James McNeill Whistler

From the secret archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum: flinging more than a paint pot

The opening of a file on James McNeill Whistler, embargoed for a century, reveals him to have been a violent brawler, a racist and a gun-runner


For nearly half a century, a sealed packet has lain in the high-security vault of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s National Art Library, inscribed on the outside, “Whistler papers. Not to be opened except in the circumstances in the attached letter.” Stuck to the large envelope was a smaller one containing the instructions, written on 3 April 1952 by Lord Ilchester, chairman of the Burlington Fine Arts Club. Lord Ilchester warned that the papers were to remain sealed “until the death of Miss Birnie Philip, or on the 1st January 1968, whichever is the later.”

Astonishingly, successive librarians seem to have resisted any feelings of curiosity. Birnie Philip, the sister-in-law of James Whistler, died in 1958, removing one of the hurdles. The significance of the 1968 date only later became apparent: the documents dated from 1867, and were regarded as so sensitive that they needed to be embargoed for a century (considerably longer than Cabinet secrets). It was only a few weeks ago, more than three decades after the embargo had passed, that the red wax seals were finally broken by Librarian Jan van der Wateren and colleague James Bettley. Two Whistler scholars were invited for the occasion, Dr Nigel Thorp and Dr Linda Merrill, and shortly afterwards The Art Newspaper was allowed access to the astonishing cache. Inside the sealed envelope was the Whistler file compiled by the Burlington Fine Arts Club, whose Honorary Secretary in the 1860s was Ralph Wornum, Keeper of the National Gallery. Whistler, the American-born, Paris-trained artist, had moved to London in 1859 and had joined the club on 12 March 1867, at the age of thirty-two. Formed in 1866, and with premises at 177 Piccadilly, its members included both artists and collectors and it had quickly become a fashionable part of the London art scene.

Just three months after being elected to the club, Whistler faced expulsion for ungentlemanly behaviour: assaulting a fellow member in a Parisian bistro and, according to some reports, throwing him through a plate-glass window. The victim was Francis Seymour Haden, his brother-in-law. Haden also produced evidence that Whistler was guilty of five other serious assaults, all apparently within a six-month period. These involved attacks on a Parisian mason, a Haitian passenger, a Chilean captain, a British naval officer and a leading French artist in London.

The Burlington Fine Arts Club papers, deposited in 1952 shortly after the closure of the club, include hundreds of pages of correspondence and records. Although other copies of some of the letters survive, many are unknown and will now be published in the Whistler correspondence which is being edited by Dr Thorp at Glasgow University’s Centre for Whistler Studies. “I had never heard about the sealed envelope. It shows that there are still groups of unknown Whistler letters which survive,” he explained.

Although the club papers relate to charges of assault, they may also help to solve one of the puzzles of Whistler’s life: his mysterious trip to Chile in 1866, when Valparaiso was under attack by the Spanish fleet. Among the documents in the sealed envelope are receipts showing that the artist was paid a very substantial sum by a Chilean naval captain, suggesting that he was a gun-runner or possibly a spy.

Serial assaulter

Francis Seymour Haden, a surgeon and etcher, formally complained to the Burlington Fine Arts Club in June 1867, calling for his brother-in-law’s expulsion. The claim was that Haden had been “assaulted in a café in Paris by Mr J.M. Whistler, another member of this Club” and that there had been five other attacks. Noting this evidence, the 11 June minutes of the club committee record that “the habit of assaulting people appearing to the Committee to disqualify him for membership, they simply called on him to resign”.

Whistler penned a furious reply, stating that he had no intention of resigning: “That the gentlemen of the Committee had unanimously received the ex parte statement of one of their own body, and instead of writing to the accused member of the Club, instantly condemned him, is only surpassed, perhaps, by the astonishing suggestion that he should quietly withdraw, and so confirm any aspersions cast upon him!...I have to request that a court of inquiry be held...Your obedient servant, J.A.M. Whistler.”

