Friday, 24 August 2012

Louis Comfort Tiffany - an American Genius

A Wisteria Lamp.*
Tiffany - a magic word.  Who can forget the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”?  Tiffany was a company founded in the 19th century making and selling fine jewellery and retailing other luxury items.  And, of course, it is still selling expensive jewellery.

But it was not founded by Louis Comfort Tiffany (LCT).  It was his father, Charles Lewis Tiffany who opened the business and who expected his son to follow in his footsteps.  LCT had other ideas.  He wanted to be a painter but unfortunately - or perhaps fortunately - his paintings weren’t that great.

This redhead from New York City - with the temper to match - was frequently in trouble with his parents so they sent him to the Eagleswood Military Academy in Perth Amboy, NJ.  He stayed there for three years leaving when he was seventeen.  He then travelled about Europe to learn about art and the various cultures. 

Following his first European tour he attended art school in New York and met other people who influenced his forward thinking.  He made a second trip to Europe in 1868 and, with a friend (Samuel Colman), went to Northern Africa where he saw the use of bright colours.  He also saw the way medieval stained-glass windows literally glow and was particularly impressed with the windows at Chartres Cathedral.

Nine of his paintings were exhibited in 1876 at the Philadelphia Exposition but he was more interested in the Arts and Crafts interiors that were on show.  Subsequently, together with his friend Candace Wheeler (an embroidery expert) they founded the Society of Decorative Arts where classes were held in needlework, tile painting, pottery, wood carving and other crafts.

In 1879 he and some friends formed Louis C. Tiffany and Associated Artists and their first commission was to design a drop curtain for the Madison Square Theater.  Subsequently the company decorated rooms in the 5th Avenue mansion of pharmaceutical tycoon George Kemp, quickly followed by more commissions for Tiffany decorated rooms.  The Tiffany style was created by covering almost every surface with exotic patterns that were influenced by his time spent overseas.

During the 1880s the company increased their fame.  In 1881 Mark Twain had them decorate his home in Hartford, Connecticut.  That was quickly followed by a request from the White House.  President Arthur (who had succeeded the assassinated President Garfield) needed some of the rooms to be redecorated - the East Room, the State Dining room, the Red and Blue Parlors and a corridor.  And he needed that work done within seven weeks. 

Eventually LCT became fed up with the demands of his clients - no matter how wealthy or important.  Throughout the 1870s and 1880s he had been experimenting with glass and using it in some of the interiors.  But more importantly, he began designing stained glass windows for the new post-Civil War churches.  Until LCT (and John La Farge), the manufacturing technique had remained the same since the Middle Ages.  LCT’s wonderful innovation was a form of opalescent glass with a milky rainbow form of iridescence when the light shone through it.  He acquired the patent in 1881.

Stained Glass Windows at Flagler College, St. Augustine, FL
Over the years Tiffany produced stained glass windows for schools, public buildings, shops, homes, hotels, theatres and churches - to name but a few.  The company also exhibited a great deal.  As well as the windows, there were the famous lamps with all sorts of motifs such as poppies, dragonflies, fruit and almost anything else you can think of.

The Tiffany Chapel *.
Two other areas that interested Tiffany were the exotic vases and mosaic.  The best example of his mosaic and stained-glass windows can be seen at the Morse Museum in Winter Park in Florida.  In here is the fabulous Tiffany Chapel that began life at the Chicago Exposition of 1893.  Also in the museum are examples of other glassware including Favrile and lava glass.  My personal favourite shape of Tiffany vases is the Jack-in-the-pulpit with its narrow stem and opened out round top looking like a delicate opened flower.  They come in all mixes of colours.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit Vase *
LCT retired in 1919 and by 1924 the company began to disintegrate.  In 1932 the Tiffany Studios went into bankruptcy.  Tiffany died in 1933 and in 1934 all of the assets were auctioned.  By then Art Nouveau was out of fashion, it had given way to the rigid lines and unfussy designs of Art Deco.

That all changed after the World War II when artists began to recognise the beauty of Tiffany’s designs.  By the 1950s museums were acquiring pieces of Tiffany ware and exhibitions were held.

LCT’s homes on 5th Avenue, New York and Laurelton Hall on Long Island are no longer.  The mansions of 5th Avenue made way for skyscrapers and Laurelton succumbed to a fire in 1957, after which Mrs. Comfort Gilder, one of LCT’s daughters, offered what was left of her father’s work to the Morse Museum where years of painstaking work have recreated the Tiffany Chapel, some of the rooms of Laurelton Hall including the famous Daffodil Terrace.
The restored Dining Room from Laurelton Hall *

If you are in Florida - around the Orlando area - do go along to the museum for a very special ‘experience’.  Breathtaking!

* Copyright - Morse Museum, Winter Park.
A Tiffany Chapel

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