Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow


William Cleverly Alexander

Nationality: British
Date of birth: 1840
Place of birth: Stoke Newington
Date of death: 1916
Place of death: Middlesex, England
Category: collector


William Cleverly Alexander was the son of George William Alexander of Surrey, and married Rachel Agnes Lucas in 1861.

William Cleverly Alexander (1840-1916), a wealthy banker and patron of Whistler, and his wife Rachel Agnes Lucas (1837-1900) had a large family, including several daughters: Agnes Mary ('May') (1862–1950), Cicely Henrietta (1864–1932), Helen Christina (1866-1897), Grace Lister (1867–1959), Emily Margaret (1872-1962), Emily Margaret (1871–1962), Rachel Frances (1875-1964) and Jean Ingelow (1877-1972), and two sons, William Geoffrey (1865–1911) and George Cleverly (1868-1959).


Alexander was a keen collector, a member of the Burlington Fine Arts Club and a founding member of the National Art Collections Fund. He collected Japanese woodcuts, including 36 views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai. He was also a major Whistler collector. About twenty Whistler etchings collected by Alexander passed by family descent to his daughter, Rachel, and were sold by her executors to the British Museum in London in 1973. These were all early etchings, before Whistler's trip to Venice in 1879-80, and included an etching from the French Set, examples from the Thames Set , an early Amsterdam etching, portraits and figure studies of the Haden and Leyland families and 1861 and 1879 etchings of the Thames.

This corresponds with the period in the 1870s when W. C. Alexander was commissioning portraits of his daughters May, Cicely and Grace from Whistler (Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander y129, Miss May Alexander y127 and Portrait of Miss Grace Alexander y130). He also bought other paintings (Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea y103) and various works on paper. In 1873 he also commissioned decorative schemes from Whistler at Aubrey House, Kensington, a house which Alexander had purchased from Peter Alfred Taylor, MP for Leicester, that same year (see Designs for the arrangement of china in the dining room at Aubrey House m0487).

According to Freer, it was probably during Whistler's bankruptcy that various works (Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses y055, Study of Draped Figures y058, The Morning after the Revolution, Valparaiso y075 and possibly The Blue Girl: Portrait of Connie Gilchrist y207) were left with Alexander 'and never sent for' until Rosalind Birnie Philip asked for their return.

According to Roger Fry, Alexander was one of the 'most important figures in the world of art', unpretentious and unconcerned about status, who 'saw clearly Whistler's genius'. Fry declared that it was through Alexander's 'purity and directness of perception that he was able to save England from the disgrace of leaving Whistler unrecognised'.


UK 1881 census; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908 ; Fry, Roger, 'Mr. Herbert P. Horne and Mr. William Cleverly Alexander', Burlington Magazine, vol. 29, no. 158, May 1916, pp. 81-82; Lugt, Frits, Les marques de collections de dessins et d'estampes: marques estampillèes et écrites de collections particulières et publiques; marques de marchands, de monteurs et d'imprimeurs; etc..., Amsterdam, 1921, no. 96; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer, and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980 ; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995 . Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, Meg Hausberg, and Joanna Meacock, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a catalogue raisonné, University of Glasgow, 2012, website,