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.
And there the story might have ended—except that, unknown to either Whistler or Leyland, Jeckyll suffered from a manic-depressive illness. By the end of the summer, his condition had deteriorated. Now suffering from paranoid delusions, the architect was taking orders directly from “the Lord God Jehovah” and was therefore no longer available for consultation. With the color scheme still not quite right, Whistler took over. First he secured Leyland’s permission to paint out hundreds of the bright red flowers on the gilt leather hanging so that they merged into the golden background. Though Jeckyll had left him with a nearly complete decorative scheme, by reducing the colors to shades of gold, green, and blue Whistler was gradually turning the room into a sumptuous setting with which to surround his Princesse.
The London season ended in July. Leyland and his family had therefore remained at their country house—Speke Hall—outside Liverpool, leaving Whistler in charge of the dining room. By the autumn he had begun to paint its cornices and ceiling with a pattern of semicircles or “waves” of blue. These soon evolved into a network of peacock feathers spreading over the gas lamps which hung from the ceiling. Now too, Whistler decided he had better gild Jeckyll’s latticed shelving, so that when Leyland placed each piece of porcelain in its niche, the surrounding gold bracket “framed” it, like a picture.
Without first taking the precaution of telling his patron he was doing so (but in the absolute conviction that Leyland would be delighted), he painted on the central set of folding shutters a pair of life-sized golden peacocks silhouetted against a full moon, their tails sweeping down toward the floor. (See illustration on opposite page.) On the outer pair of shutters, he depicted two more peacocks displaying their open plumage, so that when the servants closed the shutters in the evening, the tail feathers appeared to fan out in all their splendor.
So proud was Whistler of his work that he signed one of the shutters with his butterfly logo, as though it were a painting. To Leyland he wrote, “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!” Of Whistler’s essential innocence at this stage there is no question. Merrill notes that “he could not have let Leyland know ahead of time what he planned to do with the dining room because when he began it, he had not known himself.” Today it is hard to understand how anyone could have been displeased by the sheer glamour of the Peacock Room. But when Leyland returned to London in mid-October, the room he saw must have been something of a hodgepodge, with the still extant yellow-gold wall hangings jarring horribly with the unasked-for decorative additions in rich blue and green. He was enraged.
For his part, Whistler was shocked and hurt by Leyland’s failure to appreciate all the hard work he had put into the dining room. He presented Leyland with a bill for 2,000 guineas, a sum Merrill estimates at about $400,000 by today’s values—and which she calculates was not unreasonable, in view of the number of fifteen-hour days he had spent painting the room. Whistler estimated that he could have received 1,200 pounds for the peacock shutters alone, had he sold them for 400 pounds each, the price of an oil painting. But the bill stoked Leyland’s fury still higher. His complaint was simple. “I do not think you should have involved me in such a large expenditure without previously telling me of it.” In a deliberate insult he sent Whistler a check for half that amount, and paid him not in guineas, as a gentleman paid a doctor or lawyer, but in the pounds that would usually be paid to a laborer, tradesman, or housemaid. (One pound equalled twenty shillings, one guinea twenty-one shillings.)
Whistler accepted Leyland’s check, but on the condition that he be left alone to finish the room. Considering its incomplete state, Leyland may have felt he had no choice in the matter, and so allowed the now bitter and vengeful artist to continue working, while he rejoined his family in Liverpool. Reasoning that he had no more to lose from Leyland, Whistler first obliterated the gilt leather wall hangings under a coat of Prussian blue, then began to retouch and repaint areas he had painted earlier, but which were now out of harmony with the new color.
By the time he had finished, the whole magnificent ensemble no longer looked like a cheery morning room but like the inside of a Japanese lacquer box, or like the sort of chamber that would have delighted the fictional character Des Esseintes in that manual of fin de siècle aestheticism A Rebours, written eight years later. The decadent poet Arthur Symonds was to describe it as a room in which “nature, sunlight, or any mortal compromise could never enter”; among those who were later to be inspired by it were Oscar Wilde, Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, and Aubrey Beardsley.
No wonder the symbolists and decadents loved it. For as the sumptuous color illustrations of Linda Merrill’s superbly designed and produced book make clear, the room comes to life at night, under artificial light, as golden peacock feathers appear to spill out from its closed shutters onto the dark walls and ceiling. After many years in which it looked somewhat forlorn and neglected at the Freer Gallery, in its restored state it once again looks much as it did when Leyland entertained his guests at Prince’s Gate. Entering it is like stepping into one of Whistler’s own nocturnal views of the Thames, with fireworks crackling high up in the night sky and cascading down on all sides. As Whistler’s full title for this room, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, suggests, it is both a work of art and an architectural interior. Alone among the exhibits at the Freer Gallery it has both an accession number (like the other works of art) and a gallery number (like the other rooms in a museum).
