The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 039
The Last of Old Westminster

The Last of Old Westminster

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1862
Collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Accession Number: 39.44
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 60.96 x 78.1 cm (24 x 30 3/4")
Signature: 'Whistler'
Inscription: '1862'
Frame: Grau-style, ca 1892 [16.5 cm]

Date

The Last of Old Westminster is signed and dated '1862'. However, it is painted over the portrait of a seated woman that may well have been painted in the previous year. 1

The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

1862: The painting was probably begun after Whistler's return to London from Paris in April 1862, and the essential features of the scene must have been completed in essence before the timbering on the new Westminster Bridge was removed early in July that year. 2 In July 1862, George du Maurier (1834-1896) said that Whistler was 'painting river pictures for the Greeks.' 3 These 'river pictures' included The Last of Old Westminster, and possibly Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge and Battersea Reach y045. By the 'Greeks' he meant the Ionides family, George Coronio (1831-1895) and his wife Aglaia Coronio (1834-1906); another patron, George John Cavafy (1805-1891), was actually Turkish.

The Last of Old Westminster was painted from the rooms of Walter Severn (1830-1904) in Manchester Buildings, where Walter's brother, the artist Arthur Severn (1842-1931), saw Whistler working on it. Arthur's account, written years later, is not precise about the date: he said that on his return from Rome (which was about August 1862) he saw Whistler beginning the picture, and he mentioned that the bridge had 'just been finished.' 4 By the end of the following month, September 1862, Whistler had left London en route for the Basses Pyrenées. In November he returned to London via Paris, and the painting arrived in Paris for the exhibition of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in December. 5

1863: Whistler exhibited The Last of Old Westminster at the Royal Academy in London. 6

Images

The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Last of Old Westminster, X-ray, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Last of Old Westminster, X-ray, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Last of Old Westminster, framed
The Last of Old Westminster, framed

The Last of Old Westminster, frame detail
The Last of Old Westminster, frame detail

Boston Memorial Exhibition, 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/26
Boston Memorial Exhibition, 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/26

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, X-ray, detail, Addison Gallery of American Art
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, X-ray, detail, Addison Gallery of American Art

Subject

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested:

'The Last of Old Westminster' is the preferred title.

Description

The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A cityscape, showing a bridge over a broad river, painted in horizontal format. From a massive stone pier on the right, the bridge rises gradually to the central span, then declines to the shore at far left. Wooden scaffolding encases the bridge, which is crowded with workers. Barges in the lower right foreground carry building materials, and there are narrow barges and skiffs on the river or navigating under the bridge to left. Along the far shore are large warehouses, and, in the distance, several large buildings, two with domes, others with tall chimneys. Beyond the bridge, at right, the river begins to curve away into the distance. The water is grey and brown, the sky pale blue with clouds touched with sunlight.

Site

The river Thames in London. Whistler's 1863 title was The Last of Old Westminster but, according to reports in The Times, the Old Westminster Bridge was rapidly passing from view in October 1860, and virtually all of it had been removed by late April 1861. The subject is in fact the new Westminster Bridge, built on the same alignment while the old bridge was being taken down. Traffic was passing over it by October 1860 (in the painting, cabs are seen on the west side of the bridge). However, scaffolding was still in place at the end of December 1861, and remained so after the bridge was opened on 25 May 1862. The timbering on the new Westminster Bridge was removed early in July 1862. 16

According to Arthur Severn (1842-1931), quoted by the Pennells, Whistler painted this view from the rooms of Walter Severn (1830-1904), in Manchester Buildings, on the site of the present New Scotland Yard. 17

Kelly's London Postal Directory for 1862 lists Arthur Severn, his brother Walter, and their sister Mary, all artists, living at 83A Ecclestone Square, off the Belgrave Road, London S.W. No-one was actually listed as living at 11 Manchester Buildings until 1864, when John Baldry Redman, a civil engineer, lived there. However, Kelly's Directories were not entirely accurate (and indeed in 1863 they brought out a second edition to remedy errors), so Severn might have had rooms or an office there.

