Ruskin famously put down Whistler with his sneer on seeing his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket that the painter was ‘a coxcomb asking two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. Whistler promptly sued him for libel. At about the same time, the tempestuous Whistler, who didn’t suffer fools gladly (and anyone was a fool who failed to understand his work) was having another mighty difference of opinion with his patron, Frederick Richards Leyland, a Liverpool shipping magnate from Speke Hall who had commissioned Whistler to decorate his dining room. The resulting Peacock Room was rejected by Leyland as a gross act of vandalism, though it is now considered one of Whistler’s greatest works.
A reproduction of one wall of the Peacock Room forms the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Bluecoat, part of the 2014 Liverpool Biennial programme, A Needle Walks into a Haystack. It’s a small exhibition, consisting of several etchings from local collections, a couple of watercolours and a couple of oil paintings. But it’s intriguing, nonetheless, highlighting a row with local connections, and revealing works by Whistler squirrelled away in the archives of the Walker and, more surprisingly, Liverpool Central Library.
Detail of the reconstruction of the Peacock Room at the Bluecoat
Frederick Leyland, the owner of the Bibby Shipping Line, and his wife Frances were generous Whistler patrons. Frances, a beautiful, lively woman, was, according to a rumour spread by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (another artist patronised by Leyland), Whistler’s lover. In later years, Frances Leyland denied the rumour, but did add that had she been a widow she might have married Whistler. Certainly, the artist was a ‘never-ending guest’ (his words) at Speke Hall, and the Bluecoat exhibition begins with the painting Whistler and the Leyland Family in Speke Hall, painted in 1875.
Whistler and the Leyland Family in Speke Hall, 1875
The woman about to play a shot is Elizabeth (‘Lizzie’) Dawson, sister of Frances who is portrayed in the red dress, seated next to Whistler, who looks as if he’s been at the laudanum. For several months the family were under the impression that Lizzie was engaged to Whistler, but it became clear eventually that there was no engagement. To Frances right are her daughters Fanny, Florence and Elinor, while to the left of Whistler is Jane, Frances’ other sister. The man at the far end is Frederick Leyland’s first cousin Thomas Layland (different spelling) who was married to Jane. Thomas was an architect and gifted amateur painter – Whistler would arrange for some of his work to be exhibited in London – and some art historians think it likely that Thomas painted this portrait of the Leyland family.
Whistler, ‘Speke Hall, No. 1’
Whistler stayed with the Leylands at Speke Hall several times, including the period from January to March 1875 during which he worked on several etchings of the house and the nearby area. One of these, Speke Hall: The Avenue aka Speke Hall, No. 1 is in the Bluecoat display. Kathleen Lochnan commented on the composition:
Whistler employed … the compositional structure which he had learnt from Japanese prints, selecting a high viewpoint, “tilting up” the background, and constructing a shallow picture space. The long, lean vertical format of the etching, which emphasizes the distance between the figure and the house, resembles that of the Japanese oban print … [he] isolated the foreground figure, silhouetting it against a white ground in the Japanese manner, … The position of the figure, seen from the rear in a three-quarter pose, appears to have been adopted from Japanese prints. In the ukiyo-e woodcut, a rear view of this kind is often used to show off the beauty of a kimono.
Whistler, ‘Speke Hall’, 1875
On 1 February 1875 Whistler wrote from Speke:
The etchings and drypoints are getting on famously – I have quite got back into my old delight in the work and think I shall have some pretty things to show you soon.
‘Mr Leyland gave Whistler commissions to paint his four children, Mrs Leyland and himself … and Whistler made long visits at Speke Hall, Leyland’s place near Liverpool. … The record of these visits is in the etchings and dry-points of Speke Hall and Speke Shore, Shipping at Liverpool and The Dam Wood and the portraits in many mediums. The house was not far from the sea, which he loved to paint. But often days passed without his finding the effect he wanted… But Speke Hall always put him in better mood for work, and when the sea failed he turned to the portraits … There are pastels of the three little girls, sketches in pen and ink, and the fine group of dry-points.
Whistler, ‘Speke Shore’, 1875
Whistler, ‘Shipbuilders Yard, Liverpool’, 1875
Whistler, ‘The Little Forge’, 1875
While Speke Shore looks as if it was sketched at nearby Oglet, it would be interesting to learn the location of the shipbuilders yard and the little forge.
Meanwhile, Whistler was about to embark on the act which would bring his relationship with the Leylands to a dramatic end. Frederick Leyland had bought an elegant townhouse at 49 Prince’s Gate in Kensington, London, and had engaged the British architect Thomas Jeckyll to remodel the dining room in order to display his collection of porcelain.