Had Whistler stopped work in the autumn of 1876 Leyland might in the end have forgiven him. But by the end of December he had completed a life-sized mural of gold and silver, painted on the wall opposite the Princesse du pays de la porcelaine. In it, two strutting peacocks confront each other, scratching the ground as they prepare to attack each other for possession of a cascade of silver coins at their feet. The indignant peacock at the left is a clever self-caricature, recognizable by the silver crest which stands in for Whistler’s trademark quiff of white hair. His arrogant rival is, of course, Leyland, the silvery ruffles at his breast a jibe at the frilled fronts of the evening shirts the industrialist affected, which Whistler thought vulgar. The title of the work, L’Art et L’Argent, is a play on the rallying cry of the Aesthetic Movement, l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake.
What Whistler’s contemporaries called “The Rich Peacock and the Poor Peacock” makes it impossible to consider the history of the Peacock Room without reference to the quarrel between Leyland and Whistler. And art and money locked in eternal confrontation is indeed the underlying theme of Merrill’s book. What Whistler forgot to mention in the “Ten O’Clock Lecture” is that beautiful things cost money, sometimes a great deal of it. How, for example, did Whistler pay for his collection of blue and white porcelain? The answer is that at the time of his bankruptcy in the late 1870s he owed Leyland and an American relative named Thomas Winans 1,400 and 1,200 pounds, respectively. Again, these are enormous sums. Though Whistler undoubtedly thought he could repay his creditors when his work found acceptance by the British public, the fact remains that in the 1860s and 1870s he desperately needed money he was unable to earn through his art.
It is in this light that we should see the mysterious episode when, in February 1866, he abruptly left London for South America, claiming that he had gone to fight for Chile in its war against Spain. Although scholars have suggested some sort of crisis in his private or professional life to account for his flight from London at the very moment when he was achieving recognition on both sides of the Channel, this dash for foreign adventure has never been adequately explained. Merrill hits on the truth when she quotes a hitherto unpublished passage from the diary of the critic William Michael Rossetti, in which he notes the rumor that Whistler had entered into a business deal with “a certain Capt. Doty” to deliver to Valparaiso, Chile, torpedoes intended to destroy the Spanish fleet. Rossetti had heard from the artist Frederic Sandys that “before the torpedoes were available for blowing up the Spaniards, these latter had blown up Valparaiso.”
The suggestion that Whistler was somehow involved in arms smuggling was so surprising that it needed verification from some other source to be believed. This has now been provided by a cache of Whistler papers held by the library of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has come to light only since the publication of Merrill’s book. In them, we learn that Whistler had been hired by H.H. Doty, a shady character who claimed to have been a former captain in the Confederate army and was now employed by the Chilean navy. Doty was in London as a “contractor with a Chilean Agent” on a mission to return to Chile with a consignment of explosive charges to be used as underwater mines. Whistler traveled to Valparaiso in a separate ship from Doty, presumably to oversee the shipment of a second cargo of weapons. For this he was paid thirty pounds per month, plus his passage to and from South America.7 Whistler, it seems, was a gunrunner.
But money and how it is obtained isn’t something aesthetes liked to mention. In his Punch cartoons du Maurier mocked them for professing the most high-minded feelings about works of art when in fact what they were doing was fetishizing their own material possessions. In the most famous of these cartoons, published on October 30, 1880, the aesthetic bridegroom says of a blue and white teapot, “It is quite consummate, is it not?” to which his intense bride replies, “It is, indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!” But the need to pay for these luxuries is hinted at in another du Maurier cartoon of December 15, 1877, in which a young husband returns home to find his wife and children standing in the narrow hallway of their London residence. To their dismay, he is carrying a porcelain vase under each arm. “Oh, Algernon!” his wife cries, “More useless China! More money thrown away when we have so little to spare!”
The illusion to which du Maurier’s cartoon characters succumb is precisely the illusion promoted by Whistler in the “Ten O’Clock Lecture,” that art has nothing to do with hard work or adequate remuneration. When Whistler’s future biographers Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell asked him about the Peacock Room, he explained, “Well, you know, I just painted as I went on, without design or sketch—it grew as I painted…. And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy in it!” Whistler was here trying to distance himself from the Victorian work ethic, by which critics like John Ruskin judged the Pre-Raphaelite painters whom anyone could see spent long hours over their pictures. By contrast, Whistler wrote, evidence of industry in art is a “blemish, not a quality; a proof, not of achievement, but of absolutely insufficient work, for work alone will efface the footsteps of work.”
