AuthorHughes, Alicia


The Whistler Collection, held at the University of Glasgow, is one of the most important collections related to the nineteenth-century American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) in the world. It was established in the mid-1930s by the artist's sisterin-law Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958) who donated the Whistler Estate to the University through two gifts in 1935 and 1954, and one bequest--a gift made after her death--in 1958. The gifted collection is substantial and contains paintings, prints, drawings, porcelain, jewellery, furniture, letters, books, artistic tools and personal items of Whistler and his artist wife Beatrix Whistler, who was Birnie Philip's older sister (1857-1896). The Whistler Estate is at the core of the University of Glasgow's Whistler Collection, which is held between The Hunterian and the Library Archives and Special Collections, and which has continued to grow through many subsequent acquisitions of Whistleriana. As Whistler's heir and the executrix of his estate, Birnie Philip chose the University of Glasgow to, as she herself describes, "take my trust" and the "best part" of the Whistler Estate, but the context in which her acts of generosity took place and the specifics of what Birnie Philip termed "the scheme of my protection" for the gifted collection have received no scholarly attention. (2) While Whistler scholars have noted that Birnie Philip "guarded the treasures of JW's estate from dealers, collectors, writers and cataloguers", her management of the Whistler Estate, and her ability to negotiate and make decisions regarding its future have not been adequately appreciated or studied with a dedicated focus. (3) This article is the first study to focus on Birnie Philip and offers an in-depth examination and comparative analysis of all the conditions that she placed on all her gifts to the University of Glasgow and the historical context for those conditions.

Why did Birnie Philip gift the Whistler Estate to the University of Glasgow and how exactly did she do so? What were the terms and conditions of her gifts and bequest and why were they imposed? The most well-known of the conditions that Birnie Philip placed upon the donated collection relate to the objects in the 1935 gift. The conditions in question prohibit physical movement of objects--these objects cannot leave the University premises. The University is legally bound to reject frequent requests for loans of objects in this gift. But Birnie Philip's practice of placing conditions on her gifts was not restricted to the 1935 gift: physical movement of the 1954 gift (of letters, books and photographs) outside University premises is also prohibited. Furthermore, the conditions that Birnie Philip placed on her gifts are not only related to the physical movement of objects. While the 1958 bequest (including paintings, prints, drawings, porcelain, furniture, artistic tools and personal items) has no restrictions on physical movement (and thus these objects are frequently lent to national and international exhibitions), some objects (such as specific pieces of furniture) are identified as exempt from any future disposal. Other conditions in the three gifts relate to access, care and housing, and even the naming of the collection. Significantly, while some objects are singled out as to be held in perpetuity by the University, others are identified for possible future disposals in the cause of developing the gifted collection in its institutional home and raising money for a scholarship fund for University students. This article examines the vast and complex range of conditions to be found within the two gifts and the bequest as they are outlined in legal documentation (such as memoranda of agreement between Birnie Philip and the University, schedules of property and Birnie Philip's 1954 will and its 1957 codicil), but also through original archival evidence, such as correspondence.

This article is the first to place Birnie Philip herself at the centre of sustained scholarly attention, but it is not the first time that someone has sought to understand Birnie Philip and her wishes. The University considered there to be importance in understanding Birnie Philip's wishes even in 1935 so that they might be fully honoured. In 1936, following the completion of the first gift to the University, the honorary curator of the University's Art Collection, Professor John Walton, expressed his hope to learn more about the gifted collection so that, as he put it, Birnie Philip's "wishes may be interpreted in the spirit as well as in the letter." (4) This article takes a similar approach and examines unpublished correspondence alongside legal documentation. This approach is crucial to understanding the general tone and wishes of a benefactor such as Birnie Philip: it is within unpublished correspondence that one finds evidence of Birnie Philips's motivations for gifting as well as her wishes as to the future of the collection in its institutional setting. The close examination of original archival evidence for the two gifts and the bequest necessitates a longer-length article, but this allows for the comparative (and arguably exhaustive) assessment of the nuances of the conditions placed upon the gifts and bequest in 1935, 1954 and 1958.

