The pair of almost life-sized swan soup tureens — white cob in classic posture, the female preening her feathers — would have adorned an elegant aristocratic 18th century dining table, probably stocked with swan soup. The handsome carved wooden dog with red upholstered cushion resting on its back would have invited guests to sit for a moment, perhaps in a foyer, from around 1900. The portrait of snow white feline Tinkle born in 1881, likely occupied a place of prominence in the home of its cat-loving human.
The swans, dog, and Tinkle are among the decorative arts from the Shelburne Museum’s permanent collection featured in the “Creature Comfort: Animals in the House” exhibition that opened this week in the Colgate Gallery of the Museum’s Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education. The show explores themes of our relationships with animals and highlights creative ways animal forms have been adapted to create a wide range of beautiful and functional household objects.
Wedgwood dolphins of the 1700s, Victorian birdcages and Fabergé cats of the 1800s, imaginary beasts of today are among the scores of distinctive pieces in this exhibition which spans over 250 years.
“Creature Comfort” adds to the list of exhibitions that Shelburne Museum does so well in bringing together objects from its vast and diverse permanent collections around fresh themes, and showing them with selected contemporary pieces borrowed from artists and collectors on this theme today.
“Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb loved her dogs,” said Kory Rogers, Shelburne Museum chief curator. “At one point she had five poodles, and her sister gave her a throw pillow with all five of them depicted. Animals remained a theme throughout her folk art collecting from ceramics to rugs to carvings, providing inspiration for the exhibition.”
Rogers noted that this wealth of animal pieces led to the show becoming a “pet project” of his. In planning it, he had an eye to humor as well as to complex themes of human/animal bonds.
From a child’s kitty shaped chair to a meticulously carved model of a trophy fish with hand tied fly in its mouth to a hand-carved “Black Forest” hallstand (really made in Switzerland) of a tree with standing bear at its side, these pieces were made to be used in the home. Following that origin, in the exhibition they are displayed in domestic settings.
“We wanted to have a feeling of home,” Rogers said. “I wanted to give context to the objects and their original settings, how people decorated their homes with them. I love the Cryptic section.”
The settings are a great match for the pieces. An elaborate Italianate style birdcage sits before “Birds and Bees” wallpaper, beautifully detailed wall covering from the posh Timorous Beasties firm in Scotland, known for its riffs on classic fauna and flora designs.
Among other pieces in “Avians: Feathering the Nest” are the 1755 mute swan tureens, a child’s swan rocker, and an eye catching parakeet lamp. Sebastien Errazuriz’s contemporary lamp features a taxidermy parakeet with light bulb head.
“Felines: The Purrfect Roommates” setting features delightful wallpaper with a pattern of hundreds of black cats against a pink polka dot background with the cats doing cat things — prowling, hunting, sitting, perhaps contemplating their names.
The oldest piece in the show is an Egyptian bronze statuette of the cat-headed deity Bastet, dating from 664-30 BCE. Patty Yoder’s hooked rug wall hanging “Bailey Has the Ball” captures the energy and silliness of cats at play, and is named for and inspired by her Bailey, a little stray who came into her life.
“Cryptids: Myths and Monsters” includes a Chinese porcelain Fu Dog, Greek griffon, mermaid weathervane, and jaw-dropping pair of “Guard Beasts: Brooke Shields and Jean Luc-Pi-guard.” The imposing chairs, covered in long white synthetic fur, with brass feet, horns and fangs, are 2016 creations of Nikolai and Simon Haas, inspired by monsters they drew as children.
Rich in comfort and wit and the fun of seeing beautiful and unusual pieces in new contexts, the show also sensitively deals with problematic aspects of human/animal bonds. A polar bear coffee table brings to mind species extinction. Cages for squirrels and birds recall issues of taking creatures out of their habitats. Exhibition labels shed light on these topics.