The Legendary Peacock Room in Freer Gallery

Photo: Neil Greentree. Click to see more of the room.

The hallway leading to the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery is dimly lit, just enough for you to see where you’re heading. This only heightens the anticipation of walking into a magnificent room first built in 1800s London, displayed in a museum, then sold to a 1900s Detroit homeowner before being gifted to the Gallery around 1919.  Visitors that came sauntering into the Peacock Room spoke in hushed tones, eyes full of curiosity and wonder as they approached the room. For good reason. Throughout the year, the Peacock Room stands in darkness, except on third Thursdays every month, when the lights come on, and three wide window panels on one side of the room are thrown open, illuminating objects, details and colours. If you position yourself in the middle of the room and take in a slow, panoramic view, you’ll be able to marvel at the room’s exquisite design. Gold accents along the sea foam blue-green-gold walls and ceiling. A painting called Princess from the Land of Porcelain hangs above a fireplace. On the opposite side of the Princess, is another painting of two gold peacocks dueling. While the room is a feast of immense beauty and visionary art, the story of how the Peacock Room came into creation is filled with drama and dispute.

Commissioned  as a dining room by British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, the Peacock Room was designed by architect Thomas Jeckyll. Leyland also hired American artist James McNeill Whistler to create a painting that would be hung over the fireplace. When there was concern that the painting of the Princess did not match the room’s colour scheme, Whistler’s solution was to add flecks of gold paint to the walls. But that’s where all the trouble began. Once Jeckyll was out of the picture, and his patron out of town on business, Whistler took the opportunity to further embellish the room with more of his flair. Exquisite peacock patterns appeared on the ceiling, and gold peacocks with marvelous tails were painted on to the shutters. The room you see in Freer today is the result of Whistler’s temerity, and while the artist was delighted, his patron was much less so, especially with the high price tag that came with all the unsolicited changes.

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Following the argument that ensued, Leyland agreed to pay half the bill and ordered Whistler never to return, with threats of a “horse whipping” if he ever did. The artist complied, but not without exacting revenge on his patron for what he saw was a lack of respect for art. It came in the form of the duelling peacocks painting which he titled, “Art and Money: or, the Story of the Room.” Now it was etched within the walls of the Peacock Room, surviving the centuries leading up to our day and age. The room itself, having undergone construction, dismantling and reassembly at least three times now, has had to be restored with great care. Minimal exposure to light is a welcome reprieve to the very grand old room, but it hides the finely detailed, gold-painted shelving that once held Leyland’s blue-and-white Chinese ceramics collection; and later, when moved to the Detroit home of Charles Freer, housed Middle Eastern and Asian ceramics.

So it’s a treat to see the Peacock Room illuminated. By now, (if you haven’t seen it before,) you might be imagining a bedazzling, glittering, gold gilded room, like it was taken straight out of El Dorado, but even though the sun was raging fiercely outside the day I paid a visit, that harsh light was tempered by filters installed on the glass, resulting in a room bathed in soft and romantic pale gold tones. You can view the Room via Google’s lofty Art Project, a platform that collects high-res images of artwork from partner museums all over the world. However, it’s still not the same as seeing all the colours and all the details in person, and imagining the dispute between a rebellious 17th century artist and his wealthy businessman patron unfolding.

Whose side would you have taken — Leyland or Whistler?

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