The peacock has always been an important symbol in many different cultures throughout Asia (from where the bird originates), the Middle East, Northern Africa and Europe. For the ancient Greeks it was the bird of Hera (Juno), whose one-hundred-eyed, blue tail feathers symbolised the vault of heaven with its stars. In the Hindu faith it is the mount of Karthikeya, the god of war, and its tail displays the shape of the sacred syllable – the Omkara. The Shahs of Persia sat on the Peacock Throne. And in Christian religion it appeared in the Roman catacombs in the 3rd century as a symbol of the resurrection. This undoubtedly came from an earlier belief that a peacock’s flesh did not decay after death. The “eyes” in the tail also represented the all-seeing eyes of God. It is found widely portrayed in Christian churches in sculpture, mosaics and paintings. A typical example of this is the floor mosaic from the church of St Maria & St Donato, Murano, Italy from 1141. The arrangement is the usual one of two peacocks facing each other across a drinking vessel; in this case they are a symmetrical, though they are frequently symmetrically positioned. And, of course, regardless of these connections, the male bird with its brilliant blue- green body feathers and stupendous tail has always been an extravagant symbol of beauty for everyone.
That the poster for the 2012 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860–1900 showed Lord Leighton’s 1858 painting Pavonia – a woman sitting with a vase of peacock feathers behind her – may give us a clue as to how the peacock became a regular motif in Art Nouveau. If, as the title of Elizabeth Aslin’s 1969 book suggests, the Aesthetic Movement was the prelude to Art Nouveau, then awareness of this use of the peacock as a symbol of beauty may have moved the bird into Art Nouveau consciousness from that source. And the use of the bird in Japanese art and design would have been a further root source for Art Nouveau. Two influential “aesthetic” buildings foregrounded the peacock: George Aitchison’s designs for the interior of 15 Berkeley Square,London (1873) included a peacock frieze drawn by Albert Moore; the interior of shipping magnate Frederick Leyland’s Palace Gate, London house, started by Thomas Jeckyll to display Leyland’s collection of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, and completed as The Peacock Room by James Whistler, a sumptuous oriental-flavoured space, decorated with peacocks in gold and turquoise, now displayed in the Freer Gallery, Washington.
So through such design initiatives, the peacock became a frequent element in the work of major architects and designers in the crossover areas of the Aesthetic Movement, the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau. It can be found in all areas of design throughout Europe and beyond, for example:
–wallpapers: Peacock Gardenby Lewis F. Day (1889) manufactured by Jeffrey & Co.; Peacock by E. W. Godwin (1873) manufactured by Jeffrey & Co. (see Banham, p. 112);
– carpets: Peacock and Bird, hand-knotted carpet by William Morris (c. 1880) [in the Morris Gallery, Walthamstow];
–tapestries: The Forest Tapestry by William Morris (1887) [in the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester] (see Naylor 1988, pp. 232–3);
–fabrics: Peacock & Dragon, woven wool by William Morris (1878) (see Greenhalgh 2000, Fig. 8.4, p. 131); Peacock Feathers by Arthur Silver (1884), manufactured by Liberty (see Banham, p. 124);
– interior decoration: Maurice Pillard Verneuil (1897): L’Animal dans la Décoration. Paris: Librairie Centrale des Beaux-Arts; Bologna, Via Farini 3: Achille Casanova: Peacock Frieze (1902) for apartment (albino peacock) (see Manni, 1988, pp. 66–67);
–paintings: Paul Ranson: Nabi Landscape (1890) (see Greenhalgh, 2000, Fig. 4.5, p. 77); William Degouve de Nuncques: The Peacocks (1896) (in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) (see Roberts-Jones, 1999, p. 140);
– posters: Will H. Bradley: The Modern Poster (1895) for Charles Scribner’s Sons (see King, 1990, p. 136); Camille Martin for the Art Décoratif Exhibition in Nancy, 1894 (see Debive, 1999, p. 29);
–book illustration: The Peacock Skirt in Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Wilde’s Salome (1894);
– ceramics: vases and dishes by William De Morgan – many designs (1870s onwards); vase in white porcelain with two peacocks in relief, Richard-Ginori, Florence (c. 1900) (see Cresti, 1991, p. 46);
–tiles: William De Morgan – many designs (1870s onwards) (see Catleugh, 1983, pp. 120, 139, 142, 158, 164); Peacock Feather by Lewis F. Day (1881), Pilkington’s Tile & Pottery Co.;
– glassware: Peacock Feather Favrile Vase – Louis Comfort Tiffany (1880s onwards) (see Couldrey, 1989, p. 14);
–stained glass: several Peacock Windows were produced by Louis C. Tiffany (1880s onwards) (see Potter/Jackson, 1988, p. 43);
– mosaics: Louis C. Tiffany: Peacock Reredos for Chicago World Fair (1893) (see Potter/Jackson, 1988, pp. 71–72) (in the Mores Museum, Florida);
– metalwork: Fairy with Peacock lamp by Philippe Wolfers (1901) (see Fahr- Becker, p. 130); Peacock Sconce by Alexander Fisher (1899) [in V & A, London] (see Greenhalgh, 2000, Fig. 8.18, p. 144);
– carving/sculpture: Fouquet Boutique Interior by Alphonse Mucha (1900) (in the Carnavalet Museum, Paris) (see George, 2007, Fig. 24);
– jewelry: Peacock necklace in silver, gold, coral and black mother-of-pearl. C. R. Ashbee (c. 1900) (see Becker, p. 25).
