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banner - recollections of whister while in the office of the coast survey

BY JOHN ROSS KEY

Sketch of John Ross Key by James Whistler

Sketch of John Ross Key by
James Whistler

YEARS ago the offices of the United States Coast Survey were located in three or four old houses two or three squares south of the Capitol. Captain Benham, afterward General Benham, U. S. A., was in charge. During the winter of 1853-54, the drawing department, which was in charge of Captain Gibson, was moved to a new building, which was one of three newly erected a few doors south of the main office.

A short time after the removal to the new quarters, the corps of draftsmen was inreased by a new member, who was introduced as Mr. James Whistler. He was a slender young man of medium height, with dark, curly hair and a small mustache. A Scotch cap was set well forward over his eyes, and he wore a shawl of dark-blue and green plaid thrown over his shoulders, as was the fashion of the day. He was assigned to a room on the third floor, adjoining the one where I was employed as a draftsman, and we soon became good friends.

It was reported about the office that Whistler had been at West Point, and that his disinclination to obey rules, chief of which had been his lack of promptness, had led to his retirement.1 His artistic ability, which had been recognized at West Point, induced Captain Benham, who was a friend of Whistler's father, to give the young man a position in the drawing department of the Coast Survey. I also remember hearing it stated at that time that Professor Weir, the artist who painted the picture of the "Embarkation of the Pilgrims" for the rotunda of the Capitol at Washington, and instructor of drawing at West Point, had declared that "Whistler with only the most ordinary industry would make a name as an artist. "

It was not long before it was seen that Whistler's mind was wandering from his work. He did not appear to be interested or to have any definite idea of what was to be done, and his experiments in map drawing were not successful.

His artistic feeling, however, found expression in any number of clever, droll, or humorous sketches made without effort on the margins of his map failures, or on bits of paper, which he kept on his table. His keen sense of humor frequently led him to attempt to illustrate some character in song or story.

A droll figure of lugubrious expression, hat in hand, illustrating a line from an English song, "'All around me 'at I wears a green willow," was one of the drawings which he gave to me when I had watched him complete it.

A little water color which he did at this time, and which I much coveted, was claimed from his hands by Mr. Martin, an elderly gentleman employed as a draftsman, and a friend of Captain Benharm and Whistler's father. It illustrated the. Cobbler, in "Pickwick Papers," Who had been imprisoned for debt. His friends, visiting him, found him lying on a blanket under a table. Replying to their inquiries as to his unusual position the prisoner explained that he had always been accustomed to a four-poster, and could not sleep without one. It was a charming bit of color, subdued and soft in tone, appropriate to the subject. Many years afterward I met Mr. Martin at the home of General Benham in Boston, and he told me with much satisfaction that he still had the little picture in his possession. It impressed me as being the only drawing that I ever saw Whistler make at that time which could be called a picture.

So strong was his proclivity to sketch what was in his mind that a bare white wall offered temptation not to be resisted, and the wall along the stairs leading down, to the superintendent's room was soon covered by Whistler with pencil-sketches of soldiers fencing, soldiers on parade, at rest, or in action, and various little heads. He frequently stopped on his way up or down to correct or add to these drawings. During this time I never knew him to attempt to portray the features of those about him, until one day he took up one of my crayons and began to draw me as I sat at my student's sketch-board. He was not pleased with his effort, and finally threw the half-completed sketch upon the floor; but when I asked him to finish the drawing, he picked it up, and rubbed and erased it several times, something I had never seen him do before. Mr. Martin, who always showed the liveliest interest in Whistler's sketches, looked on for a moment, and said reprovingly to me, "You have worried Whistler so much that he can't draw." Much displeased with his effort, Whistler again threw the sketch upon the floor, and I picked it up and put it away. It is here reproduced for the first time, with the permission of the painter's executor, his sister-in-law, Miss Birnie-Philipps.

It seemed that it was only the creations of his own brain or his own ideas that formed so freely under his pen or pencil. The accuracy required in the making of maps and surveys, where mathematical calculations are the foundation of projections upon which are drawn the topographical or hydrographical conventional signs, was not to Whistler's liking, and the laborious application involved was beyond his nature, or inconsistent with it. He was preoccupied in those days with producing the soldiers and heads of his fancy, and when he had completed a bit that pleased him, he signed it with the initials J. W. I cannot remember hearing him laugh, and he seldom smiled. Neither can I remember ever seeing him ill-natured or in a bad temper.

When, after many trials, it was plain that he would not take to map-drawing, it was suggested that he might etch the little views of entrances to harbors that were then engraved upon the lower part of coast-maps.

As I had been in the office some time, and had made friends with the engravers, I went with Whistler to introduce him to the men in that department. Mr. McCov, one of the best engravers in the office, a kindly, genial Irishman, always ready to aid or advise the younger men, listened while I explained our mission. He then went over the whole process with us-- how to prepare the copper plate, how to put on the ground, and how to smoke dark so that the lines made by the point could be plainly seen.

