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Etching the City

12 July 2019 by Megan

Last week we installed Whistler & Pennell: Etching the City at Sudley House. Alex Patterson, Exhibition Curator tells us more about the exhibition and what to look out for.

The exhibition was first displayed at Lady Lever Art Gallery in 2018. It was a great success and was seen by over 65,000 people. This amazing response encouraged us to share the exhibition with our Sudley visitors too. It is also a fantastic opportunity to see these works in a different context.

Sudley House is the former home of the Holt family. George Holt (1825-1896) was a prosperous ship-owner, and a collector and patron of the arts. His collection, displayed at Sudley House, was formed in the 19th century when Liverpool was a thriving port that brought great wealth to the city, and also when the Etching Revival had taken Britain by storm.

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) were two of the most influential etchers of the 19th century. Their inspiration came from the thriving ports, rivers and cities of London and New York. They were fascinated by the hustle and bustle of the metropolis and the progression of industry and commerce. Some of Whistler’s first impressions of city life were actually formed in Liverpool. As a young boy he travelled back and forth from Russia between 1843 and 1849, because his father, George Washington Whistler, worked as an engineer on the railway from St Petersburg to Moscow. They sailed to Russia via Liverpool, and first docked at Liverpool at 6am on the 29th of August 1843. This is where Whistler’s life-long passion for rivers and the realities of working life began.

Black Lion Wharf, James McNeil Whistler, 1859

Liverpool was the only city outside London that Whistler travelled to frequently. His most important patron, Frederick Leyland (1831-1892), was also a prosperous Liverpool ship-owner and Whistler visited him regularly at his home in Speke. It is very likely George Holt would have met Whistler during these visits. Holt and Leyland had similar interests in art and both were important patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites, in particular Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), who had introduced Whistler to Leyland in 1867.

New York from Brooklyn Bridge, Joseph Pennell, 1908

 

The exhibition content and the rooms at Sudley have been adapted for this display. We have removed a few works from the original display by Whistler’s brother-in-law Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910). Haden was a prominent surgeon and a key proponent of the etching revival in Britain. He and Whistler were very close when Whistler first moved to London in 1859. Unfortunately they fell out and Whistler threw Haden through a plate-glass window in Paris and they never spoke again! Haden was a very skilled etcher who devoted his life to the medium, but he did not have the same judgement and clarity of line as Whistler. However, Haden was instrumental in the revival of etching, redefining it as an original art form. For this reason we have kept Haden’s original and rare etching plate in the exhibition. This copper plate is unique and still holds the ink from the last print made from it, which is just wonderful to see. You can clearly see how Haden has cancelled the plate by the deeply scraped lines drawn horizontally and vertically across the surface of the metal. This was a process used by most etchers to create rarity and value within their prints.

Whistler and Pennell on display at Sudley House

We have also installed new blinds in the second exhibition room so we can adjust the light levels in the space. Works on paper are extremely fragile and sensitive to light. We have to monitor the light exposure of each print and we are unable to display them for long periods of time. This exhibition is a rare opportunity to see these extraordinary etchings and this will be the last time they will be shown together for many years. So if you didn’t get a chance to see the exhibition at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, now’s a fantastic chance to visit it at Sudley. And it’s a wonderful opportunity to visit Sudley House in the sunshine.

Whistler and Pennell: Etching the City is on display at Sudley House until March 2020.

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