The north-facing pair at the Cochrane-Woods Art Center is the earlier and more finely carved, and dates to approximately the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, while the pair in the courtyard is probably from the twentieth century. Both are likely to have been brought to the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century. Though originating in China, the lions also have a highly interesting local history tied to prominent members of the Chicago community and to the university. Their arrival on campus is traceable to bequests made to the Art Institute of Chicago by private owners in the last century and to the Art Institute’s decision to deaccession them in 1997. Professor Wu Hung, Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Art History requested to transfer them to the University of Chicago’s public art collections. “I thought that it would be perfect to place the stone lions at the northern entrance to Cochrane-Woods Art Center, because their sculptural presence would impress visitors to the Department of Art History and also safeguard the building according the traditional fengshui theory.”
This earlier pair of lions closely resembles the Beijing palace pair and was formerly the property of Edith Farnsworth (1903–1978), a prominent medical doctor based in Chicago. Edith Farnworth did her undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago in English literature and the American Conservatory of Music before completing her medical degree at Northwestern University. She was a many-talented woman: an accomplished student of violin and music theory, art collector, poet, and translator of Italian poetry, in addition to having a career as a physician specializing in diseases of the kidney. She is best-known, however, for the house that bears her name, built on her country property near the Fox River in Plano, IL. In 1945, she met Mies van der Rohe and decided to commission him to design a weekend house for her, construction of which began in 1949. The building’s very spare design composed of a metal framework and glass exterior was groundbreaking, and the house is considered an icon of the modernist international style. Photographs from the years when she was living in the house show the Chinese lions placed on the lower terrace at the south side entrance.
The smaller of the pair of lions once flanked the front steps of the residence of Harley Farnsworth MacNair (1891–1947) his wife Florence Wheelock Ayscough MacNair (1878–1942) at 5533 South Woodlawn Avenue in Hyde Park. Harley MacNair was a Professor of Far Eastern History and Institutions at the University of Chicago. After his graduation in 1912 from the University of Redlands, he spent most of the following decade in China where he taught at St. John’s University in Shanghai. During this period he met Florence Wheelock Ayscough. Afterward, MacNair received a PhD in political science and history from the University of California at Berkeley, awarded in 1922 for his dissertation on “Protection of Alien Chinese.” MacNair credited Florence with encouraging him to study China beyond its relations with other countries. Her knowledge and love of Chinese culture were an inspiration to him. Florence was born in Shanghai and lived in China until she was nine years old. Though subsequently educated in the U.S., she returned to China to learn more about its history, language, and culture. She served as the librarian of the Royal Asiatic Society in Shanghai from 1907 to 1922. Florence developed her interest in Chinese literature, society, and art, and began to translate Chinese poems into English. Her first husband, Francis Ayscough, conducted overseas trade from Shanghai. After he died in 1933, Florence married Harley MacNair in 1935. It is believed that she brought the lions to Chicago from Shanghai along with her collections of Chinese textiles, paintings, and other artifacts. She lived her life with the belief that she should increase understanding between the East and West, and the couple welcomed people from all parts of the world into their home on Woodlawn Avenue.
Franz Schulze, The Farnsworth House, 1977. Alice T. Friedman. Women and the Making of the Modern House: Social and Architectural History (New Haven: 2006) 126-159. The house is now a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. https://farnsworthhouse.org
She subsequently wrote books about China and translated the poems of eighth-century Chinese poet Du Fu with the collaboration of her lifelong friend, poet Amy Lowell. Among her publications are, Ayscough Florence. A Chinese Mirror: Being Reflections of the Reality behind Appearance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925; Tu Fu, the Autobiography of a Chinese Poet, 2v. Boston, 1929–34; Chinese Women, Yesterday and To-day. Boston, 1937.
A number of publications about Florence Ayscough discuss her commitment to educating Westerners about Chinese culture and arts. (My thanks to Elinor Pearlstein, formerly Associate Curator of Chinese Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, for her assistance and information.) Lindsay Shen. Knowledge is Pleasure (Hong Kong University Press, 2012). Elinor Pearlstein, “Color, Life, and Moment: Early Chicago Collectors of Chinese Textiles,” in Clothed to Rule the Universe, AIC Museum Studies, vol. 26, no. 2. (2000). Zaixin Hong, “Florence Ayscough: Pioneer Promoter of Modern Chinese Painting in America,” in Steuber, Jason and Guolong Lai, Collectors, Collections and Collecting the Arts of China: Histories and Challlenges (University of Florida Press, 2014) 119–133. The Harley Farnsworth MacNair and Florence Wheelock Ayscough Diaries, 1903–1945 (MS Am 2549), are housed in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~hou01886