Susan Vreeland and Nannette Maciejunes Shed New Light on Louis Comfort Tiffany, Clara Driscoll, and Novel-Writing

While there is much to admire in The Charles Engelhard Court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, it’s especially gratifying to take a closer look at the iridescent and opalescent glass of several Louis Comfort Tiffany creations that can be found there. Stained glass and mosaic creations lend beautiful color to the American monumental sculpture and architectural elements on display in Gallery 700.

During my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last December, I was grateful for the opportunity to take photographs so I could remember how lovely these Tiffany pieces looked in this setting. Garden Landscape and Fountain, a pictorial mosaic of swans swimming in a pond with cypress trees in the distance, was created by the Tiffany Studios circa 1905-1915. Autumn Landscape, attributed to Agnes Northrop of the studios, dates from 1923-1924. The four-columned loggia from Laurelton Hall, Tiffany’s Oyster Bay, New York estate built between 1902 and 1905, stands along the south end of the court. The loggia’s bright, exotic floral capitals are one of the few architectural elements that were saved when the 84-room, eight-level house was destroyed by fire in 1957.

While we’re familiar with Tiffany windows and lamps, we might not be as well-versed in the intense handwork that was required to create them. Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art, provided some fascinating insights about that during last Sunday’s Art Book Club. The subject of the discussion was Susan Vreeland’s latest novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, based on the story of Clara Driscoll, the woman who designed the leaded-glass lamps that made the Tiffany brand so famous. Fellow librarian and library school classmate Nicole joined me at the museum to add to our appreciation of this satisfying read.

Louis Comfort Tiffany was an artistic visionary. He was progressive in that he hired women and gave them artistic freedom, but he rarely credited his “Tiffany Girls” in public or promoted their talents. One of those women was Clara Driscoll, a native of Tallmadge, Ohio who managed the Women’s Glass Cutting Department of the Tiffany Studios and oversaw the production of Tiffany windows. This talented artist who studied decorative and applied arts at the Western Reserve School of Design for Women in Cleveland and the Metropolitan Museum of Art School in New York is thought to be the person behind the magnificent Butterfly, Wisteria, Dragonfly, and Peony lamps that became so synonymous with the Tiffany Studios.

In 2005, three Tiffany scholars learned that some of Clara’s letters were housed at the Queens Historical Society, while others were part of the collections of the Kent State University Library. The trio joined forces and brought these historic documents to light.

Clara was a devoted letter-writer who sent long, detailed letters to her mother and sisters about her daily life and work in New York City. To save time, the letters were usually addressed to the group and were assigned Roman numerals so they could be circulated, then gathered together in order and finally bound in volumes. Nannette read an excerpt from a “round robin” letter that Clara wrote to her mother and sisters on December 17, 1899. The letter described her work on the window the Tiffany Studios created for the Paris Exposition.

In addition to providing first-hand accounts of daily activities at the Tiffany Studios, these letters also provide a look at what it might have been like for an independent, single working woman living in New York during this era. Clara wrote about visiting parks on evenings and Sundays, commented on the changing skyline of her neighborhood, described shopping at Lord and Taylor and Wanamaker’s, and reported on attending concerts, lectures and plays.

Nannette also provided background information on Louis Comfort Tiffany. She related that Tiffany first studied painting with artists like George Inness and Samuel Colman, deriving inspiration from his travels through Europe, North America and North Africa during the 1860s. In the 1870s, Tiffany shifted his focus to decorative arts, executing interior design projects for Mark Twain. In 1882, President Chester Arthur commissioned Tiffany to create glass screens for the entry hall of the White House. Later, in 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt hired Tiffany to design the setting for a state dinner in the East Room.

However, Tiffany is best known for gorgeous works of art featuring iridescent glass. In the early 1890s, Tiffany developed a method of blending different colors of molten glass in order to achieve subtle shades, tonal variations and textures. Cutting various shapes of this “Favrile” glass created naturalistic effects.

To illustrate what intense handwork was required to create these objects, Nannette described how Tiffany glass artists made full-sized cartoons of designs before executing them in glass. She explained how the lines of the cartoon were traced with a stylus, transferring the design to sheets of manila paper. Then, each individual section of the working drawing was numbered. The pieces of the working drawing served as templates for cutting each piece of glass by hand. After cutting the glass pieces, artisans “foiled” each piece, encasing each one with a strip of copper so that it could be soldered to adjacent pieces of glass. She also emphasized how selecting and cutting glass makes a difference in how a design looks.

Since Clara and Mr. Tiffany provides a glimpse of what life might have been like in New York City during the late 1890s and early 1900s, Nannette shared historic photographs of the boarding house where Clara lived, which stood on the southwest corner of Irving Place and 16th Street; the Tiffany Studios, first located at 333-35 Fourth Avenue and 102 East 25th Street, and then at 347-55 Madison Avenue at 45th Street; and Louis Comfort Tiffany’s house, which was located at 27 East 72nd Street and was designed by McKim, Mead & White.

Then, Nannette turned the program over to Ms. Vreeland, who joined the group via Skype.

In 2007, the New-York Historical Society organized A New Light on Tiffany, an exhibition that was based on Clara’s newly discovered correspondence. After seeing the exhibition, Vreeland was inspired to read Clara’s letters for herself. After doing so, she decided that embedding a real person in the world of New York City at the turn of the 20th century would make for a great novel. Vreeland shared that she wanted to write about someone she liked, and she really liked Clara.

Known for her well-researched books, Vreeland said that she spends six months reading sources and taking notes. She continues her research as she writes. For this book, she studied leaded glass tools in museums, read documents in archives, and relied on the assistance of librarians to uncover facts that she could weave into her narrative.

When she writes, Vreeland said that she not only has to find the characters interesting, but also has to find something interesting in the texture of the time period to have the characters either reflect on or participate in. The facts she finds that lead her to invent her story also have to be in accord with her own sensibilities.

She said it took her three and a half years to write Clara and Mr. Tiffany; sharing the last draft with her editor took three or four months. She also said that she titles her own books.

Since the audience could ask her questions, I stepped up to the computer, told her that I was a librarian and archivist, and asked her how libraries and archives could facilitate and encourage authors to use historical collections as resources for writing projects. She responded that repositories’ efforts to digitize collections are helpful for authors who can’t travel to see them in person. She also added that there’s nothing like actually seeing and handling real letters in order to establish a connection with the person who wrote them. She also mentioned how helpful transcriptions are for reading letters that are written in a hand that is difficult to decipher.

At the end of her conversation, Vreeland divulged some information about her current project, a fictional work tentatively titled called Lisette’s List, forthcoming in Spring 2014. Working against a March 2013 deadline, she hopes to only have to write seven drafts for this book.

To learn more about Clara Driscoll and the New-York Historical Society exhibition, read A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls, by Martin Eidelberg, Nina Gray and Margaret K. Hofer (The New-York Historical Society, 2007).

The Art Book Club meets next at the Columbus Museum of Art to discuss Pompeii: A Novel, by Robert Harris, on Thursday, July 19 at 7:00 p.m. and on Sunday, July 22 at 2:00 p.m. The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, by Dominic Smith, will be the subject of the Art Book Club’s discussion on Thursday, October 18 at 7:00 p.m. and on Sunday, October 21 at 2:00 p.m. Admission is free for museum members and $5 for nonmembers.

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