Peacock (one of a pair)

Factory Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory British

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 512

Figures of birds were produced at the Chelsea factory from its earliest years (entry 79), and they accounted for an important category of the sculptural work done by the factory in its first decade or so. The vast majority of birds were made during the Raised Anchor period (1749–52), and it appears that approximately half of all figural models created during these years represent various types of birds.[1] Most of them are small in scale, modeled with relatively little detail, and supported on sturdy tree-trunk bases, but typically their enamel decoration animates their simple forms. At least twenty-two of the models are based on plates from A Natural History of Uncommon Birds, and of Some Other Rare and Undescribed Animals, Quadrupeds, Fishes, Reptiles, Insects, &c. (1743–51), the influential publication by British ornithologist George Edwards (1694–1773), which appeared sequentially in four volumes beginning in 1743.[2] Edwards’s renderings of hundreds of species of birds were distinguished by the accuracy with which they were portrayed, including their coloration. This concern for scientific rigor was uncommon, and Edwards helped establish ornithology as a serious discipline.

It is notable that the Chelsea factory elected to use Edwards’s prints as a source, reflecting the factory’s serious intent and artistic ambitions. The first two volumes of A Natural History, which provided the sources for the Raised Anchor period birds, represented the most up-to-date and scholarly ornithological research, and the factory’s awareness of new information concerning the natural world was to inform the decoration of the so-called botanical plates that appeared only a few years later (entry 82).

The birds produced during these years must have been commercially successful given the large number of models created, but for reasons that are not clear, the popularity of these figures declined in the following Red Anchor period (ca. 1752–58), and relatively few new models appeared. This pair of peacocks, while unmarked, must date to these same years, since the only other known pair of this model bears the Red Anchor mark (fig. 54).[3] The peacocks are considerably larger than any of the birds produced during the preceding period, and they are significantly more ambitious in their modeling and complexity. It is not clear how the small birds of the Raised Anchor period were intended to be displayed, but the scale of the peacocks suggests that they most likely were regarded as independent sculptures and not destined to decorate the dessert table. While both peacocks are fully modeled and decorated in the round, the direction in which the heads face is clearly the primary view. No source has been found for their design, and while Edwards included a peacock in volume two of A Natural History, the resemblance between his rendering and either of the Chelsea peacocks is only generic.[4]

The modeler at Chelsea clearly conceived the two peacocks as a pair, as indicated by their complementary poses. Ornithological accuracy does not seem to have been a concern, based on the fact that if the modeler wished to depict a male and a female peacock correctly, the latter would have been notably smaller than the male. In addition, the coloration of both porcelain peacocks is very similar, whereas in nature, the female peacock, more accurately known as a “peahen,” would normally have much more muted feathers. The painted decoration of both birds gives prominence to the “eyes” of the tail feathers, which are the most distinctive aspect of the male peacock. The circles of pale blue, yellow, and purple enamel augmented by fine lines in red create an almost luminous effect that skillfully evokes the iridescence of a male peacock’s feathers. Each bird’s body is left mostly undecorated with the plumage only suggested by areas of purple, yellow, and pale blue. There are slight differences in the decoration of the two birds, and it appears they may have been decorated by two different painters at the factory.

The peacocks would have presented technical challenges to both model and fire, particularly because of the attenuated lower section depicting the tail feathers. While the bodies of the birds are supported by a sturdy tree trunk, a branch from the trunk provides the only brace for the large expanse of feathers. Not surprisingly, the tail- feather sections of each bird have suffered damage over time and have been repaired, but to have attempted this compositional element speaks to the factory’s confidence in its technical capabilities. After the tail feathers, the elongated necks would have been the most difficult to model, yet the sinuous line that begins at the head, descends through the neck, and terminates with the tail feathers makes these peacocks among the most remark-able of all of Chelsea’s figural production.

(For key to shortened references see bibliography in Munger, European Porcelain in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018)
1 Adams 2001, p. 92.
2 Ibid.
3 Sotheby’s 2013, no. 436. The major difference between the peacocks that were at Sotheby’s and those at the Museum are that the former are deco-rated primarily with fruit rather than leaves on their tree- trunk bases.
4 Edwards 1743–51, vol. 2 (1747), pl. 67, where the bird is described as a “Peacock Pheasant from China.” It is colored in a range of muted browns, as is typical of most female peacocks, in contrast to the enamels used to decorate the Chelsea birds.

#413. Retail Value. High and Low

Peacock (one of a pair), Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory (British, 1745–1784, Red Anchor Period, ca. 1753–58), Soft-paste porcelain decorated in polychrome enamels, British, Chelsea

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L: 64.101.480; R: 64.101.481