Located today in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC, The Peacock Room is a masterpiece of interior decorative mural art.
It was painted between 1876 and 1877 and today is considered to be one of the greatest aesthetic interiors and one of the best examples of Anglo-Japanese style. The Peacock room was originally designed as a dining room for Frederic Richards Leyland’s house in London.
Leyland, a shipping magnate, contracted British architect Richard Norman Shaw to redecorate his townhouse. Shaw entrusted the remodeling of the dining room to Thomas Jekyll, a fellow architect and a specialist in Anglo-Japanese style.
Jekyll covered the room’s walls with leather hangings (Cuir de Cordoue) that used to belong to Catherine of Aragon. The paintings had her heraldic device of a pomegranate and roses, which symbolized her union with Henry VIII. Leyland bought them for £ 1,000 from a house in Norfolk, where they had been for hundreds of years.
A framework of engraved walnut shelves was constructed against the walls. They held Leyland’s collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain. On the northern side of the room, there was a fireplace over which a painting by the American painter James McNeill Whistler was hung.
The painting, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, was the focal point of the room. On the eastern side were three windows, overlooking a private park, covered with long walnut shutters. A walnut Welsh dresser stood in the center of the south wall, underneath the empty leather panel. The ceiling of the room was built in a pendant paneled Tudor style, decorated with eight gas lights. The room was finished with a red border rug on the floor.
Due to illness, Jekyll wasn’t able to complete his project. Whistler, who was also working in the house at the time, offered to finish Jekyll’s job in the dining room. Whistler and Leyland agreed upon some minor changes in decoration before Leyland left London. In his absence, Whistler had made several other changes.
When Leyland came back and saw what the painter had done, he was furious. The painter and the owner argued violently over Whistler’s work and compensation for it. Later, Whistler gained access to Leyland’s home and painted two fighting peacocks on the wall. He named the painting Art and Money: or, The Story of the Room. The two fighting peacocks represented the quarrel between Leyland and Whistler.
In 1879, Whistler had to file for bankruptcy and Leyland was his chief creditor. When the creditors arrived at the painter’s home to inventory the house for liquidation, there was a large painted caricature on the wall – a massive demonic peacock playing the piano, painted in the colors of the Peacock Room. It was a representation of Leyland. The incident was mentioned in Whistler’s book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, published in 1890.
American industrialist and art collector Charles Lang Freer first purchased The Princess from the Land of Porcelain and then the entire room in 1904 from Leyland’s heirs. He first installed the room in his mansion in Detroit, but after his death in 1919, the Peacock Room was installed in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The room is currently closed for renovation.