Wednesday, December 28, 2011

23. At the sign of the red lion

On 4 April 1887, the Prince of Wales and his wife attended the private view of the sixty-fourth annual exhibition of the Society of British Artists. James McNeill Whistler had persuaded the Prince to come, as he proudly wrote to Théodore Duret: 'J'ai fait venir Le Prince & La Princesse de Galles'. Whistler had been elected President of the society in Suffolk Street, Pall Mall, on 1 June 1886 and took office in December. His efforts to revitalize the organization were met with hostility and complaints, and he was forced to resign on 4 June 1888, staying in office until November.

The paintings and prints were arranged on eye-level in two rows, and this was a revolutionary change from the crowded exhibition rooms of the past. Whistler designed a new symbol for the society, a small red lion, which appeared on stationary and catalogues, as well as on the signboard.

James McNeill Whistler, red lion symbol for The Society of British Artists
A tent-like velarium, walls painted in light colours, gas-light, a limitation on the number of pictures on show, special invitations for art critics (such as Oscar Wilde), were all part of his scheme to make the society 'a powerfull rival of the Royal Academy' (*), and when he obtained a Royal Charter for the society, his work was done. The Society was to be called the Royal Society of British Artists. When Whistler resigned as President, he said that the 'Artists' had gone out, and that the 'British' remained...

Front cover for the catalogue of the sixty-fourth annual exhibition of The Society of British Artists (1887), designed by James McNeill Whistler
Whistler had invited foreign artists and followers to join the society, and during the Whistler years the young artists Charles Ricketts (he would turn 21 in 1887) and Charles Shannon (24) exhibited in the Suffolk Street rooms. In 1887, at the annual exhibition, a work by Ricketts was on show in the Large Room: 'The death of Abel', probably a water-colour or a pastel (present whereabouts unknown).

Page 10 of the catalogue of the 64th annual exhibition of The Society of British Artists (1887)
The catalogue's cover was designed by Whistler, and at the back was a list of prices, ranging between £5 and £1050 - the Ricketts work was priced at £30. The list of members and exhibitors mentions Ricketts's address as '164, Kennington-park-road, S.E.' - Ricketts was not a member and he never showed any other works at the Society. Shannon exhibited three works in 1887 and 1888, just before the two artists decided to cease exhibiting (according to C.J. Holmes) until Shannon was to appear as 'the complete and undeniable master, upon whose princely income Ricketts then proposed to live in ease for the rest of his life'. (**)
Page 40 of the catalogue of the 64th annual exhibition of The Society of British Artists (1887)
(*) See 'Whistler as Exhibitioner', in: Deanna Marohn Bendix, Diabolical Designs. Paintings, Interiors, and Exhibitions of James McNeill Whistler. Washington, London, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995, p. 239-245.
(**) Self & Partners (mostly Self), being the Reminiscences of C.J. Holmes. London, Constable, 1936, p. 164.