Three days later Dante Gabriel Rossetti entered the fray, supporting Whistler, his close friend and neighbour in Cheyne Walk. Rossetti wrote to Ralph Wornum, the Honorary Secretary: “That a number of gentlemen should discuss the concerns of another, and act on their own conclusion without making him in any degree a party to their movements, seems such an anomaly in social intercourse and in the courtesy from which club-life does not surely exempt individuals.”

Over the next few weeks the committee made further efforts to encourage Whistler to resign, but to no avail. On 18 August Whistler responded to Wornum: “I have neither denied the punishment administered to Mr F.S. Haden nor entered into any details concerning it simply because I have yet to learn that the Committee of the Burlington Club have any right whatsoever to discuss that matter. When that is once established I shall be charmed to relate, if it can be agreeable to the Gentlemen, this, or any other little anecdote, within my power, that shall conduce to their amiable entertainment.”

Matters eventually came to a head when a special meeting was called by the club for Friday 13 December 1867 at 4.30pm. What added to Whistler’s anger was that it would drag him away from his easel. He therefore wrote to Wornum about the meeting: “May I request that if it is possible it may be held in the evening after dinner as the loss of daylight at this time of year is a serious matter to an artist.” His plea was rejected.

The resolution proposed was that “Mr J.A. Whistler is not a proper person to remain a member of the Burlington Fine Arts Club, and that the Honorary Secretary be authorised to strike the name of Mr Whistler from the roll.” Nineteen votes were cast for the resolution, with six against. Whistler’s supporters comprised the two Rossetti brothers (Dante Gabriel and William), artists William Bell Scott and Captain Charles Lutyens and collectors Louis Huth and Henry Tebbs. When the decision was announced, the Rossettis walked out in protest.

For a gentleman, being thrown out of one’s London club represented the ultimate indignity and Whistler was certainly not one to take defeat easily. On 6 January 1868 he wrote an epic thirty-four page letter of protest to the president of the Burlington Fine Arts Club, His Excellency the Marquis d’Azeglio, Sardinian ambassador in London. Although attempting to justify his role in the six assaults, he admitted all the incidents and that in some of the cases he had landed the first punch. Despite his appeal to the Sardinian ambassador, Whistler remained struck off the membership roll.

Torpedo mission

Whistler’s visit to Chile in 1866 has never been properly explained. Why should a successful artist in London suddenly decide to travel half way around the world to a port which was about to be bombarded by the Spanish? Various explanations have been suggested by biographers: tensions with his mistress Jo Hiffernan; difficulties in finishing his painting “Symphony in White, No.3”, or problems associated with his friendship with John O’Leary, an Irish nationalist charged with high treason. The Burlington Fine Arts Club papers suggest that his motive may have been simpler: money (and possibly adventure).

Captain H.H. Doty, the fourth victim of Whistler’s assaults, explained his link with the artist in his letter to the club of 9 December 1867. “In the course of last year (at that time holding the rank of captain of frigate in the Chilean navy in the war against Spain) I engaged J.M. Whistler, a member of your club, as my secretary. He went out to Valparaiso in that capacity and there basely and dishonourably betrayed me.” Captain Doty said that he had employed Whistler on a salary of £30 a month, plus his return passage to Chile and eight shillings a day for hotel expenses in Valparaiso.

Evidence for the payments comes in the form of copies of receipts which had been signed by Whistler. The initial payment is recorded as follows: “Received London February 1st 1866 from Captain H.H. Doty the sum of one hundred and fifty pounds sterling in advance (£150) on account of special service via Panama to Chile.” Subsequent receipts were for £105 for “the expedition to the Pacific” (24 July) and further sums of £100 (29 August) and £25 (3 September). There were also payments for the outward passage £103 (1 February) and the return journey £91 (1 September). Altogether Whistler received £380, plus £194 for the journey.

