A Passion for Peacocks
Peacock feathers were a favorite design motif of Louis C. Tiffany, who revisited this theme countless times in both his personal life and professional career. Tiffany was so captivated by these exotic creatures that he kept peacocks at Laurelton Hall, his country estate on Long Island, and showcased their colorful plumage at many of his lavish parties. At his legendary Egyptian Fete, Tiffany’s daughter Julia wore a vibrant peacock headdress (now in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York) as part of her ornate costume. Tiffany even hosted a Peacock Feast at Laurelton Hall to honor 150 “men of genius,” where his daughters and their friends theatrically paraded around carrying stuffed peacocks on silver platters.1
The peacock’s beauty has both religious and secular appeal. As the Christian symbol of eternal life, the peacock was particularly well-suited for Tiffany’s ecclesiastical commissions, such as this glass mosaic reredos in Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore.2 Tiffany’s artisans translated the motif into virtually all of the firm’s decorative mediums – including leaded glass windows and lampshades, glass mosaic, blown glass vessels, enamelware, metalwork, and jewelry.
Among the 25 lamps included in our current exhibition at the Queens Museum, “A Passion for Tiffany Lamps,” three prominently feature peacock feathers: an unusual copper hanging shade with a dazzling underside of iridescent glass (Fig. 1), a blown glass base with pulled-feather decoration (Fig. 2), and a table lamp designed en suite where the motif is carried out on both the leaded-glass shade and the bronze work of the base’s armature (Fig. 3). These three lamps are remarkably distinctive in their designs, and yet, they all serve as superb examples of how Tiffany’s designers interpreted this motif in iridescent glass, opalescent glass, bronze, and blown glass.
As one of only two known examples, this Peacock Hanging Shade is exceptionally rare and was perhaps made as a special commission to decorate the home of a wealthy client. The copper exterior is highly unusual for a Tiffany lamp, but the rainbow-hued glass on the interior is unmistakably Tiffany.
Each peacock feather is comprised of several long pieces of iridescent glass which vary in color, from blue and green to pink and purple. The lustrous quality of the iridescent glass makes it the perfect material to replicate the oily sheen of real peacock feathers.
To amplify the light reflecting quality of the shade’s interior, each piece of iridescent glass is backed with metallic foil – a technique Tiffany patented in 1881. Opalescent green and white streaky glass used for the feathers’ “eyes” pop against a background of shimmering iridescence.
Tiffany is perhaps best known for using opalescent glass to capture details and achieve impressionistic effects. In this leaded glass shade, glass selection was key to reproducing the varying colors within each peacock feather without having the dulling effects of enamel paint or the heaviness of over-articulated solder lines. The streaky blue-green and blue-pink glass seen in this detail was likely selected to suggest the play of light across a peacock’s iridescent feathers. In this shade, the solder lines simulate the veins and barbs of each feather.
This bronze base with green blown glass is one of two known surviving examples. Originally made as a fuel lamp, it was later electrified.
The Peacock shade was intended to be paired with a Peacock base. The bronze on the top of the armature is cast to mimic the shorter, fluffier feathers on the peacock’s saddle (or upper back). The feather motif that decorates this colorful leaded-glass shade is also repeated on the foot of the bronze base and inlaid with iridescent glass.
While bronze produced a decidedly more stylized feather, the level of detail in the casting of this base, such as the individual barbs denoted on the foot, is quite remarkable and a testament to the skill of the craftsmen working in Tiffany’s bronze foundry.
This iridescent blown glass base with pulled-feather decoration was originally made as a vase and later converted by the Tiffany Studios to accommodate a lamp shade. Adapting vases such as this was a common practice at the Tiffany Studios, both with the studios’ own blown glass vessels and with pottery by other makers such as Rookwood and Grueby.
The pulled-feather decoration was created during the glass blowing process. Using a blowpipe, the glassblower would inflate a gather of molten glass to form a parison, or a bubble. He would then trail threads of molten glass of different colors onto the parison, pulling and manipulating the threads with a hooked metal instrument to craft the individual barbs of the peacock feathers.3 Because of the unique and experimental nature of this method (no two blown vases were the same), a more natural and sinuous peacock feather could be achieved.
Dr. Neustadt shared Tiffany’s passion for peacocks, with 4 of the more than 200 lamps in his collection highlighting the striking feather motif. You can see these three special examples in The Neustadt Collection Gallery at the Queens Museum. “A Passion for Tiffany Lamps” is on view through April 2018.
1 For more information on Tiffany’s lavish parties, see Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen “The Art of Magnificent Living: Life at Laurelton Hall” in Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall: An Artist's Country Estate (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006), pp. 191-201.
2 Christianity adopted the peacock as a symbol of immortality from the Ancient Greeks, who believed that the peacock’s flesh did not decay after death.
3 To learn more about Tiffany’s blown glass, see Paul E. Doros The Art Glass of Louis C. Tiffany (New York: Vendome Press, 2013).
Citation: Albahary, Morgan. "A Passion for Peacocks." In Tiffany Tidbits. New York: The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass.
http://neustadtcollection.org/a-passion-for-peacocks (February 2017)