Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

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Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room dates from 1876-1877. 1

The Liverpool ship-owner Frederick Richards Leyland (1832-1892) bought a London house at 49 Princes Gate and commissioned Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912) to direct its reconstruction 'to create for him an opulent interior reminiscent of an Italian palace.' 2

Whistler was invited to decorate the entrance hall. Several of his panels are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the rest at the Freer Gallery of Art (see Panels from the Entrance Hall at 49 Princes Gate [YMSM 175]). The architect Thomas Jeckyll (1827-1881) was commissioned to design the dining room, providing space for Leyland's collection of porcelain, which had been purchased from Murray Marks (1840-1918), and for two of Whistler's paintings. La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine [YMSM 050] was to hang above the fireplace, and The Three Girls [YMSM 088], which in the end was never finished, was proposed for the opposite wall. 3

According to the Whistler's biographers, Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936) and Joseph Pennell (1860-1926):

'Some say the original scheme was that Morris and Burne-Jones should decorate and furnish the dining room, though when Whistler stepped in, they vanished … Whistler designed the side-board. A space was left over the mantel for the Princesse [La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine [YMSM 050]] and another at the opposite end of the room, for paintings by Burne-Jones and Whistler, who wished the Three Figures, Pink and Grey to hang there and face the Princesse.' 4

In April 1876 Thomas Jeckyll asked Leyland, who in turn asked Whistler, about colours for the dining room windows and doors:

'Jekell [sic] writes to know what colour to do the doors and windows in [the] dining room. He speaks of two yellows and white - Would it not be better to do it like [the] dado in the hall - i.e using dutch metal in large masses. It ought to go well with the leather. I wrote to him suggesting this but I wish you would give him your ideas.' 5

According to the Pennells, Whistler thought the colours of the carpet's border and of the flowers on the leather wall hangings clashed with the Princesse, whereupon Leyland gave Whistler permission to change them. 6

Whistler went on to paint the shelves with a combination of dutch metal (imitation gold leaf) and a transparent greenish glaze. Jeckyll became ill and was forced to abandon the project completely. Whistler lived at 49 Princes Gate all through the summer of 1876 in order to work on the room decoration. 7 He told the Pennells, 'I just painted as I went on, without design or sketch – it grew as I painted.' 8 In fact, Whistler did not do all the work, but had several assistants, including Matthew Robinson Elden (1839-1885), Henry Greaves (1843-1904), and Walter Greaves (1846-1930). In August Whistler told Leyland,

'Your walls are finished - they are to receive their last coat of varnish tomorrow - (indeed the men promised to do part this afternoon) - and on Friday you can put up the pots -

The blue which I tried as an experiment was quite injurious on the tone of that leather - and so I have carefully erased all trace of it - retouching the small yellow flowers wherever required - leaving the whole work perfect and complete - The wave pattern above and below - on the green gold - will alone be painted in blue - and this I shall come and do on Friday - without at all interfering with the pots or the leather.' 9

By September 1876 Whistler's 'wave pattern' had evolved into a peacock scheme. The story that Whistler had proposed a similar scheme to William Cleverly Alexander (1840-1916), which was not accepted, is apocryphal. 10 It probably originates with W. C. Alexander himself. 11

Shutters of the Peacock Room with peacock decoration, Freer Gallery of Art
Shutters of the Peacock Room with peacock decoration, Freer Gallery of Art

According to the Academy, by 2 September 1876 the remaining leather on the walls had been modified by 'primrose' touches on the flowers, Whistler had painted peacock feather designs in deep blue on the gold of the ceiling and lamp pendants: the cornice, dado, doors and shutters bore a 'blue powdering on the gold ground' in a design based on the breast feathers, while the inside of the shutters, when closed, was painted with full-sized peacocks. 12 Alan Summerly Cole (1846-1934) described in his diary on 20 September 1876, 'Peacock feather devices – blues and golds', and he implied that the dado and panels were completed by 26 October 1876. 13

In mid-October 1876, Leyland unexpectedly returned to London. He was undoubtedly surprised by the liberties Whistler had taken, and seems to have withheld any enthusiasm over Whistler's work. 14 It became apparent that thare had been no written agreement over payment for Whistler's work. On 21 October 1876 Leyland wrote to the artist from Speke Hall near Liverpool, refusing to pay the £2000 suggested by Whistler for his work on the decoration, because he had only expected the work on the leather and ceiling to take a few days; since he could not afford £1200 for the peacock shutters he suggested that Whistler should take them away. 15 Leyland refused to pay more, though Whistler asserted that they had agreed each to contribute 1000 guineas to the 'disaster of the decoration.' 16 On 30 October 1876 Leyland sent Whistler £600, having already lent him £250 and advanced £150, to complete the £1000 'agreed to be paid you for decorations at Princes Gate.' 17

