The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Documents associated with: press, letters published in
Record 5 of 141

System Number: 13731
Date: [6 June 1878][1]
Author: [unknown][2]
Recipient: Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton[3]
Place: [London]
Call Number: Published[4]
Document Type: PL



Sir, -

It used to be a saying of a late lamented artist that "the history of the transmission of jokes would make a funnier book than Joe Miller"; and he used to instance (among others) what, in the artistic world, in known as "the upside-down joke." Though this joke is usually given in connexion with John Martin's[5] 'Sadak in search of the Waters of Oblivion,' which was hung, it is said, upside down, on account of the naked figure of the Sadak being suspended exactly in the midst of the precipitous cliffs he was descending, it is very much older, it seems, than that; but I forget how it is to be traced. In connexion with Martin, however, it became stock property with the jokers of the press; and a picture hung upside down has been fathered upon almost every artist of eminence, the latest form of the joke being that given in the Grasshopper[6] at the Gaiety Theatre, where, by turning upside down a picture by "my master Whistler," one picture is made to serve as two. This was stale enough; but that stupid print Mayfair has this week turned it to staler uses still: -

"A lady of aesthetic tastes suffered a severe shock the other day owing to the carelessness or denseness of the officials at a certain loan collection. She was possessed of a [fine?] Whistler, in that artist's best manner - that is to say, a dull green piece of canvas, with a white streak across the middle, and called 'The Thames at Midnight,' but looking much more like a dining-room wall with some of the paint chipped off by the back of the chairs. With commendable public spirit, the lady despatched this picture to the Gallery; but what was her horror, when she came to see how it was hung, to discover, on looking closely into it, that her treasure had been hung upside-down!"

Mr. Whistler's name is so much before the public just now that it is as necessary for the paragraph writers to make little jokes about him as to say the fulsome thing about Mrs. Langtry's[7] dress; but, then, editors should at least see that the jokes are not quite such old friends as this. Not that Mr. Whistler needs any one to defend him from any joker whatsoever, great or small - or from any critical attacks great or small (as to which last, the noble tribute to his genius in the Academy of last week from the chief exponent of an opposite school is answer enough); but even the art world of to-day is not so entirely without esprit de corps but that a word of protest against foolish injustice can come from


[We print this[8], on account of its general interest; but we do not at all agree with the writer in considering Mayfair a "stupid print." On the contrary, it is a very clever "print," edited by one of the most trenchant writers in London, and sub-edited by one of the most accomplished scholars. We editors are all very clever, no doubt; but we are not entirely omniscient and ubiquitous; and we can assure our correspondent that even the editorial "world of to-day is not so absolutely without esprit de corps" that we shall refrain from saying so.]

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1.  [6 June 1878]
Dated from the date of publication in The Piccadilly.

2.  [unknown]
The anonymous writer signs off as 'A Brother Artist'. Some weeks earlier a humorous story had appeared in Mayfair about a picture by JW being hung upside down; this is a response to that article.

3.  Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton
Walter Theodore Watts (later Watts-Dunton) (1832-1914), solicitor, novelist and poet [more]. Watts was editor of the short-lived weekly Piccadilly: Town and Country Life, which was launched in May 1878.

4.  Published
Published in Piccadilly, 6 June 1878; a copy was pasted into a press-cutting book by JW; see Glasgow University Library, Whistler PC 2/32. The entire text is printed, but for ease of reading the transcription is in lower case. Affixed at the foot of the press-cutting book page is an excerpt from Mayfair containing JW's response, which was published on 18 June (#13177; see also a draft at #04030); finally on 25 June Mayfair published "The 'Upside-Down Picture'" with two reproductions and letters from three of the forty-four people who claimed to own it (Getscher, Robert H., and Paul G. Marks, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Two Annotated Bibliographies, New York and London, 1986, p. 28, B. 7).

5.  John Martin's
John Martin (1789-1854), painter [more].

6.  Grasshopper
John Hollingshead's farce The Grasshopper was in rehearsal at the Gaiety Theatre in the autumn of 1877. A caricature of JW (by Carlo Pellegrini (1839-1889), alias 'Ape', cartoonist for Vanity Fair, designer and lithographer [more]) figured in the show (Gallatin, Albert Eugene, Whistler's Pastels and Other Modern Profiles, New York and London, 1913, p. 44, cat. no. 154, repr.)

7.  Mrs. Langtry's
Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), née Emilie Charlotte Le Breton, actress [more].

8.  [We print this ... so.]
This editorial note was probably added by Watts.