to me, was far more interested in notoriety for its own sake and was probably the first public figure to actively set out to become notorious as—what we would today call—a “career move”. There is the famous story of Wilde and a companion passing another duo on the street, one of whom is reported to have said to his companion, sotto voce, “There’s that damn fool Oscar Wilde.”  To which Wilde responded to his own companion, “How quickly one becomes known in London!” Delighting in notoriety for its own sake (Wilde) is a very different thing from accepting notoriety as a necessary evil in order to achieve a change in societal perception (Whistler) and the former, it seems to me, is always detrimental to the latter.  The purveyors of the status quo are always going to be able to undermine opposing arguments by accusing those who advocate them (like Whistler) of being shameless self-advertisers (like Wilde). 

    So, in the layered complexities of the English art world of the last century, I tend to come down on the side of the Royal Academy against Whistler (with certain qualifications I’m getting to, I promise) and to come down on the side of Whistler against Wilde. But even though I tend to see it as a conflict between someone who accepted notoriety as a necessary evil in order to achieve a change in society against a delight in notoriety for its own sake it is worth noting that Whistler—an American by birth—was the only product of Victorian English society whose success as a pictorial artist endures from that era.  And, likewise, Wilde is one of the only literary names from the late Victorian era (post-Henry James, let’s say) whose literary reputation has endured and grown up to the present day. And yet in their day, they were both considered irretrievable lunatics by (to use Barry Windsor-Smith’s phrase) “The Grand British Public” even at the height of their popularity.  That Whistler ultimately prevailed is a source of no small comfort to people (such as me, to cite one example) who never really get an answer to the viewpoints they espouse and advance: they just get accused of insanity and are universally vilified and ridiculed. Dismissing him as crazy worked for decades against Whistler’s arguments, but ultimately his viewpoint prevailed to the detriment of all of his peers and those viewed at the time as his betters, virtually all of whom have been forgotten by posterity upon the dust-heap of artistic history’s perceived failures.  

    This description of the First Quarto is already long enough without indulging in too-lengthy speculations on what I see as the Larger Narrative Purpose (on those macrocosmic proportions of scale suggested by Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage”) to the interweaving of Whistler and Wilde’s stories, but it is interesting, to me, where and how they intersect.  And one of those points of intersection is the Savoy Hotel, as I was reminded by the TurnerWhistlerMonet exhibit (which—for the benefit of Neil’s legions of French and English readers—I should point out is presently at the Galeries nationals de Grand Palais in Paris through 17 January and will conclude its tripartite tour of Toronto, Paris and London at the Tate, Britain, 10 February to 15 May of ’05).

     Of course for me, personally, James Abbot Whistler provided a couple of even more vital components missing from my conception of Phase II and I am indebted to his memory and his singular personality without which I’m not sure where all of this might have ended up.  But this is all “Fourth Quarto” subject matter and we aren’t there yet. 

      Whistler was married for the first time in August of 1888—just as his star was rising decisively for the first time in the artistic firmament—to Beatrice Godwin, the beautiful young widow of famed architect E. W. Godwin who had designed Whistler’s studio and residence, The White House, in Tite Street (just across the way from Oscar Wilde, as it turns out), the same Beatrice Godwin who had posed for one of his full-length portraits, Harmony in Red-Lamplight in the mid-1880’s. In the aftermath of the French government acquiring Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (more popularly known today as “Whistler’s Mother”) for the then-astronomical sum of 1,000 guineas (simultaneously elevating Whistler from Chevalier to Officer of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian accolade), Whistler made good on his threat to adopt France (“because since France has permanently taken the ‘Mother’ it seems to me that she also has to adopt the son a little!”) as his principle residence, shaming England and America in the process: any gallery or either government in either country might have acquired the painting at any time up to that point.  England and America’s “Whistler the Lunatic” was now bound for the Louvre. 

     It was in December of 1895 that Beatrice Godwin took ill in France and was nothing bettered for the ministrations of the French physicians.  The couple returned across the channel to London where she was diagnosed as having cancer: 


      The results, which confirmed Dr. Willie’s pessimism, were kept from Trixie, and Whistler took her back to Paris, where a French surgeon proposed an exploratory operation.  Guessing that his brother would accept the advice of anyone who promised a cure, Willie rushed across the Channel just in time to prevent Trixie from going under the knife, declaring frankly that it would only add to her agony. 


     Whistler flailed about, writing to an art dealer in New York that it was possible that he and his wife would be coming to America immediately in order to consult certain doctors recommended to them.  Crossing the North Atlantic in winter “was a daunting prospect for Trixie, however, and nothing came of the idea.”  They closed the house in Paris and set off to test the medicinal properties of the sea air at Lyme Regis, in Dorsetshire.  Trixie returned to London to be close to her mother and sisters, encouraging Whistler to stay on.  When he, himself, returned to London there was a succession of addresses and hotels


    After the De Vere Gardens Hotel it was the new Savoy, which Whistler had etched when under construction in the 1880s, from the windows of the D’Oyly Carte offices when he was planning his Ten O’Clock lecture, observing that he “must draw it now, for it would never look so well again.”  The Savoy was the acme of Victorian opulence, both in appointments and cuisine, but neither meant much to the failing Trixie, for whom Whistler sought rooms high up and overlooking the Thames.  Again a column of porters carried in cases of little-used clothing and personal effects, with special attention given a birdcage housing an exotic Asian magpie with long, brilliant tail feathers—a gift to Trixie from Charles Freer, who had been traveling again in the East to add to his collection of Orientalia…

   …From each new address there was evidence of Whistler’s continuing efforts to work amidst the disorganization and chaos.  There was a lithograph of Kensington Gardens from the De Vere Hotel, an etching of Clare Market and others of Fitzroy Square, and eight lithographs done at the Savoy (Figs.3 through 7 – Little London (from the roof of the Savoy); Waterloo Bridge; Evening, Little Waterloo Bridge, Charing Cross Railway Bridge (more properly, the Hungerford Bridge) and Savoy Pigeons), six of them remarkable views of London from his Hotel room window, as Whistler spent more and more time with his wife, who by the end of winter seldom left her bed.  The other two were of Trixie, titled




By the Balcony (Fig.8) and The Siesta, in a pathetic attempt to convince himself that Trixie was merely resting.  What he drew belied his captions.  By the Balcony showed a wasted Trixie asleep on a day bed under a coverlet, in the background an open door onto a balcony beyond which was a glimpse of Waterloo Bridge and the Thames.  In The Siesta she sinks back into the sheets, her head held up by a pillow, her left hand dangling limply, a book abandoned open on the bed. 

    …Rather than hope there was only another pilgrimage, this time to rugged Hampstead Heath, where Whistler had rented a cottage from Canon Barnett, a local clergyman.  He was able to joke about the hilly surroundings that it was “like living on the top of a landscape,” but to Walter Sickert he wrote, again eschewing the first person singular, “We are very, very bad.”  Soon he was seen wearing one black and one brown shoe, the ultimate citadel—his fastidiousness—breaking down.  On May 10, 1896, Sydney Pawling met him running across the Heath, a wild expression on his face.  Alarmed, Pawling stopped Whistler, who cried out, “Don’t speak! Don’t speak! It is terrible,” And he raced on.


     Walter Sickert, in Venice, heard the news of Trixie’s passing and wrote Whistler:


     My dearest Jimmy.

     You must always remember now how you made her life, from the moment you took it up, absolutely perfect and happy.  Your love has been as perfect and whole as your work and that is the utmost that can be achieved.  Nor has her exquisite comprehension of you, and companionship of you ceased now.  Never let yourself forget that her spirit is at your side now, and will always be, for sanity, and gaiety, and work; and you must not fail her now either in your hardest peril. 


     A year later, Whistler wrote Charles Freer of his “forlorn destruction,” and recalled for him:


    She loved the wonderful bird you sent her with such happy care from the distant land! And when she went—alone, because I was unfit to go too—the strange dainty creature stood uplifted on the topmost perch and sang and sang—as if it had never sung before!...Peal after peal until it became a marvel the tiny beast, torn by such glorious voice, should live! 

    And suddenly it was made known to me that in this mysterious magpie waif from beyond the temples of India the spirit of my beautiful lady had lingered on its way—and the song was her song of love, and courage, and command that the work, in which she had taken part, should be complete—and so was her farewell.

   I have kept her house in Paris—in its fondness and rare beauty as she had made it—and from time to time, I will go to miss her in it.


    One might be moved to ask: how can a loving God be so cruel as to strike a beautiful young woman in the prime of her life with a wasting and incurable disease and so strike, as well, such an uncaring blow against her loving husband?  I beg the reader’s indulgence of my seeming dispassion, but I think it is worth noting that immediately prior to taking up with “Trixie,” Whistler had been in a fourteen-year relationship with a Miss Maud Franklin, living with her without benefit of clergy which effectively cut her off from decent society: no Christian home would receive her and so the vast majority of Whistler’s socializing was of the solitary variety: Miss Franklin’s existence, although universally known, was not so much as alluded to by the various hosts and hostesses whose hospitality Whistler enjoyed nor were his domestic circumstances mentioned in the popular press.  Miss Franklin bore up under this ignominy from her mid-twenties to her late thirties, referring to herself, gamely, as “Mrs. Whistler” (and continued to do so, pathetically, even after the announcement of the marriage to Beatrice) while Whistler referred to her throughout their conjugal arrangement exclusively (and ambiguously) as “Madame.”  She was with him through his years of profligate spending—as secretary and in handling his private business affairs—and shared his Venice exile with him when the Ruskin lawsuit made him a bankrupt and he lost all of his material possessions at public auction.  Prior to “Madame,” Whistler had also lived for six years with a woman named Jo in a comparable arrangement.  I think it would take a more fanciful personality than my own to regard the conscious program upon which the younger Beatrice (early thirties) had embarked in displacing the elder Maud (late thirties) from hearth and home as anything less than completely calculated.  And I can scarce conceive of the “forlorn destruction” (to borrow Whistler’s own phrase) that this must have visited upon Miss Franklin as she was unceremoniously dismissed by her cohabitant of fourteen years.  Nor can I—all sentiment and noble-sounding phrases to one side—see any asymmetry in the consequent net effect which was visited upon Mr. and Mrs. Whistler some years later. 

     It seems to me that the interweaving of the Whistler and Wilde stories and the enactment of the final acts of their respective lawful marriages on the stage of the Savoy Hotel fall, jointly, under the category of “no way to treat a lady”.    




Next:  Second Quarto: The Interview