Peacock Room

May 09, 1993|By John Dorsey

In all likelihood, Whistler's Peacock Room wouldn't exist as we know it if its original owner, Frederick R. Leyland, hadn't gone to Liverpool.

The room was designed by interior architect Thomas Jeckyll as the dining room for the London house of Leyland, a Liverpool shipping magnate. Jeckyll installed shelving to show off Leyland's Chinese porcelains, and Whistler's painting "The Princess from the Land of Porcelain" was hung above the fireplace.

Leyland initially consulted Whistler only about what color to paint the shutters and doors, but when the owner was absent in Liverpool, Whistler went far beyond his instructions, transforming the room in many ways and adding four peacocks on the shutters.

A dispute arose when Leyland heard of the decorations. "Perhaps in retaliation," as a Freer brochure puts it, Whistler added two more peacocks on the wall opposite his painting. One, representing Leyland, walks on silver coins; the silver crest feather on the other bird represents Whistler's white forelock.

The room was finished in 1877 and remained in the Leyland house until 1904, 12 years after its owner's death. That year Freer bought it and had it shipped to Detroit and installed in his house. After his death in 1919 it was installed at the Freer Gallery.

During the just-completed Freer renovation, the Peacock Room underwent a three-year restoration, removing dirt and grime and bringing out the brilliance of the original colors. The Freer has also added blue and white Chinese porcelains, similar to those Leyland owned, on the shelves that were designed for his collection, so the room has now been returned to its original splendor.

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