Pewabic Pottery among the Peacocks: The Partnership of Charles Lang Freer and Mary Chase Perry-Stratton

By Rinck, Jonathan | Ceramics Art & Perception, March 2013 | Go to article overview
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Pewabic Pottery among the Peacocks: The Partnership of Charles Lang Freer and Mary Chase Perry-Stratton


Rinck, Jonathan, Ceramics Art & Perception


THE PEACOCK ROOM IS ONE OF THE MOST WELL-KNOWN products of the 19th century aesthetic movement, perhaps largely because of the story of its creation. American artist James McNeil Whistler painted the room in 1876-1877 which, at the time, belonged to the London home of Frederick Leyland. Although he was only supposed to retouch a botched paint job by a previous artist, Whistler famously gave the room a complete makeover while Leyland was away. Upon his return, Leyland was mortified and fired Whistler, but this did not stop the tenacious Whistler from returning and adding the now famous peacocks on the wall. In 1904, the room (and the Whistler paintings it contained) was acquired by Charles Freer and brought to the US, where it eventually became the centrepiece of the Freer Art Gallery. Freer purchased the room specifically to display his collection of Asian pottery. But Freer also used the room to display the ceramic pottery of Mary Chase Perry-Stratton (1867-1961). In fact, Perry-Stratton's ceramics were the only works by a contemporary artist that Freer ever displayed in the room. Although the Peacock room is mostly associated with Whistler, Perry-Stratton's ceramics once assumed a visibly robust presence in their own right.

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Perry-Stratton founded Detroit's Pewabic Pottery in 1903, a pottery studio that, in the utilitarian spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement, produced functional yet beautiful ceramic tiles, vases, bowls, lamps, plates and even hairpins. Her first experience with art came in the form of Chinese vase painting and her later work was conspicuously reminiscent of the Asian works Charles Freer collected. Shortly after meeting Freer, Perry-Stratton quickly fell under his influence. (1) He even inspired her to develop her famous metallic iridescent glaze for which Pewabic pottery became internationally famous. (2) The glaze was evocative of seventh century Near-Eastern glazes and Freer purchased some of her first iridescent works. (3), (4)

After viewing the ancient Asian pottery in Freer's collection, Perry-Stratton was surprised at how similar it was to her own work; her pottery was uncannily similar to Japanese and Korean Racca jars in particular, much to her amazement and delight. (5) "How often", she wrote, "we found wholly by chance something I had done was in line with what he happened to be looking for at the time, but there was no conscious copying of the pottery of a thousand years ago." (6) Perry-Stratton quickly became one of Freer's favourite artists and the only living artist to later have works displayed in the Peacock Room.

In 1911, Freer commissioned Perry-Stratton to furnish the tile of the fireplace in the Whistler Gallery in his home on East Ferry Avenue, Detroit. (7) Perry-Stratton's subdued, earth-toned colour palette nicely blended with the Asian-inspired Whistler paintings on display. As was typical for Pewabic Pottery, each of her tiles was just a bit different than the rest, slightly rounded around the edges, lending each tile an emphatically handmade appearance in keeping with the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement. The fireplace for the Freer House Gallery can still be seen at the house's original location. It remains one of the earliest Pewabic tiled surfaces.

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Ceramic work by Perry-Stratton also decorated Whistler's famed Peacock Room. (8) After Freer moved the room to his Detroit mansion, Perry-Stratton even created a special celebratory vase commemorating the occasion, ornamenting the sides of the vase, appropriately enough, with images of peacocks painted under the vase's gold, iridescent glaze.

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