Fine Feathers: A Brief History of the Peacock as Decoration

Retrospect

Peacocks are everywhere these days, their iridescent feathers and decadent beauty inspiring decorative imitations both abstract and literal. But this is no recent trend. Peacocks have been a favorite ornamental motif for millennia. Let's look at a few snapshots of the peacock in design history.

Peacocks have been a symbol of wealth, beauty and rebirth since ancient times — and a symbol of dangerous pride, as well. Their images could be found in early Christian tomb art, and were a favorite motif in ancient Rome and Byzantium (image 2). In India, where peacocks originally come from, they were a symbol of royalty. Indian rulers would have servants fan them with peacock feathers, and you can see peacocks on this 15th-century victory banner from Gujarat (image 3). The leaf from a 17th-century Ottoman album (image 4) is an homage to a Turkish sultan; a calligraphic paean to him in decorative Arabic script traces the inner lines of the peacock's tail. Peacocks and peacock imagery appeared in Western European design as well at this time, as on an English tureen and cover with a peacock feather motif from the 18th century (image 5).

But it was near the end of the 1800's that peacocks became particularly popular in Western visual culture. Designers like William Morris looked to other cultures and ages for a model of a pre-industrial craft-based production system where workers could find dignity and joy in their labors. Morris used our bird in his 1878 "Peacocks and Dragons" curtains (image 6) partly because of the popularity of peacocks during the Middle Ages as a symbol of Christ's resurrection, and partly because of their resonance with Islamic design. Morris had recently visited a shop in London that he described as "all vermilion and gold and ultramarine, very beautiful and…just like going into the Arabian Nights."

Around the same time, a group of English artists and designers became known as the Aesthetics. Their credo was "art for art's sake," and their goal was to produce and experience works of beauty and pleasurable resonance. Like Morris, this group was often inspired by the designs of other cultures, particularly Japan and the Islamic world. Understandably, the peacock, a creature defined by beauty, was one of the prevailing symbols of the movement. (The other main symbol was the sunflower, which turns its face to follow the sun, another apt metaphor for this pleasure-seeking group.)

James McNeill Whistler was one of the main Aesthetic artists, and his Peacock Room (image 7) is the archetypal Aesthetic interior, and is a great story: A shipping magnate, Frederick Leyland, asked Whistler to make minor touch-ups to his London dining room, and then left town. Meanwhile, Whistler created this lavish interior, painting over the expensive leather on the walls with blue paint and huge quantities of silver and gold leaf. (He also entertained friends at Leyland's house, and even had an affair with his wife). When Leyland got the bill, he was understandably stunned, and refused to pay for this extravagant work he had not commissioned. Finally, he coughed up half the sum that Whistler had demanded. In retaliation, Whistler sneaked back into his house and painted the final panel of two peacocks fighting. He entitled it "Art and Money; or the Story of the Room," and depicted one of the peacocks with a ruffled shirt like the ones that Leyland always wore, and with silver coins spilling from his breast.

The peacock continued as a favored motif into the Art Nouveau era. Walter Crane created a Peacock Dish in a style related to both Islamic and Indian traditions in 1906 (image 8), while Louis Comfort Tiffany used ancient Syrian glass-making techniques to create the iridescence of his Peacock Vase in the 1890's (image 9). The illustrator Aubrey Beardsley used the peacock as a motif throughout his 1894 illustrations for Oscar Wilde's play, Salomé (image 10), emphasizing the decadent aspect of the bird's exquisite beauty. The London department store, Liberty's, which championed the Aesthetic style, produced a peacock-feather furnishing fabric in 1887 (image 11) that was reintroduced in 1975, and is still popular today.

Peacocks remain a popular motif today, perhaps because they can be beautiful as both a graphic image and as a representation of nature. We love Dwell Studio's Peacock duvet set, with a striking blue-on-marigold peacock pattern (image 12). If you have a penchant for peacock plumes, you could put that bedding set in a room with Matthew Williamson's richly-hued rug for the Rug Company (image 1). Or you could emulate Anna Sui and eschew artistic interpretation in favor of the real thing — she has a beautiful taxidermied peacock on her mantle (image 13).

Images: 1 Matthew Williamson, Peacock Rug for the Rug Company; 2 Roman or Byzantine, Mosaic with a Peacock and Flowers, 3rd-4th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 3 Victory banner, Gujarat, India, 1447. Gouache, ink and gold on cotton. Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 4 Ottoman Album leaf, Turkey, ca. 1600-1650. Ink, colors and gold on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 5 Chelsea Porcelain factory, Tureen, cover and stand, England, ca. 1765-70. Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 6 William Morris, Peacock and Dragon Curtains, London, 1878. Hand-loom jacquard-woven woolen twill with braid trimmings. Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 7 James McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, London, 1876-77. Oil paint and metal leaf on leather, canvas and wood. Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC; 8 Walter Crane, Peacock Dish, England, 1906. Earthenware and lustered colors. Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 9 Louis Comfort Tiffany, Peacock Vase, New York, 1893-96. Favrile glass. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 10 Aubrey Beardsley, "The Peacock Skirt," from Salomé, 1894. Via The Victorian Web; 11 Arthur Silver, furnishing fabric for Liberty's of London, roller-printed cotton, 1887. Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 12 Dwell Studio, Peacock bedding, image via Christiane Lemieux/Dwell; 13 Anna Sui's living room, photographed by Eric Boman for Elle Decor.

(Re-edited from a post originally published 02/11/10 - AH)

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