Whistler continued to work on the Peacock Room, now determined to immortalise the quarrel with his patron in his very home, as he wrote to Leyland, 'so that in some future dull Vassari [sic] you also may go down to posterity, like the man who paid Corregio [sic] in pennies!' 18

Sketches of the Peacock Room, The Hunterian
Sketches of the Peacock Room, The Hunterian
Fighting Peacocks, Glasgow University Library
Fighting Peacocks, Glasgow University Library
Cartoon for The Rich Peacock and the Poor Peacock, The Hunterian
Cartoon for The Rich Peacock and the Poor Peacock, The Hunterian

To this end, Whistler designed a large panel, The Rich Peacock and the Poor Peacock, to hang on the south wall of the room, opposite the Princesse du pays de la porcelaine.He spent November drawing a full-scale cartoon for the panel (Cartoon of rich and poor Peacocks [M.0584]). It was pricked for transfer, following the academic methods of mural painting he had learned from Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893). The mural was then painted with two shades of gold and silver to highlight and distinguish details. 19

The Rich Peacock and the Poor Peacock, south wall of the Peacock Room, Freer Gallery of Art
The Rich Peacock and the Poor Peacock, south wall of the Peacock Room, Freer Gallery of Art

Whistler definitely intended the panel on the south wall as a commentary on his relations with Leyland, and, after Leyland had finally forbidden him ever to enter his house again, Whistler drafted a letter to Mrs Leyland, which said: 'I refer you to the Cartoon opposite you at dinner, known to all London as l'Art et l'Argent or the Story of the Room.' 20

Meanwhile, Alan S. Cole noted progress in his diary; the 'superb' Golden Peacocks were completed by 4 December 1876. 21 Several friends helped Whistler with the completion of the design: the Greaves brothers helped Whistler to lay on the gold, 22 and Louise Jopling (1843-1933) remembered adding some touches. 23 By 15 December Whistler was thinking about cutting off Jeckyll's pendant lamps. 24

An article on the Peacock Room had appeared in the Morning Post on 8 December 1876, which upset Leyland. Not only was his name misreported as Naylor Leyland, the article also revealed to him the extent of Whistler’s change of the original decorations, including the blue walls. 25 Possibly as a reaction, Leyland returned to London and 'turned up suddenly at a moment when the room was half finished and in a state of wild disorder, and insisted upon seeing it.' 26 After a series of articles had appeared in January 1877, Leyland's residence was effectively converted into a temporary art gallery. The Observer wrote that 'Mr. Leyland, we believe, allows his collection to be viewed by the public during his absence from town – a boon which has only to be known to be greatly appreciated.' 27

On 9 February 1877 Whistler held a press view in Leyland's house, at which he distributed his pamphlet Harmony in Blue and Gold. The Peacock Room, a 'precursor of the modern press release', printed by the lithographer Thomas Way (1837-1915). 28

The press response was favourable. The writer for The Standard concluded: 'In detail, and as a whole, the “Peacock-room” is a great gain over the ordinary mechanical methods of decorating saloons.' 29 Nevertheless, Leyland wanted to repossess his London home and requested that Whistler 'refuse any further applications to view the room.' 30 On 5 March 1877, according to A. S. Cole, Whistler was trying to complete the peacocks on the shutters until 2 a.m. 31 Linda Merrill concludes that these were Whistler's last hours in the Peacock Room, as Leyland was about to return to London. 32

The Peacock Room at 49 Prince's Gate, photograph, 1877, S. P. Avery Collection, New York Public Library
The Peacock Room at 49 Prince's Gate, photograph, 1877, S. P. Avery Collection, New York Public Library

The first extant photograph of the Peacock Room at 49 Prince's Gate, reproduced above, may have been taken in the spring of 1877, and shows parts of F. R. Leyland's collection of blue-and-white porcelain.

Whistler continued socialising with Frances Leyland (1834-1910) until his former patron furiously forbade Whistler to enter his house again. 33 After Whistler had threatened to publish their correspondence, a plan that never materialised, Leyland put an end to his patronage:

'It is scarcely necessary for me to notice your assertion that I am only known as the possessor of your peacock room. I hope it is not true; but if true it is doubly painful for, at the time so many newspaper puffs of your work appeared, I felt deeply enough the humiliation of having my name so prominently connected with that of a man who had degenerated into nothing but an artistic Barnum.' 34

Leyland's refusal to pay Whistler an additional £1000 for his decorations to the Peacock Room was justifiable but undoubtedly put Whistler's finances in deficit for the rest of the decade. Whistler held Leyland accountable for his bankruptcy in 1879 (see The Gold Scab [YMSM 208]), but the only thing he regretted, he said, was creating such a beautiful room for an unappreciative audience. Whistler wrote from Venice in the spring of 1880:

'I went to a grand high mass in St Marc's and very swell it all was - but do you know I couldn't help feeling that the Peacock Room is more beautiful in its effect! - and certainly the glory and delicacy of the ceiling is far more complete than the decorations of the golden domes make them - That was a pleasant frame of mind to be in you will acknowledge - and I am sure you are not surprised at it!' 35


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 178).

