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

Provenance

  • 1878, March: a fireplace and surrounds, designed by Edward William Godwin (1833-1886) and decorated by Whistler, was completed for William Watt (1834-1885) of William Watt & Co., art furniture manufacturers;
  • 1878, May-November: the fireplace with its overmantel and side-panels was exhibited on a stand at the Exposition Universelle in Paris;
  • 1878, September: according to Godwin, a 'princess' bought 'our mantelpiece of the Paris Exhibition'.
  • 1882: exhibited as a 'cabinet' in the showrooms of William Watt & Co. in Grafton Street, Gower Street, London.
  • 1890/1909: bought by the collector Pickford Robert Waller (1849-1930) , London;
  • 1930: on his death, the cabinet was bequeathed to his daughter Sybil Christina Waller (1882-1973) ;
  • 1973: after her death, sold at auction, London, Christie, 4 October 1973 (lot 196), and bought by the University of Glasgow for £8400, with support from the National Fund for Acquisitions and the Art Fund.

Accounts of the creation and provenance of the fireplace/cabinet are not entirely consistent, and are discussed here in more detail.

The fireplace and surrounding panels were designed by E. W. Godwin for Watt & Co. and decorated by Whistler for the same firm. The sparse evidence of Godwin's comments that 'a princess possesses our mantelpiece of the Paris Exhibition' and 'Watt is so proud of his Princess-Purchaser', indicate that Godwin thought it had been bought from Watt & Co. by September 1878, well before the end of the Paris exhibition in November 1878. 1

It is possible that the 'princess' was Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (1848-1939), to whom Godwin dedicated a pamphlet illustrating his designs for William Watt & Co. in 1877. 2 Godwin designed a studio for Princess Louise in Kensington Palace in 1878. The Princess was constantly travelling in attendance on the Queen and the rest of the royal family. She visited the British Pavilion in the Paris exhibition on 3 May 1878 with her husband, the Marquis of Lorne, and the Prince and Princess of Wales. 3 She could perfectly well have communicated with Watt & Co. in London in August or September in between her official duties, but no record of this has been found. By September she and her husband were at Balmoral, probably shooting something.

However, in 1882, 'A large cabinet decorated by Mr Whistler's hand' was among other furniture designed by E. W. Godwin and exhibited in two rooms of Watt & Co.'s premises. 4 Aslin states that it had been converted into a cabinet immediately after the 1878 exhibition. 5 Although there are conflicting stories about what happened to the cabinet after the exhibition, the Pennells were probably wrong in stating that Pickford Waller bought the Watt & Co. fireplace and surrounds from a second-hand shop in London around 1890. 6 The first mention of the cabinet being in Waller's possession is in 1909 when it was photographed by William E. Gray for Joseph Pennell (1860-1926). 7 The Pennells suggested that it was Waller who was responsible for the reconstruction of the 'chimneypiece':

'There was ... a chimneypiece which, twelve years or so afterwards, was found by Mr. Pickford Waller in a secondhand furniture shop and bought. The stove was taken out; two panels, with a pattern suggested for the dado, were turned into doors, and the chimneypiece is now a cabinet with Whistler's decorations almost untouched.' 8
Cabinet in Pickford Waller's dining room, and detail, photograph in album, GUL Whistler PC 22/149
Cabinet in Pickford Waller's dining room, and detail, photograph in album, GUL Whistler PC 22/149

Pickford Waller certainly bought the cabinet at some time, and it was photographed in its present form while in his possession. Photographs of the cabinet in Waller's press cutting books show it against a background of flowery wall-paper, but unfortunately these images are not dated. 9

Exhibitions

  • 1878: Exposition Universelle, Champs de Mars, Paris, 1878, at William Watt's stand, 'Drawing Room Furniture. The Butterfly Cabinet and Fireplace ... Decorations in yellow and gold designed and painted by J. A. McV. [sic] Whistler'.
'Harmony in Yellow and Gold', William Watt & Co. stand, Exposition Universelle, Paris 1878
'Harmony in Yellow and Gold', William Watt & Co. stand, Exposition Universelle, Paris 1878

The original design for a fireplace and surrounds, with co-ordinated furniture, was made by Godwin for William Watt & Co., Art Furniture Manufacturers, and was exhibited on a stand at the Exposition Universelle (Universal Exhibition) in Paris, which was held from May through to 10 November 1878. The signboard above the stand reads:

[to left:] 'Wm. WATT / 21, Grafton St. Gower Street. / LONDON' [and to right,] 'Designed by E. W. GODWIN, ESQr. / Decoration Harmony in Yellow and Gold, / Designed and Painted by / J. A. McN. WHISTLER ESQr./ CHINA Lent by A. L. LIBERTY /Regent Street.'

