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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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17th December 2003 - Turkish Baths

The Turkish Bath, as understood by the Victorians, was a dry air sauna, different from the Russian steam bath or the Finnish sauna (which has water ladled onto the hot coals), and drier even than the present day Turkish bath or hammam:

Turkish bath n. 1. a type of bath in which the bather sweats freely in a room which is heated by a continuous flow of hot dry air (or in two or three such rooms at progressively higher temperatures), followed by a full body wash (sometimes preceded by a cold plunge), then by a massage, and finally by a period of relaxation in a cooling-room.
2. (sometimes pl.) an establishment offering Turkish baths.

The first Turkish bath in the British Isles was that built in 1856 by Dr Richard Barter at his Hydropathic Establishment at St Ann's Hill, Blarney, Co. Cork. By 1861 there were more than 30 public Turkish baths in London alone.

The health-giving properties of the Turkish bath lauded by hydrotherapists focused mainly on the high heat of the rooms, between 110-240°F (43-115°C). This was effective for otherwise untreatable rheumatic pain, and Whistler took advantage of this advance in medicine. In 1869, his mother, Anna, wrote to Harriet and James Gamble that Jemie is, 'I am glad to report "himself again"', and very 'industrious in his Studio' after 'a few Turkish Baths rid him of neuralgia in his back & in his head' (GUL MS Whistler W536). However, the aura of Eastern exoticism of the hammam was bound to interest Whistler and his Aesthetic friends. It is not difficult to see the attraction of a long, slow afternoon moving through heated rooms, often decorated in an Islamic style, followed by relaxation in towels with sherbet, tobacco and fruit provided by attendants. And according to Malcolm Shifrin, the London & Provincial Turkish Bath Company of Jermyn Street 'was the fashionable paradigm of the ideal Turkish bath'.

On 17 January 1865, Whistler writes to Lucas Ionides, suggesting an outing to the baths before dinner: 'I shall go to the Turkish Baths in Jermyn Street at about 4.30 or 5. You had better come there and join me. We will then come back together. If Aleco [Ionides] will come bring him with you' (LCMS PWC 11/1027). William Heinemann, Whistler's publisher, also frequented this Turkish Bath. There are two undated (c.1899) hand delivered envelopes in the Whistler Collection which are addressed by Whistler to Heinemann at the Hammam Baths, 76 Jermyn Street (see #08517 and #12351). The London & Provincial Turkish Bath Co. Ltd first opened in 1862. The bath was built on the site of former stables behind an existing hotel by George Somers Clarke to the designs of David Urquhart, who became the Hammam's first manager. There were also rooms and offices to let upstairs, called the Chambers, and the first housekeeper was a Mrs Doggett. The baths stayed open until 1941, closing for business just weeks before the building was destroyed at 3.00 a.m. on 17 April during the London blitz.

Whistler had a less than enjoyable experience with hot baths and Heinemann in 1899 (although it is not clear whether this is a Turkish bath proper). As E. G. Kennedy relates it, Whistler 'went to Heinemann's place at Surbiton and Heinemann induced him to take a hot bath. Then seated outside on the grass, he caught a violent cold, though the day was very warm for England.' Kennedy was obviously not an exponent of hydrotherapy, telling Whistler 'I dont know which is the most foolish, you for taking the bath or Heinemann for proposing it' (NYPL, E. G. Kennedy II/131). Kennedy later teased Whistler that Heinemann is with him in Paris, 'taking hot baths in the river?' (GUL MS Whistler W1303)

Over six hundred Turkish baths once existed in the United Kingdom, yet today, barely a score remain.

Ailsa Boyd

With thanks to
Malcolm R. Shifrin, Victorian Turkish Baths
December 2003