'Filthy Lucre' is an immersive installation by contemporary American artist Darren Waterston, presenting a detailed reimagining of James Abbott McNeill Whistler's famed Peacock Room – a sumptuous 19th-century dining room once housed just a stone's throw away from the V&A, and now installed at the Freer Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
James McNeill Whistler's Peacock Room
The original Peacock Room, at 49 Princes Gate, London, was designed to showcase the porcelain collection of Frederick Richards Leyland (1831 – 92), a British shipping magnate. The painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) made it notorious, however, by decorating it far beyond the instructions of his friend and patron. Whistler was initially invited to consult on the room's colour scheme, but whilst Leyland was away from London, he redesigned the entire room in vivid blues and iridescent green-golds combined with images of peacocks. Through his extravagance, Whistler created a masterpiece of interior design in the Aesthetic style, but Leyland refused to pay Whistler's expensive fee in full. Fuelled by their clashing personalities, the argument was splashed across London's society tabloids, turning the once great friends into enemies.
In 1904 the American art collector and industrialist Charles Lang Freer bought the room and shipped it to America. It ultimately found a home at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Filthy Lucre by Darren Waterston
Waterston's installation is an unsettling re-interpretation of Whistler's celebrated Peacock Room, inspired by the tension between art and money, ego and patronage. Filthy Lucre faithfully recreates each of the Peacock Room's individual elements with a twist, drawing parallels between the economic inequality of the Victorian era and today. Replicating, accentuating and distorting the lavish interior of Whistler's masterpiece, Waterston transforms the room into an uneasy experience of destruction and twisted excess, revealing a magnificent ruin crumbling under the weight of material decadence and the egos of those involved in its creation.
The title Filthy Lucre is inspired by a vengeful caricature Whistler painted called The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre, 1879, depicting Leyland as a hideous, grasping peacock, mocked for his miserliness and his unfashionable frilly shirts.
I set out to recreate Whistler's fabled Peacock Room in a state of decadent demolition – a space collapsing in on itself, heavy with its own excess and tumultuous history.
Created through extensive collaboration, Filthy Lucre demonstrates master craftsmanship to reimagine the luxurious wood panelling, ornate lighting pendants and stunning ceramics collection, as well as decorative wall art and a captivating central portrait that draws viewers into the room.
This craftmanship draws parallels with the V&A's vast collections, encompassing interior design, decorative arts, painting and ceramics. On display for the first time in the UK, the installation also features supporting material and video content to further explore the fascinating history of this iconic room and reveal a behind-the-scenes look at Waterston's process. A soundscape by New York-based rockers BETTY enhances the installation experience, filling the space with muffled gossiping voices and a mournful cello.
Waterston's magisterial work evokes not only the gilded age of interior design but the biting wit and fragmented relationships of the protagonists; Whistler, Leyland and the original architect of the room, Thomas Jeckyll whose contribution was effectively obliterated by Whistler’s extravagant reworking. The Peacock Room has returned to South Kensington with a vengeance!
Darren Waterston's Filthy Lucre is on display at the V&A's Porter Gallery, South Kensington, 25 January – 3 May 2020. Entrance is free.
The installation was created by the artist in collaboration with MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.
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