Double-take

The Peacock Room wityh blue and white Chinese Ceramics of the Kangxi period. © 2010 - 2013 Smithsonian Institution and Wayne State University Libraries

The Peacock Room with blue and white Chinese porcelain of the Kangxi period. © 2010 – 2013 Smithsonian Institution and Wayne State University Libraries

Fellow blogger Courtney Barnes recently mentioned a website called The Story of the Beautiful, which chronicles the remarkable and revealing history of the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

As The Story of the Beautiful describes, the Peacock Room was originally constructed by architect Thomas Jeckyll for the London house of shipowner Charles Leyland in the mid 1870s, as a cabinet to display blue and white Chinese porcelain. Then the artist James McNeill Whistler spectacularly redecorated the room, transforming it into a three-dimensional work of art.

The Peacock Room with various Asian ceramics. © 2010 - 2013 Smithsonian Institution and Wayne State University Libraries

The Peacock Room with various Asian ceramics. © 2010 – 2013 Smithsonian Institution and Wayne State University Libraries

After Leyland’s death the room was purchased by American industrialist and collector Charles Lang Freer in 1904 and shipped to his house in Detroit. Freer had a different taste in ceramics, preferring subtle glaze effects and collecting wares from across the whole of Asia.

After being moved from Detroit to the public art gallery Freer had initiated and funded in Washington, the Peacock Room was initially displayed with blue and white porcelain, as it had been in London. Now, following the cleaning and conservation of the painted decoration, Freer’s choice of ceramics has been reinstated.

Apart from having a model website, this project also demonstrates brilliantly how objects are changed by their physical context. It simultaneously proves how the context is changed when the objects within it are changed. And on top of that it illustrates how a historic interior can have more than one valid appearance – quite an achievement for a single room, but then this is not just any old room.

4 Responses to “Double-take”

  1. style court Says:

    Emile — I like how you hit on “more than one valid appearance.” This issue comes up a lot. Of course, with The Peacock Room there are no wrenching decisions about changing wall color, as there are with other notable houses and rooms — just a matter of changing what is displayed :) And digital technology makes it easy for the public to experience all the chapters in the life of this room.

    Thanks for picking up on the post.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed Courtney, I am fascinated by that often unsolvable problem as to what the ultimate version of a room is. The Peacock Room is a wonderful case study in that respect – should be used to start of any talk about the conceptual underpinnings of the study of historic interiors :)

  3. Tom Says:

    Yes, from a historical perspective interesting it has multiple appearances, but oh, how much better it looks with blue and white glossy ceramics! :)

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    So you are clearly among the blue-and-white school of thought, then :) It also reminds me of the Japanese tea ceremony, where there is the opportunity to try out combinations of different colours and textures on different occasions.

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