The saga of the family who went from illegal distillers to pillars of the whisky establishment.
On a book promo trip to the US recently I, amazingly, had some free time in Washington DC, so my wonderful minder Liz recommended we head to the Freer Museum to see Whistler’s Peacock Room.
Charles Freer, for those of you who don’t already know, was an American who made his fortune building railway cars (or, I suspect, getting other people to do so) and who then invested heavily in Asian art, eventually donating his collection to the nation and building a museum in which it could be housed. A good guy.
The Peacock Room is the museum’s big draw. It was commissioned in 1876 by the Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland as a dining room in which he could display his collection of blue-and-white Chinese porcelain.
Leyland, who had already commissioned Whistler to paint portraits of his family, hired the artist to decorate the room – and then went away on business. Fatal mistake.
In his patron’s absence, Whistler created an opulent chamber in blue, green and gold. It’s gilded, the ceiling is made of oxidised brass, every surface is patterned, the shutters carry pictures of golden peacocks.
The artist then presented Leyland with a bill for 2,000 guineas (about £50,000 in today’s money). Leyland baulked at the sum, paid £1,000 and bankrupted Whistler.
Before the bankruptcy hearing, Whistler finished the room with a painting of two peacocks: one aggressive, the other wounded. Silver coins litter the ground. He called it Art and Money. The Story of the Room.
In 1904, Freer, another of Whistler’s patrons, bought the room, and installed it in his home in Detroit to display his collection of ceramics, which is what we see in the museum today.
Opulent: Whistler's Peacock Room (Photo: Freer Gallery of Art)
It’s wider-ranging than Leyland’s, more subtle and thoughtfully assembled. It’s a proper collection, juxtaposing large and small, humble and grand – the pieces chosen not just for beauty, but for the tone of their glaze, their flaws.
The room makes more sense with the Freer ceramics. Freer got Whistler, he got Asian art. Leyland, you feel, didn’t. He acquired and displayed.
The room is extraordinary – a remarkable achievement – but eventually becomes claustrophobic, so I headed to an exhibit of artworks by the 17th-century Chinese artist Bada Shanren – prince, Zen monk, artist and, some say, madman. My kind of guy.
The pieces were simple, almost abstract, filled with allusion, their often huge blank spaces as important as what was filled in.
I mused, as one should in a museum, about how little has changed. Rich collectors are still asking the same of artists – except it’s now ‘give me something to go with the sofa’.
Names are more important than quality, the pieces no more than eye candy. Whistler’s analogy of the peacocks still holds true.
The Peacock Room had seemed strangely familiar. Now I knew why – it was like a bar with the ceramics as bottles. Leyland’s collection was the type of bar where all the bottles are behind glass, Freer’s chosen because of the pleasure they gave.
Woe betide us if whisky ever gets into the situation where it is only the rich who can commission bottles and the producers (the artisans) oblige. Could it happen? It already is.
I then thought of how I still preferred the space of the paintings, the room to breathe, contemplate and enjoy, away from the clutter, noise and the sounds of peacocks squabbling.
That holds true for whisky as well.
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