For a man who described his artworks as Harmonies or Symphonies, in his personal life the famous artist James MacNeill Whistler created plenty of discord. One of his greatest quarrels happened with his former friend and artistic patron, F.R. Leyland.
Called the “Liverpool Medici,” Leyland was a self-made man who rose from office-boy to wealthy ship-owner. He was an accomplished amateur pianist and an art lover with a discriminating eye for both Old Masters and contemporary artists, including Botticelli, Rosetti, Burne-Jones, and Albert Moore.
In order to fulfill his ambitions of living like the culturally enlightened merchant prince he believed himself to be, Leyland bought an elegant house in Kensington, The Mansion, at 49 Prince’s Gate and began to remodel it to suit the needs of a merchant prince. And thus began the saga of “L’art et L’argent (Art and Money), or the Story of the Room.”
Noted interior designer Thomas Jeckyll was hired to remodel the dining room. Jeckyll’s original plan was to cover the walls in Spanish leather hangings that had once belonged to Catherine of Aragon. They were painted with her heraldic device, the open pomegranate, and a series of red Tudor roses, to symbolize her union with Henry VIII. Walnut shelves would hold Leyland’s extensive collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain.
The centerpiece of the room was to be Whistler’s large painting, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain. Toward the end of the remodeling Jeckyll became ill, and Whistler was asked to finish the room and oversee the placement of his painting on the wall.
Then the trouble began. Whistler thought the red Tudor roses painted on the leather wall hangings clashed with the colors in his painting. He wrote to his patron, and Leyland agreed that maybe the flowers could be painted yellow instead. Then the artist wanted to paint a “wave” pattern on the on cornice and wainscoting. Leyland agreed again.
Whistler painted, and then he kept painting. “I just painted as I went on – without sketch or design – it grew as I painted…And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy of it!”
He re-finished the ceiling in imitation gold with painted peacock feathers. Then he gilded the walnut shelves. Blue and green paint covered the antique Spanish leather. The panels on the walls were embellished with golden peacocks.
When he was done, Whistler was so pleased with his work that he called the newspapers and held press conferences in the finished room. In a letter to Mrs. Leyland, he confided that he thought his work was wonderful and worth a “large sum.” He billed his patron Leyland 2,000 guineas.
Leyland was definitely not pleased.
The finished room was not at all what he’d expected—nor did he expect to pay 2,000 guineas for work he hadn’t agreed to. Furthermore, the artist’s nerve in calling in the press before he’d even gotten a look at it really upset him. To add insult to all these injuries, Whistler was also having an affair with Leyland’s wife.
Leyland grudgingly agreed to pay £1,000 for Whistler’s work. Oddly, he didn’t kick Whistler out of his house, despite all that had happened. Whistler, deciding that Leyland probably wouldn’t hang three of his other works on the wall opposite Princess, came back to the Mansion and as a final act of defiance, painted two huge peacocks in the empty spot where his pictures were to have gone. One peacock was supposed to be Leyland, standing on a pile of gold coins, and the other peacock, meant to represent Whistler himself, is letting loose with an angry shriek.
Finally, in 1877, Whistler was barred from the house, but that did not put an end to his romance with Mrs. Leyland. When her husband found out, he wrote to the artist: “I am told you were seen walking about with my wife at Lord’s Cricket Ground. It is clear that I cannot expect from you the ordinary conduct of a gentleman. If I find you in her society again I will publicly horsewhip you.”
Thomas Jekyll, the interior designer whose original plans had been completely altered by Whistler, took one look at the Peacock Room and had a breakdown. He was later found in his home, feverishly gilding his bedroom floor and babbling about fruits and flowers and peacocks. He was committed to an asylum, where he died soon afterward.
Despite the enmity that had grown up between them, Leyland never had the Peacock Room re-done. It stayed exactly as Whistler had created it until Leyland’s death in 1896 at the age of 60.
In 1904, the American industrialist Charles Freer bought the entire Peacock Room and had it shipped to the United States, where he installed it in his own dining room in Detroit. When Freer died in 1919, the Peacock Room was permanently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The Peacock Room should be open to viewers again in the summer of 2017.
Sources and further reading:
The Aesthetic Movement, https://www.amazon.com/Aesthetic-Movement-Lionel-Lambourne/dp/071486319X by Lionel Lambourne
By James Abbott McNeill Whistler – This file was derived from James McNeill Whistler – La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine – Google Art Project.jpg:, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22553630
Peacock room: By Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery – https://www.flickr.com/photos/freersackler/14063370032/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32462467