In Hungary, however, the situation was rather different from other countries which were largely only familiar with the peacock through its Christian symbolism, and as a creature of exotic and colourful beauty. In Hungary, the peacock was still an integral part of the ongoing folk tradition, found on all forms of local products throughout its territory: all types of embroidery and appliqué work on cloth for household use and for clothing, painted on furniture and ceramics, carved as wooden decoration for houses, and in various forms of metal decoration. The form of the peacock’s tail and the “eyes” also fit well with the shapes used in the traditional floral decoration of materials and domestic objects. As elsewhere in Europe, Hungarian Art Nouveau designers turned to their local folk traditions for inspiration. Various major figures of the Art Nouveau movement – particularly Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch, Sándor Nagy and Ede Toroczkai Wigand – were involved in the huge project overseen by Dezső Malonyay, of cataloguing all forms of Hungarian traditional folk production and producing A magyar nép művészete (“Hungarian Folk Art”) in five profusely-illustrated large volumes, 1907–1922. Indeed, Körösfői-Kriesch wrote the Hungarian peasant art section of The Studio’s special volume in its series on peasant art around Europe, “Peasant Art in Austria and Hungary” (London: 1911), and illustrations 658, 659 and 662 include peacocks!
While the leaders of the two main strands of Hungarian Art Nouveau architecture, Ödön Lechner and Károly Kós, both used elements from the oriental-Magyar and the Transylvanian folk traditions respectively, to my knowledge neither of them used the peacock as a decorative motif. This is also true in Kós’s extensive illustrated writings. However, others did, and in the remainder of this article I would like to examine a number of examples of the use of the peacock in Hungarian Art Nouveau architectural decoration.
Of the 28 buildings that I have found in Budapest with significant peacock decoration on or in them, the peacocks are produced in the following ways: 11 metalwork (mostly wrought ironwork); 15 plasterwork; one ceramics. In addition, one building with metalwork also had glasswork, and one building had moulded concrete and mosaics. It is noticeable that the five earliest buildings all have very naturalistic looking peacock decoration. The oldest of these is Lindenbaum House at Izabella utca 94 by Frigyes Spiegel and Fülöp Weinréb from 1896–97. The building façade itself is a simple rectangular plane, but decorated with perhaps the wildest and most unusual series of plaster reliefs in the city. On the second lowest of the bands of decorations, there are four gilt peacocks interspersed with pairs of snakes, foxes and two gilt naked women. The peacocks are entirely naturalistic. This is also true of the next two buildings, both the work of Albert Körössy. The first is the architect’s own villa at Városligeti fasor 47 from 1899, which has symmetrically-placed plasterwork peacocks at either side of the main circular first floor window. The birds are modelled directly from life, although their stance distorts the natural body-tail relationship. Artistic licence! The second is the Walkó House at Aulich utca 3 from 1901. This building has a façade which is heavily decorated with wildlife in plaster relief – birds, squirrels, frogs – and under the second floor balconies a series of symmetrically placed three pairs of symmetrical peacocks. These birds are beautifully modelled, as if active amongst the vegetation whichsurroundsthem.ThefourthofthisseriesisEmilVidor’sownhouseatVárosligeti fasor 33 from 1904–05. Vidor’s best buildings constantly use asymmetry to play withlines and volumes, and it is thus unsurprising that he perches a single naturalistic plasterwork peacock on his rusticated ground floor balcony. The final peacocks of this series are found symmetrically placed above the main door way of the Neuschlosz House at Báthory utca; this is a work by the architect of a number of major public buildings in Hungary, Ignác Alpár from 1904–05. The rather aggressive looking birds have a somewhat reptilian appearance, but are in many ways very true to life. They are made to fit with the medieval feel of other elements of the decoration, such as the grotesque head in the centre of the arch below them.
