The Last Word Will be Theirs: Flannery’s Bird Figurines

It’s no secret that Flannery O’Connor loved birds, especially peafowl. Her birds were well-known on the farm in her time, and you can see a reminder of them in the pair that remains at Andalusia even now. She famously declared that she would let them reproduce, as they would outlive her.[1] But less recognized are her multitude of bird figurines scattered around the farmhouse, symbolizing her lifelong admiration of all things feathered and flying. 

Where did the idea of creating tiny representations of animals come from in the first place? The answers are much older than you might realize. 

The first animal figurines originated thousands of years before recorded history, in all sorts of shapes and configurations. The earliest known statuettes were made from stone, clay, or carved organic matter like bone. As technology improved, figurines went from simple carvings to terracotta molds, and eventually finer media like porcelain, enamel, lead, and more recently, plastic.[2] Throughout their long history, figurines have portrayed daily life, deities, and animals. In their early days, religious symbols and saints were most prevalent. Staffordshire dog figurines, in particular, rose in popularity during the 17th century.[3]

But why animals? They couldn’t be venerated, like deities, or used to express some kind of emotion or event. Sometimes, the answer is simpler than we think. Much like having pets, keeping small reminders of natural wonders or beloved creatures creates an aura of comfort and emotional support, relieving the stress of the rest of the world. 

Modeling the world around us is a very human thing to do, and as the years passed, we only got better at it. Shapes became cleaner, lines became cleaner, models became more realistic. As with most trends, the popularity of tiny porcelain animals filtered down to lower classes, lowering the price and expanding production. By the time they reached post-war America, figurines were affordable to the common person. 

Clearly, Flannery was well-off enough by her mid-adulthood to afford peafowl, not to mention a whole host of other fowl.[4] So why the tiny, cheap reminders of the real thing she had outdoors? 

Well, as Flannery grew older, her mobility decreased as she was further impacted by her lupus. While she left the house most days, going to church and visiting friends in town, not every sunrise could see her feeding the peahens and tending to the chickens. In her inner sanctum, though, she could easily see her collection without getting up. Among the birds she collected were 

A rather utilitarian bird-shaped brush,

Andalusia Collection, 2018.1.175

A mobile white duck,

Andalusia Collection, 2018.1.276

And, of course, a magnificent metal peacock.

Andalusia Collection, 2018.1.155

These birds served as a reminder of the joy her multitude of peafowl brought her, as well as simple decoration to a small farmhouse. Flannery loved her birds, and as she predicted, they have lived on after her.

[1]  Bill Dawers, “Flannery O’Connor on Living with a Peacock – the King of the Birds.” Savannah Unplugged, March 31, 2012.

[2] Maya Muratov, “Greek Terracotta Figurines with Articulated Limbs.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004.

[3] Clive Pope, A-Z of Staffordshire Dogs: A Potted History (Antique Collectors’ Club, 1996).

[4] Kathy Schiffer, “Peacocks on Flannery O’Connor’s Farm, and in Christian Art.” National Catholic Register, July 12, 2018.

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