DANIEL E. SUTHERLAND: LETTERS FROM AMERICA
Members of the Whistler Society have recently been able to communicate with the Master through several séances. Of course, those occasions have only been possible because of the uncanny ability of Darcy Sullivan to channel Whistler’s spirit, but have we been too cautious in our approach? Could we perhaps contact Whistler himself beyond the veil? Knowing Whistler’s enthusiasm for séances, would he not wish friends left behind to contact him in the Great Beyond? I can imagine your amusement at this suggestion, but in fact, people tried to do just that in the years immediately following Whistler’s death, and some of them claimed to have succeeded.
Thirty-year-old Canadian-born artist
Donald Shaw MacLaughlan and his wife Mary made one of the first attempts. The American-born Mary believed in the supernatural and convinced her husband to attend several séances. In 1906, at a session attended by an unrecorded number of people, an artist who identified himself only as J. Herbert transmitted a message from Whistler to MacLaughlan. The message encouraged MacLaughlan, who had been acquainted with Whistler in Paris and was influenced by his etching style, to continue his excellent work. MacLaughlan, certain that no one else at the table knew of his connection to Whistler, took the experience seriously, especially when Whistler personally conveyed the same message at a second séance.
When told of MacLaughlan’s experiences, Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell decided they, too, would try to contact Whistler. They speculated that J. Herbert, the messenger at the 1906 séance, may have been John Rogers Herbert, who had died in 1890 and was best known for his paintings of religious scenes. That would have been an odd messenger, since Whistler had made sport of Herbert in life, on one occasion dubbing him a “mediocrity.” Yet, the Pennells were keen to try their luck, encouraged by a vivid dream Elizabeth had experienced in 1909, just a year after the couple published their Life of Whistler, in which Whistler had greeted her in a room full of people.
Having convinced the MacLaughlans to advise them
procedurally, the Pennells and several other of Whistler’s old friends gathered at the home of George and Lilian (née Galsworthy, sister of the author) Sauter. At first astonished when the large mahogany table around which they gathered vibrated so violently as to push them out of their chairs, they then fell into a hushed silence when an invisible ethereal visitor began to rap. When questioned, the spirit responded to the letter “W” but never clearly identified itself as Whistler. Asked if it wanted anything, the impish sprite replied, “Yes, a drink!” before disappearing as mysteriously as it had appeared.
The group was all abuzz until Joseph Pennell admitted that he had caused the table’s most violent movements. As Elizabeth recounted the event, “After the first tremblings and pushings, which he fancied came from one or another of the party, he decided to see whether this was so, or whether a power stronger than he was at work, and the rest of the manifestations came from his long legs!”
Disappointed but undeterred, the group enthusiastically approved MacLaughlan’s suggestion that they try a planchette, a device (something like a ouija board) used to convey subconscious or supernatural messages. With MacLaughlan holding a pencil over a clean sheet of paper, a message soon emerged: “Whistler is among you this evening. He wants your friends to try again.” All but Joe Pennell and Sauter rushed back to the table, but when it failed to vibrate and no supernatural force manifested itself, the once hopeful little band dispersed, “as unbelieving as we came,” said Elizabeth.
However, the most bizarre paranormal event involving Whistler is associated with Dr. Louis Charles Alexander. Born in 1839, this resident of Putney was a widely known scholar. He belonged to the National Liberal Club and helped establish the Royal Historical Society in 1868. He served as the Society’s first secretary and created the Alexander Prize in 1897. Initially presented in the form of a gold medal, this literary award still exists, though it now comes as a cash prize of £250. Interestingly, the Society was headquartered for a time at 96 Cheyne Walk, where Whistler painted the portrait of his mother.
Alexander was also a spiritualist, and while he had never met Whistler, he was fascinated by his public image and reputed character. By 1906, he claimed to have contacted the artist several times since Whistler’s death in 1903. Their interactions were not so many conversations, he explained, as sessions during which he, serving as medium, took dictation from Whistler. Alexander compiled a book of essays from their interactions, the essays bearing such titles as “On the Artistic Dialect,” “On the Art of Being Impertinent,” and “In Defense of Ingratitude.” With an introduction written “To Whistler,” Alexander declared, “You have of late, been so much with me in spirit that, a little to my own wonderment, I sometimes wish that we had met in the flesh.” He then asked, “In order that the thought and feeling of two men be attuned to a perfect unison, is bodily communion a necessity—or a limitation; a facility—or an impediment?”
Alexander admitted that if any other author had attributed his work to such an ephemeral source, he would have thought them mad or a crank, which is precisely what potential publishers thought of him. None the less, he found a small company in the Haymarket willing to issue Echoes of Whistler in 1910. The Pennells found the book unreadable, a “pathetic, if unconscious fake.” It is certainly a bizarre work, though astonishingly, still available through Amazon, which proclaims it a “culturally important” book and “part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.” You can also read it for free at https://archive.org, where you may also peruse another book by Alexander, published in 1911: The Autobiography of Shakespeare(!).
Donald Shaw MacLaughlan (1876-1938) Portrait of the Artist, 1912, Drypoint in black on cream wove paper
Donald Shaw MacLaughlan (1876-1938) Song from Venice no. 2 1912
Portrait of Joseph Pennell (1857 – 1926)
Portrait of Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936)
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The Royal Historical Society's Alexander Prize Medal
We continue to be grateful to Dan Sutherland for his Letters from America. They originate from his notes and research for his forthcoming book which will explore the enduring influence of James McNeill Whistler and the lives of those he knew and inspired.