Merrill’s researches have shown what a great deal of hard work went into the decoration of the Peacock Room. In addition to backbreaking labor, it involved, she writes, a “complicated progression of false starts and revisions,” a series of desperate attempts to harmonize Jeckyll’s earlier scheme with Whistler’s vision of what the room should look like. For the mural of the fighting peacocks he even drew a full-scale cartoon on brown paper, which he then transferred to the wall before beginning to paint, just as a Renaissance artist might have done. When Whistler said that a finished work of art should bear the aspect of a “happily contrived and expressive sketch” he was not counseling casualness in execution but describing the Renaissance idea of sprezzatura or studied nonchalance as a quality to be desired in a finished work of art.
This was appropriate, since both the artist and his patron tried to behave as if they were living in Renaissance Italy, not in England at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Leyland especially delighted in the role of merchant prince employing a valued courtier. And so he dealt with Whistler nonchalantly, without defining precisely what he expected, without drawing up a contract, or insisting on delivery by a certain date, or even closely supervising his work—a procedure he would never have risked in business.
Though Merrill herself is scrupulously neutral, it seems clear that of the two men, Leyland bore the larger share of the blame. For if Whistler had something of the scoundrel about him, Leyland’s record was worse. In Whistler’s great portrait of Leyland, now in the Freer Gallery, he is shown in evening dress, a sinister apparition in black, emerging from a background which could fairly be described as murky. Until reading Merrill’s account of Leyland’s life, I had not realized how accurately the portrait captures the dark side of his strange, brooding personality. For he was a man who had good reason to keep his past obscure.
Leyland’s father is thought to have been transported to a penal colony in Australia, while his mother worked as a cashier in an eating house near the Liverpool docks. Through her acquaintance with the kindly owners of the shipping firm John Bibby & Sons, young Frederick had been taken on as an office boy in 1844, rising quickly to apprentice, bookkeeper, clerk, merchant, partner, and owner by a combination of diligence, natural intelligence, and a talent for knifing his colleagues in the back. When one after the other of his superiors resigned, “disgusted at the conduct of Fred R. Leyland,” he finally acquired control of the firm in 1872, forcing his former employers either to sell out or to deal with him as their competition. The man whom one contemporary used the word “snarling” to describe was vicious, ruthless, and hated. “Skunks and robbers kick over the ladder up which they climb” ran an anonymous message pasted outside Leyland’s office door.
Had Whistler known more about Leyland’s business methods, he might well have treated him with greater care. But after their dispute both men showed themselves in their true colors. Leyland came very close to destroying Whistler by helping to drive him into bankruptcy. Whistler in turn took care that posterity should know Leyland as a money-loving philistine. What we learn from Merrill’s documentation of their mutual hatred is that the hothouse culture of the Aesthetic Movement often concealed tense commercial dealings between artist and patron. The Aesthetic attempt to pretend that art can be separated from commerce shows how imperfectly the ideas behind the Great Exhibition had been absorbed by those who might have been expected to understand them best.
Linda Merrill, a former curator at the Freer, who oversaw the restoration of the Peacock Room, has based her monograph on newly discovered letters, documents, and newspaper accounts. The result is one of the most original contributions to the study of Victorian art and culture in recent years. She shrewdly and accurately describes the story she tells so well as a “remarkable confluence of commercial and aesthetic events that could only have occurred in London (perhaps only in the borough of Kensington) during the final quarter of the nineteenth century.”
June 10, 1999
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. ↩
“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. ↩
“Mr. Whistler’s Ten O’Clock,” in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, p. 136. ↩
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. ↩
Daphne du Maurier, editor, The Young George du Maurier: A Selection of His Letters, 1860-67 (London: Peter Davies, 1951), p. 216. ↩
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. ↩
Whistler Papers, Burlington Fine Arts Club, Victoria and Albert Museum. Whistler’s letter to Captain Hunter Davidson, January 19, 1868, is located in MSL/1952/1353/4/4/2, and Captain Hunter Davidson’s letter to Whistler, February 7, 1868, is in MSL/ 1952/1353/4/4/2. I am grateful to Nigel Thorp of the Centre for Whistler Studies, University of Glasgow, for drawing my attention to these papers. ↩