Style Court

Textiles, Art History, Gardens, and a Little Mental Traveling with Courtney Barnes 2006-2016


Story of the Beautiful

[Bowl ( Jun ware) 1279-1368. Yuan dynasty. Stoneware with Jun glaze and copper pigment; repaired with metal staples HxW: 8.5 x 15.3 cm. China. Gift of Charles Lang Freer.]

For the notorious Peacock Room, it's been a long and winding drama.

To recap, the story began in the late 1870s when painter James McNeill Whistler, inspired by the rich blues and golds of peacock feathers, went rogue and boldly transformed Frederick Leyland's London dining room to show off the shipping magnate's vast collection of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain (Caught up in the Victorian craze, Chinamania, Leyland's passion for blue-and-white rivaled Mary McDonald's today.) After Leyland's death, his porcelain was sold at auction but American businessman and art collector Charles Lang Freer effectively preserved Whistler's painted leather wall panels, doors, shutters, woodwork -- in short, the room. It was dismantled, shipped to Detroit and reinstalled at Freer's house between 1904 - 1908. Here Freer displayed his personal passion: earthier, more tonal, often iridescent ceramics from the Middle East and Asia.

[Jar 16th-mid 17th century Ming dynasty. Earthenware with copper-green lead-silicate glaze HxW: 15.9 x 18.7 cm. China Gift of Charles Lang Freer.]

Gorgeous greens and blues ranging from turquoise to deep cobalt dominate Freer's collection, and he particularly liked raqqa ware.

Ultimately, the entire room moved again. When Freer died in 1919, The Peacock Room became a permanent part of the newly opened Freer Gallery of Art in D.C. To recapture the first incarnation of the room, the Gallery acquired Kangxi blue-and-white porcelain and for decades it was installed a la Whistler. But two years ago, another reinstallation took place with Freer's pottery returning to the shelves.

The latest chapter involves a new website: The Story of the Beautiful: Freer, Whistler & Their Points of Contact, offering virtual tours of The Peacock Room as it appeared in London and Detroit. For ceramics lovers the site is great because it provides really close views of all the pots, plates, bottles and jugs. These pieces seem to have their own stories to tell, too. And the site's creators have done a terrific job with the historic timeline, placing the evolution of the infamous room in context with international happenings. BTW, this year marks the 90th anniversary of the room being open to the public.


Anonymous said...

What an exciting new resource! Now I just need to find some time to sift through it. :-)

Style Court said...

Jacqueline, you'll love the Japanese pieces!

Emile de Bruijn said...

What a great site, demonstrating so well how context affects the way we see objects, and equally (in the case of Freer's different taste in ceramics) how objects can change the way we see the context!

Emile de Bruijn said...

Oh and I love Freer's taste in pots - yum! :)

Style Court said...

Emile -- knew you'd appreciate Freer's taste! And I agree about the context.