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]

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!”