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JAMES McNeill whistler. 


February 20ih, /go 5 

^ '2t. 


JAMES McNeill whistler. 


February 20th, igo^. 

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February 20tk, igoj. 


Mr. President, my Lords, and Gentlemen, — 

We are met to celebrate the memory of a 
very great man, and to do honour to the work in 
which he has perpetuated that memory. Mr. Whistler 
was a man good at many things ; he was a wit, and a 
warrior, and the most versatile of craftsmen. But 
he was more than this ; and it is as a creator and 
servant of beauty that he claims our remembrance 
to-night. Beauty, and beauty only, he said, was the 
justification and aim and end of a work of art. Surely, 
in the history of the world, there has seldom been such 
a collection of the works of one man which was per- 
vaded and inspired and possessed by the desire of 
beauty as the wonderful collection now to be exhibited 
in the New Gallery is pervaded and inspired and 
possessed. Every touch and every line in those 
canvases and prints bears its part in the unceasing 
quest and shares in the triumph of the capture. The 
labour is over ; and we are permitted to take our 
pleasure, every man according to his capacity, in the 
rich reward. 

You will not expect me, I am sure, in the face ot 
these pictures, to discuss or expound any theories of 
art. The practice is better. Not the most brilliant 
of his theoretic utterances could express Mr. Whistler 
a hundredth part so adequately as these works of his. 
Indeed, his own theories, though they are neat and 
pointed and polished, edged with wit, and often 
animated by a profound knowledge, seem to me to 
fall far short of expressing him. He taught his age 
to look at a picture, not through it ; and the lesson 
was a needed one. But in his zeal to reprove the 
public for their preoccupation with incident and 
morality, he was apt to deny to his pictures qualities 
which, after all, they have. Call a picture what you 
will, a pattern, or a symphony, or an arrangement, or 
(if you like) call it merely a picture, still this is true of 
it : that when an artist has done his best at symphony, 
or arrangement, there comes to him sometimes an 
unsought increment on his effort ; something that he 
did not consciously work for, perhaps does not even 
know that he has attained. In Mr. Whistler's figure- 
pieces there is often a tenderness and grace and pathos 
of human emotion which is unaccounted for by the 
theory, but which is his no less than the more purely 
optical qualities that he laid stress on. The intensity 
of his purpose overshoots itself and reveals to him 
more than he is seeking. 

He stood aloof — more completely aloof, perhaps, 
than most other great artists have done — from the 
movements and schools of his own time. His early 
work belongs to a notable time of artistic ferment. 
The Pre-Raphaelites were teaching what I may call 
their new morality of vision ; the Impressionists were 
working out their new psychology of vision. He 
belonged to neither school. He picked up hints and 
suggestions, no doubt, from these and a hundred 
other sources, but in the main he was independent 
and original — in the right sense of that word. That 
is to say, he began at the beginning ; in each of his 
works he creates afresh, as it were ; he accepts every 
subject as presenting a new problem to be grappled 
with, a new set of conditions to be studied and sub- 
dued, by new devices, to the service of beauty. I am 
not decrying the utility of "schools" if I say that the 
most robust and splendid of them may interfere, by 
the very greatness of their traditions, with that inces- 
sant watchfulness, that alert vitality, and that readiness 
for new experiment which is found in all Mr. Whistler's 
work. It is the misfortune of the schools that they 
give a false importance to acquisitive and imitative 
talent. And there is one school, at least, which is 
apt to cramp the work even of a man of genius — the 
school of his own past successes. If the love of ease 
entices him, his very triumphs become his enemies, 


by tempting him into formula and repetition. But to 
the end of his Ufe, Mr. Whistler never rested upon 
success ; he went on seeking for new worlds to 
conquer. " If you want to rest," he once said to a 
friend who complained that there was no easy-chair 
in his house — " if you want to rest you had better go 
to bed" — and the remark might be taken as the motto 
of his artistic career; as the motto, indeed, of the 
career of any artist. 

An alertness like this finds its ample reward. It 
keeps a man's intelligence and sympathies open for 
new lessons from Art and Nature. It was by his 
sleepless activity of mind that Mr. Whistler was 
enabled to become the interpreter, and the pioneer 
in Europe, of the art of the Japanese. In this, I 
believe, he was something of a discoverer, and brought 
from the East, not gold nor spices, but a new charm. 
He may be said to have inaugurated, in the happiest 
way, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance — an Alliance which, 
in the realm of Art, is neither offensive nor defensive, 
but devoted to mutual appreciation and mutual 
delight — a kind of friendly tournament on the Field 
of the Cloth of Gold. And, besides Japan, there was 
another great teacher from whom he never ceased to 
learn — the Goddess Nature, whom he was wont to 
patronise with a certain humorous bravado. She had 
so much he did not want, that he was inclined to 
regard her as a busybody, an officious and too im- 
portunate saleswoman, pressing her garish stores of 
goods on his attention. Yet how much did he not 
learn from his sensitive and untiring observation of 
Nature ? When did he cease to study her moving 
benediction of light ? The public of his time asked 
a painter for recognisable and clearly defined pictorial 
symbols of common objects. But these objects, to an 
eye not blinded by habit, exist in a strange submarine 

world, a shifting and glimmering sea of light and air. 
It was this sea that Mr. Whistler cared for — this sea 
in its gentlest undulating moods; and, although I 
dare not judge others by my own case, yet I believe 
there are many artists who were taught by his work, 
as I, in my layman's ignorance, was taught, to take a 
keener pleasure in observing how light caresses the 
surfaces of things, and how air softens their outlines. 