Jeckyll covered the walls with 6th-century wall hangings of leather that had been originally brought to England as part of the dowry of Catherine of Aragon. They had hung on the walls of a Tudor house in Norfolk for centuries, before they were bought by Leyland for £1,000. They were painted with her heraldic device, the open pomegranate, and a series of red Tudor roses, to symbolise her union with Henry VIII. Against the walls, Jekyll constructed an intricate lattice framework of walnut shelves that held Leyland’s collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain. Over the fireplace was hung Whistler’s painting, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, to serve as the focal point of the room.
Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain in situ in The Peacock Room
Jeckyll had nearly finished the work when illness forced him to abandon the project. Whistler volunteered to finish Jeckyll’s work in the dining room while Leyland returned to Liverpool, allowing Whistler to work on the room alone.
Concerned that the red roses adorning the leather wall hangings clashed with the colours in The Princess, Whistler suggested retouching the leather with yellow paint, and Leyland agreed to that minor alteration. But while Leyland was away, Whistler grew bolder with his revisions:
Well, you know, I just painted on. I went on ―without design or sketch― it grew as I painted. And toward the end I reached such a point of perfection ―putting in every touch with such freedom― that when I came round to the corner where I started, why, I had to paint part of it over again, as the difference would have been too marked. And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy in it.
Whistler covered the ceiling with imitation gold leaf, over which he painted a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He gilded Jeckyll’s walnut shelving and embellished the wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peacocks. He wrote to Leyland that the dining room was ‘alive with beauty – brilliant and gorgeous while at the same time delicate and refined to the last degree’. ‘I assure you,’ he said, ‘you can have no more idea of the ensemble in its perfection gathered from what you last saw on the walls than you could have of a complete opera judging from a third finger exercise!’ He urged Leyland to delay his return to London, so that he would see the room complete and perfect in every detail. Meanwhile, without Leyland’s approval, Whistler invited friends from the London art world around to the house to admire what he had done.
When Leyland did return, he was aghast. Whistler demanded two thousand guineas for his work, but Leyland refused to pay, adamant that the artist should have consulted him before extending the scale of the work. Eventually, Leyland did pay Whistler – but only half of the amount requested, and added further insult by writing his check in pounds, the currency of trade, when payment to artists and professionals was customarily made in guineas.
The reconstruction of the Peacock Room at the Bluecoat
A bitter feud resulted. In retaliation, Whistler returned to coat Leyland’s valuable Tudor leather with Prussian-blue paint and on the wall opposite The Princess he installed a mural depicting a pair of peacocks aggressively confronting each other . He used two shades of gold for the design and highlighted telling details in silver. Scattered at the feet of the angry bird are the coins (silver shillings) that Leyland refused to pay; the silver feathers on the peacock’s throat allude to the ruffled shirts that Leyland always wore. The other peacock has a silver crest feather that resembles the lock of white hair that curled above Whistler’s forehead. To make sure that Leyland understood his point, Whistler called the mural of the fighting peacocks Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room. He obtained a blue rug to complete the scheme and titled the room Harmony in Blue and Gold.
After concluding his work in March 1877,Whistler never saw the Peacock Room again. But, despite the feud, Leyland kept the Peacock Room as Whistler had left it until his death in 1892. Twelve years later, the Peacock Room was removed from the Leyland house and exhibited in a London art gallery. It was then purchased from the gallery by Charles Lang Freer, who took the room apart and reinstalled it in his house in Detroit. After Freer’s death in 1919, the Peacock Room was transported to Washington DC, and installed in the new Freer Gallery of Art. The Peacock Room is now regarded as one of Whistler’s masterpieces.
Meanwhile, Whistler had had the last word in the feud with Leyland. In 1879, bankrupted by the costs of the Ruskin trial and with huge debts from building ‘The White House’, his studio-house in Tite Street, Chelsea, Whistler made a painting which he left in The White House for his creditors to discover when they arrived to make an inventory of his possessions. One of the creditors was his former patron Frederic Leyland.
The Gold Scab, displayed in the Bluecoat exhibition, depicts Leyland as a hideous peacock, seated upon the White House as his piano stool. Whistler caricatured Leyland’s miserliness, piano skills, and habit of wearing frilled shirts (hence the title, “Frilthy Lucre”). Whistler’s butterfly monogram bears a barbed tail poised to strike at Leyland’s neck.
