A room in the V&A at the moment contains a decaying replica of one of the most famous interior designs of the late 19th century.

The Peacock Room is famous not just for the elaborate decoration, but also for sending its creator mad, the second designer into penury and the owner quite furious.

In the 1870s, the rich shipping businessman, Frederick Leyland hired architects and designers to redecorate his London home, and one designer, Thomas Jeckyll got to work on a room to show off Leyland’s collection of porcelain.

Nearly finished, Jeckyll fell ill, and another artist working in the house, James McNeill Whistler was given permission to make modest changes and complete the work.

He changed it dramatically, such that when Leyland returned from a trip he was so furious that he refused to pay Whistler for the work, and the battle between the two became the talk of the town. Whistler filed for bankruptcy a few years later, with Leyland as his main creditor, and when the original artist, Thomas Jeckyll was well enough to go back and see the room, it’s said that he went insane.

The room was later sold and shipped to the USA to be reassembled, and is now in the Smithsonian museum in Washington DC.

But now, a replica is in London — an installation by contemporary artist Darren Waterston, replicates The Peacock Room in a state of decay and disrepair. The journey is reversed. The original was created in London and shipped to the USA, whereas this artistic version was created in the USA, and shipped to London.

A dark void next to the main entrance of the V&A museum hosts a video about the original room, but through a dark door you step back a century in time to a richly decorated space. The ornate ceiling with its glowing lamps and all around the rich decoration of the original, and the two fighting peacocks, said to represent Whistler and Leyland fighting over the decoration.

The richness of the decoration is itself an illusion, a play on the original, and a fraction of the cost.

However, look closer and you spy the the decay, the broken pottery and the gloomy interior whispers of death and failure surrounded by forlorn wealth.

A room famous not for the owner, or the original decorator, but the usurper who snuck in and redecorated it without permission.

The display: Filthy Lucre: Whistler’s Peacock Room Reimagined is at the V&A Museum until 3rd May and entry is free.


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