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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Peacock Room, Washington, DC



The Peacock Room has to be among my favorite full room installations in any museum anywhere. This room was originally the dining room in the London home of Frederick Richards Leyland. He was a wealthy shipowner from Liverpool, England, and one of James McNeill Whistler's leading patrons. The room was designed by architect Thomas Jeckyll and constructed with intricate shelving to house Leyland's collection of Chinese porcelain.

When Jeckyll fell ill, James McNeil Whistler, who had been decorating the entrance hall of the same house, volunteered to finish work on the dining room. Whistler took some liberties with the original design, covering the ceiling with squares of dutch metal imitating gold leaf and a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He gilded the shelving and painted stunning peacocks inside of the shutters.



The Peacock Room at F.R. Leyland's house, 49 Prince's Gate, London, in 1892, photographed by Bedford Lemere.

As word of the decoration got out, Whistler began entertaining guests and members of the press in Leyland's house. This and a dispute over compensation caused a falling out. He covered the wall opposite the one holding his painting The Princess with a pair of fighting peacocks. Some say the bird to the right was given silver throat feathers reminiscent of the white ruffled shirts that Whistler wore. While the peacock to the left had a white lock rising ahove its forehead like Whistler's own white lock of hair.

The room remained intact and furnished with porcelain until Leyland's death in 1892. Twelve years later it was sold to the collector Charles Lang Freer who had purchased Whistler's Princess the year before. The room was dismantled in 1904, shipped, and re-installed in Freer's home in Detroit. There Freer displayed his collection of ceramics. After Freer's death in 1919, the Peacock Room was uninstalled and reinstalled again in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which was opened to the public in 1923.

Detroit based architect Douglas McIntosh considered creating a replica of the Peacock Room in the building that briefly housed it in Detroit and which is still standing. The project was estimated to cost $1 million at the time. His untimely death in 2006 cut short this visionary project.