AuthorCooper, Elena

In 2021, The Hunterian, Glasgow, staged a major new exhibition of the work of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903): Whistler: Art and Legacy. (1) The Hunterian, part of the University of Glasgow, is the oldest public museum and largest university museum in Scotland, and the home to one of the world's largest collections of Whistler's work. (2) Whistler was an American-born painter, printmaker, aesthete, dandy and wit. His night-time views of London and the Thames, striking full-length portraits, innovative etchings, and his progressive views about art, challenged the artistic establishment of his time and laid important foundations for twentieth-century abstraction. In showcasing a large number of items from the University's remarkable collection, Whistler: Art and Legacy cast new light on Whistler's artistic practice and highlighted the role that Glasgow played in supporting Whistler and forming his artistic legacy. The exhibition displayed well-known works alongside lesser-known material that can only be seen in Glasgow due to the terms of their donation to the University. While Whistler: Art and Legacy was an exhibition of undoubted art-historical importance, by including works that can be shown only in Glasgow, the reach of the exhibition was geographically confined: the exhibition could not travel.

How did the University of Glasgow, despite the fact that Whistler never set foot in Glasgow, become the permanent home of its globally important Whistler Collection? Further, why is it that a large portion of the Collection cannot travel, and can be displayed only within the University? The answer lies with the decisions of Whistler's executrix: Whistler's Glasgow-based sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958), whose portrait, as depicted by Whistler in The Black Hat (Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip) (1900/1902), appears on the front cover of this Special Issue. Birnie Philip donated a large part of the artist's estate to the University of Glasgow in 1935, 1954 and 1958 respectively. (3)(4) Birnie Philip's first donation, in 1935, came with the restriction that "The

Scheduled property shall never be removed from the buildings of the said University." (5) Artworks gifted in 1954 and 1958 came without restrictions, (6) creating the somewhat strange situation that some of The Hunterian's Whistlers travel the world on a very regular basis, and others have never left Glasgow after 1935, even when works are very close in their provenance or are part of the same series.

Thanks to Birnie Philip, The Hunterian is also home to the principal holding of the work of Whistler's wife, Beatrix Philip (1857-1896). (7) These collections are a major resource for the study of Whistler's life and times and are largely published through 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

The Hunterian collection also contains Whistler's oil painting Brown and Gold: Portrait of Lady Eden (1894-5), (8) that has become a cause celebre in intellectual property law circles. As readers of Art Antiquity and Law may know, the painting was the subject of a late nineteenth-century French legal case--Eden v. Whistler (1897)--today seen as key to the development of the author's moral rights under French law. Less well known today, is that Birnie Philip gifted Portrait of Lady Eden to the University of Glasgow subject to special restrictions--the University is forbidden by the terms of Birnie Philip's donation, to exhibit or part with this painting--and, at The Hunterian, this restriction is understood to be a consequence of the ruling in Eden v. Whistler. Consequently, Portrait of Lady Eden has never been publicly exhibited since it was displayed in the Paris law courts in the final years of the nineteenth century.

The context of Whistler: Art and Legacy--a major exhibition that could not travel due to the terms of donation--prompted Steph Scholten, Director of The Hunterian (and a guest co-editor of this Special Issue) to convene a roundtable discussion to reflect publicly on historical restrictions on the use of museum collections today, in general, and the Whistler collections in Glasgow, in particular. The event, Limitations on Collections: Whistler, Wallace and Burrell, hosted by The Hunterian and held on-line on 19 October 2021, comprised contributions from a panel of art experts on the legal, ethical and practical challenges raised by donor restrictions. (9) This included presentations from two directors of major art collections who have overseen the legal process of varying restrictions in recent times: Dr Xavier Bray (Director of the Wallace Collection) spoke about the varying of donor terms, under English law, long understood to restrict the Wallace Collection from lending to other institutions, and Duncan Doman (Head of Museums and Collections at Glasgow Life) explained the two-stage process by which donor restrictions concerning the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, were successfully lifted under Scots law procedures. Further, the panel included contributions from two University of Glasgow academics: the art historian and lawyer, Dr Grischka Petri, Honorary Research Fellow, School of Culture...

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