AuthorPetri, Grischka

Glasgow is a given travel destination for any Whistler scholar, or indeed for anybody interested in the work of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), since Whistler's executrix, his sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958) donated a large part of the artist's estate to the University of Glasgow in 1935. The artist's estate, the lion's share of his correspondence, and near complete collections of his prints have firmly established the University of Glasgow, its Archives & Special Collections and The Hunterian as the European hub for Whistler studies. The University's online projects of the 21st century--the edition of Whistler's correspondence and the catalogues raisonnes of Whistler's etchings and paintings--have in no way outweighed the visit to the Scottish city.

This article deals with the parts of the gift regulations that restrict loans. Asking whether there are reasons to modify such restrictions and if so, under what kind of circumstances, the Birnie Philip Gift will be placed in the context of selected comparisons. Some concern the same artist, Whistler: the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and The Frick Collection in New York are governed by similar provisions. The case of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is particularly pertinent because it sharply accentuates the underlying considerations, compromises and consequences of preserving the original idea of a donor. To distinguish considerations of ownership from artistic concerns, the classic case of the J.M. W. Turner bequest is taken into account before a final reassessment of the Birnie Philip Gift.

The 1920s and the first half of the 1930s had not been a boom time for Whistler exhibitions. James Laver's biography of the artist, published in 1930, recorded several recent critical voices relegating Whistler to a less important position in the history of modern art. (1) A certain change of the tide occurred at the centenary of Whistler's birth in 1934, and after Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (YMSM.101, Musee d'Orsay, Paris) toured the USA between 1932 and 1934. (2) Rosalind Birnie Philip's gift was timely. Works from the donation were exhibited at the University in 1936. The catalogue proudly described the gift: "39 oil paintings, hung in the Library Hall of the Hunterian Museum; 57 etchings, and 29 etching plates; 15 water colours, 7 drawings, 98 lithographs, and 102 pastel drawings", numerous manuscripts, 80 drawings by Beatrix Whistler, the artist's wife, and "a collection of blue and white china". (3)

The draft memorandum of Birnie Philip's donation, dated 3 June 1935, contained the clause "The Scheduled property shall never be removed from the buildings of the said University." (4) Sir Robert Rait (1874-1936), at the time Principal of the University, wanted to reassure himself and pointed out in a letter to the donor that the clause:

prohibits, at any time in the future, our lending one or more of these treasures to, say, a great national exhibition. If this is your considered wish, we accept it readily, and I do not want to suggest in any way your reconsidering it. I want only to make sure that the point has been in your mind. (5) In the end, the clause remained unchanged. If a similar clause forbidding the lending of Whistler's works for exhibitions elsewhere had been in place immediately after Whistler's death, the major retrospectives of London, Paris and Boston would have shown a very different selection of works. Rait had specifically drawn Birnie Philip's attention to the fact that the university usually sent loans to important exhibitions. (6) Perhaps Birnie Philip thought that such exhibitions were unlikely to happen anytime soon. She had not always opposed loan exhibitions. In the catalogue for the 1905 Paris memorial exhibition, Leonce Benedite concluded his foreword reporting that Rosalind Birnie Philip had, "at the wish of Whistler himself, taken the initiative for the present exhibition." (7) She had lent three paintings and several pastels and drawings to the Boston Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, organised by the Copley Society. (8) Rosalind Birnie Philip had, however, been critical of the initiatives to organise a memorial exhibition in London. After Whistler's death in 1903, a dispute over the interpretive sovereignty of the artist had broken out. (9) In particular, the split between Rosalind Birnie Philip and the Pennells had an immediate effect on the London exhibition. Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell belonged to the group of Whistler's earliest biographers. (10) Since 1900, the couple had regularly met Whistler, who freely shared his reminiscences with them. The Pennells' influential two-volume Life of James McNeill Whistler came out in 1908, followed by a tight sequence of revised editions leading in 1911 to a fifth, revised, edition in one volume, which was further revised in the sixth edition of 1919 and the final seventh of 1925. The Life established the dominant perspective on Whistler for decades to come. Already during the phase of preparation, Rosalind Birnie Philip made clear that she did not want the Pennells to quote from Whistler's letters. Indeed, the Pennells were not always accurate in their efforts to erect their biographical monument to the man who was in their view one of the greatest artists of all time. (11) After his death the Pennells were prohibited by Rosalind Birnie Philip from quoting from any of the numerous Whistler letters they had in their possession. Thus they published Whistler's Life, not a Life and Letters. (12) The underlying disagreements between the Pennells and Birnie Philip, however, dated back much further. Immediately after Whistler's death, Birnie Philip refused to co-operate in any way with the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, with which Joseph Pennell was closely associated and whose first president had been Whistler. (13) The German Kunstchronik reported that Whistler's executrix protested against the use of Whistler's signature butterfly in the London catalogue. (14) In general, personal antipathies seem to have played a major role, as a wish for retaining exclusive control over Whistler's legacy. If these feelings were still present in 1935, they are a possible explanation for the restrictions of Rosalind Birnie Philip's gift to the University of Glasgow.

American Precedents: The Freer Gallery of Art and The Frick Collection

At the time of Birnie Philip's gift it was not unusual to make donations with comparably restrictive provisions. Another important collection of Whistler's work remains in Washington, D.C., at the Freer Gallery of Art, today part of the National Museum of Asian Art and the Smithsonian Institution. (15) The Freer Gallery was established after the death of Charles L. Freer (1856-1919). It opened in 1923. Freer had been one of the most important collectors of Whistler's works during the artist's lifetime and shortly thereafter. (16) In the "ironclad conditions" (17) of his bequest, Freer not only prohibited future additions to his American holdings, which he regarded as perfectly complete, but also loans of the works in his collection. (18) Freer conceived his "collection as a coherent, aesthetic unity with artistic integrity of its own." (19) Charles L. Freer and Rosalind Birnie Philip co-operated closely after Whistler's death. Freer, who had been asked by Whistler to serve as executor of the estate but declined, helped Birnie Philip settle Whistler's affairs. (20) It is possible that Freer's gift conditions became a model for Rosalind Birnie Philip when she decided to make her own.

Other collections including works by Whistler were and are also bound by collectors' restrictions--for example The Frick Collection in New York City. (21) Showcasing the collection of Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), it opened in December 1935, only months after Rosalind Birnie Philip's gift to the University of Glasgow. (22) While The Frick Collection has added works to its holdings after the death of its founder, the original collection is to remain intact, and works from it cannot be lent. Frick envisioned "an institution which shall be permanent in character", and stipulated that the gallery shall "at all times ... be maintained ... in and upon the premises" at 1 East 70th Street. (23) Such restrictions have effects on research, scholarship and the curation of themed exhibitions. Important aspects of Whistler's oeuvre will, under these circumstances, never be highlighted by the physical vicinity of key works. For example, the two portraits of Frederick R. Leyland and his wife, Frances Leyland (above, Fig. 2), two extremely important protagonists of Whistler's life in the 1870s, can never be shown together. One portrait is part of The Frick Collection, the other belongs to the Freer Gallery of Art.

Restrictions by Collectors: The Case of the Barnes Collection

Interestingly, the above-mentioned loan restrictions on Whistler's works all originate with collectors and the estate, not with the artist himself. They are expressions of positions of ownership. They aim at preserving the integrity of an arrangement, of a collection, of a compilation. The ownership of a piece of cultural heritage comes with a certain degree of public responsibility. The power of...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT