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Louis Comfort Tiffany and Clara Driscoll: Bringing Nature's Beauty to Light

By Angela Carson (Bookerc1April 6, 2012
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As a gardener, I have a special appreciation for artists that capture the beauty of nature. I think this is why the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1846-1933) has always appealed to me. His stained glass lamps and windows take some of my best-loved garden plants, and translate them into an entirely different medium, without losing the beauty of irregularity and random shapes.

Gardening picture

I've long been a fan of Louis C. Tiffany's work. My mother was a professional stained glass artist, and from her I first learned a little about how he revolutionized the methods used in stained glass. For centuries, pieces of stained glass were fitted together into the channels of lead came, which was shaped like a long, extended letter H.  Lead came lent itself well to larger pieces of glass and mostly straight or gently curved edges. It also required reinforcing bars, to strengthen the windows and prevent the weight of the glass from bending and stretching the lead came.

Then, in the 19th Century, the copper foil method was invented, and the creative possibilities of stained glass were multiplied a thousandfold. Though the copper foil method of stained glass is widely known as the Tiffany technique, there is some debate as to whether Tiffany or his rival, John La Farge, first invented the use of copper foil as a replacement for lead came. There is no question, however, that Tiffany's glass studios were major innovators in the use of the copper foil method.  With this method, stained glass could be cut into virtually any shape, as long as the piece adjoining it fit tightly against it. This allowed for intricate designs with leaves, petals, and stems in irregular shapes, and much smaller pieces of glass, as well. It also allowed for three-dimensional shapes, such as curved lampshades, as the seams were much stronger and more stable than those formed with lead came.

Clara Driscoll at work at Tiffany Glass Studios, with Joseph Briggs
With that bit of history in mind, I'd like to explore some of the stunning designs created by Tiffany's studios. In recent years, some of the designers behind the ground-breaking lamps and windows have gained recognition in their own right. Prominent among these is Clara Driscoll, who was head of the Women's Department at Tiffany Glass Studios. We now know that she was the creative genius behind many of Tiffany's best-loved stained glass lamps. In a time period when women were often not valued as artists, and working women were frowned upon, Tiffany defied the unions and the demands of the male workers. He specifically believed that women had a better eye for color than his male workers, and put them in charge of selecting the glass for each individual piece in his more elaborate windows and lamps. In the gorgeously illustrated book, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls, the authors write:

"The inauguration of the Women's Glass Cutting Department in 1892 marked an unprecedented change: henceforth, women could both select and cut the glass, thus breaking a male monopoly. King's 1894 article alludes to the reasons why Tiffany decided to entrust women with this work. She cited traditional assumptions that women's fingers are more nimble, their eyes are more sensitive to nuances of color, and they possess a special disposition for decoration."  

Flawed as these assumptions might be, they opened a door to women that had previously been firmly closed by societal conventions. There was a significant amount of tension between the women's and men's departments, which led to a strike by the men's department and demands that the size of the women's department be limited. Despite this, the women's department created a niche for itself as the popularity of Tiffany stained glass lamps exploded with the Art Noveau movement.

We know from a recently discovered treasure trove of letters from Clara Driscoll that Tiffany encouraged her when she approached him with the idea of creating curved lamp shades. She designed lamps based on themes she found in nature, though she received little recognition for it at the time. All designs produced by Tiffany & Co. were submitted to art shows under his name. As I've learned more about Clara Driscoll, I've enjoyed comparing the lamps she designed with the actual plants upon which she based her sketches.

Perhaps the most famous of her designs is the Wisteria Lamp. From her correspondence, it is believed to have been designed around 1901. It is an obvious break from the largely geometric designs that had been produced previously. A particular challenge, according to her letters, was the irregular edge at the bottom. Stained glass lamps are assembled by placing the cut glass, which has been wrapped in copper foil, on a lamp mold. Generally, small pieces of wax were used to hold the pieces in place, but this wasn't sufficient for a lamp with irregular shapes and an assymetrical bottom border. After some experimentation, the Mrs. Driscoll came up with the solution of using pins to support the edges of the glass pieces on the lamp mold.  This lamp is also unusual in that instead of a flared crown or a metal cap at the top, it has an openwork metal mesh design that echoes the structure of wisteria branches. 