The second group of buildings I want to look at feature wrought-iron metalwork, largely on entrance doors, but also in two cases on the stair railings inside. The first of these has the most complete peacock-themed scheme of all the Art Nouveau buildings in Budapest. It is the Piatschek House at Aradi utca 57 by the architect brothers Béla & Sándor Löffler from 1907–08. Unfortunately the building is currently in a poor state of repair, but one can still enjoy the three different Art Nouveau applied art elements it contains. First, one notes the remarkable wrought iron entrance door, which has two highly stylised peacocks, symmetrically placed on either side around the small windows which effectively become their bodies, while the angular form of the tail continues the lozenge shape of the window. A very striking design feature. Once inside the entrance hall, one’s eyes are taken by a series of windows above the doors out into the courtyard; the glasses of these have acid-etched designs of peacocks on them. The design of the bird is very stylised, as are the tree and flowers around it, with their geometric forms. The third peacock-themed element in this building is the stair railings, which have a repeat peacock design running from bottom to top. Here the birds perch on branches amidst other foliage. The enormous Trombitás House at Szilágyi Erzsébet fasor 17–21 by Emil Bauer and Gyula Guttmann from 1911–12 also carries its peacock theme from the entrance doors to the stair railings. Here the first birds you meet are quite naturalistic and symmetrically placed facing each other, while the small birds on the stair railings have different forms as the stairs climb. The doors in the block of flats at Balassi Bálint utca 7 – unknown architect and date – have two wonderful small reversed symmetrical panels of beaten copper in them. The design is so stylised that the bird looks like some mechanical robot peacock from a science fiction story! Architect and date unknown. A different example of the wrought-iron worker’s skill is to be found on the two second-floor balconies of the block of flats at Pannónia utca 6 by Zsigmond & Dávid Jónás from 1909. Here pairs of peacocks perch on the balcony parapets, facing each other across a basket, which is actually the balcony railing – a neat piece of design. They also recall the symmetrical arrangement of the peacocks in Christian and folk art. Perhaps the most interesting piece of metalwork is the beaten-copper panelling which is found on what was designed as the façade of the Jónás Hecht shop at Szent István tér 14 by Béla Lajta in 1906–07. Set over a remarkable iridescent Zsolnay tiled frontage, the copper panelling repeats a highly stylised peacock design that owes something to the Hungarian folk tradition. And no examination of wrought-iron peacocks in Budapest would be complete without the enormous and beautifully restored gates on either side of the Gresham Palace (now the Four Seasons Hotel), with their three peacocks, two in profile and one facing us.
I would like to conclude with three very different sets of peacocks. Two of them are on the same building – the enormous block of flats at Váci utca 78–80 by Henrik Böhn and Ármin Hegedűs from 1912. Above the main entrance gate are two symmetrical moulded concrete peacocks set on gold mosaic backgrounds. The second decorative element here is two pairs of highly colourful mosaic panels set on the top floor, and almost invisible from the narrow street below. The peacocks in each pair face each other on either side of the rooftop flats’ windows, and the panels themselves are simply gorgeous. And to close, a pair of peacocks which return us to near the beginning of the article. On the block of Art Nouveau flats at Molnár utca 21, there are two identical panels which are very close to the Christian originals – a pair of symmetrically positioned plasterwork peacocks drinking.
This article has grown out of my countless walks in the inner city of Budapest. This time, through the example of the peacock motif, I have attempted to give an indication of what a rich variety of design styles within different areas of the applied arts can be found in Hungarian Art Nouveau.
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