Technique

Composition

The Last of Old Westminster, X-ray, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Last of Old Westminster, X-ray, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, X-ray, detail, Addison Gallery of American Art
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, X-ray, detail, Addison Gallery of American Art

An X-ray has revealed the portrait of a seated woman, probably Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886), at right angles to the view of the bridge. The X-ray is discussed in a blog by Margaret MacDonald and Nadine Loach as follows:

'Whistler’s oil paintings of the Thames, combining closely observed realistic views, expressive brushwork and atmospheric colour, reward close examination. However, they can also conceal surprises, the ghostly records of earlier work. X-rays of two paintings by Whistler have resulted in a remarkable discovery. The paintings are Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge (Addison Gallery of American Art) and The Last of Old Westminster (Boston Museum of Fine Arts).

It has long been known, from an X-ray, that there is a self-portrait of the artist, painted at right angles to the Thames riverscape, under Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge.

It shows Whistler at work, painting with brush in hand, but was left unfinished and partly rubbed down. Nevertheless it is a vivid portrayal of the young artist, and was probably painted either in Paris or – more likely – in London ...

The Last of Old Westminster was also painted over a portrait, that of a seated woman, possibly a woman reading, which was also painted at right angles to the bridge, and partly rubbed down. ...

Although it is difficult to be certain, the woman, as seen in the X-ray, looks like Whistler’s Irish model Joanna Hiffernan. ...

The two portraits could be considered a pair: they are close in size, Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge being 63.5 x 76.2 cm and The Last of Old Westminster, slightly different in proportion, [at 60.96 x 78.1 cm]. It is possible that they recorded a significant stage in the relationship between artist and model, as partners in the creation of works of art.

However, either these intimate portraits were sacrificed in order to make way for more saleable paintings of the river Thames, or Whistler simply felt that the portraits were not working out. Despite his close relationship with Jo, … or perhaps because of it, Whistler may have felt that he could not complete, hang or exhibit two such personal images. And so they were sacrificed for two immensely saleable, exhibitable – and very beautiful – paintings of Thames bridges.' 18

Technique

The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Underneath the painting of the bridge is the portrait of a woman, seated in profile to left, and some of the brushstrokes from this are still visible. Over this, the surface is carefully worked with paint in the background, vigorous long strokes of paint on the water, energetic brushwork in the sky, and much more thickly applied dabs and strokes of paint over the figures, the timber, and the bridge.

In 1903 Arthur Severn was quoted in the Morning Post, describing Whistler's working methods. The window from which Whistler painted, he said, looked 'across the river and down on the rickety steamboat pier which spanned the mud bank', and, he added:

'It was a bow window, with views up and down the river, and the pier and bridge were close by under it. I had an idea that he [Whistler] would do the picture very quickly, but he took weeks over it ... most of the stone work had been removed and many wooden piles were being driven into the deep mud. To my uneducated eye these piles looked all about the same grey, and the shirts of the little figures working looked to me all the same white, but Whistler spent much time getting various tones out of the heaps of colour on his large palette. After securing the exact shade of grey or white which he wanted he did his pile or shirt with a few small dexterous dabs, screwing up his eyes and expressing satisfaction if successful.' 19

Arthur Severn also told Whistler's biographers, the Pennells:

'It was the piles with their rich colour and delightful confusion that took his fancy, not the bridge, which hardly showed. He would look steadily at a pile for some time, then mix up the colour, then holding his brush quite at the end, with no mahlstick, make a downward stroke and the pile was done. I remember once his looking very carefully at a hansom cab that had pulled up for some purpose on the bridge, and in a few strokes he got the look of it perfectly. He was a long time over the picture, sometimes coming only once a week, and we got rather tired of it.' 20

A visual examination of this painting confirms that it was painted on site over several weeks. The elements in the scene that changed from day to day – the position of the small boats and barges on the river, and the workmen on the bridge and bank of the river – have in many cases been painted over, and completely different figures and boats were painted quite thickly on top. Some of the wooden struts and piers were also moved; for instance, the prominent pole in the foreground, to right of centre, was originally further right, and is still visible to right of the current pole. No attempt seems to have been made to rub or scrape down such items before substituting others. These alterations were not small adjustments of the composition: they must have completely changed the appearance of the picture from day to day.

