National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 2011 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act. Photo © NGC
George Paulding Farnham "Ptarmigan Vase," c. 1900-1903
George Paulding Farnham "Ptarmigan Vase," c. 1900-1903, Copper, silver, and gold, 63.5 cm high
A large 112-year-old metal vase, with a special connection to British Columbia, will be on display at the Audain Art Museum for the next three years. On loan from the National Gallery of Canada, the “Ptarmigan Vase,” shaped from copper, silver, and gold, was made during an exciting time in Canadian history, when dreams of gold in B.C.’s mountains attracted investors.
A second, almost identical, version of the vase was discovered in 1911 in the United States along with a previously unknown illustrated book detailing how New York resident Paulding Farnham created the two massive vases.
The Ptarmigan Vases, written in 1904, describes how Tiffany silversmiths manufactured two vases from a one-tonne block of precious metal excavated from the Ptarmigan Mine in the Selkirk Mountains in southern B.C., an operation in which Farnham had invested much of his savings. Farnham designed and oversaw the creation of the two vases. The vase at the Audain Art Museum was first given to Farnham’s wife Sally. The other vase was sold to one of his leading patrons, Edward Dean Adams, a well-known American industrial financier and art collector who lived from 1846 to 1931.
The elaborate vases are made from bonding 18 layers of metal. The shape evokes the baskets and pottery produced by First Nations residents in the area of the mine, and this influence is evident in several of the decorative motifs. The gold seal adorning the front bears the British Columbia coat of arms adopted in 1895. The Latin cross immediately beneath is a surveying symbol that indicates the latitude and longitude where the Ptarmigan Mine and Mount Farnham are situated. The sides are engraved with figures, including an eagle, a large stylized mask and a small crescent moon. The neck of the vase incorporates a band of eyes and a projecting bird's beak. The realistic and life-sized figure of the golden-eyed silver bird perched atop the vase is a ptarmigan -- a species of grouse found in the area where the mine adopted the same name.
Darrin Martens, Chief Curator, Audain Art Museum, explains that “the National Gallery of Canada acquired this extraordinary vessel at a New York auction in January 2011 for US $662,500 as they wanted a strong representation of an older work from British Columbia. In addition to its links with B.C., this masterpiece is important because of its use of B.C. First Nations iconography, constructed by the best crafts people Tiffany employed in the early 1900s, under the direction of Tiffany’s star designer Paulding Farnham.”
“The Audain Art Museum’s permanent collection spans 200 years of art-making in British Columbia – from early First Nations works to artists actively working in B.C. today,” says Executive Director Suzanne Greening. “The Ptarmigan Vase is a fascinating artifact crafted from metals mined in B.C. over a century ago. We are very pleased that the National Gallery has chosen our art venue to share this important artifact of early British Columbia history.”
Paulding Farnham was a master American jewelry designer for Tiffany’s in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At an 1889 exhibition in Paris, Farnham’s gold and silver creations took the world’s top prizes. In a recent biography, John Loring referred to Paulding Farnham as ‘Tiffany’s Lost Genius.’ Many of Farnham’s works are coveted by collectors as masterpieces today.
Report courtesy of Audain Art Museum.