Curating Blue and White: Whistler’s Ceramic Collection at the Hunterian


James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) was an influential artist of the nineteenth century whose paintings, drawings, watercolours, etchings and lithographs continue to be widely admired and studied. Whilst significant attention has been given to Whistler as an artist, the same cannot be said of him as a collector. It is clear that Whistler’s passion for oriental decorative art has been overshadowed by his artistic achievements. Fortunately, the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow holds Whistler’s personal collections of decorative arts gifted and bequeathed by Rosalind Birnie Philip, Whistler’s sister in law, in 1935 and 1958 respectively. This generous donation includes Chinese blue and white ceramics that have to date been little studied. The collection has been held in storage for over half a century and only a few pieces are currently on display.

To improve access to its wide-ranging collections, The Hunterian has recently secured funding enabling it to transfer all of its reserve collection, nearly 1.5 million objects, including Whistler’s ceramics, to an upgraded Kelvin Hall, Glasgow’s former Museum of Transport and International Sports Arena. My role as a 2015 Hunterian Associate has been to assist with auditing and documenting Whistler’s ceramic collection before its removal. The first audit has identified over three hundred and fifty oriental ceramics. The majority are Chinese blue and white whilst a small number of objects depict more complicated patterns that add more character to the overall collection. Much to our delight most of these objects are in good condition.

Previously every object was catalogued individually although many of them are clearly identical. One of our main objectives has been to group identical pieces into sets or families so we can understand what Whistler was acquiring. I have identified over thirty sets from the total. Each set presents a popular iconography of Chinese culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Chinese mythological creatures, fictional characters and auspicious symbols of Buddhism are the three main recurrent themes in the collection. While the iconography is consistently Chinese, the form of an object often takes inspiration from European design. For instance, this fine pair of salt-cellars is one of the highlights. (Fig. 1)


Fig. 1 A pair of Salt-cellars, c.a. 18th century

Museum No. GLAHA 54422

© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

They share the form of a European trencher salt-cellar evolved from a centerpiece salt approximately in the sixteenth century (Fig. 2); while the decoration of ‘qilin’ (a half-lion, half-dragon creature) symbolizes fertility and fortune in Chinese agriculture society. The marriage of Chinese decorative motif and European form is extremely common in ‘Chinese export porcelain’. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European trading companies often brought a print or the actual object itself (but in a different material) to China in order to commission goods in porcelain.[1] This pair of salt-cellars must have been made in this way. Many pieces in the collection also indicate that Whistler had a tendency to collect blue and white wares with traditional Chinese motifs, which may well have been considered ‘exotic’ in the Victorian era.


Fig. 2 A pair of Salt-cellars, c.a. 1710

© S. J. Phillips Ltd

Other Chinese mythological creatures such as a ‘phoenix’ or ‘dragon’ regularly appear in Whistler’s collection. A tea set decorated with Chinese mythological creatures such as the ‘phoenix’ can be seen in figure 3. The sketchy depiction of a phoenix and the uneven tone of underglazed cobalt blue suggest that this set is in the style of ‘Transitional ware’. The production of Transitional ware is thought to have begun around 1620 and continued until the end of seventeenth century.[2] Normally the central scene occupies the whole surface and the painting allows freer strokes and personal imagination. The depiction of a phoenix’s waving tail, the simple lines of the feet and the almost chicken-like body in the cup indicates that Chinese potters were probably given basic instructions to ensure production levels remained high. Interestingly, similar pieces were found in the famous Hatcher’s cargo that was recovered in the South China Sea port near Jakarta in 1983 and dated to the mid seventeenth century. [3] Although the colour of glaze and the simplified drawing of Hatcher’s ceramics suggest that they were made in an earlier period, inherited features such as the phoenix design will be a marker in further establishing an accurate date for Whistler’s tea set.


Fig. 3 Tea Cup, c.a. 18th century

Museum No. GLAHA 54624

© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

It must be noted that not all of Whistler’s ceramics are in the Transitional style; some dinner plates or serving dishes are more likely to be a late eighteenth-century production. For example, one such object, a large blue and white salad bowl is decorated with flowers and vases. (Fig. 4) This salad bowl was certainly a commissioned piece, most likely from a complete dinner set. The fashion of using a set of plates and bowls was more generally practiced around 1740; therefore this ware is in all likelihood a mid or late eighteenth-century production.[4] Later Chinese export porcelain was commonly imitated in late eighteenth-century English pottery productions.[5] (Fig. 5) Currently the dating of Whistler’s collection ranges from the seventeenth to eighteenth century, but many more objects still require inspection before the period of manufacture can be conclusively determined. The precise dating of the other existing pieces can help us develop our knowledge of individual objects and further understand Whistler’s preference in collecting ‘old china’. [6]


Fig. 4 Salad Bowl, c.a. late 18th century

Museum No. GLAHA 54027

© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow


Fig. 5 Salad Bowl, c.a. late 18th century

Museum No. C.141-1921

© Victoria and Albert Museum

So far the catalogue notes on Whistler’s collection help us understand the content of this collection, but questions such as how Whistler purchased and selected his ceramics remain unanswered. Nevertheless I believe this research shall serve to highlight the importance of this wonderful collection accumulated by a single progressive collector. It is my hope that increasing the online documentation of Whistler’s collection will encourage more historians to study Whistler’s passion for oriental arts.

Chihyin Hsiao is a 3rd year PhD Candidate at the University of Glasgow

(For more information about Whistler’s collection, please visit Whistler Online Catalogue:


[1] Kerr, Rose, Mengoni Luisa, Chinese Export Ceramics, V&A Publishing, 2011

[2] Ströber, Eva, Ming: Porcelain for a Globalised Trade, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2013

[3] Sheaf, Colin, Kilburn, Richard, The Hatcher Porcelain Cargoes: The Complete Record, Phaidon Christie’s Limited, 1988

[4] Glanville, Philippa, Young, Hilary, Elegant Eating: Four Hundred Years of Dining in Style, V&A Publishing, 2002

[5] Berg, Maxine, ‘From Imitation to Invention: Creating Commodities in Eighteenth-century Britain’, Economic History Review, LV1, 2002, pp.1-30

[6] Merill, Linda, The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography, Yale University Press, 1998

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