In December 1862 Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) recommended a 'Thames picture' by Whistler to James Leathart (1820-1895) at a price of 300 guineas. 1 This was probably Wapping [YMSM 035], and not, as has been suggested, The Last of Old Westminster, as the price mentioned was ten times that of the latter, which was sold soon after the Royal Academy show of 1863 to G. J. Cavafy for 30 guineas (£33.0.0.) 2
In 1889 Whistler tried to buy The Last of Old Westminster and Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony [YMSM 056] back for £180.0.0. 3 By 1892 G. J. Cavafy's son John was prepared to sell, and wrote to Whistler:
'I duly received both your telegrams, to the second of which I replied by telegraph "Sorry cannot do what you wish - Pictures still under offer to Goupil. Time not expired. Letter follows" - The pictures are the four by you which I possess: viz. Old Westminster Bridge, The Thames at Chelsea (unfinished); Sea & Sand; & last but not least, The Balcony - For these (the whole four) Goupil's manager here offered me £500. - which I did not accept, but said I would take £600. - cash before removal of pictures, &, at his request left the offer open for a week, which expires today - I am therefore still bound - Tomorrow early I will telegraph to you what happens - Should Goupil not take them may I say that I would only sell them on the same terms.' 4
Whistler blatantly manipulated the market. He wrote to Cavafy:
'You were to receive a telegram this morning from Mr Bancroft, advising you that his cheque for £600, is on its way,
Now - I have since had a better offer for the four pictures, and therefore you can simply return Bancrofts cheque - saying that having in no way closed with him you had accepted a better offer -
- On Tuesday morning Mr E G Kennedy of New York will call upon you and hand you a cheque for £650. This is as safe as the Bank - Mr Kennedy I have seen today - and with him sent you this afternoons telegram. "My man was Bancroft, have better offer, Dont close - Reply." Mr Kennedy leaves to night for Brussels and Amsterdam - ...
He returns to London on Tuesday and will call upon you with cheque and receive the pictures - In this way you will be £50 to the good, besides happening to place the pictures in a way more pleasing even to myself and in the whole affair you have only been dealing with me, and are consequently in no way connected to Mr Bancroft whose name has never appeared in the transaction at all.' 5
It would appear that Cavafy agreed, and returned the cheque that had been sent by John Chandler Bancroft (1835-1901), much to Bancroft's indignation.
Thus E. G. Kennedy, of Wunderlich, New York art dealers, with Whistler's connivance, bought The Last of Old Westminster, Battersea Reach [YMSM 045], Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony [YMSM 056], and Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville [YMSM 064] from Dr Cavafy, for £650 – a price advantageous to their purposes – before the pictures could be bought by Bancroft. Whistler wrote to Kennedy: 'The "Westminster Bridge" is ... a splendid picture ... You will have a gem, and ought not to let it go under a thousand.' 6 Kennedy had it reframed and hung in his house in October 1892. 7 He tried to sell it for $5000 to Alfred Atmore Pope (1842-1913) of Farmington, Connecticut, but Pope refused, so instead Kennedy sold it to Cottier, New York dealers, and in the end they sold it to Pope for $7500! 8 On Pope's death it passed to his daughter Theodate (Mrs J. W. Riddle), and it was sold by her to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1939.
It was exhibited first at Martinet's gallery in Paris in 1862. 'Go and see it, you will like it I am sure', Whistler wrote to George Aloysius Lucas (1824-1909). 9 Lucas replied, 'I will certainly see the Westminster bridge when the exhibition opens, Martinet is giving concerts in his rooms & dont [sic] appear to occupy himself much about picture art & artists.' 10
Then it was shown at the Royal Academy in London in 1863, where it was 'hung on the floor' as Whistler told Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1829-1904). 11 Displayed on the lowest tier of paintings in the crowded Academy rooms was only marginally better than being 'skied'. The Athenaeum echoed Whistler's comments:
'Below the "line," and where the crinolines scour its surface, hangs Mr. Whistler's artistic and able picture, The Last of Old Westminster Bridge (352) ... One glance at Mr. Whistler's reading of the softened, warm grey of a London sky, so feelingly rendered here, and so beautiful in truth as it is ... The streaming motion of the river ... its many and subtly-hued surface, the atmosphere among the piles, their solidity, so deftly given without toil, and the aerial beauty of the removed shore, are such that, if the Hanging Committee had given a moment's thought to them, would have put this picture where it ought to be, in an honourable position.' 12
William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) wrote that the painting 'testified once more to that gentleman's power of rapid and intense realization – complete too as an artist can estimate completeness, though defying the ordinary conception of that quality.' 13 This rapidity met with varied responses. The painting was repeatedly called a 'sketch', with varying levels of approval, from 'very slight' to 'dashing' to 'masterly'. 14 Whistler himself was described by one art critic as 'a most eccentric genius who … tells no story, and points no moral', and by another as an 'immature painter' and his painting as 'ostentatiously rough-and-ready'. 15
It was many decades before the painting was exhibited again. The first owner, George John Cavafy (1805-1891) was unwilling to lend his pictures as frequently as the artist desired, as his son explained:
'my father is strongly averse at his age (nearly 81) to part with the pictures for so long a time, & to subject them to the manifold & considerable risks of transit by sea & land - He cannot therefore lend them to you for exhibition in America.' 16
The scheme for an American show was abandoned, as was a subsequent plan for a show of Whistler's work at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1887 (to which Cavafy was prepared to lend his pictures), due to the increasingly strained relations between Whistler, their President, and the members. When the painting was requested for Whistler's retrospective in 1892, John Cavafy refused point blank to lend it, saying 'the few finished pictures by Mr. Whistler in my possession, have all been exhibited - one or two repeatedly - It would be most unpleasant & inconvenient to me to lend any of them again.' 17
It was seen in America, in New York, in 1898, and afterwards appeared in the series of Whistler Memorial Exhibitions, in Boston in 1904 (as seen in the photograph reproduced above) and in London and Paris in the following year.
8: Note by E. G. Kennedy, 15 October 1907, Kennedy Letterbooks III/167, New York Public Library.
12: 'Fine Arts: Royal Academy', The Athenaeum, 23 May 1863, p. 688.
14: 'Royal Academy', The Standard, London, 2 May 1863, p. 3; 'Fine Arts: Royal Academy', The Spectator, 23 May 1863, p. 2035; 'Art: Royal Academy [5th Notice]: Landscape', The Reader, 13 June 1863, p. 582.
15: 'New Plays and New Pictures', The Queen, 16 May 1863, p. 211. 'Exhibition of the R. A.– The Landscapes, & C.', The Illustrated London News, 3 May 1863, p. 574.
Last updated: 4th June 2021 by Margaret