Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Icon of the Art Nouveau: Tiffany and a trick of the light

Louis Comfort Tiffany has long been credited with creating the lamps that made his company's name. But recently discovered letters suggest they were really the work of one of his assistants. David Usborne (The Independent) reports Published: 28 February 2007

Clara Driscoll knew she had made it in New York when she landed a job with the famous Tiffany Glass Company. It was the turn of the last century and she had a decent wage, good friends and, above all, no little creative responsibility. What she would never get, however, was public recognition.

Until now, that is. For Driscoll, a slightly stern-looking woman with a bun, left behind a record of her Tiffany days in the form of hundreds of pages of round-robin letters written to her mother and sisters back in Ohio between 1896 and 1907. Unearthed by the curators of a new exhibition at the New York Historical Society, they reveal a secret that Tiffany lamp owners everywhere will want to know: it was she - and not her esteemed employer, Louis Comfort Tiffany - who designed almost all of them. In fact, Tiffany, whose father created the luxury jewellery chain Tiffany & Co, was a quiet pioneer of bringing women into the workplace. More than 30 women worked at times at his main studios in Manhattan. They were the Tiffany Girls; supervising them was Clara Driscoll.

In her letters, Driscoll describes the breadth of her responsibilities. She was in the front line when the management - the "Powers that Be", she calls them - introduced a new system of contracts in 1898 to ensure pay more commensurate with the amount of work each girl actually did. On a "smotheringly hot day", Driscoll bought the women ice cream to soften the news of their tougher new working conditions.

She was also the mediator when Tiffany's male workers, mostly at his manufacturing plant in Queens, went on strike in protest at his employing women, who were barred from their union, and paying them equal wages. She brokered a deal to put a cap of 27 on the number of Tiffany Girls.

The letters also provide glimpses of Driscoll swimming the liberating new currents of urban womanhood at the end of the Victorian era. She profited from the new freedoms, visiting the theatre and the opera, riding a bicycle through Manhattan and hobnobbing with fellow artists. Driscoll witnessed the birth of modern New York. She describes the rise in 1903 of one of its first skyscrapers, the Flatiron, and recalls a windy day when "one woman was blown off the sidewalk by the flat iron building and several had to hold to lampposts and be helped out of the vicinity by policemen. There is something about the height and narrowness of the building that seems to increase the force of the wind".

But it is what we learn about the extent of Driscoll's influence on the Tiffany designs that is most important. Nearly all the lamps for which Tiffany became famous (and wealthy) - including his wisteria, firefly and poppy models - sprang not from his genius but rather from hers. "It's pretty entrenched the idea that the Tiffany objects were designed by Tiffany," explains Margaret Hofer, one of the curators of the Historical Society exhibition. "This is really going to surprise people. In fact, Tiffany probably never picked up a glass pipe in his life."

Driscoll remained unsung until now in part because of the collapse of the Tiffany Glass Company in 1932. "All its records were lost and until now we really didn't have a good picture of its history," says Ms Hofer. "But these letters have provided us with a day-by-day account of what was going on." That Tiffany appreciated the work of the girls is not in doubt. "Tiffany understood perhaps that he would have had ugly lamps without them," Ms Hofer argues. "The women had a sense of colour and nimble fingers." With Driscoll, meanwhile, he appeared to share a passion for nature - for flowers and bees and the hues of the seasons - that informed so many of the lamp designs. His respect for her is clear from her letters. She describes being asked to his mansion on 72 Street and Madison Avenue, where he kept a private studio of his own. The studio, she wrote "appears to be miles long and is wholly unlike anything I ever saw ... It is like a dream of poetry and harmony."

Another letter relates Tiffany's reaction when, at the Park Avenue studios, Driscoll shares with him the design for what will become the butterfly lamp, in which she imagined the butterflies exploding in a cloud of beating yellow wings so as to "look exactly like primrose blossom".

"When he heard about the primroses, he braced up at once, seized a pencil and began to make pictures all over ... and talking to himself and to me, while the fan made his thick curls stand up around his beaded brow like a halo". But for all his enthusiasm, she went on, his own drawings "wavered off into such vague lines that you could scarcely distinguish them from the gray of the blotter and then he would say - 'Well, work out your own idea'". And that, evidently, is exactly what Driscoll always did.

But if Tiffany was generous with salaries and praise, he never shared creative glory. "He controlled his publicity very carefully," adds Martin Eidelberg, a scholar of Tiffany and professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University. "No one's name was ever mentioned except his own." On two occasions, though, the name Driscoll did leak out, leaving the trace that Professor Eidelberg was able to follow so many decades later.

When Tiffany submitted one of his lamps to the World's Fair in Paris in 1900, he was obliged under the rules to disclose its designer, Driscoll. Four years later, a short article about Driscoll appeared in the New York Daily News.

It was in 2005 that Professor Eidelberg made contact with some of Driscoll's descendants. He learnt that some of her letters had been bequeathed by a family member to Kent State University in Ohio. A second trove was found at the Queens Historical Society in New York. Once he read them, the truth behind the Tiffany designs became clear and plans were laid for the exhibition in New York.

"She was a small-town girl with a lot of moxie," said Linda Alexander, one of Driscoll's descendants still living in Ohio, who attended the exhibition's opening. "I am so excited that she is getting the recognition now even if it is 100 years later."