For the first time since his entrance into the office Whistler was intensely interested. Always sedate, he was also singularly indifferent, but on this occasion he seemed to realize that a new medium for the expression of his artistic sense was being put within his grasp. He listened attentively to McCoy's somewhat wordy explanations, asked a few questions, and squinted inquisitively through his half-closed eyes at the samples of work placed before him. Having been provided with a copper plate, such as was kept for the use of beginners, and an etching-point, he started off to make his first experiment as an etcher. I watched him with unabated interest from the moment he began his work until he completed it, which took a day or two. At intervals, while doing the topographical view, he paused to sketch on the upper part of the plate, the vignette of "Mrs. Partington" and "Ike," a soldier's head, a suggestion of a portrait of himself as a Spanish hidalgo, and other bits, which are the charm of the work.

After he had finished etching, I watched him put the wax preparation around the plate, making a sort of Reservoir to hold the acid, as McCoy had instructed. Then he poured the acid on the plate, and together we watched it bite and bubble about the line, as with a brush he carefully wiped the line to prevent the refuse accumulating and biting unequally. When it was decided that the plate was bitten sufficiently, and the acid was poured off, and the wax removed, we went again to McCoy to ask him how to get the ground off. I do not now recall McCoy's instructions, but I believe we were told to heat the plate. Finally we went to the basement, where the printer washed the plate, and an impression was then taken of Whistler's first etching. While we were engaged in examining the proof, Captain Gibson came along, and inquired of me if I did not think that Whistler could do his work without suggestions from me. I was therefore forced to return to my tedious task of map-making.

The result of Whistler's experiment sank deep into my mind, and I resolved to attempt this line of work-myself at the first opportunity. One day when I returned from my vacation, I found that Whistler was no longer connected with the office. I have heard it stated that he lost his position because of the drawings on this plate, but there is no foundation for this report. As I have explained, this plate was merely an experiment, intended as such. Had it been actual work, it would have been etched upon the lower part of one of the large plates upon which the maps were engraved, as is shown on a coast view which Whistler did later, and which was published by the Coast Survey office, a copy of which is now in the Lenox Library. With the intention of taking up etching myself, I one day went into that department, where small pieces of copper were given out to beginners. Among the scraps of copper I found Whistler's first plate. "Yes, you can take that, and have it cleaned off," the man in charge told me. When I had explained that I preferred to keep the plate as it was, I paid the small amount charged for the copper, and carried home my prize. I kept it as one of my treasures for over forty years. When I went abroad, I took it with me, intending to return it to Whistler; but unfortunately he was away from London every time I called to see him.

The hours of the Coast Survey offices were from nine until three; but Whistler invariably came fate to work. He lived on Thirteenth Street, near Pennsylvania Avenue; but as he would not get up in time in the morning, he frequently missed his breakfast, and soon got into the way of going to a restaurant for his meals. An excellent restaurant and confectionery store was then kept in the vicinity by Mr. and Mrs. Gautier. They had taken a fancy to Whistler, and always made an effort to get him whatever he desired. He seemed to have charmed them into bestowing upon him and his friends extra attentions, and I was frequently invited to join him and share his good fare.

We often played billiards in the evening at a room on the corner of Thirteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where we met other youths and young men, who gathered there to play the game. I could play more than ordinarily well, but Whistler was so painfully near-sighted that he played badly, and I remember that when he lost a game, he would pitch down his quarter of a dollar, the price of the game, exclaiming, "Here goes my breakfast--" this, I fancy, from a sense of humor over the shortness of his purse, rather than from any real need, as he was then boarding with the Gautiers. I do not recall his making any intimate friendship with those whom we met either at the billiard room or in the office, and he was not interested in young ladies. He rarely drew pictures of women except of the Mrs. Partington type--characters in books he had read. He had no bad habits, and did not smoke. His manners were quiet and sedate, and his attractive personality interested every one with whom he came in contact, and I never knew any one to say an unkind word of him. If he had any pecuniary troubles at that time, he kept them to himself.

One of the draftsmen, an old Englishman, was then in the habit of taking long walks to sketch the woods and to fish in the streams near the city. I often went with him, and did my best to persuade Whistler to join us, but he could not be induced to make the exertion. He was the most indolent young man I have ever known. This was made evident in social life, as well as in his business relations. A courteous and punctilious old gentleman, Mr. Perrine of Baltimore, a friend of Whistler's father, once related to me his own experience with James, whom he had invited to be his guest at his home in Cathedral Street. Whistler came, but would not get up in the morning. "I thought I would give him a gentle reproof for his laziness, so I knocked at his door one morning, and entered upon his call to 'Come in.' I found him sitting on the side of the bed, looking very sleepy, putting on his stocking. I said, 'James, are you aware that breakfast has been over some time?' He did not seem interested, merely remarking, 'Has it?' in such a manner that I felt my effort was vain, and I withdrew without another word."

After Whistler left the office of the Coast Survey, I never met him again. I cannot understand how a man of his undoubted genius could have remained so long unrecognized in an art center like London as I have heard he was. Nor can I comprehend how it could be possible for one of so kindly a nature in youth to become as embittered as he is reported to has been when he grew older, or how he could have acquired the "Gentle Art of Making Enemies." It certainly must have been "gentle." It could hardly have been otherwise, as I remember him. In his art he had the unmistakable stamp of genius, for his work was purely emotional, coupled with an inherent power of expression which is never the result of industry or method acquired by earnest study.

1 - On this point Whistler is reported to have said that ``if silicon had been a gas" he might have been a great general.--EDITOR.



Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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