Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 16, 1999
Linda Merrill The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography New Haven: Yale University Press in association with Smithsonian Institution, 1998. 408 pp.; 105 color ills.; 150 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300076118)

In 1875, Frederick R. Leyland, a prosperous Liverpool businessman and patron of the arts, invited two artists to design schemes for the interior of his new London house at 49 Prince’s Gate. He asked his friend the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler to decorate the entrance hall and charged a designer of metalwork and japoniste interiors, Thomas Jekyll, to redesign the dining room to hold his large collection of Chinese blue-and-white Kangxi porcelain, as well as Whistler’s painting La princesse du pays de la porcelain. Jekyll’s scheme for the room included an elaborate system of open shelves, a Jacobean-style ceiling, metalwork for the doors, and bronze, sunflower-shaped andirons to complement the gilt leather wall treatment selected by the dealer Murray Marks.

By 1877, however, the walls of the room were covered with blue paint, the woodwork was glazed and decorated with gilt patterns, life-size gold peacocks adorned the shutters, and above the mantle there was a scene of two peacocks in gold and silver paint. The nature and cause of Whistler’s intervention in the decoration of the Leyland dining room has been widely discussed ever since it was shown to the first curious viewers. Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room holds a formidable, if notorious, place in the history of art and design. Long viewed as a result of ecstatic creativity, an elaborate frame for his own painting, or a precedent for turn-of-the-century taste for Art Nouveau, the Peacock Room and the story of its making has sustained an alternately embellished and tarnished image. Linda Merrill’s book, The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography, adds a new dimension to the scholarly literature on Whistler and literally restores the room to its rightful place as a monument in the history of interior design.

Shimmering elegantly in their coordinated environment, Whistler’s peacocks belie a complicated tale of trust, invention, anger, and resentment. While the task of designing the dining room was given over to Jekyll, Whistler was asked for advice on the treatment of the still unfinished woodwork. Since he had used a visually effective Dutch metal (a tarnished and glazed imitation gold leaf) for panels in the hall, he suggested applying the same method in the dining room. After making some chromatic adjustments to the walls, he received permission to decorate the coved cornice and wainscoting, but took the liberty of applying his “wave” pattern to the entire ceiling, gilding Jekyll’s shelves and painting large golden peacocks on the inside shutters.

Leyland, absent during this period, returned home unexpectedly and refused to meet Whistler’s request for £2,000 as payment for his work. Although the artist eventually settled for half that amount, the disagreement set off his outright disregard for Jekyll’s scheme. Whistler painted over the leather and added a carefully planned mural depicting two peacocks fighting. As a visual allegory of his version of the dispute, Whistler’s mural showed one of the peacocks bedecked in silver coins with a pile of coins at its feet. By placing this clearly resentful image in the spot reserved for a long-overdue work (already paid for in generous advancements), Whistler forever ended his close friendship with Leyland and his family.

Whistler’s Peacock Room, recently unveiled after a massive, three-year conservation project undertaken by Merrill and her colleagues at the Freer Gallery of Art, of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is now restored to a state close to the way they believe Whistler left it in 1876. The large format, lush illustrations, and omprehensiveness of this book reflect the grandeur and care of the gallery’s restoration. This book surpasses the conventions of the illustrated guide or even the scholarly catalogue. The Peacock Room is an ambitious, diligently researched monograph; yet, even as a monograph, it offers readers not only a new understanding of the room itself, but takes on the complicated context of Whistler’s circle of fellow artists, dealers, patrons, and the room’s critical fortune.

In seven elegantly written chapters, Merrill traces the history of the Peacock Room, from Whistler’s taste for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain in the 1860s to the installation at Charles Lang Freer’s Michigan home and eventually in the Freer Gallery in Washington in 1919 and its subsequent 20th-century restorations. Her contribution to the vast bibliography on Whistler is a fluid narrative that reconsiders the accumulation of mythic and apocryphal notions against an impressive documentary legacy of correspondence, press accounts, photographs, diaries, and other private papers. Merrill places the Peacock Room within the fuller oeuvre of Whistler’s works, his designs for interiors and other decorative arts, and his many uncompleted commissions. In retelling the history of the Peacock Room, she enriches the story considerably with detailed accounts of such relevant subjects as the porcelain trade in England, the history of gilt leather, and Frederick Leyland’s activities as a patron of the arts. Together with a careful analysis of the room’s creation, reception, and reconstruction, these form a more compelling story than many of the mythic assumptions still in circulation.

One of Merrill’s contributions is a carefully documented chronology of Whistler’s activities in the dining room. Scholars have generally believed that the Peacock Room was the result of Whistler’s unfettered creativity in Leyland’s absence. Merrill suggests, however, that Whistler began his large-scale treatment of the walls and mural above the dining room only after Leyland refused to meet the artist’s requested fee. Also of interest is her discussion of Thomas Jekyll, whom Leyland originally hired to decorate the room. Merrill reconstitutes Jekyll’s long-forgotten career and his unfortunate demise. In giving Jekyll his due, she corrects the idea that the room was out-of-date and in need of revamping and establishes Whistler’s respect for his scheme. She notes, for example, that the wave pattern adorning the dado, long seen as an element of Whistler’s japonisme, derived from Jekyll’s bronze doors to the room.

In examining the Peacock Room as a result of Whistler’s long-standing interest in the applied arts and interior design, Merrill builds on the work of others (Deanna Marohn Bendix, Diabolical Designs: Paintings, Interiors, and Exhibitions of James McNeill Whistler, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1995, and Susan Weber, “Whistler as Collector, Interior Colorist and Decorator,” M.A. Thesis, Parsons-Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, 1987). Historians of the decorative arts will find not only a full account of Whistler’s interior and the decorative sources for his peacocks, but also a useful discussion of the 19th-century British passion for Asian objects. Merrill argues that while porcelain provided the initial impetus for the room’s redesign and color scheme, Whistler may have sought an effect closer to that of Japanese lacquerware. Merrill supports this point with compelling evidence from the restoration.

The Peacock Room is an unquestionably handsome book. Its large format, beautiful color reproductions, and numerous collateral images provide useful documentation. Particularly helpful is the color reconstruction of the Jekyll interior before Whistler went to work. While the illustrations produce an attractive book, they are sometimes ignored in text. As a result, one hunts in vain for a discussion of an Art Nouveau poster, or an explanation of a curious image of the Leyland Plate.

Merrill’s claim that “domestic decoration marks the intersection of biography and art history” (p. 20) seems to provide her methodological model, yet The Peacock Room is subtitled “a cultural biography,” suggesting a possibly novel, hybrid approach to the monograph. The methods of biography and traditional art history, however, are more plainly in view than those of cultural history. As a biography of a room, not an individual, the book takes into consideration the many lives and personalities that contributed to the story. We learn lots about Whistler and the various members of his circle, his pictures (not limited to those commissioned for Leyland), and his working methods. There is less here about the Victorian social structure that enabled this close network of artists and the consumers of their work, or how Leyland or Freer’s particular taste for art was formed. This, however, should not detract from the book’s substantial contribution to the subject. Merrill has assimilated a vast amount of useful information that will be of interest to historians of 19th-century painting, Whistler specialists, and scholars of the decorative arts and design.

Amy F. Ogata
Professor of Art History, University of Southern California