In 1892 Whistler's wife, Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896), wrote, on Whistler's behalf, to the art dealer Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932): 'The tone you admire under the bridge is solid painting'; it was not, as Kennedy had thought, 'scumbled.' 21

Conservation History

On 12 June 1892, Whistler wrote to the picture restorer Stephen Richards (1844-1900):

'Now I understand that you will have brought to you, almost directly, four more pictures by me; I have said that you are the only man fit to touch my work, therefore, you must prove again how right I am ... You will clean and take off the varnish with the utmost care and tenderness - Two of the pictures have not been cleaned since they were first painted. They ought all to come out in the most brilliant condition.' 22

The two that had not been cleaned were The Last of Old Westminster and Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony y056.

However, despite Richards' care, by 1905 parts of the painting were, according to Bernhard Sickert (1862-1932), 'badly cracked, probably from repainting'. 23 Julius Meier-Graefe (1867-1935) also noticed 'numerous cracks in the thick impasto'. 24 There are cracks and areas of craquelure throughout.

Frame

The Last of Old Westminster, frame
The Last of Old Westminster, frame

The Last of Old Westminster, frame detail
The Last of Old Westminster, frame detail

Whistler described the earlier frame as 'hideous' and recommended a frame maker, Frederick Henry Grau (1859-1892):

'You ought to have my new frames made at once for The Westminster Bridge and the Thames picture - both of which must be in hideous old things - and they should have glass upon them ...

My frame maker is Mr Grau. 570. Fulham Road - He must not have the pictures at his place - but must go to Richards and take the measures immediately - and be pushed without giving him any peace - as he is as procrastinating as he is capable -

He is the only one who has the true pattern of my frame - Tell him that the gold must be the pale yellow soft gold like the gilding of my Mother's frame.' 25

According to Dr Parkerson Day, the construction of the current frame is similar to Grau-made frames, but it lacks his signature. 26 Kennedy did not follow Whistler’s instructions, but ordered a new frame in New York. In a letter to Beatrice Whistler, he wrote:

'I wrote to you from London that the reason I did not order three frames was, that we make our own frames, and thus save duty on the frames, besides making a better article, or rather one which won't split or crack in our climate.

... I told Richards not to send the old frames but just the canvasses, thus saving expenses to both of us. This has evidently been neglected.' 27

Thus the old frame may have got as far as New York before being abandoned, and the current frame is probably American made, following the Grau style.

History

Provenance

In December 1862 Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) recommended a 'Thames picture' by Whistler to James Leathart (1820-1895) at a price of 300 guineas. 28 This was probably Wapping y035, and not, as has been suggested, The Last of Old Westminster, as the price mentioned was ten times that of the latter, which was sold soon after the Royal Academy show of 1863 to G. J. Cavafy for 30 guineas (£33.0.0.) 29

In 1889 Whistler tried to buy The Last of Old Westminster and Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony y056 back for £180.0.0. 30 By 1892 G. J. Cavafy's son John was prepared to sell, and wrote to Whistler:

'I duly received both your telegrams, to the second of which I replied by telegraph "Sorry cannot do what you wish - Pictures still under offer to Goupil. Time not expired. Letter follows" - The pictures are the four by you which I possess: viz. Old Westminster Bridge, The Thames at Chelsea (unfinished); Sea & Sand; & last but not least, The Balcony - For these (the whole four) Goupil's manager here offered me £500. - which I did not accept, but said I would take £600. - cash before removal of pictures, &, at his request left the offer open for a week, which expires today - I am therefore still bound - Tomorrow early I will telegraph to you what happens - Should Goupil not take them may I say that I would only sell them on the same terms.' 31

Whistler blatantly manipulated the market. He wrote to Cavafy:

'You were to receive a telegram this morning from Mr Bancroft, advising you that his cheque for £600, is on its way,

Now - I have since had a better offer for the four pictures, and therefore you can simply return Bancrofts cheque - saying that having in no way closed with him you had accepted a better offer -

- On Tuesday morning Mr E G Kennedy of New York will call upon you and hand you a cheque for £650. This is as safe as the Bank - Mr Kennedy I have seen today - and with him sent you this afternoons telegram. "My man was Bancroft, have better offer, Dont close - Reply." Mr Kennedy leaves to night for Brussels and Amsterdam - ...

