The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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18th July 2003 - A Turbulent Summer

The month of July in the year 1877 was a turbulent one for James McNeill Whistler.

A quarrel, which had been developing for some time between the artist and Frederick Richards Leyland, patron and collector, came to a peak; it centred upon both the issues of payment for and completion of various art works commissioned by Leyland (including the Peacock Room), and Whistler's relations with various members of the Leyland family. So after learning that Whistler had ridden with Mrs Leyland in a carriage when this had been forbidden, F. R. Leyland wrote to Whistler on 6 July that "I cannot trust myself to speak of the meanness of your thus taking advantage of the weakness of a woman to place her in such a false position before the world and I write now to tell you that I have strictly forbidden my servants to admit you again" (GUL MS Whistler L117).

This initiated a string of bitter and accusatory letters. Indeed, on 17 July 1877 Leyland warned Whistler in the following terms: "I am told that on Friday last you were seen walking about with my wife at Lord's Cricket Ground... if after this intimation I find you in her society again I will publicly horsewhip you" (GUL MS Whistler L121). Nor did Whistler show restraint in airing his opinions on the matter; he wrote to Leyland that "Your letters are very bad form - and you seem to me as Carlyle says, "to be rapidly developing a capacity for becoming a bore" - It is positively sickening to think that I should have labored to build up that exquisite Peacock Room for such a man to live in!" ([18/22 July 1877], GUL MS Whistler L124).

In typical fashion, the artist then threatened to make public the series of letters (perhaps in pamphlet form) in order to publicise the falling-out. This induced from Leyland (on 24 July) a point by point statement of the case, which included Leyland's thoughts on Whistler's idea of the value of the Peacock Room ("it is really too absurd that you should expect me to pay the exaggerated sum your vanity dictated as its value"), and his opinions on Whistler's character as exhibited in relations with the Leyland family ("your swaggering self-assertion has made you an unbearable nuisance to every one who comes in contact with you.... I [have] felt deeply... the humiliation of having my name so prominently connected with that of a man who had degenerated into nothing but an artistic Barnum") (GUL MS Whistler L128).

As the month drew to a close Whistler rebutted Leyland's claims, reminded the patron of his former admiration for the Peacock Room, and suggested that the men find an arbiter for their quarrels (GUL MS Whistler L130). However, the men remained estranged from then on. As to the publication of the correspondence, it is not thought that Whistler ever fulfilled this plan.