• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Contretemps at Prince’s Gate

The house at 49 Prince’s Gate, London SW7, still stands on the eastern side of Exhibition Road, a wide thoroughfare laid out in the 1850s to connect the southern end of Hyde Park to the Cromwell Road. Built in 1869, this imposing white stucco mansion is typical of those found throughout South Kensington, a neighborhood which is today synonymous with stifling respectability, but until the mid-nineteenth century was a semirural backwater, largely given over to nurseries, to market gardens, and to large private villas.1

The character of South Kensington changed forever during the spring and summer of 1851, when the Great Exhibition attracted more than six million visitors to Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. At the urging of Prince Albert, the Royal Commissioners used the surplus revenue generated by the exhibition to purchase land adjacent to the site of the Crystal Palace. Here the Prince proposed to create a district containing several museums, modeled on the museum centers that already existed in Munich and Berlin. For the rest of the century—and well into the twentieth—museums, colleges, and learned societies were to rise on or near Exhibition Road, beginning in 1857 with the Museum of Ornamental Art (renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899), followed by the Royal Albert Hall (1867-1871) and the Natural History Museum (1873-1883).

When the Liverpool shipowner Frederick Leyland purchased the lease on 49 Prince’s Gate from Lord Somers in 1874, the air around the house still must have been thick with the dust of building works. A self-made and self-educated millionaire, he chose to live not in aristocratic Belgravia or St. James’s, but in a newly developed suburb within easy walking distance both of the city’s largest concert hall and of its new museum of applied and industrial art: a neighborhood Londoners were quick to dub “Albertopolis.”

Prince Albert had conceived the Great Exhibition and its equally successful successor, the International Exhibition of 1862, in order to promote a wider knowledge of science, design, and art, not for their own sakes but for their usefulness to manufacturing. Leyland, who was born in 1831, belonged to the generation formed by the visionary educational policies associated with these exhibitions. The Prince Consort would have noted with approval that he had made his fortune by applying scientific principles to solve practical problems. Leyland designed—or at least envisaged—a line of steamships capable of transporting huge loads of coal faster and more cheaply than those of his rivals.

And yet he was not a philistine but a competent pianist and a discerning collector of both old and new art. The house at Prince’s Gate was to serve as a showcase for his eclectic accumulation of Renaissance and modern British paintings, antiques, and rare Chinese porcelain. To remodel and decorate the interior he hired architects and artists whose work belonged to the avant-garde of British art and design.

One of these was the American-born, French-trained painter James McNeill Whistler, by the 1870s the leading exponent of the Aesthetic Movement in England. Aestheticism can be defined as a philosophical position in which aesthetic values are placed in the foreground of human experience. The aesthete sees art as a supreme good in itself. In Whistler’s words, art should “stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like.”2

In language derived equally from the Bible and Baudelaire, he argued in his aesthetic manifesto the “Ten O’Clock Lecture” that art is “selfishly occupied with her own perfection only—having no desire to teach—seeking and finding the beautiful in all conditions and in all times.”3 Beauty, he told his audience, is meant for the few—those whose artistic temperament enables them to see it where it had not been seen before: in the flow of a great river at night, in the back alleys of Venice, in a fogbound Chelsea street.

You might assume that Whistler stood for the precise opposite of the commercial values promulgated by Prince Albert through the Great Exhibition. Yet the importance he placed on beautiful things displayed in harmonious surroundings could be seen to fulfill at least one of the fundamental aims of the Royal Commissioners, the improvement of the national taste through art. For Whistler, too, had been touched by Prince Albert’s educational ideals. At the International Exhibition of 1862 he could have seen works of art from China and Japan, as well as displays of contemporary British decorative art, then undergoing a revolution at the hands of William Morris.

Whistler’s 1864 painting Purple and Rose: The Lange Lijzen of the Six Marks shows a Western woman painting a Chinese porcelain vase in what is clearly some sort of commercial establishment. This suggests that Whistler had already begun to wrestle with the question of how Eastern and Western aesthetic traditions might be fused and possibly even marketed. For Whistler’s later activities as a designer of women’s dresses and of domestic interiors can in part be seen as a response to William Morris’s enterprise. When, as late as 1897, Whistler opened the shop he called the Company of the Butterfly in the hope of selling his own sophisticated designs directly to middle-class customers, it was with an eye to the commercial success Morris enjoyed after opening his showroom on Oxford Street in 1877.

For just because the Aesthetic Movement rejected the mass-produced products of the Industrial Revolution didn’t mean that it wasn’t firmly grounded in commerce. Its first tremors in England were felt in the fad for collecting blue and white porcelain, initiated by Whistler in 1862-1863, and quickly taken up by artistic London. The commercial underpinnings of Aestheticism can be seen in the way Anglo-Dutch antique dealers sedulously encouraged the craze for collecting Chinese export ware produced under the Quing emperors of the Kangxi era (1662-1722). When one of those dealers, Murray Marks, wrote that “it was Whistler absolutely who invented Blue and White,” he was talking not about appreciating the porcelain, but about buying it.

Even in the 1860s Kangxi porcelain can never have been cheap.4 In 1863 George du Maurier told a friend that Whistler had bought “some very fine china;…about sixty pounds worth, and his anxiety about it during dinner was great fun.”5 The sum is far from negligible since it approximates the wage a highly skilled workman might expect to earn in six months. And although prices rose throughout the 1860s and 1870s, over a period of fifteen years Whistler built up a collection of some 300 pieces, all of which were sold at his bankruptcy sale in 1879. The best of it certainly ended up in the homes of rich men like Leyland.