2: Hobbs 1980 [more], p. 10.

3: Way & Dennis 1903 [more], pp. 31-32.

4: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 203. By 'Three Figures, Pink and Grey' they mean The Three Girls [YMSM 088].

5: F. R. Leyland to Whistler, 26 April 1876, GUW #02567.

6: Pennell 1908, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 204.

7: Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881) to James H. Gamble (b. 1820), 8 and 9 September 1876, GUW #06560.

8: Pennell 1908, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 204.

9: Whistler to F. R. Leyland, [9 August 1876], GUW #08791.

10: Gladstone 1922 [more], p. 54. YMSM 1980 [more] mistakenly attributes the anecdote to Way & Dennis 1903 [more].

11: See Merrill 1998 [more], p. 224, referring to the Pennell-Whistler Journal manuscript in the Library of Congress. On Whistler's decorative schemes for W. C. Alexander, see Bendix 1995 [more], pp. 110-16; Merrill 1998, op. cit., pp. 151-53. The confusion may also have been caused by the fact that Alexander acquired several drawings of details from the Peacock Room (Designs for staircase for 49 Princes Gate [M.0578] and Peacock designs; (a) feathers on panel; (b) plan of ceiling; (c) feathers on panels; (d) feathers on panels and ceiling coffers [M.0579]).

12: Academy, 2 September 1876 [more].

13: Quoted in Pennell 1908, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 205.

14: Merrill 1998, op. cit., p. 15.

15: F. R. Leyland to Whistler, 21 October 1876, GUW #02570.

16: Whistler to F. R. Leyland, [22 October 1876], GUW #02571; Leyland to Whistler, 23 October 1876, GUW #02572; Whistler to Leyland, [24/30 October 1876], GUW #02573.

17: F. R. Leyland to Whistler, 23 and October 1876, GUW #02572 and #02574.

18: Whistler to F. R. Leyland, 31 October 1876, GUW #02575. Vasari recounts how Antonio da Correggio 'having received at Parma a payment of sixty crowns in copper coins, and wishing to take them to Correggio to meet some demand, he placed the money on his back and set out to walk on foot but, being smitten by the heat of the sun, which was very great, and drinking water to refresh himself, he was seized by pleurisy, and had to take to his bed in a raging fever, nor did he ever raise his head from it, but finished the course of his life at the age of forty, or thereabout.' Vasari 1912 [more], vol. 4, p. 121. Interestingly, Whistler was at the correct age to appropriate this anecdote.

19: Merrill 1998, op. cit., pp. 15, 242-43.

20: [18/25 July 1877], GUW #02599.

21: Quoted in Pennell 1908, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 205.

22: Ibid., p. 204. Pocock 1970 [more], pp. 108-111.

23: Jopling 1925 [more], p. 216.

24: Quoted in Pennell 1908, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 205. According to Robertson, 'Whistler hated the ceiling, which was evidently Leyland's speciality and appeared in all the reception rooms' (letter of 5 December 1936, quoted by Preston 1953 [more]).

25: Morning Post, 8 December 1876 [more]; see Merrill 1998, op. cit., p. 246.

26: Menpes 1904 A [more], p. 130.

27: Observer, 28 January 1877 [more].

28: Whistler 1877 C [more]. Merrill 1998, op. cit., pp. 251, 253, fig. 6.13, reproduced a copy of Whistler's leaflet, with pencil drawings of the Peacock Room by Edward William Godwin (1833-1886), in the Glasgow University Library.

29: Standard, 22 February 1877 [more], GUL PC1, p. 42.

30: F. R. Leyland to Whistler, 9 or 16 February 1877, GUW #02579.

31: Quoted in Pennell 1908, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 207.

32: Merrill 1998, op. cit., p. 270.

33: F. R. Leyland to Whistler, 6 July 1877, GUW #02581.

34: F. R. Leyland to Whistler, 24 July 1877, GUW #02593.

35: Whistler to Helen ('Nellie') Euphrosyne Whistler (1849-1917), [January/February 1880], GUW #06687.

Last updated: 20th May 2021 by Margaret