 Wisteria Lamp, photo by katana_koshirae Wisteria Tree, unknown variety at Brooklyn Botanic Garden
 Wisteria Lamp, c. 1901
 Wisteria Tree, unknown variety at Brooklyn Botanical Garden

 

Another well-known lamp designed by Driscoll is based on the many-layered petals of the peony bloom.  Notice how she included buds, as well as blooms at different stages of opening, and balances the loose design of the leaves with a few straight lines.  It reminds me of the peony rings I place around my own peony plants, one of which is pictured, to support the weight of the plant once the blooms open. 
 Peony Lamp Pink Peony
 Peony Lamp, c.   Pink Peony, unknown variety

This lamp is based on an Oriental poppy.  Many different versions of this lamp exist, in varying color schemes.  It is obvious that the designer was familiar with the leaves of an actual poppy plant, as the soft, mottled green selected for this lamp is an excellent representation of the hairy, soft leaves of the Oriental poppy plant.  This lamp also includes many stages of bloom, from tightly closed bud with only a hint of red at the tip, to a full-blown, vividly red bloom.  

Red Poppy Lamp
 Red oriental poppy 'King Kong'
 Oriental Poppy Lamp, c. 1910-1930 Oriental Poppy 'King Kong'

Driscoll's Dragonfly Lamps are also among of my favorites, and another example of innovation in lamp design. Unable to cut the pieces of glass small enough to give the lacy effect she wanted on the wings of the dragonfly, Mrs. Driscoll came up with the idea of using a brass filigree overlay that would be soldered over top of the glass wings, giving a much more intricate appearance. These filigrees had previously been used on smaller decorative items, but were a new concept in lamp design.  There are many different variations on the theme of dragonflies, ranging from fairly simple smaller shades to truly enormous, elaborate ones.The shape of the shades also varied, from a conical shape to a curved shape. I was unable to find an image available for use of the most intricate of the dragonfly lamps, which featured a multitude of smaller dragonflies in a spiral design over the entire large curved shade.  

 Conical dragonfly lampEmporer Dragonfly
Curved Dragonfly Lamp
 Conical Dragonfly Lamp, c. 1897-1921 Emperor Dragonfly

 Dragonfly Lamp on Turtleback Base,
c. pre-1906

Daffodils were another frequent theme in lamps designed by Clara Driscoll for Tiffany Glass Studios.  This one features an entire daffodil plant springing from one central location, repeated several times around the circumference of the shade.  Others featured both daffodils and smaller narcissus in stacked bands.  This design is less free-flowing than some of the others, but does a good job representing the growth habit of actual daffodils.  

Daffodil Lamp
 Yellow Daffodil
Daffodil Lamp, c. 1910-1913
 Yellow Daffodil, unknown variety

The appleblossom lamp is similar in shape to the wisteria lamp, above.  The base for this lamp was designed specifically to echo the texture and shape of a tree trunk.  This lamp incorporates much less of the foliage than many of her botanical designs, instead emphasizing the luminous pink and white blooms that adorn the apple tree in the spring.  If only there were a way to capture the scent of the appleblossoms, as well!

Appleblossom Lamp
Image of apple blossoms
 Appleblossom Lamp, c. 1906

 Apple Blossom

 While the peacock lamp isn't a botanical theme, I know there are many bird lovers on Dave's Garden, as well, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to include one of my all-time favorite lamp designs.  There are many variations on the peacock feather theme, in colors ranging from reds and golds to blues, purples, and greens.  Some are incredibly elaborate, and number among my favorite lamp designs.  I know, I said the same about the wisteria and dragonfly lamps, but I've long had a fascination for the colors and iridescence of peacock feathers.  Tiffany Glass Studios were pioneers in the development of truly iridescent glass, experimenting for years with glazes and finishes that would give the iridescent effect that is found in nature.  You can see examples of the iridescent glass in the dragonfly lamps above, and Pond Lily lamp, below.  

One of Tiffany's many Peacock Lamps
Peacock feathers
 Peacock Lamp, c. 1903-1906
 Peacock Feathers

 The Laburnum Lamps were popular at the same time as the Wisteria Lamps, and enjoyed a much longer run of production.  They feature a similar irregular lower edge, which made them one of the more difficult lamps to assemble.  I love how Driscoll captured the free-flowing appearance of the racemes of the Laburnum, or Golden Chain Tree.  Even the leaves are a good representation of the actual plant. Notice how this lamp has a metal cap at the top, rather than the metal openwork of the wisteria lamp.

Laburnum lamp
Laburnum image
 Laburnum lamp, c. 1900-1906
 Laburnum anagyroides, or Golden Chain Tree

While some sources refer to this lamp as featuring Water Lilies, the price lists published by Tiffany Glass Studios (which are reproduced in the book Louis C. Tiffany: The Garden Museum Collection, cited below) named it Pond Lily.  There was also an upward-facing version of this lamp, meant to attach to a ceiling or a tall lamp stand.  It was available in several different color schemes, as well, which undoubtedly added to its popularity.  I thought this photo of the water lily 'Cynthia Ann' was a particularly good choice to pair with this lamp, as it also includes lily pads.  Notice the lily pads cast on the bottom of the lamp base.  

