Freer's Second Tour: 1906-1907

Confronting "Tremendous the Fierce Race for Wealth and Power"

Tour Overview

More than a decade separated Charles Lang Freer's first trip to Asia (1894 and 1895) from the next four tours (1906 to 1911). In the intervening years, he orchestrated a major corporate merger of thirteen railroad manufacturing companies. Immediately after this, he retired from active business in 1899 to devote himself to collecting full time. In 1900 he purchased a villa in Capri with his friend, Michigan attorney Thomas Spencer Jerome. There, he frequently enjoyed the company of his longtime associate and personal physician from Detroit, Dr. Frederick Wharton Mann, who had purchased the house next to Freer's Villa Castello. In 1906, Mann accompanied Freer on his trip to Egypt. Freer would continue on to East Asia and returned to Detroit in July 1907.

After the turn of the twentieth century, high-quality Japanese ceramics were increasingly difficult to acquire in the West, and Freer began to collect Near Eastern wares from Syria, Iraq, and Iran that had recently come onto the Western art market. In 1902 he purchased his first pieces of Near Eastern Raqqa ware from the Paris-based dealer Dikran Kelekian, and he quickly amassed a large collection.

Freer's newfound interest in the arts of the Near East prompted him in 1906 to embark for Egypt, where he purchased ancient Greek biblical manuscripts from a dealer in Cairo. Initially uncertain about their authenticity, Freer nevertheless confessed that they "carried me completely off my feet." The works, subsequently referred to as the Washington Manuscripts, are one of the greatest treasures Freer acquired. In Detroit he kept the biblical manuscripts in a fireproof safe behind the leaded-glass door of the Peacock Room. In 1908 George Swain photographed the manuscripts and the Peacock Room at Freer's request.

Freer left Egypt for Ceylon and India early in 1907; he arrived in Hong Kong on Easter Sunday. In China he acquired numerous ceramics, including Han dynasty tomb jars and a large array of blue-glazed Jun wares, that became part of the decoration of the Peacock Room in Detroit.

Freer's second tour to Asia ended in Japan, where the idyllic memories of his first trip in 1895 were temporarily disrupted by the harsh realities of life in the modern cities of Yokohama and Tokyo. "The changes going on in Japan are terrible -- everything is being Europeanized!" he wrote to his business partner Frank Hecker.

No longer an anonymous tourist, Freer was known by Japanese dealers and collectors as an important connoisseur. He was invited to the country estate of Hara Tomitaro, a prominent Japanese businessman and collector. During his two-week visit, Freer relished Hara's elegant gardens and the traditional architecture of his home. The experience mitigated Freer's disillusionment and allowed him to revive his earlier notion of Japan as a pleasant idyll.

Through Hara, Freer gained access to private collections of early Chinese paintings as well as Japanese screens, scrolls, and ceramics. When Freer returned to Detroit via San Francisco in the summer of 1907, his understanding of and access to East Asian art had grown significantly.

Itinerary for Freer's Second Asian Tour, 1906-1907

  • November 1906 [departs Detroit]
  • New York City [via SS Hamburg]
  • Naples [December 5, 1906, on SS Oceana]
  • Alexandria [December 8]
  • Cairo [two weeks]
  • Luxor
  • Abu Simel
  • Halfa
  • Aswan
  • Nubia
  • Aswan [January 1, 1907]
  • Wadi Halfa
  • Port Said [January 20]
  • Suez Canal-Gulf of Aden
  • Colombo, Ceylon
  • Singapore
  • Batavia [now Jakarta, Indonesia]
  • Central Java [Prambanan (Borobudur temple complexes)]
  • Singapore
  • Saigon
  • Hong Kong [Easter Sunday, 1907]
  • Canton
  • Shanghai
  • Kobe
  • Yokohama [Hara's villa Sannotani overlooking Yokohama Bay]
  • Tokyo
  • Yokohama
  • San Francisco [July 14, 1907]
  • Detroit

