The Peacock Room


One thing is for sure, wherever art goes commerce isn’t far behind. In this day and age they are almost interchangeable. Both art and money can definitely be deal breakers, turn friends against one another and develop creative rifts that can even expand across centuries. But then again, who doesn’t love a little historical art drama?

The American painter James Whistler had a tendency to do what he wanted when he wanted to. This was certainly the case in his art practice and it also bled over into his personal life. His behaviour at one point had gotten so out of hand that his mother felt she needed to move to London where he was living to reign her son in. The end result of this unwanted chaperon would help inform and produce Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother; this definitely goes a long way to explain her dour expression and portrayal. Personal life aside, Whistler was a sought after artist who pushed the story of painting forward with his philosophy of “art for art’s sake“. His use of reduced palettes, atmospheric nocturnes and single person sitters helped to cement his reputation and acquire wealthy patrons.

One such patron was Fredrick Leyland of Liverpool. In 1876 Leyland had commissioned architect Thomas Jeckyll to design a room to house Leyland’s collection of Chinese porcelain in his London home. Jeckyll created a series of carved walnut shelves and adorned the walls with antique leather. Also included in his design was Whistler’s painting La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine — or The Princess from the Land of Porcelain. Nearing the completion of his original design, Jeckyll asked Whistler to consult on a colour choice for the dining room doors and shutters. Whistler fearing some of the wall treatments were clashing with his painting offered his assistance to add some minor touches to help finish off the room.


Leyland assuming the room to be nearly completed left for Liverpool. Whistler’s ‘minor touches’ included: covering the ceiling with Dutch metal painted in a peacock feather pattern, he covered the shelves with gold gilding and painted the shutters with four large peacocks. Whistler urged Leyland to stay away until the work was done in order to appreciate the full impact on his return. In the meantime Whistler used the room as his own personal salon entertaining guests and the press to come watch him work. When Leyland finally arrived home, he was flabbergasted at the changes and even more so by the bill. He refused to pay for the alterations he didn’t agree to. In the end he wrote Whistler a cheque for half the amount he had requested. This gesture was infuriating to Whistler who perceived it as an insult. He convinced Leyland that he would go back to the room and make it more to Leyland’s liking.


Instead, Whistler decided to paint over the antique leather on the opposite wall to his painting the Princess with a mural of two fighting peacocks among scattered coins. One peacock represented the offended Whistler and the other the furious Leyland. Whistler entitled the piece Art and Money. This grand gesture or Filthy Lucre (golden scab) successfully terminated Whistler’s relationship with Leyland who then banned Whistler from ever stepping foot in the room again.


Leyland surprisingly kept the room as Whistler intended and lived in the house until his death in 1892. The room was dismantled and sold to Charles Lang Freer in 1904 who had it moved to his Detroit home. In the beginning, Freer wasn’t a huge fan of the room itself but felt that it had importance in the story of James Whistler. He later came around to its charms and used it to display his own collection of ceramics. The room was again moved in 1919 to The Freer Gallery in Washington DC where it is now on display. In the city of museums, it’s fun to stand in the heart of art and money.