Pond Lily Lamp with Lily Pad base
 Water Lily, also sometimes called a Pond Lily
 Pond Lily Lamp, c. 1890's to 1910
 Nymphaea,Hardy Water Lily 'Cynthia Ann'

If you are interested in reading more about Louis Tiffany or Clara Driscoll, I highly recommend the books listed below.  The pictures I included in this article are only a tiny appetizer, if you have a taste for truly stunning works of stained glass.  }

References:
A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls by Martin Eidelberg, Nina Gray, and Margaret K. Hofer; copyright 2007 New York Historical Society.  This book presents the current research on the role of Clara Driscoll and the Women's Studio at Tiffany's studios, including detailed biographical information about her life outside of work.  

New York Times article on Clara Driscoll and the upcoming exhibit:  http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/arts/design/25kast.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

Clara and Mr. Tiffany, by Susan Vreeland; copyright 2011, Random House.  Fictional account of Clara Driscoll's life during the years she worked for Tiffany.  I found it to be very well-researched, particularly in the methods used for the windows, lamps, and mosaics in the professional studio.  

The Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany, by Martin Eidelberg, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Nancy A. McClellend, and Lars Rachen.  Principal photography by Colin Cooke; copyright 2005 by Vendome Press.  This is primarily a photographic log of known Tiffany lamps, including any extant information available from Tiffany's records.  This book was published before the letters of Clara Driscoll were discovered, and thus incorrectly attributes the designs to Tiffany himself, but is one of the most visually detailed and stunning books I've seen on the Tiffany lamps, with pictures from several different angles of the more detailed lamps.

Louis C. Tiffany: The Garden Museum Collection, by Alastair Duncan; copyright 2004.  This massive volume, numbering 671 pages, arrived from the library in a boxed slipcover.  It even includes reproductions of the original price lists, along with comprehensive records of the many different elements of the decorative arts that Tiffany was involved in, from stained glass to furniture to metalworks and jewelry. 

Many thanks to the photographers who made their work available for use through Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, and Dave's Garden. All photographers reserve full rights to their work.  Unauthorized reproduction forbidden. 

In the order they appear in this article:

Dragonfly Lamp Close-up thumbnail at start of article:  by Opacity, from Flickr Creative Commoons. Original may be seen here:

Clara Driscoll at work at Tiffany Glass Studios: public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wisteria Lamp: from Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of katana_koshirae

Wisteria Tree: from Flickr, all rights reserved, used with permission from Brooklyn Botanic Gardens

Peony Lamp: from Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of johnwilliamsphd

Peony: photograph by Angela Carson, from my own garden

Oriental Poppy Lamp:  from Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of shooting_brooklyn

Oriental Poppy 'King Kong':  from PlantFiles, courtesy of DG member Shawn S. Sheeley (gringo)

Conical Dragonfly Lamp:  from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Piotrus

Emporer Dragonfly: from BugFiles, courtesy of DG member Enmos

Curved Dragonfly Lamp: from Flickr Creative commons, courtesy of Fire of the Mind

Daffodil Lamp: from Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Uncle Catherine

Daffodil: photo by Angela Carson, from my own garden

Apple Blossom Lamp: from Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of griannan

Apple blossoms:  from Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mean and Pinchy

Peacock Lamp: from Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of nuclearmse

Peacock Feathers: from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Kyle Wood

Laburnum Lamp: from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Hannes Grobe

Laburnum: from PlantFiles, courtesy of DG member Kelley Mcdonald (kell)

Pond Lily Lamp: from Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of johnwilliamsphd

Waterlily: from PlantFiles, courtesy of DG member, Robert Aguiar (SabraKahn)

 


  About Angela Carson  
Angela CarsonAngie was bitten hard by the gardening bug when she was just a child, and has been doing her best to infect as many people as possible ever since! She particularly has a passion for spring bulbs and home-grown vegetables, which she is teaching the next generation how to preserve. Her two sons have obviously inherited her interest in growing things, and her husband is starting to see the benefits of less lawn to mow, as long as he doesn't have to do the work of digging up new beds for her latest schemes! Follow Angie on Google.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Tiffany and Driscoll article mzwhalen 1 12 Dec 11, 2013 4:15 PM
Bravo cheerpeople 1 6 Apr 14, 2012 10:24 AM
Great article! SharonMc_SC 1 5 Apr 10, 2012 7:44 PM
Tiffany theolderchick 1 6 Apr 9, 2012 10:21 AM
Tiffany pieces in Winter Park museum KanapahaLEW 1 7 Apr 9, 2012 8:47 AM
Wonderful article! lakesidecallas 1 5 Apr 9, 2012 8:45 AM
Very beautiful, Angela Cville_Gardener 1 12 Apr 6, 2012 2:58 PM
Wow! gwen21 1 12 Apr 6, 2012 8:34 AM
My favorite Zuzu 2 20 Apr 6, 2012 8:00 AM
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