It was described in the catalogue as 'Drawing Room Furniture. The Butterfly Cabinet and Fireplace ... Decorations in yellow and gold designed and painted by J. A. McV. [sic] Whistler'. The porcelain selected for the shelves during the display at the Paris exhibition was Kaga ware, Japanese export ware with striking red-gold decoration. William Watt was awarded a bronze medal for nearly all his exhibits in the British section of the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1878, but not for this stand.

A lengthy and at times unflattering commentary on Whistler's decorations was written by Lewis F. Day for the British Architect and Northern Engineer:

'The only painted decoration is quite in harmony, viz., gold on pale yellow gold, in the panels of the overmantel, and again gold on the lemon-yellow of the walls. By the way, the manner in which the painted decoration is, as it were, carried through on the wall, is ingenious and suggestive.

This painted decoration is due to Mr Whistler, and is, as we might have anticipated, eccentric. It consists of blossoms and butterflies, very boldly and daringly put in – as clever, but as coarse, as the common Japanese screen-painting we have seen before on Mr Whistler's picture frames – (there is one at least, painted rudely in blue on gold in a Japanese fashion, just now at the Grosvenor Gallery) – but it resembles no other English work. It is cleverly done, no one but Mr Whistler would have had the impudence to do it – but was it worth the doing? One thing it will attain certainly – and that is notoriety; it cannot fail to be talked about. It will be remembered as the most frantic specimen of decoration in the furniture of 1878.' 10

A more positive description of Watt's stand also associated the design with Japanese art, and mentioned the 'Kaga porcelain, chosen for the yellowishness of the red, which is a characteristic of that ware.' It continued:

'The framework of the sofa has a hint of the Japanese influence, which faintly, but only faintly, suggests itself all through the room. Its lattice-work back and wheel-patterned ends might pass for bamboo; the carpentry is as light as if the long fingers of a saffron-faced artist had coaxed it into shape.' 11

Reviews were, as is obvious, variable. The Magazine of Art called it a 'Symphony in Yellow', with furniture of the 'Japanese type affected by Mr Godwin', and commented, 'Mr Whistler has painted a kind of scale ornament, intended possibly for clouds on the wall and mantelpiece', but the critic added, 'For its startling mode of attracting the attention of the visitor, the work of Mr Watt is unrivalled. We cannot say that we should care to be surrounded in our homes by the "agony" in yellow.' 12

Recent Displays:


                    Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Butterfly Cabinet, in the Hunterian, ca 2000
Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Butterfly Cabinet, in the Hunterian, ca 2000

It has been exhibited in the Hunterian against a wall with Whistler's paintings, and also surrounded by the furniture that was in his studio in the 1890s, and came to the University of Glasgow with the bequest of Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958).


                    Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Butterfly Cabinet, in the Hunterian, ca 2003
Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Butterfly Cabinet, in the Hunterian, ca 2003

It was displayed in the The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 exhibition in 2012, and described by the curator, Stephen Calloway, as the product of 'the virtuoso collaboration between Godwin and Whistler: a glorious piece of furniture titled Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Butterfly Cabinet (1877–1878).' 13

Notes:

1: Godwin to Whistler, 9 and 12 September 1878, GUW #08736 and #08738.

2: Art furniture: from designs by E. W. Godwin, F.S.A., and others, with hints and suggestions on domestic furniture and decoration, by William Watt ... Dedicated by permission to Her Royal Highness Princess Louise by William Watt, manufacturer of art furniture, London, published by B. T. Batsford, 52 High Holborn, 1877.

3: 'The Paris Exposition', The Times, London, 4 May 1878, p. 9.

4: Artist, vol. 3, 1882, p. 387.

5: Aslin, Elizabeth, E. W. Godwin, Furniture and Interior Decoration, London, 1986, pp. 13-14; see also Soros, Susan, The Secular Furniture of E. W. Godwin, New Haven, 1999, pp. 205, 226, cat. no. 369, no. 139-a.

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

7: Account dated 4 February and settled 24 March 1909, E. R. & J. Pennell Collection, Library of Congress.

8: Pennell 1911, op. cit., p. 158.

9: GUL Whistler PC 21/45 and 22/149.

10: Day, Lewis F., 'Notes on English Decorative Art in Paris. Part 3', British Architect and Northern Engineer, vol. 10, 12 July 1878, pp. 15-16.

11: G. W. S. [Smalley, George W.], 'A Harmony in Yellow and Gold', American Architect & Building News, vol. 4, no. 135, 27 July 1878, p. 36.

12: 'The Paris Universal exhibition V', Magazine of Art, September 1878, vol. 1, p. 116. Bendix 1995 [more] , p. 165.

13: The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco website, 2012, at http://www.famsf.org.

Last updated: 22nd May 2021 by Margaret