Tail of a Peacock

October 1 2009, 11:01am

A unique workbox in the form of a Peacock. Carlton Hobbs LLC. Things are not always what they seem, and nothing could be truer than when looking at this early 19th century sewing box in the elaborate form of a peacock. Standing at just over 5 1/2 feet tall, the piece initially looks like an intricately carved and inlaid wooden sculpture of a peacock standing on a hexagonal base. But on further inspection one finds that the peacock’s neck and head drop forward to reveal a workbox with two drawers containing silver gilt sewing tools. The tail can also be removed to reveal a pincushion. Another drawer is concealed at the top of the hexagonal base which contains spools of thread. A door in the base opens to reveal a plain interior with a further drawer at the bottom. The workbox, opened. The peacock has been used in art to depict numerous attributes. Because the peacock annually replaces its plumage, it is seen as a symbol of renewal. The ancients believed that its flesh did not decay, making it also a symbol of immortality. Peacocks are associated with Juno, goddess of the stars and sky, because of the blue and golden colors of its feathers. She is said to have bestowed on it “100 eyes.” Finally, the peacock featured in early Christianity to symbolize resurrection, but evolved to represent pride and vanity. According to the German scholar Frank Moeller, this workbox is a unique creation from one of the leading early 19th century Berlin workshops, with several factors conspiring toward this conclusion. The use of highly distinctive ‘pyramid’ mahogany, that is, mahogany whose grain structure is highly decorative and whose layerd make-up culminates in a point, thus giving the name ‘pyramid,’ is a strong keynote of high-quality furniture in Berlin from 1815-1835. Vorzimmer von König, Schloss Pfaueninsel. The carving to the workbox is remarkable and here Moeller has pointed to the workshop of Johann Christian Sewening, whose pieces contain many of the same characteristics found in the workbox including the carved molding; the use of Pyramid mahogany, complimented by the unusual use of green stained holly; and the design of the gilded metal parts of the neccessaire of the workbox, which combines both neoclassical and Rococo features. Sewening was cabinetmaker to the court and a project as ambitious as this workbox would have been extremely costly, which makes it very likely to have been a royal commission. We hypothesized that, because of the craftsmanship and subject matter, it was possible that the workbox was made for the Schloss at Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island). The island, situated in the Havel River, was purchased in 1793 by King Friedrich Wilhelm II and a castle was built in the form of a mock-medieval palace as a retreat for the King and his mistress, Countess Wilhelmine von Lichtenau. The island served as a zoological park and menagerie that included the peacocks from which the island takes its name.  Allusions to the birds can be found throughout the Schloss, including a large peacock applied to the wall in the Vorzimmer von König (King’s anteroom) [figure 1]. Charlotte of Prussia (who became Empress Alexandra Fedorovna) However, it was brought to our attention by Dr. Samuel Wittwer (director of the Palaces and Collections for the Foundation for Prussian Palaces and Gardens Berlin-Brandenburg) that the Schloss had fallen out of use by this time. He suggested instead, that while the peacock was most probably made in Berlin, it belonged to a Russian palace due to its uncharscteristicly exotic character (whereas Berlin pieces tended to be strongly architectural). There is a compelling connection between the Russian and Prussian courts in the marriage of Emperor Nicholas I to Princess Charlotte of Prussia, and we are currently exploring this alternative. As she is depeicted in figure 2, the apparel of the princess shows her predeliction for the exotic.