Mapping Whistler’s Shopfronts: Architecture, Infrastructure, and Urban Growth in the Victorian Era

Helen Bennett ’22, Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies summer 2021 intern, shares her research in support of “Some Old Curiosity Shops: Whistler, Commerce, and the Art of Urban Change,” slated to open at the Colby Museum in the summer of 2023.

This summer I interned with Justin McCann in conducting research for an upcoming exhibit he is collaborating on with guest curator David Park Curry. Titled “Some Old Curiosity Shops: Whistler, Commerce, and the Art of Urban Change,” it concentrates on James McNeill Whistler’s understanding of architectural change and urban growth during the Victorian era. 

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Grey and Gold—Chelsea Snow, 1876. Oil on canvas, 18 5/8 x 24 5/8 in. (47 x 61 cm). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, 1943.72

While I examined many aspects of this theme, I was able to focus the beginning of my research on infrastructural developments, architectural shifts and trends, the expansion of London, and primary developers. I took note of the ways the evolving landscape and culture were depicted by a variety of artists—Walter Greaves, Mortimer Menpes, Paul Maitland, and Alfred and John Bool of the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London.

James McNeill Whistler, Street in Old Chelsea, c. 1880—85. Oil on panel, 5 1/4 x 9 in. (13.33 x 22.86 cm). Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Denman Waldo Ross Collection
A photography by James Hedderly of Cheyne Walk by Kings Head, c. 1860. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

I researched and asked questions about each piece on the exhibition checklist: what type of shop it depicted, what that shop sold, and where in London it was located, as well as who bought it, where it was exhibited, what press it received, and what made it significant. From there I began to lay out the works on a Google Map and was able to incorporate other imagery. The works are listed in chronological order and can be sorted by medium.

A screenshot of one of the maps designed by Bennett, which marks the locations in London featured in art works by Whistler. Click to enlarge.
John Rocque’s map of London, c. 1741-45. As a part of her research, Bennett compiled a collection of maps that illustrated London’s growth during the 19th century. Click to enlarge.
Another map of London, c. 1899-1900. Click to enlarge.

I also spent time on a few small research projects for Justin. These explored the depiction of children in Victorian art and shopping and consumption during Whistler’s time, specifically within the fish markets.

Thomas Webster, The Frown, 1842. Oil on panel, 15 x 27 3/4 in. (38.2 x 70 cm). Guildhall Art Gallery, London

It is difficult to pinpoint an exact conclusion or outcome of this research, but I can say that I left Colby this summer feeling really excited about the exhibit and this project. We are lucky to have such a vast Whistler collection and I think the theme of shopfronts and urban change is a  unique way to show these works. I love how specific the vision is and the way the pieces in this show depict real locations, some of which still stand today and some of which we can only imagine with the help of artists such as Whistler. It has inspired me to appreciate and capture architecture and urban communities in my own artistic practice in the way I experience them today.