6 JUNE 1992, Page 47

Whistler in the dark

Evelyn Jon

Much has already been written about this lawsuit but, unless a copy of the tran- script of the trial should turn up (the origi- nal was destroyed immediately afterwards), Linda Merrill has written what deserves to be the final words on the subject. It is an absorbing story: in 1877 Sir Coutts Lindsay, a banker with a rich wife, opened the Grosvenor Gallery in New Bond Street with an exhibition of work by artists he had personally invited. Ruskin published his views on the show in Fors Clavigera on 2 July. After praising Burne-Jones's works, he passed on to Whistler, only one of whose eight pictures was for sale. It showed a firework display above Cremorne Gar- dens seen from across the Thames, and was entitled 'Nocturne in Black and Gold' (henceforth simply 'Nocturne).

Ruskin wrote:

For Mr Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated con- ceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.

Whistler, pugnacious by nature and much in debt, at once sued for libel, claiming £1,000 in damages. He was encouraged by his lawyer who wrote that

but for Mr Ruskin's infirmities a man might be tempted to avenge himself personally.

Ruskin's mental infirmities did indeed delay the trial, at which he only finally appeared in November 1878. Meanwhile both sides collected witnesses but with con- siderable difficulty. Whistler's star, Freder- ic Leighton, President of the RA was unfortunately summoned to Windsor to be knighted on the very day of the trial. The final line-up was: for Whistler: William Rossetti, Gabriel's brother, Albert Moore and William Wills, a pastelist and play- wright with a strong aversion to soap and water; for Ruskin: Burne-Jones, 'Fom Taylor, the editor of Punch and frequent art-reviewer for the Times

and William Powell Frith.

The trial itself, like much in the art world both then and now, produced some farcical moments. The courtroom was so murky that Whistler's 'Nocturne' was almost invisible and another of his pictures was shown upside down. When Ruskin's coun- sel produced a Titian portrait to show how a painting should be properly finished, a juror called out: 'Oh come, we've had enough of these Whistlers'.

The defence hammered away at two points held sacred at the time: first, that an unfinished picture, lacking in detail, could not by definition be considered a work of art, and second, that the most reliable measure of a painting's value was the amount of labour expended on it. Whistler failed on both counts and admitted he had painted his 'Nocturne' in two days. The Attorney-General then asked: 'The labour of two days, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?"No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in a lifetime', replied Whistler.

In return, Whistler condemned the English for

refusing to consider a picture as a picture, apart from any story it may be supposed to tell.

His enigmatic and musically-related titles were purposely chosen to reinforce this point. A Whistler 'Nocturne', divested of all anecdotal interest, was the antithesis of the Victorian love of 'visual literature', expecting communication from, rather than communion with, a work of art. An attitude exemplified, for example, in the work of Frith who was Whistler's most hostile witness.

During the trial, brilliantly reconstructed here from contemporary accounts, Albert Moore gave far the most sympathetic account of Whistler's art, stressing that he was an original rather than an eccentric painter. Burne-Jones, however, who, before the trial, had told the defence counsel that `scarcely anybody regards Whistler as a serious person', was much more equivocal in the witness-box, qualifying nearly all his negative opinions. The crucial point at law was: were Ruskin's remarks fair comment in the public interest or were they prompt- ed by malice? The judge gave the jury some conflicting directions on this point.

Eventually, they found for Whistler but awarded him damages of only one farthing (which, reputedly, he later wore on his watch-chain), with each side having to pay its costs.

After the trial, which Whistler consid- ered a victory for his aesthetic principles,

he issued a pamphlet, Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics, which offended almost everyone by its abrasive tone. He then went

bankrupt, only to be rescued later by the Fine Art Society (they had already raised the money for Ruskin's costs by subscrip- tion) who commissioned a series of etch- ings of Venice from him.

In 1892 Whistler eventually sold his 'Nocturne' for 800 guineas or 'four pots of paint' as he informed Ruskin in triumph, much to the latter's displeasure. It is now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In retrospect it can only be coincidence that the two paintings which had the great- est effect on Ruskin's life were both night scenes with fireworks: Turner's 'Juliet and Her Nurse', set in Venice, Ruskin's defence of which in 1836 led on to his writ- ing Modern Painters, and Whistler's 'Noc- turne'. Ruskin appeared aware only of their differences, although it is fair to add that, by 1877, his mental state, which led him to believe that the world was growing darker, meant that he now found night scenes threatening.

The final word belonged to the Punch cartoon, 'An Appeal to the Law', which showed the judge holding a farthing while saying: 'Naughty critic, to use bad lan- guage. Silly painter, to go to law about it'. But, had this advice been heeded, we should have been deprived of this admirable and entertaining book.