Saturday, 20 September 2014

Rampant Butterfly and Peacock

Thanks to the Whistler Society  [Homepage - The Whistler Society] I went to see the current exhibition at the Bluecoat in Liverpool-  part of the Biennial-  which is worth a visit both for its intelligent selection and understanding of the artist and for its wonderful construction by Olivia de Monceau of a full-size replica in oils, gold leaf, canvas, leather and wood of Harmony in Blue & Gold : the Peacock Room,  one wall in Frederick Leyland’s London mansion.

Leyland was a Liverpool shipowner, so the quarrel between artist and patron makes an apt focus for the presentation, which placed Whistler as a forerunner of the modern artist whose outrageous publicity-seeking is part and parcel of their reputation.  He was certainly one of the first to curate his own solo shows, paying especial attention to the yellow and grey decoration and design of the rooms as well as the hang, and accessories to match.  His emblem being a butterfly derived from ‘JMW’, with a scorpion-sting in its tail, for his exhibition in 1883 he wrote of himself as Butterfly Rampant and claimed to have ordered ‘ a lot of little butterflies made in yellow satin and velvet with their little sting in silver wire which will be worn as badges by the women. Amazers!’

The story of Whistler’s intervention in the Peacock Room is told here [ A Closer Look - James McNeill Whistler - Peacock Room ].  Whistler having boldly re-painted the  elaborate woodwork in colours he deemed necessary to set off the centrepiece, his own painting of Christine Spartali as La Princesse du Pays de Porcelaine, Leyland declined to pay the full amount demanded. 

In retaliation Whistler painted himself and Leyland as a pair of strutting peacocks, one with his own silver quiff, the other rampant  and resplendent with Leyland’s reptilian aspect, and scattered on the ground the coins of the dispute.  

It’s a stunning image, for which all Whistler’s arrogance can be forgiven, especially since Leyland by all accounts was an unpleasant fellow and ruthless businessman, despite his love of art and music.  The exhibition also includes a replica of Whistler’s depiction of Leyland as a peacock with vicious claws on the piano keys, in The Gold Scab : Eruption in Filthy Lucre.
Fine Art Museum San Francisco

The Bluecoat/Biennial is on until the end of October, after which it appears that de Monceau’s magnificent construction will be dismantled, which is a pity as it deserves to be widely seen, and preferably not in a concrete box like those which form the Bluecoat’s contemporary exhibition spaces.  I wonder if it might be re-built at Speke Hall, Leyland’s country house on the outskirts of Liverpool, now owned by the National Trust?  It’d certainly be an attraction.

PS Colm Toibin will be at the Bluecoat at lunchtime on 7 October, responding to the Whistler exhibition. Free tickets here :  

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