There was, indeed, a scandal when the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler splashed peacock images all over a room (painted 1876-77), though the rich client, shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland, had simply commissioned a touch-up to some valuable sixth-century Spanish painted panels.
Peacock feathers are back in the news and celebrated in a charming exhibition called Liberty in Fashion, which is running at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey Street, SE1.
The show celebrates the 140th anniversary of the world-famous department store opened by Arthur Lasenby Liberty in Regent Street in 1875.
Liberty’s original peacock feather fabric was called Hera after the Greek goddess. First sold in 1887, Hera is one of Liberty’s most-loved patterns and stars in its own section at the show. Dennis Nothdruft, the curator of the exhibition, says that with growing interest in exotic decoration, “the peacock’s feather-eyes and glittering aqua shades fit in perfectly”.
Today, fashion designer Matthew Williamson is nearly as famous for peacocks as he is for butterflies, emblazoning them on furnishings for King’s Road label Osborne & Little, whose penchant for exotica dates back to the Sixties when a youthful Peter Osborne — father of Chancellor George — and his pal Antony Little kick-started a swinging wallpaper revolution.
Williamson’s latest designs have looser, less precise artwork, with jagged fronds, but the colours, such as vibrant aqua, remain. “Aqua makes a strong statement and is very versatile,” says Sue Hardie, head of design at Osborne & Little. “It sits well with neutrals, and you can add those bright pops of colour that lift a room — think fire and ice, aqua and orange.”
Interior designer Joanna Wood suggests pairing gold colours with turquoise, evoking images of ancient Egypt. Add plenty of warm textures, such as slubbed silk, mohair and alpaca, to add depth. Wood has filled her shop in Pimlico with aqua-coloured glass this autumn. It looks dramatic at Christmas mixed with red.
At Design Centre Chelsea Harbour, the Harlequin brand, loved for its affordability, is using turquoise for its figured velvets and leafy prints entwined with feathers, butterflies and dragonflies. But surely the most poetic is a sweep of cranes with outspread wings, flapping through clouds of graded blue.
Designer Becky Brown says: “The feel for 2015 and beyond is dreamlike and enchanted.” Bring on the seascapes, jungle and hanging gardens — and the peacocks.
Covering a wall in the Liberty exhibition is an Indian landscape, lovingly detailed by mural artist Melissa White, with peacocks strutting though temples, and available as a wallpaper from Zoffany.
Digital printing gives peacock-inspired design a sharp, fresh edge. At new digital wallpaper agency Feathr, for example, Japanese-born Aoi Yoshizawa lets a pure peacock blue sing through huge brushstrokes.
And at Dutch brand Moooi, founder/director Marcel Wanders has produced a rug with jagged ice-blue shards radiating in a kaleidoscopic circle, printed at 76 dpi (dots per inch), which is about the same resolution as a computer screen, giving the pattern an incredible clarity and colour definition.
- Liberty in Fashion celebrates the 140th anniversary of Liberty, with more than 150 garments, textiles and objects on display. It runs until February 28 at the Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, SE1.