As odd as it sounds, a place where we don’t seem to be eating a lot these days is the dining room. For some people, it’s more of a rec room or storage area, a place where your nicest furniture gathers dust. But at their height, during the Victorian era in Europe and America, dining rooms were the power center of the home; it was one of the only spaces in your house that you allowed people to see. Managing producer Sally Swift talked with Lee Glazer, Curator of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, about the history and function of the dining room. They also toured one of the world’s most famous dining rooms, The Peacock Room. The room is famous for its beauty and art but also for its story of betrayal, obsession, and a feud that two men took to their deathbeds.

Lee Glazer: The Victorian period was the apogee of the dining room as a domestic space.  The dining room comes into its own in the 19th century. Part of the reason has to do with the advent of consumer culture and the rise of the middle class, along with an increasing division between public and private space. The dining room was a kind of private space that was also quasi-public; it was a space where you would invite people outside of your domestic circle in. 

Sally Swift:  Do you have an idea of when dining rooms started to change their power?

LG: In terms of going from this important distinct space in the house to becoming --

SS: More communal?

Lee Glazer in The Peacock Room at Freer | Sackler Gallery (Photo courtesy: Smithsonian Institution)

LG: More communal and less formal.  I would say it happens after the Second World War. Certainly, we see a lot of changes after the First World War in terms of “not so many.” People who watched Downton Abbey know that even rich people no longer have so many servants, and you're doing things more for yourselves. But it's really after the Second World War with the kind of complete democratization of consumer culture, the rise of convenience foods, different kinds of entertaining, the advent of television; all of these things contribute to a much more informal lifestyle where you're no longer embarrassed to see the spaces where food is being prepared. 

SS: The interiors of the homes? 

LG: Exactly. The “behind the scenes” becomes “front of house.”

SS: It becomes entertainment. 

LG: I would say that up through the 1970s or 1980s, most new construction still has a set dining room and a set kitchen, but people don't know what to do with the dining room. They're not using it; everyone is congregating in the kitchen. Now, new construction has no division between those spaces.  It's quite seamless, and the kitchen has supplanted the dining room as the place where you show off your expertise and sophistication.

SS: And your giant stove.

LG: And your fancy food.

SS: It’s no longer hidden.

Two images of The Peacock Room. Left: original dining room of Leyland home in London. Right: room restored and on display at Freer | Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. Photos: Freer | Sackler Gallery

During the interview, Sally and Lee walked through The Peacock Room at Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler Gallery. The historic dining room has been installed at the gallery since 1923.

SS: What we consider a dining room today is a far cry from the magnificent room we are standing in. The crazy story of this room, The Peacock Room, provides a lesson in exactly what Lee was talking about when she was talking public-versus-private space.  This is a room for eating, but really it's a room about showing off. It's a jewel box. The walls are painted – you guessed it – peacock blue.  The ceiling is covered in gold leaf, and there are peacock feathered designs painted everywhere.  It's like being inside a Fabergé egg. 

Gilded shelves line the room to hold vases which is how this story starts.  The dining room was built in a townhouse in London by a rich industrialist named Frederick Leyland, who wanted to show off his collection of Chinese porcelain.  He hired an architect, Thomas Jeckyll, to do the work. One day when the room was nearly done, Jeckyll turned to a guy who was working on some decoration in the front hall for some paint color advice.  The guy was James McNeill Whistler.  Yes, that Whistler.  Artist with a capital A.  Does the painting Whistler's Mother ring a bell? That guy. No surprise, Whistler had some good ideas about paint color, and that is where the story turned. He took over in a seriously bossy pants way. 

LG: And everyone was happy with that. Jeckyll approved. Leyland approved. Whistler was pleased with himself for coming up with this motif that was inspired by a peacock feather. At that moment, Jeckyll had to stop working on the room. He probably suffered from bipolar disorder; he had an episode and had to go off to the hospital. This would have been in early summer of 1876. The social season in London was over, and the Leyland family went off to their country house outside of Liverpool, Speke Hall, and left Whistler alone and unsupervised in the room. That was when his imagination took flight. Throughout the whole summer of 1876, he is writing the Leyland family letters saying, "I am preparing a gorgeous surprise for you. You're never going to believe it. Everyone is going to be so jealous." What he had proceeded to do was to cover literally every surface of the room with patterns inspired by the peacock plumage. 