Captain Doty says that he employed Whistler as his “Secretary”. Since the captain was serving in the Chilean navy, it is difficult to believe that Whistler was working for him in a totally private capacity. It therefore seems likely that the money came from the Chilean navy, and that Whistler was therefore effectively in the pay of a foreign military force.

A further important detail is revealed in a letter to the Burlington Fine Arts Club from the captain of the vessel in which Doty went out to Chile. On 7 February 1868 Captain Hunter Davidson explained that he had been in charge of the Henrietta, “in which I took a Torpedo expedition to Chile”. Captain Davidson added that Doty, who travelled out with the expedition, was “a contractor with a Chilean Agent in London in 1865”.

Whistler therefore seems to have been involved in “gun running”—by helping to ship torpedoes to the Chileans for their war with Spain (torpedoes, at this time, were explosive charges in the form of underwater mines). The newly discovered evidence from the Burlington Fine Arts Club papers back up an unpublished entry in William Rossetti’s diary. On 2 November 1866 William Rossetti recorded a comment by the artist Frederick Sandys: their mutual friend Whistler had entered into a business speculation with Captain Doty to deliver torpedoes to Valparaiso in order to destroy the Spanish fleet.

It remains unclear what Whistler could have done, since his experience in naval matters was very limited. He had started training as a cadet at the West Point Military Academy (but was later dismissed) and had subsequently worked for three months drawing maps for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. Nevertheless, he must have appeared to have had something to offer in order to be employed at such a generous salary.

Whistler had left Southampton on 2 February 1866 and arrived in Valparaiso on 12 March, when the Spanish navy was stationed outside the port (following Chile’s alliance with Peru, which was locked in a dispute with Spain). On 31 March the Spanish fleet bombarded Valparaiso, and by this time Whistler had fled to the nearby hills. Whistler later returned to the port and over the next few months he painted at least six atmospheric seascapes of warships in the bay.

Whistler’s mission to Chile was complicated by his apparent seduction of Mrs Doty. Captain Doty had travelled back to London before Whistler, but news of the artist’s escapades obviously reached him.

Whistler departed from Valparaiso in early September 1866 and after sailing on the Shannon he reached Southampton in mid-October. On stepping off the boat train in London, he found the cuckolded husband lying in wait.

Captain Doty later recounted in a letter to the Burlington Fine Arts Club how he had confronted Whistler on the platform of Waterloo Station. The two men quickly came to blows and Captain Doty then shouted to the arriving passengers: “This is Whistler, the Artist, a Scoundrel, a Seducer, a Betrayer of his trust, Mark him”. Whistler abandoned his luggage, jumped down onto the rails, crossed the track and retreated into the gents.

A catalogue of violence

First assault: a Parisian builder

Fracas on the street with unnamed mason.

Charge: “An assault last winter in the streets of Paris on a person in charge of a building in course of erection which was summarily punished by the Correctional Police.”

Whistler’s response: “I was roughly pushed from the pavement by a mason - for such was “the person” in charge of repairs, and with the insolence familiar to everyone in the smallest Parisian official. In the heat of the moment I punished him, and afterwards the Magistrate...practically expressed his sympathy on my side, by saying that as the mason’s cap had been lost, I might if I pleased give a few francs in consideration.”

Second assault: a Haitian ship passenger

Incident on the return voyage. Whistler referred to his fellow passenger as the Marquis de Marmalade.

Charge: “An assault upon a passenger on board the ship Shannon on her voyage from St Thomas to Southampton in October last year, which was punished by arrest.”

Whistler’s response: “This passenger was simply a Negro among several forced upon our company on the voyage.

The degree to which he offended my prejudices (as a Southerner) who for the first time found Negroes at the same table, led finally to our coming into collision.

His afterwards rushing out with a drawn sword led to the Captain courteously for safety’s sake requesting me to remain in my cabin.”

Third assault: Captain B.A. Wake, naval officer

A further incident on the Shannon, during which Whistler slapped the officer in the face with a letter.

