The first owner, Mme Venturi, had acquired it by 1887, when she agreed to lend it to the Royal Society of British Artists. 1 However it is very likely that she had owned it for some years, since she was a neighbour of Whistler's in Chelsea.
When Mme Venturi agreed to lend the painting to the RBA in 1887 it was clearly with some reservations – Whistler had a tendency to keep and rework canvases lent to him for shows. He therefore drafted a semi-serious document assuring her of its safe return:
'I, J. A. McN. Whistler, grateful, do hereby declare upon my honour as a butterfly and Gentleman, ... that I have received the Ice Picture of mine (Ice in the Thames 1867) from Mme Venturi and promise to return the same upon the closing of Exhibition, S B A., unaltered and unimproved or injured & in the same it's proper frame ...
I ... will therefore provide the frame of exquisite proportion in which the above beautiful work shall be ever after preserved by the Lady, wise, brilliant, & charming, to whose loving care the Gods have entrusted the picture, that it may be preserved for Posterity, as yet another proof of her devotion to, and faith in the Master.' 2
Newspapers, however, mocked the painting: 'Chelsea in Ice is certainly grey, said the Yorkshire Post, 'but the harmony and ice must be taken on trust', while The Era suggested that the painting 'will afford ample occupation for those anxious to discover either Chelsea or the ice.' 3
In 1892 David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) was asked by Whistler to borrow 'little "Chelsea in ice" ' for his retrospective exhibition at Goupil's. 4 In the Goupil catalogue entry Whistler, as an ironic commentary on his work, published an excerpt from an article published ten years earlier in Knowledge. Originally intended as a general comment on works by Whistler exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, the excerpt, 'They must surely be meant in jest', was presumably intended to emphasize the seriousness of Whistler's Chelsea in Ice. 5
Whistler obviously thought well enough of it to include a photograph in the Goupil Album of 1892, and to suggest they should borrow it for exhibition in the 6th Internationale Kunst-Ausstellung, later in the year. However, in the end it was not sent to Munich, possibly because Mme Venturi wanted it back. 6
Curiously, when Walter Greaves (1846-1930) and Henry Greaves (1843-1904) decorated Streatham Town Hall, between 1890 and 1895, Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896) complained bitterly of their imitating Whistler's work, and specifically mentioned 'Another room, with an imitation of the "Fire Wheel", a "Chelsea in ice". There! I cant go on - it was like a sort of hideous Whistlerian chaos.' 7 Whistler, however, refused to take action against the Greaves brothers and told his wife, Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896):
'As to the work in the Hall itself - it may not be all that is good - ... but take my word for it there must be some stuff in all that -
To have done it exacts acknowledgment - what others have done anything -
Besides they were very intelligent & nice boys ... I feel kindly about them after all.' 8
3: Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Leeds, 2 April 1887, p. 6; 'Sensation in Suffolk Street', The Era, London, 9 April 1887, p. 7.
Last updated: 6th February 2021 by Margaret