Tag Archives: Whistler

Write one picture

First find your post cards. Not so easy when you have just moved house and got thoroughly bored with emptying large cardboard boxes. I had to up-end myself into a not yet unpacked tall box to find my collection of post cards. I keep them in a shoe box, which if it wasn’t made for shoes might have been made for pcs.

It is some time since I came across the National Gallery’s brilliant programme for primary kids and their teachers called Take One Picture. It’s been going for about ten years. I have seen primary classes do amazing, inventive, creative, studious, collaborative, fanciful activities stimulated by this programme. The teachers attend a training session and then return to their class to help their students explore an aspect of the primary curriculum. It might be geometry, music, maths, play acting, story telling, drawing, science … I try to visit the annual Take One Picture exhibition at the National Gallery every year to enjoy the inventiveness of the school children. I will never forget the play based on the little girl with the hoop in Renoir’s picture of the umbrellas.

reni1 004

Write one picture is a writing activity. You might have come across versions of it on writing courses. The purpose is to stir the imagination. The tutor gives each participant a postcard and then allows ten minutes or so of silence while they write away: a story, a description, something NOT connected with the picture … I see it as a version of ‘Take One Picture’, an invitation to explore and practice writing in different genres, from a variety of points of view, description, dialogue, character, and so on.

For an example for this blogpost I chose a painting by Whistler (on display in Tate Britain) called Miss Cicely Alexander, Harmony in Grey and Green, dated 1872. First I made a list of 10 ways in which I could use this picture to practice writing:

  1. In the style of Henry James or Edith Wharton
  2. Description of the dress, the setting, the girl’s character
  3. A story from the perspective of the subject, Cicely
  4. A meditation on grey and green in words
  5. A story in the 3rd person,
  6. A story from the perspective of someone looking at the painting
  7. Cicely looking back at her portrait after 50 years
  8. The picture as an object in a story
  9. A scene that includes the reaction of someone seeing the painting in the gallery
  10. A letter regarding the commission of the work.

Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander 1872-4 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

With some trepidation I offer some starts to such exercises that I have undertaken recently. These, please note, are responses to prompts, not examples of my polished, edited prose. (Of course I edited them a bit. My inner critic would not let me expose raw text – ‘shitty first drafts’ as Anne Lamott would say in Bird by Bird). The activity is a starter, to prompt the imagination and some writing.

  1. The older brother’s comments.

It always makes me laugh, that hat! D’you remember? If I’ve got it right, it belonged to the Head Gardener’s daughter. It was-

Yes, but Mama had given it to h-

-the only one anyone could find that was green. He insisted on green, that Mr Whistles. Hah! The hat of a gardener’s daughter. How he liked a joke!

Yes but I didn’t have to wear-.

And the feather. I think that came from the milliner’s ragbag.

Yes, but she made the most expensive-

Another of Mr Whistles’s joke. And the veil on your dress!

2. Cecily’s thoughts as she poses

Last year this dress was everything I wanted. Last year! This year it’s just too young. And I hate the way he makes me pose. It’s an older person’s pose. Too young dress, too old pose. Nurse keeps telling me not to put not to slouch. Always not to do something. Oh and now he wants me to hold that hat. It’s not even mine! At least I don’t have to wear it. I wonder if he would notice if I swapped my feet around, put the right one in front? This is so boring, boring, boring. Nurse says again, ‘don’t sulk dear, wind’ll change’.

  1. Cecily’s thoughts 50 years later.

My brother has asked me what he should do with the portrait father had painted of me when I was 14. He’s terminally ill, my brother, and wishes to settle things. We are both in our seventies now, and live worlds away from our childhoods. I inspected the painting as I left his house. How surely even sulky I look, yet at that time I had no cause to be unhappy (except for standing in that frock so still, so long and being fourteen). All the unhappiness of my marriage, the failure of the meat packing business, the Great War which took both my grandsons, and my daughter who died in the influenza epidemic just as it ended. Papa had money, and wanted to show it off, but he behaved like a medieval king in the matter of his daughter’s marriage. Mr Hetherington-Wallace was not as good a match for me as he was for Papa. Papa would have been even more horrified than my son and son-in-law at my involvement with the suffragists. I never wore that hat. It was Mama’s. Mr Whistler purloined it for his picture. It made my hand ache to hold it. Give it to a museum, I told my brother. It’s not me.

  1. Whistler’s letter

Dear Mr Alexander,

I am in receipt of your commission for a portrait of your daughter Cicely. Honoured as I am that you have asked me to undertake this commission following your visit to my studio last month I need to make clear my terms. I do not paint mere portraits, rather studies, etudes in paint. While I fully understand that you wish to favourably place your daughter on the market in society, and a portrait by such an eminent artist as myself would achieve this aim, I have my own purposes for undertaking any commission. My study of colour could be furthered by such an undertaking only so far as your daughter is pretty and well dressed. I desire that she will wear a white dress, and I will visit your house next Thursday to choose the room in which to engage in my art and to arrange any accoutrements for the sitter. I demand complete quiet, no interruptions and absolute silence from my subjects, especially when they are scarcely more than children.

If you can see your way to agreeing to my terms, then I will accept the commission and beg leave to commence in six weeks on the Tuesday morning.

Yours etc


You will notice that I have strayed outside my list, but that I have picked up different voices, different time perspectives, different narrative frames for these little pieces. I should make clear that I have not tried for historical accuracy as I don’t know what happened to Cecily Alexander, and whether she had an older brother; I have been inventive. I notice that it allows for playfulness, or to focus on something out of the obvious.

The activity taps into an amazing aspect of writing, in this case rendering in words something visual. And, in turn, it encourages me to look more attentively at this painting.

Do you have a favourite and/or productive writing activity?


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