The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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System Number: 06801
Date: [30 March-3 April 1889][1]
Author: JW
Place: [London]
Recipient: Royal Society of British Artists[2]
Place: [London]
Repository: Glasgow University Library
Call Number: MS Whistler W790
Document Type: Ms/PL

'(London Times[3]  1889.)'

We are requested to publish the following short correspondence: -

"The Tower House, Tite-Street, Chelsea,

March 30.

"Sir, -

Pray accept my compliments, and be good enough to infom me at once by whose authority, and upon what pretence, the painting, designed and executed by myself, upon the panel at the entrance of the galleries of Suffolk street, has been defaced. Tampering with the work of an artist, however obscure, is held to be, in what might be called the international laws of the whole Art world, so villaanous [sic] an offence, that I must at present decline to entertain the responsibility of the very distinguished and Royal Society of British Artists for what must be due to the rash and ill-considered zeal of some enthusiastic and untutored underling. -

Awaiting your reply, I have the honour to be, sir, your obedient, humble servant,


"To the Hon. Secretary the Royal Society of British Artists."

To this letter Mr. Whistler's messenger received the following verbal reply, "There is no answer - that is your answer."

'London Times,        1889.'

To the Editor of the Times.

Sir, -

As you have considered Mr Whistler's letter worthy of publication, and as Mr. Whistler has himself urgently drawn my attention to it by two telegrams, I ask you to complete the publication by inserting this simple stateme[n]t of the facts as they occurred.

The notice-board of the Royal Society of British Artists bears on a red g[r]ound in letters of gold the title of the Society. To t[h]is Mr. Whistler, during his presidency, added with h[i]s own hand a decorative device of a lion and a butt[e]rfly. On the eve of our private view it was found that, while the title of the Society, being in pure g[o]ld, remained untarnished, Mr. Whistler's designs, [be]ing executed in spurious metal, had nearly disapp[ear]ed, and what little remained of them was [of a] dirty brown. The board could not be put up [in that] state. The lion, however, was not so ba[dly] [...]n as to make it necessary to do anything mo[re than to rest]ore it in permanent colour, and that has [accordingl]y been done.

But as the notice-[board was n]o longer the actual work of Mr. Whistler [..]d manifestly have been improper to have [left the] butterfly (his well-known signature) attached [to it, ev]en if it had not appeared in so crushed a state[. The] soiled butterfly was, therefore, effaced.

On Saturday wh[ile the] Society were happily receiving their guest[s at] the private view, Mr. Whistler's messenger repeatedly clamoured for an answer in writing to his letter. The public can judge for themselves whether, having regard to the style of Mr. Whistler's communication, the answer sent by our honorary secretary was not sufficient and to the point.

I am, Sir, yours faithfully,

WYKE BAYLISS[4], President of the Royal Society of British Artists.

7, North-Road, Clapham Park,

April 1.

[p. 2] "Aussi qu'[5] allait-il faire dans cette gallère?"

Sir, -

I have read Mr. Bayliss' letter, and am disarmed. I feel the folly of kicking against the parish pricks[6]. These things are right in Clapham by the Common.

"V'là ce que[7] c'est, c'est bien fait - fallait pas qu'il y aille! - fallait pas qu'il y aille!"

And when, one of these days, all trace of history shall, by dint of much turpentine and more Baylis, [sic] have been effaced from the board that "belongs to us," I shall be justified - and it will be boldly denied by some dainty student that the delicate Butterfly was ever "soiled" in Suffolk Street.



April 2.'

'Pall Mall Gazette

April,  , 1889.'

- The following telegram has been sent by Mr. Whistler to the Council of the Royal Society of British Artists: - "Congratulations upon dignity maintained as artists left in charge of a brother artist's work, and upon graceful bearing as officers toward their late President."

'An Interview with Mr Whistler.

(Pall Mall Gazette April, 3, 1889)

"We only painted out the butterfly, that is all".

"That is all!" exclaimed Mr Whistler, in his most serious and savage mood... "That is all, this horrible piece of Vandalism, all!"

"Well, Mr Whistler, they say they only painted out your butterfly from the signboard, and changed the date. What do you say?" '

[p. 3] "What do I say? That they have been guilty of an act of villainous Vandalism."

"Will you tell me the history of the Board?"

"When I was elected to the presidency of the society I offered to paint a signboard which should proclaim to the passers-by the name and nature of the society. My offer was accepted, and the Board was sent down to my studio, where I treated it as I should a most distinguished sitter - as a picture or an etching - throwing my artistic soul into the Board, which gradually became a board no longer, as it grew into a picture. You say they say it was only a butterfly. Mendacity could go no further. I painted a lion and a butterfly. The lion lay with the butterfly - a harmony in gold and red, with which I had taken as much trouble as I did with the best picture I ever painted. And now they have clothed my golden lion clumsily, awkwardly, and timorously with a dirty coat of black. My butterfly has gone, the checks and lines, which I had treated decoratively, have disappeared. Am I not justified in calling it a piece of gross Vandalism?"

"What course would you have recommended? You had gone; the Board remained: perhaps it was weather-beaten - what could they do?"

"They should have taken the board down, sir, taken the Board down, not dared to destroy my work - taken the Board down, returned it to me, and got another Board of their own to practice on. Good heavens! You say to my face it was only a Board. You say they only painted out my butterfly. It is as if you were condoling with a man who had been robbed and stripped, and said to him, 'Never mind. It is well it is no worse. You have escaped easily. Why, you might have had your throat cut' "

This document is protected by copyright.


1.  [30 March-3 April 1889]
Dated by publication.

2.  Royal Society of British Artists
JW was elected President of the Society of British Artists on 1 June 1886 and took office in December. He was forced to resign on 4 June 1888 but retained the post until November. After October 1887 the relationship between President and Society deteriorated abruptly (see RBA Minutes, #13402).

3.  London Times
The document consists of three pages of press-cuttings, with dates and details written in an unknown hand, and the start of one press-cutting ('An Interview ... do you say?" ') written in that same hand. The first letter, dated 30 March 1889, was published in Whistler, James McNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, London, 1890, p. 218.

4.  [SI]
Numerous gaps in the text on p. 1 have been left by the glue that was used to paste down the newspaper clippings having eaten away at the print.

Horace Henry Cauty (1846-1909), historical and genre painter [more].

Wyke Bayliss (1835-1906), painter and architect [more]. See The Gentle Art, op. cit., pp. 223-224, letter published under the heading 'Official Bumbledom'. Mr Bumble the Beadle, a comic character in Dickens, C., Oliver Twist, London, 1837-1838, is puffed up with a sense of his own importance and position.

7.  Aussi qu'
Fr., And so, why did he get involved in this business?

8.  kicking against the parish pricks
'It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks', Acts 9.5.

9.  V'là ce que
Fr., There it is, it is well done - no need for him to go! - no need for him to go!

'The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them', Isaiah 11.6; and 'The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord', Isaiah 65.25,