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97 T Collecting the Quarrels: Whistler and   The Gentle Art of Making Enemies F or Jimmy Whistler the only thing more gratifying than coining a mot was publishing it.When Walter Sickert fathered one, and wanted to ensure its publication, he attributed it to Whistler, which gained it the front page of the Westminster Gazette directly under the leading article. “Very nice of you, very proper, to invent mots for me,” the Master said. “‘The Whistler Mots Propagation Bureau!’ I know! Charming! Only when they are in languages I don’t know, you had better advise me in good time, and send me a translation. Otherwise I am congratulated on them at dinner parties, and it is awkward.”1 Readers even noted Whistler’s mots in their diaries, one such entry by Thomas Sergeant Perry in 1888: Whistler is mistaken for a hatter’s clerk and addressed, “This hat doesn’t fit.” “True, and your coat is damnably ill cut, and I don’t like the set of your trousers .” Going to Collinses he finds an obviously unfinished picture in Whistler’s style, a frame like his own. C. asks for advice.“Leave it as it is.” C. apologizes for the frame, a copy of one of Whistler’s, saying, “You see, I took a leaf out of your book.” At the foot of the steps W. says, “It must have been a flyleaf.”2 The squibs and polemics by which Whistler advertised himself were indispensable to his existence. As much as the Victorian artistic establishment would have had it otherwise, he would not be ignored. “I have seen Whistler ,” Sickert once wrote, “spend mornings of precious daylight showing Nocturne after Nocturne to the football correspondent of a Fulham local paper.”3 Whistler’s quarrelsome tone, often astute and clever, could degenerate easily into sheer silliness, for he was poorly educated and haphazardly selfeducated . In Max Beerbohm’s unfinished The Mirror of the Past, unpublished in his lifetime, he parodied a tauntingWhistler letter of the type reproduced in The Gentle Art. “Furious but amusing,” it is sent to the mythical Sylvester Herringham, a onetime friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who had com- Farewell,Victoria! 98 mented onWhistler’s notorious inability to complete a commission on time. “Is perfection,”Whistler retorts, amid ejaculations in French and German, “to be timed by the stop-watch, and must the painter in his wisdom compete with the perspiring fleet ones [hurrying bicyclists] of Lil[le]y Bridge? Was it between the fish and the soup that your Darwin knew Man a Monkey?” Herringham’s curt reply gets to the heart of Whistler’s style and methods as seen by his detractors. “Your note has reached me. In so far as I can extract any meaning from its polyglot and illiterate verbiage, I deduce (1) that you are angry, and (2) that you are, at the same time, attempting to be funny. As to the reason for your anger I am as profoundly indifferent as I am depressed by your efforts to be funny.”4 Whistler, in Max’s fantasy, replies with further polyglot invective, as he might have in life, always eager to supply the last word and, if he could, to get it into print. His letters on professional issues were always intended to educate a larger public more than to explain or exculpateWhistler himself. Had the Herringham correspondence existed, he would have included it in The Gentle Art, risking the likelihood that despite his giving himself, always, the last word, his antagonist might have already furnished the reader with the more persuasive one. Among the Americans in London whom Whistler knew in the late 1880s was Sheridan Ford, who wrote for the NewYork Herald and the Irving Bacheller Syndicate, who had published Art:A Commodity (1888). Having written several columns on Whistler, Ford had occasion to root through the newspaper files in which the record of the artist’s jousts with his contemporaries had appeared; he came up with the idea that the exchange of correspondence was worth preserving as a book. It meant a second wind for the old antagonisms, and possible income, which Whistler was only too willing to share if Ford did most of the work. As his collaborator searched newspaper files in the British Museum,Whistler went through boxes of correspondence and clippings he stored at home, often taking an already printed letter and repolishing the text in order to sharpen a barb or improve his own position...


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