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Whistler Redivivus

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Whistler Redivivus

Post by Karen on Sun 28 Feb 2010 - 11:52


Age cannot wither nor custom stale Mr. James M'Neill Whistler's infinite variety. His hair has become so grey that the famous white tuft no longer attracts much notice, whilst deep mourning reminds us he is an inconsolable widower. But the eyeglass still adheres mysteriously as ever in position, the moustache is still delicately waxed at its tip, and "Jemmy" himself can still coruscate witticisms on occasion in the form which was so familiar to many of us years ago. Hearing Mr. Whistler was to give evidence in a libel action which Mr. Joseph Pennell is bringing against Walter Sickert, the art critic of the Saturday Review, I begged father to take us down to the law courts to hear the case. It proved a dull business to begin with, turning on the old old question what is art with a big "A." Mr. Pennell exhibited a number of lithographs in London which Mr. Sickert said were not lithographs at all, but transfer lithography, or in other words, "process work." Now, no more terrible accusation than "process work" can be levelled at a great etcher or lithographer. Nevertheless, such charges are fairly frequent. Ten years ago the immortal James himself suffered an imputation of the kind at the hands of Mortimer Menpes, and more recently the present plaintiff and Mr. Whistler alleged similar misdemeanours against Hubert Herkomer.
Mr. Sickert's libel in the Saturday Review was, to put it specifically, that Mr. Pennell had produced lithographs which were, in fact, not lithographs, but, as Mr. Sickert called them, transfer lithography. That is to say, Mr. Pennell's drawings were not made direct upon the stone, but were in the first instance made upon paper, and thence transferred to the stone, from which the prints were afterwards made. This, Mr. Sickert argued, resulted in a loss of artistic "values" and commercial value.
Mr. Pennell did not deny that the lithographs in question were made in the manner described, but maintained that they were commonly called lithographs, and were, in fact, of the same commercial and artistic value. A number of experts were called to show that Mr. Pennell's performances were legitimate art, the first being Mr. Whistler.
"What is your Christian name?" asked the Registrar, preparatory to swearing the great man.
Mr. Whistler took no sort of notice of the question. He drew off his fine black gloves and submitted himself with easy grace to the arts of Sir Edward Clarke.
None but himself can be his parallel. He was epigrammatic, brilliant, sparkling, and kept the Court in a roar of laughter until he left the witness-box. His argument was that anything an artist produced was good - if he was a good artist.
"Whatever," he said, with the air of a prophet imparting a great truth, "whatever the artist touches produces whatever effect the quality of the medium affords."
There was no distinction between direct lithographs and transfer lithographs.
"Do you know," inquired Mr. Bigham, "that the Royal Academy does not accept transfer lithographs?"
Mr. Whistler has a poor opinion of the Royal Academy. His reply was a dry sarcasm that convulsed the Court.
"I hear this without surprise," he said; "I am not at all au fait with the limitations of the Royal Academy."
"Have you any resentment against Mr. Sickert?" asked counsel, "he has mentioned your name. Are you angry with him?
"Not at all" (with a shrug of the shoulders), "the only pity is - that distinguished people - like ourselves - loud laughter) - should be brought here - by a gentleman - whose authority has never before been - recognised."
Mr Sickert's article had done a good deal of harm, Mr. Whistler alleged. In New York the papers quoted it, and declared when Mr. Pennell had an exhibition there that his lithographs were not lithographs at all.
"You don't object to what Mr. Sickert said about you in this article?" asked Mr. Bigham. "Mr. Whistler is a genius," for instance; you don't resent that?"
"It all depends," replied the artist, "from whom such a remark comes."
"Mr. Sickert wrote," continued counsel, "Mr. Whistler's almost nothings are priceless." You don't dissent from that?"
"It is very simple and very proper," replied Mr. Whistler with calmness, "that Mr. Sickert should say that sort of thing, but I attach no importance to it."
The manner in which this remark was delivered was inimitable, and added tenfold to its cutting irony.
Counsel continued reading from Mr. Sickert's article: "Mr. Whistler's smallest change is golden, but he must not help Mr. Pennell to debase the currency."
"Do you want to know my opinion of that?" inquired Mr. Whistler.
"You are helping Mr. Pennell are you not? pursued counsel, not heeding the witness's query.
"Do you want to know my opinion of that?" repeated Mr. Whistler. "I think it is a most impertinent piece of impudence, covering an obsequious reproach."
"Are you helping Mr. Pennell in bringing this action?" pursued Mr. Bigham, "are you bearing any portion of the expense of this case?"
Mr. Whistler waved his hand and affected a contempt for the sordid subject of money.
"I don't know that I am," he answered vaguely, adding with the sweetest smile, "Of course, I should be quite willing."
This ended the cross-examination of the witness. By way of re-examination, Sir Edward Clarke put one question.
"Is there anything in this suggestion, Mr. Whistler," he asked, "that you have borne some part of the expense of this case?"
"Anything in it?" repeated Mr. Whistler. "Oh, nothing, nothing - except the delicacy of the question itself.
This caused another shriek of laughter; even Mr. Justice Mathew did not conceal his enjoyment of the sarcasm.
"May I," added Mr. Whistler, before he left the box, "say a few words to the jury to explain why they are here?"
Whatever delightful speech Mr. Whistler had prepared for delivery to a British jury will never be known.
"No, no,"replied Mr. Justice Mathew; the jury are here because they cannot help it. You need say nothing more."
Mr. Whistler said no more, but retired sedately from the box.

Source: Star, Issue 5896, 12 June 1897, Page 3

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