The Whodunnit Behind Tiffany’s Flowers Lit Up in Glass
We were supposed to be exploring pocket gardens and parks in lower Manhattan, but it was one of those bleak rainy days that turns a three-mile, 15-minute cab ride into a one-hour ordeal. So we settled on an activity that, it turns out, would brighten our day and lift up our spirits: a look at Tiffany lamps at the New York Historical Society and Museum on 77th Street and Central Park West.
We headed to the fourth floor and into a luminous blue gallery the size of a city block, where A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls permanent exhibit is staged.
Kaleidoscopic images of light and color ricocheted around us. Our own images receded, like auras, into the semi-darkness. We became lost in a cerulean eye, surrounded by glowing florals in glass: the lovely, familiar wisteria, daffodils, poppies, peonies.
Czech architect Eva Jiřičná designed the surreal gallery with its floating, illuminated staircase and shadowy alcoves. Here, against a dramatic backdrop, a hundred Tiffany lamps are showcased, most of them donated by a single collector, Dr. Egon Neustadt, an early admirer of Tiffany.
Louis Comfort Tiffany. Larger than Life. . .
Artistic Genius. . .
Grand Designer and Craftsman. . .
Bold Thinker. . . Imaginative Force. . .
Ambitious. . . Canny Competitor. . .
His magnificent Chapel at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, with its complex stained glass renderings and innovative design, would set him on course to the fame he coveted.
Tiffany designed the dramatic field-of- lilies windows, but who actually executed them? Aside: The shape of the baptismal font may have been the inspiration for future Tiffany lampshades.
(Today, the reconstructed Chapel with its original glasswork can be visited at the Charles Hosman Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida.)
But who was Clara Driscoll working in the shadow of this Titan? And who were the Tiffany Girls?
Clara is barely mentioned in scant records that remain of Tiffany Studios. Her name appears on only one piece, a dragonfly lamp, for which she won a bronze medal at the 1900 World’s Fair in France.
Public recognition was fleeting. Tiffany did not credit staff for contributions to his masterpieces. His employees, including Clara and the Tiffany Girls, worked in anonymity.
Clara was born mid-century (1861), and in the manner of her Victorian contemporaries, she wrote countless letters, round robin letters to her mother and sisters.
Like email or Facebook entries today, each person added her news and kept the chain going and, happily, they saved the letters!
Through Clara’s eyes we see a detailed picture of work at Tiffany Studios and life in New York City at the turn of the century.
Vividly she describes her daily activities, her interactions with staff, the genesis of her ideas, the complexity of her designs.
Her ideas! Her designs!
Yes! Her letters confirm that she worked closely with Tiffany, that they shared a love of rendering the natural world in glass. They also reflect her deep love for the colors, shapes, forms, the romance of working with leaded glass.
From the letters we learn that Clara was the guiding force behind Tiffany’s leaded glass lampshades.
She proposed the original idea. She designed these stylized gardens. She chose the glass. She guided the Tiffany Girls during production, training them, pulling out of them latent creativity.
And she solved the problems.
As for solving problems, it was no small feat to adapt techniques used on flat panels to the curved surfaces of a lampshade.
Developed through trial and error, turned wood lamp forms were created and patterns etched into them. A thin layer of wax bonded glass pieces to the forms during work on the design. After soldering the wax would be warmed and the form would release from the shade.
At one time, Clara’s staff numbered 35 women, self-styled Tiffany Girls, who were on the front lines of creating magic out of sheets of opalescent glass – as many as five thousand different colors and varieties to choose from — that were poured and stored at Tiffany’s furnaces in Corona, Queens.
The women were responsible for developing “cartoons” (working drawings from watercolor renderings, often done by Tiffany) that would determine size and shape and pattern and placement of glass tiles.
Then would come the selection of glass to bring the design to light. The women would cut the glass with a steel or diamond cutting wheel and, if necessary, refine shapes with grozing pliers and other tools.
To prepare the panel for soldering, they would assemble the entire piece temporarily on the pattern and inspect it for flaws. Finally, they would wrap the edge of each piece of glass in a thin strip of copper foil cut from sheets of copper to which they had applied a thin layer of adhesive.
There are 2000 pieces of glass in the wisteria lampshade. There are 10,000 pieces in the World’s Fair panels.
Execution had to be precise, each glass piece cut exactly to pattern and placed precisely on the master. Irregularities in shape or size of tiles would compromise solder seams and joints and diminish over-all quality. Once a product was approved, the Men’s Department would solder the glass in place with a lead/tin mix on both sides of the shade. After cleaning, a patina to match the base of the lamp would be applied to the solder lines.
Clara observed in a 1904 interview: “Indeed, this is rather difficult work, but when one has a fondness for a certain brand of industry, she does not pause when a difficulty must be overcome.…The work is a new departure for women, and I believe that they like it.”
From the master, Louis Comfort Tiffany, “Infinite endless labor makes the masterpiece.”
Clara came to her position at Tiffany’s with a clear aptitude for the future that she would find so rewarding. She and her three bright, ambitious sisters grew up in Tallmadge, Ohio, reared by well educated parents who encouraged Clara to develop her talents.
A dear friendship with an Ohio naturalist, Harriet Louise Keeler, no doubt stimulated Clara’s love of the natural world that became integral to her work. After high school, she attended what is now the Cleveland Institute of Art and did design work for a furniture company.
By the time she came to New York to study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art School and then join Tiffany Studios in 1889, her background in art and natural history was deep and, at age 27, she was a mature and independent woman.
Until 2005 her story was buried in archives at the Queens Historical Society and Kent State University’s Special Collections.
Then, three tireless curators-turned-sleuths, Martin Eidelberg, Nina Gray, and Margaret Hofer stumbled upon the correspondence and realized they were holding keys to a rewrite of Tiffany history that would give long overdue credit to the creativity of Clara and the Tiffany Girls.
Their 2007 exhibit brought Clara out of the shadows. The 2017 dramatic recreation of the earlier exhibit shines a bright light.
Clara didn’t break any glass ceilings. Her achievements were not publicly recognized.
For her boundless creativity, for her complex bookkeeping responsibilities, and for her administration of monumental commissions for public buildings, she was paid $35 a week, commensurate with salaries paid to the men at Tiffany’s who had limited ranges of responsibility.
After a career of almost two decades, Clara married. She resigned from her position because Tiffany did not hire married women as a matter of policy.
So it was with special enthusiasm that we viewed this exhibition, as much about jeweled flowers as about bringing to light the story of a strong and creative woman. This dramatic permanent display gives Clara the credit she earned over a century ago.
If you want to read more about Clara Driscoll, Susan Vreeland’s novel, Clara and Mr.Tiffany is a fine blend of fact and fiction. Based on Clara’s letters and other research, it tells Clara’s story against the backdrop of life in New York City at the turn of the century.
The slide show below features lamps from the exhibition. See if you can spot the copycat in the group.