Charge: “An assault on Captain B.A. Wake RN, Naval Officer in charge of Her Majesty’s mails on board the same ship.”

Victim’s accusation: “His conduct on board the Shannon was disgraceful to anyone professing to be a gentleman. The Captain had occasion to stop him from being supplied with liquor, and to put him under an arrest, and I had myself to inflict personal chastisement on him in consequence of his having struck me in the face.”

Whistler’s response: “He was a Mail Agent only... The morning after the Negro affair was Sunday, and we were to reach Southampton that afternoon. Captain Wake in full uniform came to my cabin...

He served me with a long and impertinent sermon in which Providence and the Negro Race played equal parts, the whole being of a Sabbath Baptist meeting tone... Unable to bear these repeated outrages, I slapped his face with my left hand, my right hand being utterly maimed and disabled since the day before, I being forced to wear it in a sling... [Captain Wake] instantly rushed upon me, and beating down easily my disabled arm, struck me a violent blow in the eye.”

Fourth assault: Captain H.H. Doty

Officer serving in the Chilean Navy. Whistler was employed by the captain and seduced his wife.

Charge: “An assault upon Captain H.H. Doty, a Naval Officer in the Chilean Service, upon the platform of Waterloo Station in October of last year.”

Victim’s accusation: “I went to meet him on his return to England and encountered him on the platform of Waterloo Station. Embarrassed at seeing me he first tried to get away and then, finding I would not be put off, struck at me in the face. I then struck him, and, in the presence of all the passengers, ‘posted’ him by calling out as loudly as I could, so that everyone might hear, This is Whistler, the Artist, a Scoundrel, a Seducer [this word was subsequently crossed out in the club’s records], a Betrayer of his trust, Mark him”.

The crowd also called out ‘Kill the Blackguard’. On recovering the effects of my blow, he abandoned his luggage, and, jumping off the platform, ran across the rails, and took refuge in the ‘Cloak Room’.”

Whistler’s response: “This affair is beneath all contempt...I cannot but ask in conclusion, whether anyone can wonder...that the astonishing impudence he displayed in speaking to me on my arrival in London, should have been met by a sudden outburst of passion. I struck him then and there... Moreover his charge ‘of seduction’ I was at first disposed to meet seriously with full satisfaction such as is usual amongst a society of officers, from this position however he hurriedly retreated and the whole thing became too ridiculous for any treatment but after-dinner banter”

Fifth assault: Alphonse Legros, a London artist

A dispute over money at the office of the wealthy collector, Lucas Ionides. William Rossetti later claimed that the real cause was an argument over a woman, but the details were “unfit” for publication.

Charge: “An assault upon Mr Legros, an artist practising in London, in the spring of the present year.”

Victim’s accusation: “I was violently insulted and mistreated by Whistler. I met him at Lucas Ionides and, on a question of money on which we disagreed, he hit me and covered me with wounds, after which I had to keep to my room for several days.”

Whistler’s response: “This is a simple matter of provocation.”

Sixth assault: Francis Haden, etcher, surgeon and Whistler’s brother-in-law

Haden was punched in a Parisian bistro. This followed a row over the funeral of their friend, James Traer, who had died in a brothel. Because of the circumstances, Haden had organised a hurried funeral, without informing Traer’s family, and this angered Whistler.

Charge: “An assault upon Mr Haden, a member of this Club, on the 26th of April last, in Paris, for which Mr Whistler was arrested and taken before the Magistrate and only liberated at the instance of Mr Haden.”

Whistler’s response: “Mr Haden is my brother-in-law and the final quarrel between us in Paris brought to a conclusion years of insufferable insolence and insults...On the occasion in Paris, already deeply grieved by the coarse and brutal way he spoke of a dear friend just dead, I was at last roused beyond endurance by the insults he choose to address to myself. I struck him.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Flinging more than a paint pot'