The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
Home > On-line Edition > Transcription/Database Record

the on-line edition

System Number: 05518
Date: 20 March 1872
Author: Henry Cole[1]
Place: London
Recipient: JW
Place: [London]
Repository: Glasgow University Library
Call Number: MS Whistler S163
Document Type: MsLS[2]


NO. 2813


20th DAY OF March 1872


I am directed by the Lords of the Committee of Council on Education to enquire if it would be agreeable to you to undertake, for the Decorative Series of portraits of Artists[4] placed in the South Court of the South Kensington Museum, the designs for two figures, one of Neath[5], the Egyptian Goddess of the Spindle, and the other of a [p. 2] Japanese art worker.[6]

I am to state that Their Lordships have authorized me to offer you the usual fee of twenty five guineas per design (i.e. fifty guineas for the two) should you be willing to undertake this work, for which two canvases would be supplied in due course.

I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant,

Henry Cole

James Whistler, Esq.[7]

[p. 3, chalk drawing[8]]

This document is protected by copyright.


1.  Henry Cole
Sir Henry ('King') Cole (1808-1882), civil servant and museum director [more]. He was involved in the development of the Department of Science and Art at South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) from 1857 to 1873.

2.  MsLS
The letter is on a folded sheet of cream wove paper, 325 x 398 mm. On the third side is a chalk drawing, Panels at South Kensington Museum (M.457.). This shows a wall with eight niches, three containing statues. The drawing may have been done by JW but is not entirely consistent with his style. Alternatively, it could have been drawn by Cole to indicate where the proposed decorations were to go. The small print in the heading has not been transcribed.

3.  stamp
Embossed elliptical stamp in centre of sheet, with crown over 'VR' over decorative scroll, surrounded by text.

4.  portraits of Artists
Cole obtained the commission for JW to design two mosaics to complete the sequence of 35 portraits of artists, sculptors and potters, already installed in niches around the upper level of Godfrey Sykes' South Court in the museum. Among those commissioned were Richard Redgrave, John Phillips, Sir John Tenniel, W. F. Yeames, G. F. Watts. Lord Leighton, Val Prinsep, E. J. Poynter, and T. Armitage, as well as art students. The first design was completed in 1864, and thereafter two to four were approved annually until 1871, when six designs were finished. Whistler made several drawings (see M.458, 460). They would have been the only designs to show women, but were never completed, although Cole even provided JW with a studio. Holman Hunt and W. H. Fisk also failed to produce designs, but the final design, showing Giotto, was completed in 1873, by John Calcott Horsley (1817-1903), historical genre painter and etcher [more]. The mosaics were removed to storage in 1949. See Physick, John, The Victoria and Albert Museum: the History of its Building, Oxford, 1982, pp. 60-67.

5.  Neath
Net (or Neith) was a virgin goddess, self-begotten, mother of the gods, usually portrayed with a bow and arrow or a distaff. Although no drawing for this figure survives, a later pastel, Black and Red: The Egyptian (M.1275) may reflect a belated desire to complete the design.

6.  Japanese art worker
JW made several chalk and pastel drawings around this time, which, if enlarged, could well have fulfilled the requirements: r.: A Japanese Woman; v.: Girl with parasol (M.458), A Chinese lady with a parasol (M.459) and Japanese lady decorating a fan (M.460). His principal design, the Gold Girl (M.461), was never completed, and appears to have disappeared. Two elaborate pastels, a beautiful figure in a kimono, known as Design for a Mosaic (M.1226), and a related figure, The Japanese Dress (M.1227) may also be based on drawings made in the seventies, but were certainly completed later, in the early nineties.

7.  James Whistler, Esq.
Written at foot of p. 1.

8.  chalk drawing
Panels at South Kensington Museum (M.457.).