Born Beatrice Philip, she was the second of 10 children of Frances Black and the sculptor John Birnie Philip. The family consisted of : Constance (1854-1924); Beatrice (1857-1896), Edith (1859-61), Ethel (1861-1920), Jane Bertha (1864), Philippa Maude (1865-1915), Frances Septima (1867-1949), John Francis (1869), Ronald Murray (1871-1940), and Rosalind Birnie (1873-1958). When her father died in 1875 she married the architect Edward William Godwin, a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement. They had one son, Edward, born 1 October 1876. Godwin died in 1886, and Beatrice married Whistler on 11 August 1888. He called her 'Trixie', 'Chinkie', 'Luck' and 'Wam' and she often signed herself 'Beatrix' or 'Trix'.
She studied art in her father's Chelsea studio and with Godwin. On her marriage, she worked in the studio-workshop, and collaborated on furniture and house designs. She would have met Whistler about 1876, when she and Godwin visited Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room y178.
Her decorative brick panels for a Godwin house on the Tite Street corner of Chelsea Embankment were published in the British Architect, 9 May 1879. Godwin's lost Beatrice cabinet bore panels by her representing the 'Seasons'. Similar panels, and numerous designs for tiles, panels and wall-paper survive, and many were sold to manufacturers, including Minton's china works and William Watt and Co. All works mentioned here are in The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, unless otherwise stated.
In the 1880s she posed to Whistler for her portrait, Harmony in Red: Lamplight y253. She joined his pupils, including Walter Sickert. They exhibited in the Society of British Artists during Whistler's rule. Beatrice signed her work with a monogram or trefoil 'BP', then 'BG', and exhibited as 'Rix Birnie' to avoid female/amateur classification. Her exhibited work has mostly disappeared, though two oil studies, The Novel and The Muslin Gown are in private collections. Her small oils are sometimes mistaken for Whistler's. Peach Blossom (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) was labelled by Whistler, 'Mrs J McN Whistler': with the 's' of 'Mrs' rubbed out, it was bought as a work by her husband.
Her subjects are mainly flowers and women, and her curving brush strokes differ from Whistler's narrower, smoother strokes. The drawings of Phil May and Japanese woodcuts influenced her style. Her circle included Sandys, Phil May and Oscar Wilde, whose brother bought a panel from her. A Caricature of Oscar Wilde, drawn with strong, simple lines, shows her sharp humour. This drawing was long attributed to Whistler: separating her work from her partners' is a primary problem in discussing her oeuvre.
When Godwin died, Whistler supported petitions to provide her with a pension and subsidise re-training. She apparently studied in Paris. On their marriage in 1888, she was described as 'a remarkably clever artist and decorative draughtswoman. Since she has been under the influence of the great James McNeill it can be readily imagined that her undoubted artistic talents have been considerably matured.' (Illustrated Bits).
It was a happy and productive marriage: 'I look around', Whistler wrote to her, 'and see no others as happy as we two are in each other' (GUW #06606). He taught Beatrice to etch and together they etched a view of Loches. She probably helped to print and certainly to sell his etchings. Beatrice organised the studio and promoted his print-making. While running the domestic and business side of Whistler's life, as she had Godwin's, she also worked independently, developing her own distinct style. A servant ('E. B.') described their Tite Street house: 'On the top floor was … Mrs Whistler's studio (she painted beautifully)' (GUW #11826). Family and professional models (the Philip and Pettigrew sisters) posed for both Whistlers. Her drawings of women are vivid and sympathetic, her paintings intimate, with soft, subtle colour harmonies.
Whistler celebrated their marriage by adding a trefoil to his butterfly signature, and she drew glasses signed with this butterfly. Her jewellery designs are in the National Gallery of Art and The Hunterian, where an enamelled love-bird ring corresponds to one pen drawing. She also designed stained-glass, including, in 1891, a beautiful memorial window to Jane Mary Wilson Holme, in the parish church of Orton in Cumbria, executed by Campbell Smith and Co. She supervised the decoration of their Paris house, designing austerely simple furniture with checkered designs for house and garden.
In 1894 she developed cancer. She wrote to Whistler, 'I do suffer - I never thought it would be like this, but you know, I was too happy, I am given some aches to remind me that this world is not quite a paradise.' ([20 November 1895], GUW #06645). Whistler's most moving portraits of her, The Siesta c159 and By the Balcony c160, were drawn as she lay dying. Her youngest sister, Rosalind Birnie Philip, inherited Whistler's estate, and gave the Hunterian Art Gallery the finest collection of her work.
British Architect, vol. 11, 9 May 1879, p. 194; Anon., 'The Fate of an "Impressionist"', Illustrated Bits, 21 July 1888; 'E. B.', The Times, London, 17 July 1934; MacDonald,M. F., Beatrice Whistler, Artist and Designer, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, 1984; MacDonald, M. F., 'Beatrice Philip (Mrs Godwin, Mrs Whistler)', Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, 2004.
The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp; including The Correspondence of Anna McNeill Whistler, 1855-1880, edited by Georgia Toutziari. Online edition, University of Glasgow, 2004.
Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, Meg Hausberg, and Joanna Meacock, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a catalogue raisonné, University of Glasgow, 2012, online website.