If ever there’s a call for a raucous, irreverent public radio show about art history, it should be called Frick and Freer. The former is a collection in New York; the latter is in DC, where I was yesterday. Sun Country has a flight out at ten, and since check-out time is noon, that gives one hours and hours to spend in museums. All the tour buses hit the big fun places, like the Museum of Stuffed Things and the White Place with the Airplanes. The National Gallery isn’t as busy, and I hit every room over two days. But I’d never been to the Freer. It’s a nice place to go if you want to be alone.
It’s mostly Asian art, which doesn’t interest me, but it has a big Whistler component, given his interest in Asian motifs and styles. He also knew Freer, People know Whistler from that paragon representation of filial admiration, Whistler’s Mother, aka “Arrangement in Grey and Black #1,” but he was not a pious nice fellow who was kind to Mom. The words “irascible” and “combative” are usually employed in any account of his public life; the man couldn’t go down the street for a newspaper without making three enemies, it seems.
One of the Freer’s most famous exhibits is the Peacock Room, and I confess I’d either never heard of it or forgotten anything I once learned. Keen to see what a transplanted London room by the famous Whistler looked like, I stepped inside with great hopes - and was almost smothered by A) the amount of porcelain jars on display, and the spiky, nervous vibe the place gave off. It was oppressive and dim, and you felt as if it was bearing down on you from all sides. The guard seemed to take it all in stride. He probably knew how many vases the room had. He’d probably counted them all, twice.
Back home I googled the place, and learned a few things.
The Peacock Room was originally designed as a dining room in the townhouse located at 49 Prince's Gate in the neighbourhood of Kensington in London, and owned by the British shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland. Leyland engaged the British architect Richard Norman Shaw to remodel and redecorate his home. Shaw entrusted the remodelling of the dining room to Thomas Jeckyll, another British architect experienced in the Anglo-Japanese style.
But Jeckyll - yes, there were people with that name - fell ill, and Whistler stepped in. Leyland was out of town, and Whistler just did what he wished, caught up in the joy of creation.
Upon returning, Leyland was shocked by the "improvements." Artist and patron quarreled so violently over the room and the proper compensation for the work that the important relationship for Whistler was terminated. At one point, Whistler gained access to Leyland's home and painted two fighting peacocks meant to represent the artist and his patron, and which he title "Art and Money: or, The Story of the Room”
Ha! The artist gets revenge on the small-minded! Or, what a jerk. It’s not your house. It’s not your room. But the fighting birds are still there, to this day. Whistler 1, Leyland 0.
The dispute between Whistler and Leyland did not end there. In 1879, Whistler was forced to file for bankruptcy, and Leyland was his chief creditor at the time. When the creditors arrived to inventory the artist’s home for liquidation, they were greeted by The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor), a large painted caricature of Leyland portrayed as an anthropomorphic demonic peacock playing a piano, sitting upon Whistler’s house, painted in the same colours featured in the Peacock Room.
“Frilthy” because Leyland wore frilly shirts.
You have to admire the energy he put into hating his patron, but on the other hand, dude, he gave you a job. Whistler was broke because he’d spent a lot of money suing an art critic - Ruskin, just to give you the gang’s-all-here feeling for the era.
Oh but there’s more:
Adding to the emotional drama was Whistler's fondness for Leyland's wife, Frances, who separated from her husband in 1879.
Yeeeeah. Okay, the picture’s getting a bit clearer.
Oh but there’s more:
Another result of this drama was Jeckyll who, so shocked by the first sight of his room, returned home and was later found on the floor of his studio covered in gold leaf; he never recovered and died insane three years later.
All in all, good fun for everyone! I’d be lying if I said I was absolutely certain I picked up something malevolent from the room, but it just gave me a dark, unhappy feel. There are window shutters, but of course they’re closed. The original building still stands. The view from the room that once housed the Peacock drama:
Wonder what the room looks like now.