Through this examination, I offer a new historical understanding of the Whistler Estate collection and its restrictions at the University of Glasgow, which contributes to recent scholarship in the fields of history of art and collections. Such scholarship on restrictions on collections has been prompted by the desire of institutions to increase access to their collections, to develop knowledge through increased research opportunities, to derive financial income through loan opportunities (which in some cases offer opportunities for conservation of works that cannot otherwise be financially justified), and to further the visibility of the people who formed collections. Consideration of the way in which Birnie Philip interpreted and deviated from Whistler's wishes in her management of the Whistler Estate, will reveal the wider context in which she cared for and protected it as its curator. Ultimately, Birnie Philip played a crucial role in bringing the Whistler Estate collection to Glasgow and the way in which she did so demonstrates the depth of her curatorial knowledge and experience and her thoughtful dedication in safeguarding it for the future.

Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958)

Who was Birnie Philip? She was the youngest of ten children bom in London to the sculptor John Birnie Philip (1824-1875) and Frances Black (1826-1917). (5) She grew up in an artistic household and would later assist her older sister Beatrix Whistler, who was also an artist, and she frequently travelled with the Whistlers and assisted with the day-to-day business of being an artist. In 1896, following the death of Beatrix Whistler to cancer, Birnie Philip (then only 22 years old) became Whistler's ward and, later, the executrix of his estate. Over the next eight years, Birnie Philip worked closely with Whistler managing his correspondence, assisting in the studio and occasionally posing for drawings, lithographs and paintings (see The Black Hat reproduced below at page 13). Through these roles, Birnie Philip formed her extensive knowledge of Whistler's work, his business dealings and legal cases (for example Eden v. Whistler, discussed by Elena Cooper at page 69 of this volume), his studio and, later on, his wishes concerning his estate. Whistler's nickname for Birnie Philip, with associations of West Point Military Academy where he studied in his youth, was the 'Major'; Whistler, of course, was the 'General'. Whistler was almost 40 years older than Birnie Philip (she would refer to herself later in life as his "adopted daughter") and these nicknames epitomise the relationship between artist and ward, pointing simultaneously to the power dynamics in their relationship, but also to the authority that Birnie Philip wielded as his assistant. (6)

Whistler scholars have noted that the artist's letters to Birnie Philip "are funny, furious, personal, possessive, and business-like". (7) They reveal an immense amount about the artist, but "say little about Rosal ind except as J W saw her". (8) The Whistler correspondence project at the University of Glasgow transcribed Whistler's letters that were gifted by Birnie Philip in 1954 (and those related to Whistler in other institutions), but only up to the artist's death in 1903. The military-esque nicknames and the exclusion of the later correspondence from the digital correspondence project have obscured Birnie Philip's knowledge of the Whistler Estate and her agency in caring for it after the artist's death and ensuring its future within the institutional setting of the University of Glasgow (including the conditions she placed on the gifts). Previous Whistler scholars understood the University of Glasgow to have persuaded Birnie Philip to put her trust in it to provide a home for the rich estate collection. However, shifting the focus onto Birnie Philip herself significantly alters this understanding of the history of the collection. (9)

The 1935 Gift: Why Glasgow?

Why (32 years after Whistler's death) did Birnie Philip choose the University of Glasgow as a home for the extraordinary Whistler Estate collection and why did she stipulate that it should not leave the University premises? Were there other institutions competing for the collection? How was her concent for its physical safety infonned by social and political events in the world?

In the years after Whistler's death, Birnie Philip astutely cared for the Whistler Estate and cautiously navigated the art market before choosing the University of Glasgow as the home for what she deemed the "best part" of the collection. (10) Birnie Philip dealt with collectors such as the American industrialist Charles...

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