The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography
by Linda Merrill
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution/Yale University Press,, 406 pp., $65.00
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.
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 …