Lot 228: A bookish harmony in black and gold

Lot 228 Lyon & TurnballOne of Swinburne’s bookcases, designed and painted by the artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is up for sale at the Lyon & Turnbull auction house next week (21 April 2021). Shown in the auction house’s picture left, the bookcase stood in Swinburne’s study in The Pines, the house on Putney Hill in West London where Swinburne lived with Theodore Watts-Dunton (1832-1914) for the last thirty years of his life.

One of a pair, Whistler gave both to Watts-Dunton and Swinburne after the conclusion of a dispute with Frederick Leyland, a businessman, concerning the so-called Peacock Room, which Whistler had installed with the architect Thomas Jekyll in Leyland’s house in Prince’s Gate, Kensington in 1876-7. The Anglo-Japanese style room (also known as ‘Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room’) is now at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington and is an extraordinary example of the Aestheticist style. Leyland was not happy with the room’s design and refused to pay the irascible, pugnacious Whistler. Watts-Dunton acted as the artist’s solicitor in the dispute and the bookcases were a gift from Whistler, presumably for legal services rendered.

One of these bookcases can be seen on the left-hand side in Fig. 1, a photograph from Clara Watts-Dunton’s The Home Life of Swinburne (1922). The bookcases were double-sided, with four shelves on one side and five on the other. The auction house includes a similar view of the bookcase in a photograph from James Douglas’s Theodore Watts-Dunton: Poet Novelist Critic (1904). [1]

From Clara Watts-Dunton's The Home Life of Swinburne (1922)
Fig. 1: The room in which Swinburne died. One of the bookcases can be seen on the far left

Swinburne and Whistler were later to fall out after the poet criticised one of the painter’s lectures, called ‘Ten O’Clock’ (originally published in 1885). In this, Whistler famously proposed that it was part of the artist’s job to improve on nature, for ‘Nature is very rarely right, to such an extent even, that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong’.

Whistler loved to attack anyone who crossed him. He took John Ruskin (1819-1900) to court in 1878, for example, when the critic denounced Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket and its price by snottily stating ‘I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. Details of this case are included in Whistler’s 1890 book, the splendidly titled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.

James McNeill Whistler, caricatured in Vanity Fair in 1878. Watts-Dunton described Whistler as having a 'genius for fighting'. See Also Whistler's 1890 book 'The Gentle Art of Making Enemies'
James McNeill Whistler, whom Theodore Watts-Dunton described as having a ‘genius for fighting’

Before the beginning of the lockdown, I went to the V&A Museum in Kensington to see the art installation by Darren Waterston called Filthy Lucre: Whistler’s Peacock Room Reimagined, ‘a decadent interpretation’ of Whistler’s original.

The full auction listing can be found here on the Lyon & Turnbull website James McNeill Whistler, Aestheticist Movement, Bookcase, c. 1880

[1] A handwritten note inside the bookcase – see the auction house’s photographs – states that this bookcase was one of a pair, although Lyon & Turnbull’s lot description suggests that this might not be the case. ‘Pair’ might relate to the bookcase having shelves on both sides. However, the placing of the gold detail on the five-shelved side of the bookcase shown on the auction house website does not appear to match the detail shown in Fig. 1, so I am going to suggest that there were, in fact, two bookcases, as the handwritten note indicates.

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