Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Proud as a Peacock

Of the five universities in Western Australia only one has the bragging rights of having a family of peacocks amongst its faculty. As befits its status as the state’s only sandstone university, The University of Western Australia provides sanctuary and a home for India’s national bird.

Donated to the university by mining magnate, Sir Laurence Brodie-Hall, almost 40 years ago they currently reside at the Faculty of Arts’ open air replica of an Elizabethan theatre, The New Fortune Theatre. Held in such high esteem these birds have their own page on the University’s official website along with their own Facebook page

With a history that goes back to ancient Greece peacocks have been revered for their beauty, elegance and arrogance although their voice avoids any such comparison. James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room now on display at Washington DC’s Freer Gallery of Art perhaps best epitomizes these traits.

A commission that fell into Whistler’s lap by chance is a story of beauty and acrimony. In 1876 British shipping magnate and arts patron Frederick Richards Leyland was renovating his London house and Whistler volunteer to touch up parts of the dining room. Leyland agreed and then left town. Alone and unsupervised Whistler ran amok, inviting friends over to party, having an affair with his wife and executing an extreme makeover of the dining room.

Upon his return Leyland was not impressed and reduced the artist’s agreed fee from guineas to pounds. Whistler responded in kind adding "Art and Money; or the Story of the Room," to the rooms décor. Whistler is also reported to have prophetically told the magnate "I have made you famous. My work will live when you are forgotten. Still, per chance, in the dim ages to come you will be remembered as the proprietor of the Peacock Room."

This symbol of vainglory, a darling of designers and painters, has been given another lease of life with an exhibition at New York’s Hudson River Museum. The museum claims that Strut: ThePeacock and Beauty in Art is the first scholarly survey of the peacock in art. With some 150 objects from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries it is a raison d’être for those enamored by this relative of the pheasant, the grouse and the turkey.

For those unable to get to the Yonkers museum there is a 200 page, lavishly illustrated catalogue published by Fordham University Press available.

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