A wealthy patron tasked his talented architect to create a special space to showcase his prized collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain and an Asian-inspired canvas masterpiece. These are the humble beginnings of an epic story involving wealth, artistry, hubris, greed, revenge and insanity. The room itself has come to be known as The Peacock Room and has been the subject of front page news, been dismantled completely no less than three times, traveled across an ocean, been restored several times and become an iconic symbol of the crossroads between commerce and art. Curious to know what happened? Join us to discover the intriguing story behind the creation of this fabulous work of art!
Wealthy British ship-owner Frederick R. Leyland hired architect Thomas Jeckyll to construct his home and artist James McNeill Whistler to add special artistic touches throughout the house. As the opulent dining room and intricate lattice work created to house the Chinese art collection was nearing completion, the architect called upon the artist for a quick color consult. Whistler’s painting, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, had a place of prominence in the room and he offered to make a small color change to the leather walls so that the work of art was in keeping with the rest of the room. Approving the small change, Mr. Leyland left the country for business… and here is where the history begins.
The Peacock Room Gilded Leather Ceiling (close-up below)
Photographed by David Preston
Display of Chinese Porcelain Collection along with Whistler’s The Princess from the Land of Porcelain. The princess is wearing a Hanfu, a traditional Han Chinese dress.
Decorative Arts and Ornamental Details of The Peacock Room
As Whistler made his small color changes, he then thought something along the lines of “… this room needs more…” and proceeded to make tremendous color and design changes without his client’s consent or letting him know it would cost him more money. He painted over the leather embossing, he gilded over the entire ceiling, the peacock theme was expanded… he, in essence, started from scratch in a room that was previously just shy of completion. Dutch gold leaf and oil paints were now over the three surfaces in the room: leather, wood and canvas. He wrote to his client that the room was “really alive with beauty” and urged him to stay away until all the details were finished. He was so enamored of the new direction the room was taking, that he held press conferences and entertained visitors in the house – all without getting the consent of his client as well.
When Mr. Leyland got back — oof. It would be an understatement to say he was not pleased, especially after receiving The Bill. The brazen Whistler was furious that his patron could not see the artistic masterpiece he had created simply because of minor issues such as permission or money. Due to this, Whistler created the fighting peacocks in the room, one an impoverished yet proud bird, representing himself and the other resplendent and plump with riches representing Mr. Leyland. He titled it “Art and Money, or The Story of the Room” to memorialize the epic disagreement between them over artistry and compensation. Once he was done with the final two peacocks, he left the room and never saw it again. Whistler, of course, became an artist of great renown and he eventually received a little less than half of what he charged while Mr. Leyland now lives in infamy over this row. As to the architect, Thomas Jeckyll, who asked for the initial color consult? He suffered a mental collapse and spent the rest of his life in an asylum.
The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., houses the meticulously restored Peacock Room. If you have a chance, do stop by to see the dynamic room that caused such a sensation. One is to wonder what either side would think to know that the room is considered so magnificent and iconic that it is permanently on display in a museum. What do you think of it?
All Photos by Neil Greentree via the Freer Gallery of Art unless otherwise noted