Historical research by Sarah Rogers
Spencer and Julie Penrose collected a wide variety artistic and historical pieces during their travels around the world, and the Penrose House and Penrose Heritage Museum are fortunate to showcase many of these items. One such piece is the Chinese bell that sits on a staircase landing on the western side of Penrose House property. Made of bronze and lacquered wood, the bell and its artistic motifs connect an element of Chinese history with El Pomar Foundation’s contemporary work.
Early Chinese bells were made of bronze during the Shang and Zhou Dynasties between 1600 and 256 BCE. These bells featured scalloped edges and were first used as musical instruments during court performances, and were constructed in varying sizes to produce different pitches and played within sets to cover a range of musical notes. Because it required great resources to create these bells, and even more resources to place them properly within orchestras, bronze bells served as status symbols in this period of Chinese history.
The bell on Penrose House property is a singular suspended bronze bell that measures 34 inches high and 28 ¾ inches in diameter, has a green patina, and is suspended from a carved wooden frame in red lacquer. This type of bell, known as a zhong, was likely rung with a mallet or hammer as opposed to a beam suspended by ropes. Julie Penrose admired artwork from East Asia and likely purchased this bell abroad, as she and Spencer Penrose traveled the region extensively in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, the bell has no inscriptions that indicate the time period in which it was made, who made it or the region from which it originates.
The bell’s crown features a double-headed dragon with claw feet from which to suspend the bell itself, and the frame depicts two dragons chasing the elusive pearl of wisdom—a motif common to ancient and modern Chinese artwork. In Chinese mythology, the dragon is an auspicious and beneficent symbol. The pearl represents wealth, good luck and prosperity. It is easy to connect this symbolism with the Penrose legacy, in which Spencer and Julie Penrose sought to utilize their wealth and good fortune for the benefit of Colorado communities via the establishment of El Pomar Foundation. In its way, the bell’s presence on the property serves as a reminder of this mission, and of the artistic and global interests of Spencer and Julie Penrose.