But the highest praise remains to tell. Wherever 
artists are gathered together, Mr. Whistler cannot be 
too much honoured for what has been well called 
his " implacable conscience." He found no use on 
this earth for critics. But there never lived a severer 
critic of himself. Among all the temptations that 
assail an artist he walked so absolutely unspotted and 
unsubdued, with so confident a gaiety, that it seems 
unfair to say that he resisted temptation ; it is almost 
as if he had never been tempted. He would destroy 
any of his works rather than leave a careless or inex- 
pressive touch within the limits of the frame. He 
would begin again a hundred times over, rather than 
attempt, by patching, to make his work seem better 
than it was. He was not content till he had got what 
he wanted, and his work expressed himself at his best. 
And this was the cause, I think, of his remarkably 
strong sense of property in his pictures. They were 
his children, a part of himself, and that they should 
be sold into slavery, that anything so accidental and 
external as the payment of money should alienate or 
impair his rights in them, always seemed to him, I 
think, a mere piece of inhumanity and impertinence 
on the part ofthe law. 


Consider the irony of things. Here was one of the 
most serious-minded men that have ever Uved in this 
world. For a long time he was widely and authori- 
tatively regarded as a trifler and a jester, one who 
evaded difficulties and sought a cheap reputation for 
eccentricity. I will not remind you of any incidents 
in the famous trial, though it still has its lessons for 
artists and critics. Any one who takes up the full 
report of that trial and reads it now, will rub his eyes 
and wonder. It tells how the official worlds of Art 
and Criticism were ranged against Mr. Whistler and a 
few friends. Many of the witnesses no doubt re- 
pented later of their evidence — of being so busy with 
their tongues and so idle with their eyes. But no 
man goes through an experience of this kind un- 
touched. Mr. Whistler went on with his work — that 
is the great thing — and provided himself with a de- 
fence against the world. Laughter, which is often 
used for defensive purposes by those who have good 
wits and sensitive tempers, became his shield and 
his spear. His attitude to the public was exactly the 
attitude taken up by Robert Browning, who suffered 
as long a period of neglect and mistake, in those lines 
of The Ring and the Book : 

" Well, British Public, ye who like me not, 
(God love you !) and will have your proper laugh 
At the dark question : — laugh it ! I laugh first." 


Mr. Whistler always laughed first. So he carried 
the war into the enemy's country. They treated the 
business which was no less than a religion to him as 
if it were a pretence and a trifle. What wonder if he 
treated in the same spirit the business which was 
most serious to them ? Politics, society, banking — 
these also are serious affairs. But one who comes 
across them in his moments of relaxation, after a long 
and grim struggle with one of the most difficult crafts 
in the world, may be excused if he finds in them 
plentiful opportunities for amusement. After all, an 
artist must be amused — it is the breath of his nostrils ; 
he must find delight or make it, whether from under- 
standing things, or from indulging his humour in 
wilfully misunderstanding them. Where Mr. Whistler 
found delight in misunderstanding, he also gave delight 
by his child-like glee and by his powers of wit — 
a wit not employed in great campaigns, but decorated 
and tempered and worn by the side, or flourished in 
the hand, as a fit addition to courtly dress. 


He gained recognition at last. Wherever a man oi 
genius spends an arduous life in the lonely pursuit of 
his aims, you find the same sequel, in posthumous sub- 
scriptions, or on graven memorial stones, or in those 
honorary degrees which are conferred by Universities 
on famous veterans. I am glad to think that the 
honorary degree which was conferred on Mr. Whistler 
some two years ago by the University of Glasgow 
gave him sincere pleasure. I know it was felt by 
those whose votes conferred it, that if a living painter 
was to be chosen from among the English-speaking 
peoples for academic honours, there could be no 
question what name to choose. I think the precedent 
was a good one ; and I trust it will be followed up. 
If a University is to represent all that is best in the 
intelligence and skill of a nation, it can ill afford to 
neglect the Fine Arts. Let the great artist take 
refuge in isolation if he will, but do not force it upon 
him. For, indeed, his work, though he refuses to 
submit it to the popular suffrage, or to modify it by 
the opinions of critics, is an asset of civilisation, a 
possession for ever ; and his example is a model for 
all workers in its unflagging persistence and in its 
devotion to some of the greatest and best things that 
are attainable by the frailty of our human nature. 

Gentlemen, I give you the toast of 

•'The Memory of Whistler." 



The Library of the late 


Professor of Eng-lish Literature, Oxford, 


On Sale by 




\o. 187 

November, 1922 

Sir Walter Raleigh, late Professor of 

English Literature in Oxford