A Letter from Author Susan Vreeland
© Sam Ryu
For a century, everyone assumed that the iconic Tiffany lamps were conceived and designed by that American master of stained glass, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Not so! It was a woman! Aha!
If it weren't for the Victorian zest for writing voluminous letters, Clara Driscoll would be only a footnote in the history of decorative arts. However, by an astonishing coincidence in 2005, three individuals unknown to each other--a distant relative of Clara, a Tiffany scholar, and an archivist at the Queens Historical Society--each aware of only one collection of Clara's letters, brought the correspondence to the attention of two art historians specializing in Tiffany, Martin Eidelberg and Nina Gray.
The result was electric. The two art historians contacted Margaret K. Hofer, Curator of Decorative Arts at the New York Historical Society which owns a huge collection of Tiffany lamps. Together they mounted an exhibition in 2007, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls
, in which Clara was hailed as "a gifted unsung artist" whose letters provided an eyewitness account of the workings of Tiffany Studios and revealed the vital role played by women. Their startling discovery rocked the art world.
While I was on tour in New York for my 2007 novel, Luncheon of the Boating Party
, my agent and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a lavish Tiffany exhibit recreating a portion of his fabled Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall. Instantly, I fell in love with Tiffany glass. By another coincidence, her husband spotted a review of the New York Historical Society exhibition, which we saw the next day. I was intrigued, but not convinced until I read the illuminating exhibition book as well as Clara's correspondence at the library of Kent State University, Ohio, and at the Queens Historical Society.
Poring over her letters, I discovered the wry, lively, sometimes rhapsodic voice of a freethinking woman who bicycled all around Manhattan and beyond, wore a riding skirt daringly shorter than street length, adored opera, followed the politics of the city even though she couldn't vote, and threw herself into the crush of Manhattan life--the Gilded Age uptown as well as the immigrant poverty of the Lower East Side. There before me in her own handwriting was an account of her making the first leaded-glass lampshade with mosaic base. I recognized her to be a dynamic yet tender leader who developed the Women's Department which created the nature-based lamps she designed. I rubbed my hands together in glee.
When I remembered that my mother, who lovingly called colors by their flower and fruit names, and who worked briefly as a lamp designer in Chicago in the 1930s, was required to resign from another position when she became engaged, just like the Tiffany Girls were required to do, I felt a personal connection to Clara. I sought out as many of her lamps as I could find, researched Tiffany and New York's cultural history in more than fifty books and articles, and then I eagerly settled down to write the story I felt was mine to tell.
Vreeland (Luncheon of the Boating Party) again excavates the life behind a famous artistic creation--in this case the Tiffany leaded-glass lamp, the brainchild not of Louis Comfort Tiffany but his glass studio manager, Clara Driscoll. Tiffany staffs his studio with female artisans--a decision that protects him from strikes by the all-male union--but refuses to employ women who are married. Lucky for him, Clara's romantic misfortunes--her husband's death, the disappearance of another suitor--insure that she can continue to craft the jewel-toned glass windows and lamps that catch both her eye and her imagination. Behind the scenes she makes her mark as an artist and champion of her workers, while living in an eclectic Irving Place boarding house populated by actors and artists. Vreeland ably captures Gilded Age New York and its atmosphere--robber barons, sweatshops, colorful characters, ateliers--but her preoccupation with the larger historical story comes at the expense of Clara, whose arc, while considered and nicely told, reflects the times too closely in its standard-issue woman-behind-the-man scenario. (Jan.) (c)
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