The Artist Who Got Carried Away: The Story of The Peacock Room

Apr 25, 2020 0 comments

Peacock Room

In 1876, the British shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland bought himself a grand house at 49 Princes Gate in the fashionable neighbourhood of Kensington in London. Shortly after, he engaged architect Richard Norman Shaw to remodel and redecorate his home. Redesigning the dining room, however, was entrusted to the gifted architect Thomas Jeckyll, who was known for his Anglo-Japanese styles.

Leyland had a large collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain, mostly from the Kangxi era of the Qing dynasty, which he wanted to display in his dining room. For these, Jeckyll constructed an intricate lattice framework of engraved spindled walnut shelves, and complemented them with antique gilded leather which he hung from the walls. A painting by the American artist James McNeill Whistler, called The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, occupied a coveted place above the fireplace.

At that time, Whistler himself was working on another part of the house, overseeing the decorations for the entrance hall. When Jeckyll asked Leyland what colours to use for the dinning room shutters and doors, Leyland suggested that he consult Whistler on the colour schemes. Whistler thought the colours of the carpet's border and of the flowers on the leather wall hangings clashed with the colors in The Princesse. With Leyland’s permission, Whistler volunteered to retouch the walls with traces of yellow. He also added a wave pattern on the cornice and woodwork derived from the design in Jeckyll's leaded-glass door. Leyland approved these changes and went back to his business in Liverpool. Jeckyll also took ill and was forced to abandon the project.

Alone and unsupervised, Whistler began to take a few liberties with the dining room. He covered the entire room, from the ceiling to the walls, with Dutch metal, or imitation gold leaf, over which he painted a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He then gilded Jeckyll’s walnut shelving and embellished the wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peacocks.

Peacock Room

When Leyland returned unexpectedly in October that year, he was stunned to find his dinning room entirely transformed, but it was more than he had asked for. The floral-patterned leather on the walls were completely painted over, and every surface shone with luminous shades of green, gold, and blue. To add fuel to fire, Whistler had been inviting other artists and members of the press into the house to watch him work in the room, without the permission of Leyland. The straw which broke the camel's back was the bill that Whistler presented to Leyland—£2000, a huge sum at that time. Leyland refused to pay.

I really don't think you should have involved me in such a large expenditure without at least telling me ahead of time,” Leyland wrote to Whistler.

Whistler protested. “I gave you a brilliant surprise! The room is alive with beauty. Gorgeous! Delicate and refined to the last degree. There is no room in London like it, mon cher.”

But you did the additional work without any order from me,” Leyland wrote back. “The gilded shelves; the peacock feathers on the ceiling. And those shutters? The peacocks you put on those shutters? I don't require them. I can only suggest you take them away and sell them to someone else.”

Eventually Leyland agreed to half that amount and then banished Whistler from his house.

You have degenerated into nothing but an artistic Barnum. A con artist! I shall forbid my servants to admit you; and I shall tell my children I do not wish them to have any further intercourse with you. And if I find you near my wife, I'll publicly horse-whip you,” Leyland fumed.

Peacock Room

Hurt and insulted, Whistler planned a retaliation. As a concluding touch to his work, Whistler designed a large panel, depicting a pair of fighting peacocks on the wall opposite The Princess, as an allegory to the souring relationship between the artist and his patron. The peacock on the left represents the artist. On the right is the stingy patron, distinguishable by the coins glittering from his breast and on his tail feathers. A couple of coins are scattered near his feet too. To make sure that Leyland understood the symbolism, Whistler called the mural “Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room.” After finishing his work, Whistler left never to see the Peacock Room again.

Leyland never claimed he liked the room, but he clearly recognized something of value because he never changed a thing in the room. Leyland kept his dining room for 15 years until his death in 1892. In 1904, the American industrialist and art collector Charles Lang Freer purchased the Peacock Room, dismantled it, and shipped it across the Atlantic Ocean to Detroit, Michigan, where he had it reassembled in his home. Freer used the room to display his own collection of ceramics. After Freer's death in 1919, the Peacock Room was permanently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Peacock Room

The Peacock Room, circa 1890.

Peacock Room

Peacock Room

Peacock Room

Peacock Room

Peacock Room

Peacock Room

Peacock Room

References:
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Peacock_Room
# Linda Merrill, https://www.webcitation.org/6620nS6KF
# https://www.whistlerpaintings.gla.ac.uk/catalogue/display/?mid=y178
# http://peacockroom.wayne.edu/
# https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/a-brief-history-of-the-peacock-room-smithsonian-freer-sackler/

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