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Whistler [née Philip; other married name Godwin], Beatricefree

(1857–1896)
  • Margaret F. MacDonald

Beatrice Whistler (1857–1896), by James McNeill Whistler, 1884-86

© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2017

Whistler [née Philip; other married name Godwin], Beatrice (1857–1896), artist and designer, was born in Chelsea, London, on 12 May 1857, the second of ten children of the Scottish sculptor John Birnie Philip (1824–1875) and his wife, Frances Black (1825/6–1917). She studied art in her father's Chelsea studio and with the architect Edward William Godwin (1833–1886), a leading figure in the aesthetic movement. After her father died Beatrice Philip married Godwin on 4 January 1876; the couple had one son, Edward. She worked in Godwin's studio workshop and collaborated on furniture and house designs, such as decorative brick panels for a house designed by Godwin on the Tite Street corner of Chelsea Embankment. Godwin's lost 'Beatrice cabinet' bore her panels of the seasons. Similar panels, and designs for tiles, panels and wallpaper, survive, and some were sold to manufacturers, including Minton's and William Watt & Co.

In the 1880s Beatrice Godwin posed to James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) for her portrait, Harmony in Red: Lamplight (Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow). She joined his pupils, including his mistress, Maud Franklin, and Walter Sickert, and they exhibited in London at the Society of British Artists. Beatrice signed her work with a monogram or trefoil, BP, then BG, but she exhibited as Rix Birnie to avoid being identified as a female or amateur artist. Except for two lovely oil studies, The Novel and The Muslin Gown (priv. coll.), her exhibits have disappeared. Her small oils are sometimes mistaken for Whistler's. Peach Blossom (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) was labelled by Whistler, 'Mrs J McN Whistler': with the ‘s’ of ‘Mrs’ rubbed out, it was bought as a Whistler. Her subjects are mainly flowers and women, and her curving brush strokes differ from Whistler's narrower, smoother strokes. The drawings of Phil May and Japanese woodcuts influenced her style. Her circle included May, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Frederick Sandys, and Oscar Wilde. A Caricature of Oscar Wilde (Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery), drawn with strong, simple lines, shows her sharp humour. This drawing was long attributed to Whistler: distinguishing her work from her partner's is a primary problem in discussing her œuvre. Louise Jopling, who exhibited with Beatrice Godwin at the St Stephen's Art Club, Bridge Street, London, in 1881, recalled that 'she was very handsome, and looked very French. She had a delightful devil-may-care look in her eyes, which was very fascinating' (MacDonald, Beatrice Whistler, 8).

After Godwin's death Whistler circulated an appeal to help Beatrice Godwin retrain. He also joined a group including the poet laureate, Lord Tennyson, who petitioned successfully for her to receive a pension from the civil list. She apparently studied in Paris. Just before her marriage to Whistler on 11 August 1888 she was described as 'a remarkably clever artist and decorative draughtswoman. Since she has been under the influence of the great James McNeill it can be readily imagined that her undoubted artistic talents have been considerably matured' (The fate of an “Impressionist”). After her marriage she used the form Beatrix for her first name, though to her family she was always known as Trixie. It was a happy and productive marriage: 'I look around', Whistler wrote to her, 'and see no others as happy as we two are in each other' ([Feb 1892], MacDonald, Beatrice Whistler, 15). He taught Beatrice to etch, and together they etched a view of Loches in France. Beatrice organized the studio and promoted his printmaking. She managed the domestic and business side of Whistler's life, as she had Godwin's, and worked independently, developing a distinct style. A servant described their Tite Street house: 'On the top floor was … Mrs Whistler's studio (she painted beautifully)' (E. B., The Times, 17 July 1934). Family and professional models (including her sisters Ethel and Rosalind, and the Pettigrew sisters) posed for both Whistlers. Her drawings of women are vivid and sympathetic, her paintings intimate, with soft, subtle colour harmonies.

J. A. M. Whistler celebrated their marriage by adding a trefoil to his butterfly signature, and Beatrice Whistler designed glassware engraved with this butterfly. Her jewellery designs in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, include an enamelled love-bird ring. She also designed stained glass—including, in 1891, a beautiful memorial window to Jane Mary Wilson Holme, executed by Campbell Smith & Co. in Orton parish church, Westmorland. She supervised the decoration of their house at 110 rue du Bac in Paris, designing austerely simple furniture with chequered designs for both house and garden. The illustrator and writer Joseph Pennell recalled that 'there was a trellis over the door designed by Mrs. Whistler, and there were flowers everywhere' (MacDonald, Beatrice Whistler, 15).

In 1894 Beatrice Whistler developed cancer. She wrote to her husband, 'I do suffer—I never thought it would be like this, but you know, I was too happy, I am given some aches to remind me that this world is not quite a paradise' ([Nov 1895], MacDonald, Beatrice Whistler, 17). His most moving portraits of her, The Siesta and By the Balcony (lithographs in Freer Gallery of Art, Smithonian Institution, Washington, DC), were drawn as she lay dying. She died at their home, St Jude's Cottage, Hampstead Heath, London, on 10 May 1896, and was buried in Chiswick cemetery, Middlesex. The Beatrix Whistler collection, the Whistler collection and the Philip Birnie gift and bequest, all in the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, form the major collection of her work and include oils, etchings, watercolours, and pastels.

Sources

  • M. F. MacDonald, Beatrice Whistler, artist and designer (1997) [exhibition catalogue, Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, 6 Sept – 1 Nov 1997]
  • ‘The marriage of Mr Whistler and Mrs Godwin’, Pall Mall Gazette (11 Aug 1888)
  • ‘Parlour furniture’, Building News, 36 (31 Oct 1879), 522
  • The Times (7 June 1881)
  • The Times (14 Oct 1886)
  • exhibition catalogues (1885–7) [Society of British Artists]
  • ‘The fate of an “Impressionist”’, Illustrated Bits (21 July 1888)
  • M. F. MacDonald, ‘Love and fashion: the Birnie Philips’, in M. F. MacDonald and others, Whistler, women and fashion (2003)

Archives

  • L. Cong., Pennell–Whistler collection, corresp.
  • Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Freer Gallery of Art, corresp. of C. L. Freer
  • U. Glas. L., corresp., press cuttings, and photographs [subject and J. A. M. Whistler and the Birnie Philip family]
  • V&A, Archives of Art and Design, sketchbooks, corresp., and diaries of E. W. Godwin

Likenesses

  • W. Sickert, etching, 1885–6 (Beatrice Godwin posing for ‘Harmony in red: lamplight’), priv. coll.
  • J. A. M. Whistler, oils, 1885–6 (Harmony in red: lamplight), Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow [see illus.]
  • etching, 1888–94 (Head of ‘Rix Birnie’ (Beatrice Whistler)), Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow
  • photograph (Beatrice Godwin), Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow
  • portraits, repro. in MacDonald, Beatrice Whistler