He returns to London on Tuesday and will call upon you with cheque and receive the pictures - In this way you will be £50 to the good, besides happening to place the pictures in a way more pleasing even to myself and in the whole affair you have only been dealing with me, and are consequently in no way connected to Mr Bancroft whose name has never appeared in the transaction at all.' 32

It would appear that Cavafy agreed, and returned the cheque that had been sent by John Chandler Bancroft (1835-1901), much to Bancroft's indignation.

Thus E. G. Kennedy, of Wunderlich, New York art dealers, with Whistler's connivance, bought The Last of Old Westminster, Battersea Reach y045, Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony y056, and Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville y064 from Dr Cavafy, for £650 – a price advantageous to their purposes – before the pictures could be bought by Bancroft. Whistler wrote to Kennedy: 'The "Westminster Bridge" is ... a splendid picture ... You will have a gem, and ought not to let it go under a thousand.' 33 Kennedy had it reframed and hung in his house in October 1892. 34 He tried to sell it for $5000 to Alfred Atmore Pope (1842-1913) of Farmington, Connecticut, but Pope refused, so instead Kennedy sold it to Cottier, New York dealers, and in the end they sold it to Pope for $7500! 35 On Pope's death it passed to his daughter Theodate (Mrs J. W. Riddle), and it was sold by her to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1939.

Exhibitions

It was exhibited first at Martinet's gallery in Paris in 1862. 'Go and see it, you will like it I am sure', Whistler wrote to George Aloysius Lucas (1824-1909). 36 Lucas replied, 'I will certainly see the Westminster bridge when the exhibition opens, Martinet is giving concerts in his rooms & dont [sic] appear to occupy himself much about picture art & artists.' 37

Then it was shown at the Royal Academy in London in 1863, where it was 'hung on the floor' as Whistler told Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1829-1904). 38 Displayed on the lowest tier of paintings in the crowded Academy rooms was only marginally better than being 'skied'. The Athenaeum echoed Whistler's comments:

'Below the "line," and where the crinolines scour its surface, hangs Mr. Whistler's artistic and able picture, The Last of Old Westminster Bridge (352) ... One glance at Mr. Whistler's reading of the softened, warm grey of a London sky, so feelingly rendered here, and so beautiful in truth as it is ... The streaming motion of the river ... its many and subtly-hued surface, the atmosphere among the piles, their solidity, so deftly given without toil, and the aerial beauty of the removed shore, are such that, if the Hanging Committee had given a moment's thought to them, would have put this picture where it ought to be, in an honourable position.' 39

William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) wrote that the painting 'testified once more to that gentleman's power of rapid and intense realization – complete too as an artist can estimate completeness, though defying the ordinary conception of that quality.' 40 This rapidity met with varied responses. The painting was repeatedly called a 'sketch', with varying levels of approval, from 'very slight' to 'dashing' to 'masterly'. 41 Whistler himself was described by one art critic as 'a most eccentric genius who … tells no story, and points no moral', and by another as an 'immature painter' and his painting as 'ostentatiously rough-and-ready'. 42

It was many decades before the painting was exhibited again. The first owner, George John Cavafy (1805-1891) was unwilling to lend his pictures as frequently as the artist desired, as his son explained:

'my father is strongly averse at his age (nearly 81) to part with the pictures for so long a time, & to subject them to the manifold & considerable risks of transit by sea & land - He cannot therefore lend them to you for exhibition in America.' 43

The scheme for an American show was abandoned, as was a subsequent plan for a show of Whistler's work at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1887 (to which Cavafy was prepared to lend his pictures), due to the increasingly strained relations between Whistler, their President, and the members. When the painting was requested for Whistler's retrospective in 1892, John Cavafy refused point blank to lend it, saying 'the few finished pictures by Mr. Whistler in my possession, have all been exhibited - one or two repeatedly - It would be most unpleasant & inconvenient to me to lend any of them again.' 44

Memorial Exhibition, Boston 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/26
Memorial Exhibition, Boston 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/26

It was seen in America, in New York, in 1898, and afterwards appeared in the series of Whistler Memorial Exhibitions, in Boston in 1904 (as seen in the photograph reproduced above) and in London and Paris in the following year.

