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

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Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Butterfly Cabinet

Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Butterfly Cabinet dates from 1877-1878. 1

E. W. Godwin, Design for a fireplace and cabinet, 1877/1878, Victoria & Albert Museum
E. W. Godwin, Design for a fireplace and cabinet, 1877/1878, Victoria & Albert Museum

1877, September : Edward William Godwin (1833-1886) designed a fireplace, with an overmantel and side-panels, for William Watt (1834-1885), of William Watt & Co., art furniture manufacturers, 21 Grafton Street, London. Godwin's diary for 20 September recorded an appointment with Watt ('Watt 11 o'clock to 12.45. Paris Exhib.'); Godwin's design for the fireplace and the surrounds is inscribed, almost illegibly, 'Watt / Paris 22 Sep.77.' 2

1877, October: Godwin mentioned £50 received 'for the 2 bits of dec. for Paris.' 3

1877/1878: Godwin suggested that Whistler should paint a surrounding dado, and eventually Whistler decorated the panels at the back of the fireplace, overmantel and side-panels for Watt & Co.

1878: Godwin, who designed the 'White House' for Whistler in Tite Street, London, collaborated with Whistler on designing its interior. The Pennells and others have suggested that the fireplace and surrounds were intended for a 'Primrose Room' in the White House. 4 However, there is no evidence of this, although some White House items, including stoves by Thomas Jeckyll (1827-1881) and yellow Doulton tiles, mentioned by Whistler on 22 March in a letter to Godwin, were similar to components of the Watt fireplace. 5

Whistler decorating a wall in the 'White House', plans by E. W. Godwin, British Architect
Whistler decorating a wall in the 'White House', plans by E. W. Godwin, British Architect

Illustrations of the White House interior published in the British Architect show Whistler painting on the wall above a fireplace, but there is no mention of any surrounding structure.

1878, March: Although there appears to have been no precise agreement between Whistler, Godwin and Watt as to the work to be undertaken, Whistler worked on the decoration of the Watt fireplace and surrounds, preparing it for exhibition. He also repaired damage to the paintwork caused by Watt's workmen, 'involving the giving up of an entire day (Saturday) that I might carry through the Cabinet &c ... in time for Mr Watts exhibition here prior to his sending off.' 6 While admitting that he had exceeded Godwin's original proposal, Whistler complained that his expenses had not been covered: 'In return for all this good will, and blind to the complete success of the whole, Mr Watt has refused to pay me a penny more for extra labor and time!' 7

'Harmony in Yellow and Gold', Stand of William Watt & Co.,  Exposition Universelle, Paris 1878
'Harmony in Yellow and Gold', Stand of William Watt & Co., Exposition Universelle, Paris 1878

1878, May-November: The fireplace and surrounds were exhibited as 'The Butterfly Cabinet and Fireplace' at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, at William Watt & Co.'s stand. As displayed in Paris, it incorporated one of Jeckyll's stoves, and Kaga porcelain on the shelves, lent by Liberty's, Regent Street. 8

1882: 'A large cabinet decorated by Mr Whistler's hand' was on show in Watt & Co.'s showrooms in Gower Street, London. 9

ca 1890: According to the Pennells, when the fireplace was acquired by Pickford Robert Waller (1849-1930), some twelve years after the exhibition, the stove and tiles were removed and the side panels converted into doors in their place, to create a cabinet. 10 However, this is not certain, since it had been described as a cabinet some eight years earlier.

Notes:

1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 195).

2: Victoria & Albert Museum, Godwin Notebook E.229 -1963, fol. 73; Soros, Susan, The Secular Furniture of E. W. Godwin, New Haven, 1999, p. 226 (cat. no. 369).

3: [1-2] October 1877, GUW #11240, Godwin papers, Victoria & Albert Museum, AAD4/3-1980.

4: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 219-20; Merrill 1998 [more], p. 261.

5: Whistler to E. W. Godwin, [22 March 1878], GUW #01739; see also Godwin, E. W., 'Some Facts about "The White House,"Chelsea', British Architect and Northern Engineer, vol. 12, 26 September 1879, p. 119.

6: Whistler to E. W. Godwin, 25 March [1878], GUW #01740.

7: Ibid.

8: Taylor 1978 [more], repr. p. 85.

9: Artist, vol. 3, 1882, p. 387; Aslin, Elizabeth, E. W. Godwin, Furniture and Interior Decoration, London, 1986, pp. 13-14 (cat. no. 9) plate 64.

10: Pennell 1911 A [more], p. 158.

Last updated: 20th September 2018 by Margaret