Left: The mural of two peacocks - painted by James McNeill Whistler - symbolizes Leyland and Whistler; it is entitled "Art and Money: or, The Story of the Room." Right: Whistler and his trademark white feathery forelock. Photos: Freer | Sackler Gallery

SS: Now remember, Whistler was telling Leyland not to come home because he wanted that room to be perfect. When he finally feels he is close enough to being done, he sends Leyland the all clear sign, and…

LG: Leyland was shocked when he came back to London. He couldn't believe the complete transformation of the room. He couldn't believe that Whistler was asking 2,000 guineas, a huge sum of money, for work that Leyland said he neither asked for nor desired. The straw that broke the camel's back was that Leyland was this incredibly brooding, introverted guy, and Whistler had invited other artists and members of the press to watch him work in the room. One of the problems with doing interior decoration is that it's in a private space; how are people going to know that he's creating this masterpiece? Leyland felt that his privacy had been breached.  He was absolutely furious with Whistler, and then Whistler became furious with Leyland. 

Fireplace, painting and collection of porcelain pieces in The Peacock Room. Photos: Freer | Sackler Gallery

SS: This is now one hot mess. It's important to remember that the room was still not finished. The prime wall space at the very end of the room was empty. It was begging for a painting, and that was the site for Whistler's ultimate retaliation against Leyland's ingratitude. 

LG: Whistler went absolutely crazy. The room wasn't finished yet, so this space opposite the fireplace – which now has the mural of the two fighting peacocks – was empty. It was empty because, many years before, Leyland had commissioned and paid for a painting of women in white dresses. It was to be a fourth "Symphony in White" by Whistler.  Whistler had never finished it, and after he got mad at Leyland over The Peacock Room, he decided Leyland was never going to have that painting which was to have been the perfection of art.

Instead, he came back in the room and painted this mural of two fighting peacocks that he called "Art and Money: or, The Story of the Room." And there are two allegorical portraits of the artist on the left and the patron on the right. If you look closely at the patron peacock – Leyland – you will see that he's literally made of money. He has got breast feathers of gold and silver coins, and the shillings that he shorted Whistler by paying in pounds rather than in guineas are scattered in his feet in platinum leaf. Platinum never tarnishes, so this was to ensure that they would always sort of pop and call attention to themselves. 

Detail of south wall mural. Photo: Freer | Sackler Gallery

SS: And Whistler is quite beautifully represented in that painting? 

LG: He's is. He's also quite recognizable because he has given himself a platinum leaf crest feather.  Whistler had this big head of dark, curly hair but a white forelock. It was a family trait; it was his trademark. Everyone in London knew him by his white forelock. He would sometimes tie it up with a red ribbon to make it stand up. People coming into this room for a dinner would have looked at this mural and immediately recognized he was represented. 

SS: And this is the painting that Leyland had to look at for every dinner, correct? 

LG: It was. Leyland never did admit that he liked the room. In fact, Leyland ultimately said to Whistler, “If I ever see you even speaking to a member of my family again, I'll publicly horsewhip you.” By summer of 1877, they were completely estranged, and Whistler himself never saw The Peacock Room again.  Meanwhile, Leyland, claiming he didn't like the room, must have recognized that he had a masterpiece because he never changed a thing. He could have very easily hired somebody to come in and redo it all.  He would have been seated for the rest of his life – he died in 1892 – at the head of his table looking at the unflattering portrait of himself as a parsimonious peacock. 

SS:  That's a pretty amazing story, the wild tale of The Peacock Room. I think it’s a great story to pull out the next time you find yourself around a dining room table.

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The Peacock Room is part of Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art. For more information and to plan your visit, see the Freer Gallery of Art website.

Sally Swift
Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.