JUST imagine. You are a heavyweight industrialist and generous patron of the arts, with a magnificent Palladian house in the capital.
The city perch is being decorated by a top designer, with the help of a revered painter you admire, when you are called away from home on business. After a few weeks, the sub-contracted artist and friend sends you the following: “Your dining-room is really alive with beauty — brilliant and gorgeous, while, at the same time, delicate and refined to the last degree.
“I assure you, you can have no more idea of the ensemble in its perfection, gathered from what you last saw on the walls, than you could have of a complete opera, judging from a third-finger exercise.”
Now, that sort of Teflon-coated auto-critique would worry me. This braggart was just supposed to put a few touches of ornament to the woodwork.
The Peacock Room is the greatest surviving example of the Victorian Aesthetic Movement style in interiors, a short-lived, niche look, popular with the Arts and Crafts division of crafters, artists, and furniture-makers in Britain and the US.
With gilded panels and feathered flourishes, and lush with a hypnotic, romantic aura, this heavenly space provided the drop-cloths for a toe-curling 19th century drama.
The human ugliness that emerged was only on a par with the vandalisation of Eileen Gray’s modernist villa, E-1027, by Le Corbusier, in 1939.
Shipping magnate Frederick R Leyland, (1839-92) of Liverpool, was a fanatic collector of ancient Chinese porcelain in blue and white, and had a genuinely great eye.
He had already commissioned artists, Rossetti and Burne-Jones, and was an acknowledged buyer of daring, contemporary artwork.
In 1876, architect Thomas Jekyll curated Leyland’s treasures, constructing an Anglo-Japanese ‘porcelain room’, in the Aesthetic style, in the newly renovated dining-room of his London house at Prince’s Gate, Kensington.
The commission was coming together well. A lattice work of pier-tall bamboo shelves supported the ceramic treasury against sixth-century leatherwork panels embossed with Tudor roses (sourced by Leyland himself) and said to have once belonged to Katherine of Aragon and, later, Anne Boleyn.
Finished in blue, red, and gold, with honest walnut woodwork, the room was restrained, Oriental, and elegant. Just what Leyland had sought in the commission.
The aesthetic focus for the priceless confection was a Pre-Raphaelite beauty over the fireplace, Red & Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain. It was a gorgeous, super, life-size figure by the passionate, but pompous, American society artist, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).
Leyland had owned the painting for some years, and the room really was designed to celebrate it.
The anglo-chinoiserie allusions were a perfect flourish. Leyland had patronised Whistler for over a decade (despite fruity rumours that Leyland’s wife was sleeping with the artist during his many stays at their Liverpool home, Speke Hall).
Delighted with progress in London, Leyland left for Liverpool. Whistler’s urgent genius was safely confined to the front hall, where he was carrying out some measured, modest decoration. Then, in a crucial drop-kick of fate, Jeckyll became ill.
Leyland, mildly rattled, agreed to allow Whistler to finish the architect’s brief with a bit of retouching and improvements to the roses on the ancient leather, adding a complimentary ‘wave pattern’ to the wainscot in the diningroom.
He then, again, returned to Liverpool. Whistler began, but his ego and vision sprouted skis, and he took off downhill in freestyle work, without the brake of any sketches or forward planning.
The red roses on the leatherwork started to annoy, so, after a few polite flicks of the yellow to which he was limited, he dashed over the entire heraldic embossing in a rich, Prussian blue.
Four giant peacocks bloomed up over the shutters, feathers crowded into the panelled, mock Tudor ceiling. Shelves were gilded. The result was the most sumptuous playground of the late 19th century artistic imagination any interior had ever seen, before or since.
In an effort to stave off Leyland until the work was finished, Whistler sent his rich pal several hilariously puffed-up messages, interpreting Leyland’s domestic prize against the fuller story of his self-proclaimed brilliance.
“Well, you know, I just painted on,” he gushes brightly. “Toward the end, I reached such a point of perfection, putting in every touch with such freedom, that when I came round to the corner where I started, why, I had to paint part of it over again, as the difference would have been too marked.
“And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy in it.”
He playfully continued beautifications and delighted at the high tide of his inspiration. Whistler even invited the press to take a look at his ‘Harmony in Blue & Gold: The Peacock Room’.
When Leyland returned to London, he in-harmoniously threw Whistler out of the house. The painter remarked that Leyland would only ever be remembered as the “proprietor of the Peacock Room”.
Leyland responded by stiffing him for his full fee (paying in pounds rather than guineas). Enraged, Whistler took the time to break back into the house to paint two peacocks fighting. The gifted and sensitive Jeckyll, a complete innocent in all this, had a mental collapse over the alteration to his commission — coating his body in gold leaf and expiring in an asylum.
Whistler was embittered to the end, not least because, despite his eruption at the time, Leyland left the room untouched. Whistler died bankrupt, a painting of a peacock, a grotesque caricature of Leyland, ‘The Gold Scab: Eruption in Filthy Lucre’, found in his studio after his death in 1903.
In 2012, artist Darren Waterston, reflected on the uncomfortable history surrounding the creation of the Peacock Room in a full-sized installation, named Filthy Lucre, which you can find in images online.
The smashed pots, warring peacocks, and broken shelving brilliantly evoked the hideous depths of the Leyland/Whistler dramatics.
The Peacock Room can be enjoyed in Whistler’s green/gold flash, fully restored at the Freer Gallery of Art in the Smithsonian Museum, Washington DC.