To follow Freer's travels in more detail, read through his diary entries from 1906 to 1907:


"I am now planning to leave Detroit....and go via Naples direct to Cairo, spend a few weeks in Egypt, then go to Ceylon for a short stay, thence to Java, returning to America either next Spring or Summer"
, Freer wrote to Whistler's sister-in-law, Rosalind Birnie Philip, September 24, 1906

Freer left Detroit for his second trip to Asia on November 11, 1906. He stopped briefly in Kingston, New York, to visit family and then embarked from New York on the SS Hamburg, continuing his journey aboard the SS Oceana, which sailed from Naples to Alexandria, Egypt on December 5. More than ten years had passed since his first Asian tour, but his collections had expanded considerably. After overseeing the merger of thirteen railroad car-buliding companies, Freer retired from business to pursue a life of "active idleness," as he described it. In 1900, he bought a villa in Capri with his friend, the archaeologist Thomas S. Jerome. There, he frequently enjoyed the company of his longtime associate and personal physician from Detroit, Dr. Frederick Wharton Mann, who had purchased the house next to Freer's Villa Castello. In 1906, he accompanied Freer on his trip to Egypt.


Freer spent two weeks in the middle of December 1906 in Cairo, staying at Shepheard's Hotel, a luxurious establishment catering to wealthy American and British tourists. Freer and his traveling companion, the Detroit physician Frederick Wharton Mann, took in all of the major ancient and medieval monuments and archaeological sites, guided by Breasted's History of Egypt, well as Gaston Migeon's recently-published Caire, le Nil et Memphis, a gift from the author. (Migeon was part of the circle of Paris-based collectors and dealers including Dikran Kelekian and Siegfried Bing who had introduced Freer to the arts of the Near East.) After Cairo, Freer and Mann journeyed up the Nile, exploring the temples of Luxor, Abu Simbel, and Wadi al-Sebua. Freer enjoyed the contrast between these sites and the modern, cosmopolitan atmosphere in Cairo. "Upper Egypt delights me," he wrote to Frank Hecker. "Here fashion and silly gowns are laid aside, tradition, history and early civilization are respected. One forgets the confusion of busier places and . . . happiness is with me."


Freer sailed from Port Said on January 21, 1907 on the North German Lloyd liner the Princess Alice through the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden en route to Ceylon. Writing from Ceylon to his business partner, Frank Hecker, he described his "trip up country" to see Buddhist cave temples and "buried cities" at Matale, Dambulla, Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa, and Sigiriya. He contrasted this "a rare experience" to the city of Colombo, which had undergone significant modernization since Freer's previous visit some twelve years


Freer arrived in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), the capital of the Dutch East Indies in early March 1907. He was excited to see Buddhist and Hindu temples at Prambanan and Borobudur, which he had read about in the Reverend George M. Reith's 1897 book A Padre in Partibus: Being Notes and Impressions of a Brief Holiday Tour through Java, the Eastern Archipelago and Siam. After a day spent studying ninth-century Buddhist sculpture at the great Borobudur temple complex, he watched the sunset from atop the stupa. It was, Freer wrote in his diary, the "most beautiful view of my life."


After arriving in Hong Kong on Easter Sunday of 1907, Freer purchased a number of ceramics from local dealers. His shopping for pottery continued while on a short visit to Canton. It was during this trip to China that Freer acquired many examples of blue-glaze Jun ware that he would later arrange on the south wall of the Peacock Room, just below Whistler's allegorical mural of two fighting peacocks.


On Freer's second trip to Japan, he was a well-known collector, and he travelled with letters of introduction from the noted scholar Ernest Fenollosa, giving him access to important private collections, including those belonging to Hara Tomitara, a prominent banker and silk merchant with whom Freer formed an enduring friendship, and Masuda Takashi, whom Freer described as "the richest collector of Japan." During his two months in Japan, Freer made trips to Kobe, Yokohama, Kyoto, and Tokyo. He returned to Detroit, by way of San Francisco, on July 19, 1907.