Mad about Whistler


Blickling sutcliffe letter 001That’s the English Rex rather than the American James McNeill. This covering letter, which was rescued from the archives of the booksellers Eric and Joan Stephens, was  sent on 22 September 1968 from the National Trust property Blickling Hall, Norfolk, by the artist and Rex Whistler fan, John Sutcliffe. This letter bears a characteristic scraper board design by Whistler as a sort of letterhead. That’s how much Whistler meant to Sutcliffe.

The letter explains that despite owning ‘about 100 books either illustrated by R.W. or with illustrations of things of his or with dust wrappers by him’, Sutcliffe still needs a number of items to complete his collection. He also wants some post-war illustrations by John Minton and Keith Vaughan. The most coveted items on the wants list are marked with asterisks and include Mildred(1926), Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Treasure Ship(1926) and Edith Olivier’s As Far as Jane’s Grandmother’s(1928). Later priorities are the rare Edward James booklet Your Name is Lamia, which was printed by the author in 1933 in an edition of just thirty copies, and two books by Edith Olivier and Dorothy Wellesley, for which Whistler designed the dust jackets. Sutcliffe also asks Eric and Joan to look out for certain issues of periodicals—mainly from the thirties– devoted to design and decoration. These periodicals include The Architectural Review, The Artist, The Studio, The Connoisseur and Decoration. It is not explained whether or not Whistler contributed to these publications.

Little is known about John Sutcliffe, apart from the fact that he seems to have been a graphic designer who revised James Lees Milne’s original NT guide to Blickling Hall and wrote a ten-page pamphlet on the Hall’s Library in 1971. It may be that he worked at the Hall while writing these two works. He doesn’t appear to have lived there at any time. As an artist he co-exhibited at the 1967 Lynn Festival and there is at least one work by him among the art collection at the Hall. If he is the John Haddon Frowde Holman Sutcliffe who is listed as working for Read & Sutcliffe of King’s Lynn as an artist, then his name suggests that his parents were artists too, or at least art lovers. As we know, David Haddon and Holman Hunt were nineteenth century artists of some eminence.

But all this is less interesting to us at Jot HQ than the fact that John Sutcliffe was a fanatical collector of work by arguably the most gifted illustrator of the twentieth century. [RR]

An artist among the Charing Cross Road bookshops

IMG_3272Found in the art instruction magazine The Artist (London, November 1934) an interview with the artist and art therapist Adrian Hill about his recent oil painting ‘In Charing Cross Road.’ Here are a few extracts -most of Hill’s talk is about  technique, but there are some insights on the choice of subject:

… there were some who questioned the impulse behind the work, and wondered whether the scene was worth the skill and discernment that the artist had brought to the task

I admit that I shared a little of this feeling. Charing Cross Road is a central and important thoroughfare, but it must rank in the C3 class amongst London highways. Indeed, there is so little of the beautiful or the picturesque about the neighbourhood that I asked Adrian Hill if the idea of sitting down to paint it came to him suddenly, or if he had deliberately hunted for such a subject.

“No, I wasn’t looking for it,” he said. “It came to me. It was a gift from the London traffic. I was waiting to cross the road when I suddenly found it in front of me, complete in design and detail, asking to be painted.”

“As far as size is concerned, did you see it as a 24″by 20″?”

“No, I thought at first of making it bigger – about 40″ by 30″ – but it was an experiment in the ay of subject, and I decided to go modest. If ever I do a similar scene, I shan’t hesitate to paint it on a grander scale!”

“You had no misgivings about tackling it inside the studio?”

“None at all. I believe I should have painted it mush less spontaneously and confidently if I had had the subject in front of me. The details would have been so insistent that I should have been led into making a still life study of books instead of an impression of a bookshop, which was what I was after.”

“But I suppose you had to use a model for the books?” Continue reading

Whistler Stories

Found – Whistler Stories (Harper, New York 1913) put together by Don C Seitz. Many of the stories associated with the artist James McNeill Whistler are ironic jokes about his incredible self regard (‘…responding to an admirer who stated that there were only two great painters – Velasquez and himself. “Why drag in Velasquez.”’) or withering put downs. This exchange with Oscar Wilde is a good example of the latter:


Wilde asked the artist’s opinion upon a poem which he had written, presenting a copy to be read. Whistler read it and was handing it back without comment.
“Well,” queried Wilde, “do you perceive any worth?”
“It’s worth its weight in gold,” replied Whistler.
The poem was written on the very thinnest tissue-paper,
weighing practically nothing. The coolness between the two men is said to have dated from that moment.

The next story is a rare one – someone turns the tables on the great artist:

Whistler had a French poodle of which he was extravagantly fond.  This poodle was seized with an affection of the throat, and Whistler had the audacity to send for the great throat specialist, Mackenzie.  Sir Morell, when he saw that he had been called to treat a dog, didn’t like it much, it was plain.  But he said nothing.  He prescribed, pocketed a big fee, and drove away.  The next day he sent posthaste for Whistler.  And Whistler, thinking he was summoned on some matter connected with his beloved dog, dropped his work and rushed like the wind to Mackenzie’s.  On his arrival Sir Morell said, gravely:  “How do you do, Mr. Whistler?  I wanted to see you about having my front door painted.”

Lastly a tale that shows his self opinion was justified, although it took a few decades…

An American millionaire, to whom wealth had come rather quickly from Western mines, called at the Paris studio with the idea of capturing something for his gallery.  He glanced casually at the paintings on the walls, and then queried:
“How much for the lot?”
“Four millions,” said Whistler.
“My posthumous prices!  Good morning!”

I once met Francis Bacon

Not the essayist and improbable author of Shakespeare's plays, but the artist who yesterday broke the world record for highest sum ever achieved by an artist in auction.$142.2 million.

It must have been in the early 1980s, I had been viewing a book sale at Christies South Kensington ('CSK') in the days when they still had large lots of books in tea-chests and you would find the legendary Roger Elliott ('2 L's, 2 T's') and the writer /bouquiniste Alex Trocchi ploughing through them. I bumped into an old friend and he told me he was going to look at, and possibly buy, some precious stones at a sort of geology shop just off the King's Road. We made our way to his car through Reece Mews a cobbled street opposite the mighty auction rooms. Half way along we were hailed by an oldish but very lively man in what appeared to be a rubber mac, surmounted by a pleasing slightly waxy face - it was none other than the artist Francis Bacon who appeared to have lunched well and was on his way to his studio. We chatted for a moment and he asked us where we were going. We told him that we were off to buy some precious stones. Possibly he was about to invite us into his studio...however he replied 'So you're going abroad are you?' That was it. A slightly enigmatic remark. It seemed curious but it could be that, like Graham Greene, he took valuables with him when he went abroad to exchange or give as gifts - something practiced only by those with very long suits of cash.

Our colleague Martin Stone, guitar musician and book scout, met him a couple of times in Paris when he was working for Shakespeare & Co. He dined with him at the smart restaurant, next to the Whitman bookshop,  called La Bucherie. Martin reports that he was very good company- erudite, worldly and witty. Later at Reece Mews someone

made a fortune clearing a skip (dumpster) placed ouside  full of bits of half finished canvas, palettes and sketches..

See this Fortune article explaining why his tryptych of Lucian Freud made so much. It's basically about the rich getting richer.