The two men had met in 1867 through their common friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Soon Leyland was commissioning portraits, landscapes, and figure subjects from Whistler, always providing him with generous advance payments without requiring the artist to meet the deadlines for delivery of his pictures. And Whistler had another talent of which Leyland was well aware, for interior design. Not only did he design his own frames and insist that his paintings hang against sympathetic wall colors, but he also chose floor coverings, flower arrangements, and gallery furniture. Whistler came to feel that “the painter must… make of the wall upon which his work hung, the room containing it, the whole house, a Harmony, a Symphony, an Arrangement, as perfect as the picture or print which became a part of it.”6

The care with which he arranged his public exhibitions he carried over into his domestic interiors. At his simply but exquisitely decorated house in Chelsea, guests were presented with delicately painted menus as they sat down at a beautifully set table, to be served on antique blue and white porcelain. For Whistler, Aestheticism represented not simply a taste in art, but a style of life—one that didn’t come cheap. If Whistler was the consummate aesthete, what made Leyland his attentive disciple and the archetype of the Aesthetic Movement collector is that he cared almost as much about the display of his collection as he did about its acquisition. In 1874 Leyland commissioned the architect Thomas Jeckyll to turn his dining room at Prince’s Gate into a setting worthy to exhibit his acquisitions—not expecting that before long Whistler would take over the project and create the extravagant expression of Victorian chinoiserie that would become known as the Peacock Room. Named for the golden birds that strut and preen on its verdigris and blue walls, this room was the cause of a quarrel between Leyland and Whistler so bitter (and so well publicized) that it has become the subject of art historical legends. Transferred in 1919 to the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., its recent restoration confirms its status as one of the most exquisitely unified Aesthetic interiors that survives.

A talented architect who had been part of the circle of Chelsea Aesthetes since the early 1860s, Jeckyll had recently designed a pretty morning room for the Holland Park mansion of a member of the Ionides family, wealthy Greek shipowners whom Whistler numbered among his earliest patrons. For Leyland, Jeckyll turned the dining room at Prince’s Gate into a porcelain cabinet of the sort used to display royal and aristocratic collections since the seventeenth century. The difference was that at Hampton Court and Kensington Palace “nankeen” porcelain was massed together to create a magnificent decorative effect. This approach to display was not suitable for a discerning collector like Leyland, for whom each piece represented a unique aesthetic experience.

Jeckyll therefore designed a delicate lattice structure of walnut wood shelving carved to suggest bamboo, in which individual plates, bowls, beakers, or vases were isolated in niches appropriate to their sizes and shapes. To set off the porcelain’s rich color, Leyland purchased rolls of late-eighteenth-century wall hangings of yellow gilt leather. Made in Holland, they were painted with a rococo pattern of red roses, ribbons, and summer flowers. The whole effect was intended to be light and cheerful, but somehow, among the many fables that were to spring up about the Peacock Room, these ill-fated wall coverings were said to be dark medieval hangings which were embossed with a raised pattern bearing the heraldic pomegranates of Catherine of Aragon.

In The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography, Linda Merrill sweeps away myths like these in the most accurate and complete account of Whistler’s design of the Peacock Room we are likely to see. In the confusing sequence of events that followed, her assiduous research has established that Jeckyll had all but finished work on the room when, in April 1876, Leyland asked Whistler for advice on what color to paint the windows and doors.

Since Whistler had also helped Leyland select wall colors elsewhere in the house, he was ready to help with those in the dining room. What is more, he took an interest in the color of this particular room because one of his important early paintings, La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine, was to hang there, above the fireplace. (See illustration on next page.) Painted in 1864- 1865, the full-length portrait showed a languorous Victorian woman wearing Chinese robes and striking a pose which Whistler had copied from one he had found on an actual porcelain vase. And so, when Whistler suggested that Leyland paint the doors and shutters with a light green glaze, it was in order to complement the leather hangings and to bring out the subtle salmon pink, sea green, and Chinese blue colors in his own painting. For in his mind’s eye, Whistler envisaged the picture surrounded by Leyland’s splendid collection of blue and white. Only then would her designation as a princess “from the land of porcelain” make complete sense.

  1. 1

    F.H.W. Sheppard, general editor, The Museums Area of South Kensington and Westminster, Survey of London, Vol. 38 (London: The Athlone Press/University of London, 1975), pp. 1, 2, and 51ff.

  2. 2

    The Red Rag,” published in The World, May 22, 1878, reprinted in James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, second edition (London: William Heinemann, 1892), pp. 127-128.

  3. 3

    Mr. Whistler’s Ten O’Clock,” in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, p. 136.

  4. 4

    Colin Sheaf, “Chinese Ceramics: Collecting in England A.D. 1880-1980,” Export Art of China and Japan, Christie’s, London (sales catalog), April 6, 1998, pp. 6-9.

  5. 5

    Daphne du Maurier, editor, The Young George du Maurier: A Selection of His Letters, 1860-67 (London: Peter Davies, 1951), p. 216.

  6. 6

    Because the room itself became the work of art, it could be signed like one. In the 1880s, Whistler’s follower Mortimer Menpes saw him step back from a wall he had just hung with one of his pictures, saying, “There is only one thing lacking, gentlemen, to complete the picture which this gallery should create. And that is the butterfly—a large painted butterfly on the wall.” Menpes continues, “There and then a ladder was brought. Whistler wished the butterfly to be almost on the ceiling.” Mortimer Menpes, Whistler as I Knew Him, (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1904), pp. 120-121.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print