My Favourite Painting: Finlay Scott

The philanthropist Finlay Scott chooses an unusual portrait of Whistler which captures some of the great man's spirit.

Finlay Scott on his choice, Portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler by Alfred Thomson

‘I first saw this painting 35 years ago, in the dining room of The Chelsea Arts Club on an early date with my now wife.

‘Although it’s not a “great work”, Whistler’s humour, charm and sense of fun shine through– it struck me then he’d be an ideal dinner companion (but not necessarily a good life partner). I always smile upon seeing the picture, associating it with good times, laughter and love.’

Finlay Scott is a philanthropist and the chairman and founder of The Clink Charity, which works to reduce re-offending by equipping prisoners with hospitality qualifications.

John McEwen comments on Portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler

The multi-qualified James Laver FRSA (1899–1975), poet, novelist, historian, V&A curator and CBE, wrote in his 1930 biography of Whistler that the artist was ‘as difficult to pin down as the butterfly which he took as his symbol; a tiresome, elusive creature surprising the eye with flashes of unexpected beauty’.

In elusive emphasis, Whistler declared: ‘I shall be born where I want’, naming several birthplaces. He was actually born in Lowell, Massachusetts, US, in 1834, discounted ‘as a mistake’ because he regarded himself a cavalier southerner. Laver saw Whistler’s principal birthplaces as indicative of his character: Lowell for the ‘puritanism from which he never managed to shake himself free’; a St Petersburg childhood for his cosmopolitanism; and Baltimore, where he briefly attended an engineering office, symbolising the southern-cavalier side.

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Alfred Thomson’s 1962 portrait, after one by Paul César Helleu, reflects Whistler’s tripartite character. Thomson was born deaf and, because of speech difficulties, gained later notoriety as ‘the deaf and dumb artist’. When he failed the Royal Academy School exam, his father forbade him to do art and got him a farm job.

Thomson persisted, however, beginning as a poster artist and finishing as a Royal Academician as well as, in 1948, became the last person to win an Olympic gold medal for painting.

In this portrait, Whistler may not smile, but everything else bespeaks his quip to the lady who compared him only with Velázquez: ‘Why drag in Velázquez!’ The Whistler Society was begun by Chelsea Arts Club members in 2012.

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