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

Journals 1906-Present

Newspapers 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: See MacDonald, Margaret F., 'Joanna Hiffernan and James Whistler: an Artistic Partnership' in Margaret F. MacDonald (ed.), The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and Washington, 2020, pp. 15-31, at pp. 15-16.

2: 'Westminster Bridge', The Times, London, 4 July 1862, p. 8.

3: Du Maurier 1951 [more], p. 160.

4: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 100-01.

5: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, 19 December 1862, GUW #09189.

6: 95th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1863 (cat. no. 352).

7: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, [19 December 1862], GUW #09189.

8: 95th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1863 (cat. no. 352).

9: Whistler to J. A. Rose, [November 1878], GUW #08784.

10: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [4/11 January 1892], GUW #06795.

11: Twentieth Annual Exhibition of the Society of American Artists at the Galleries of the American Fine Arts Society, New York, 1898 (cat. no. 35); likewise in Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 34).

12: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the late James McNeill Whistler, First President of The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, New Gallery, Regent Street, London, 1905 (cat. no. 35) and Paris 1905 (cat. no. 56).

13: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 56).

14: Bénédite 1905 A [more], in vol. 33, repr. p. 503.

15: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 39).

16: The Times, 27 September 1860, 'New Westminster Bridge', The Times, 26 May 1862, p. 9; and The Times, 4 July 1862.

17: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 100-01.

18: MacDonald, Margaret and Nadine Loach, 'Whistler's Ghosts', James McNeill Whistler and his Art, A blog about James McNeill Whistler, March 2014, website at https://jmcnwhistler.wordpress.com. See also MacDonald, Margaret F., 'Joanna Hiffernan and James Whistler: an Artistic Partnership' in Margaret F. MacDonald (ed.), The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and Washington, 2020, pp. 15-31.

19: 'Art and Artists', Morning Post, London, 16 November 1903, pp. 4-5.

20: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 100-01.

21: [27 June 1892], GUW #09688.

22: GUW #08114.

23: B. Sickert 1908 A [more], pp. 10, 102.

24: Meier-Graefe, Julius, Modern Art, trans. Frank Simmonds and G.W. Chrystal, 2 vols, London and Paris, 1908, vol. 2, p. 206.

25: Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, [13 June 1892], GUW #09685, referring to The Last of Old Westminster, Battersea Reach y045 and Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother y101.

26: Dr S. L. Parkerson Day, Report on frames, 2017; see also Parkerson 2007 [more].

27: 31 August 1892, GUW #07201.

28: 9 December 1863, GUW #12441.

29: Whistler to G. J. Cavafy, [1/8 April 1889], GUW #00554.

30: Whistler to G. J. Cavafy, ibid., GUW #00554.

31: 7 June 1892, GUW #00783.

32: [8 June 1892], GUW #00565. See Petri 2011 [more], pp. 59, 66, 68-69, 123, 535, 542-43.

33: 10-11 June 1892, GUW #09680.

34: Kennedy to Whistler, 26 October 1892, GUW #07203.

35: Note by E. G. Kennedy, 15 October 1907, Kennedy Letterbooks III/167, New York Public Library.

36: Whistler to (G. A. Lucas, 19 December 1862, GUW #09189.

37: 23 December 1862, GUW #02653.

38: [31 May/June 1863], GUW #09455.

39: 'Fine Arts: Royal Academy', The Athenaeum, 23 May 1863, p. 688.

40: Rossetti 1863b [more], at p. 337.

41: 'Royal Academy', The Standard, London, 2 May 1863, p. 3; 'Fine Arts: Royal Academy', The Spectator, 23 May 1863, p. 2035; 'Art: Royal Academy [5th Notice]: Landscape', The Reader, 13 June 1863, p. 582.

42: 'New Plays and New Pictures', The Queen, 16 May 1863, p. 211. 'Exhibition of the R. A.– The Landscapes, & C.', The Illustrated London News, 3 May 1863, p. 574.

43: John Cavafy to Whistler, 25 October 1886, GUW #00771.

44: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [4/11 January 1892], GUW #06795; J. Cavafy to Goupil Gallery, 28 January 1892, GUW #00557.