Whistler, ‘The Gold Scab- Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor)’,1879
There’s another caricature of Leyland in the exhibition – a small, decidedly unflattering, etching of a shaven-headed, thin-faced Leyland looking lean and rapacious and again wearing one of his frilly shirts.
Whistler, ‘Caricature of F.R.Leyland’, 1879
After all this feuding we enter calmer waters, with a series of Whistler’s Thames-side etchings, now held locally in the collections of the Walker Art Gallery and Liverpool Central Library.
Whistler, ‘Old Hungerford Bridge’, 1861 (Liverpool Central Library)
Whistler, ‘Old Westminster Bridge, 1859 (Liverpool Central Library)
Whistler, ‘Early Morning Battersea’, 1863 (Liverpool Central Library)
Whistler, ‘Limehouse’, 1859 (Liverpool Central Library)
Whistler, ‘Rotherhithe’, 1860 (Liverpool Central Library)
Whistler, ‘Chelsea Bridge’, 1871 (Walker Art Gallery)
Whistler, ‘The Little Pool’, 1861 (Walker Art Gallery)
The Thames etchings are followed by examples of Whistler’s Venice etchings, many of which were presented in his 1883 exhibition at the Society of British Artists, titled Arrangement in White and Yellow. Whistler arranged for the walls to be painted in different shades of white, the skirting boards yellow, and he displayed his butterfly signature throughout the gallery. He asked the gallery attendants to wear yellow clothes to match and as a final touch, he made small yellow butterflies for his favourite guests to wear at the exhibition’s opening. The press quickly nicknamed the exhibition ‘The Poached Egg’. The catalogue for the exhibition was a personal compilation of heavily edited snippets from
Whistler’s worst press reviews.
Whistler, ‘The Palaces, Venice’, 1879
Whistler, ‘Two Doorways’, 1880
The exhibition culminates in three magical paintings. Sunrise Gold and Grey, is a tiny watercolour from 1883, first exhibited as part of Whistler’s major solo exhibition, Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey, in London in May 1884. Subjects included scenes of Chelsea and the Cornish coast; nocturnes set in both London and Amsterdam; and a series of watercolours of female models in Whistler’s studio. Most were mounted in unusually wide, flat gilt frames Whistler designed himself.
Whistler, ‘Sunrise Gold and Grey’, c 1883, watercolour (not ‘evening’ as labelled)
As with the previous year’s Arrangement in White and Yellow, Whistler showed himself to be at the forefront of exhibition design. He devised the colour scheme for the show – pale pink walls and light grey furniture, while the works were ‘hung on the line’ and well-spaced out – a radical departure from the conventional salon-style hang in which pictures would cover every inch of the walls. Whistler’s approach was controversial and innovative, challenging long-standing assumptions about the display of art, and paved the way for the minimal style of exhibitions familiar today.
Whistler was unusual, too, in describing his works in musical terms – as symphonies, arrangements, harmonies, or nocturnes. The Bluecoat had one of these – Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Piccadilly, an atmospheric impression of thick fog through which pedestrians and omnibuses are barely visible, as pale light glimmers through the murk from windows and gas lamps.
Whistler, ‘Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Piccadilly’, 1881-3
In the summer of 1899, Whistler stayed at Pourville-sur-Mer, near Dieppe, convalescing from a recurrent illness. While he was there, he painted a series of nine small seascapes on panel, thinly brushed, and subdued but refined in colour. One of these paintings, Beach Scene with a Breakwater, concludes the exhibition.
Whistler, ‘Beach Scene with a Breakwater’, 1899
This was a fascinating exhibition, enlivened by the story of Whistler’s feud with the local shipping magnate from Speke Hall. Quite what the connection was with the Biennial theme, A Needle Walks into a Haystack, remains a mystery to me. I can’t do better than end by quoting the last paragraph of Sandra Gibson’s review of the exhibition for Nerve magazine:
You can’t help but be drawn towards someone who was dismissed from the US Military Academy at West Point for “deficiency in chemistry”, who lost his map-drawing job because he drew mermaids and whales and sea serpents in the margins, whose girlfriend was the model for Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866) and who collided with the art establishment with such bloody-minded passion that he took John Ruskin to court. It’s easy to get side-tracked into the nineteenth century road movie that was often Whistler’s life but he was an immense figure in the development of Western art. He had the courage to walk his talk and the passionate conviction not to be floored by ridicule. He was a pioneer in the movement towards abstraction, in the acceptance of colour as subject and the concept that art and its environment are one. His public life might have been tumultuous and financially precarious but his inner conviction was harmoniously tranquil and beautiful, otherwise we wouldn’t have the Nocturnes.