James McNeill Whistler is not a name usually ranked alongside the very greatest Impressionists – Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, for example – but he was for all that a radical and important artist of the late 19th century.
He was also an American in London and therefore something of an outsider, despite the very English nature of his social orbit and subject matter. Society portraits, views of the Thames and some innovative interior design work are most of what we see of his artistic output in this latest novel by writer and art historian Matthew Plampin.
But although a larger than life character and self-professed genius, Jimmy Whistler, as he is called here, is not the primary focus of this book; that honour goes to his muse and companion, Maud Franklin.
This choice of protagonist brings with it potential problems. Jimmy is a flamboyant character who thrives on controversy. Within a very few pages he is bemoaning “how the philistines were everywhere, absolutely everywhere, even lurking within those one had previously thought enlightened, with whom one has considered oneself friends”.
His definition of philistine, of course, is anyone who does not appreciate his art and views. Jimmy is loud, embattled and impoverished for most of Mrs Whistler and is never off centre. And that, of course, could be a difficulty because the title of Plampin’s novel is Mrs Whistler, model, muse and mother, and not Jimmy Whistler, artistic genius.
Plampin’s challenge, then, is to maintain our interest in a main character who is effectively always in the shadow of another. And I am pleased to say that Maud more than holds her own.
It is worth pausing a moment to consider what being a model and muse actually meant in Victorian England. For most of the general public, such a role would have been the height of immorality.
One of the first paintings referenced in the book features Maud entirely naked; she “lives in sin” with Jimmy and bears his children. Society will absolutely not approve. Maud’s background is humble and poor. It is fair to assume, then, that she has not only great appeal but enormous strength of character to adopt such a radical and bohemian lifestyle.
And so it proves. Returning to Jimmy after delivering their baby daughter (immediately given away to a foster mother because co-habitation with a child would be impossible for the great artist), Maud is outraged to find Jimmy deep in debt with the the bailiffs knocking on the door.
“The force of Maud’s anger caught her unawares. At first, lost for words, she went stamping from room to room, taking it out on the house…. She knocked pictures askew and kicked up rugs, she heaved wickerwork armchairs out of their places, she shoved down a Japanese screen….”
Maud angered is a force to be reckoned with. This particular bout of self-assertion is interrupted by a friend of Jimmy’s, the sycophantic and garrulous Owl, who nevertheless articulates a more positive view of the role of muse:
“May I say simply, Miss Franklin, that in your presence one feels most clearly the intense and singular charge of inspiration. The Muse’s aura hangs heavy in the air. You are part of an exceptional group, Miss – and eternal being akin to Rembrandt’s Hendrickje, or Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, or the Bourbon princesses of our great god Velazquez.”
With Maud’s strength established, the book then concentrates on the battles and feuds that provide the more dynamic elements of the plot.
The first of these is with the Liverpool shipbroker Frederick Richards Leyland. Leyland has been Jimmy’s patron for a number of years and commissioned some of his finest portraits.
Living in Leyland’s London house, Whistler decides to re-decorate the dining room – in his words, “undertaken without prior consultation, as a marvellous surprise, a gift to the entire Leyland family” – but his radical design is not appreciated.
Whistler is outraged at the time he has spent trying to “school him (Leyland) in art” and hurt that his efforts are unappreciated. He names his fee at two thousand guineas, a sum, in Maud’s words, “enough to buy the bloody house it stood in”.
The second major feud is with John Ruskin. Ruskin was a hugely important and influential art critic in Victorian England and his attack on Whistler was vitriolic, calling him a coxcomb “asking two hundred guineas … to fling a pot of paint in the public’s face”. As a result, Whistler’s work was mocked and became unsaleable, his reputation ruined. Encouraged by Owl, Whistler sued for libel.
There is plenty of intrigue here, then, to make Mrs Whistler a compelling read. Around the main events hover a host of supporting characters – the Owl and his associate Miss Corder, Mrs Leyland, Whistler’s etchers and dealers – whom Plampin manipulates with skill to give us a full flavour of the life and times.
But there is no doubt who dominates the stage. “Behind every ‘successful’ man”, as they say. The case for Mrs Whistler, as Maud called herself but never was, is well made.
Author: Matthew Plampin
Publisher: The Borough Press, historical fiction