For Christmas a dear friend surprised me with a copy of Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland. What an absolute treat! It was a fascinating read I simply couldn’t put down. Not only would I highly recommend this book to glass art or Tiffany fans, but it would also hold the attention of anyone interested in historical fiction and American cultural history in the amazing setting of New York at the turn of the twentieth century.
Vreeland offers an insightful glimpse into the life of glass artist Clara Driscoll, a talented, freethinking and courageous woman of her time, who was head of the women’s division for Tiffany Studios in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Only recently has it even come to light that Driscoll played an instrumental role in the design and execution of all of the iconic leaded glass lamps Tiffany is so famous for. Vreeland does a masterful job of weaving real life events and details she was able to gather from extensive letters that Driscoll had written and with her own creative genius, pieces together a most intriguing human interest story.
Though Tiffany was ahead of his time in regard to even employing women to the degree he did, his company imposed a strict policy against hiring married women, as was common practice for this time in history. Without public recognition or acclaim, Ms. Driscoll served and collaborated with Tiffany for more than 20 years until she left Tiffany and married at the age of 47. In Vreeland’s storyline, Clara’s departure happens to come at a time in the companies commercial concerns are smothering the freedoms which had allowed Clara to thrive as an artist. For a reader like myself, this book has me chewing on the subject of commerce vs. art. It is an interesting theme that Vreeland weaves into the storyline.
The reader is taken along through the an extravagant construction of an innovative project that helped put Tiffany’s name on the map on an international level when he took part in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago . It was a chapel whose design departed from the traditional religious motifs popular up until that time. As Tiffany was strongly influenced by nature, he chose to emphasize a landscape which would bring the viewer’s attention to God’s creation in their worship setting, as opposed to the more biblical imagery that had been very much a part of the medieval churches across Europe until then.
The Tiffany Chapel has a most intriguing life from its conception, up through its restoration and journey to its current home at The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, FL. I had the great pleasure to see the chapel several years ago when in Florida for a conference with my husband. It was in one word, stunning! A visit to the Morse Museum is an absolute must for anyone interested in Tiffany’s work. Also, The New York Historical Society Museum has an extensive collection of Tiffany lamps worth mentioning as well.
What is clear after reading Clara & Mr. Tiffany is that Clara was a strong woman who challenged the strongly held societal rules of her time. Though she relied heavily on Tiffany’s extensive resources as well as his creative support and encouragement, to bring her designs to life, she had earned his respect and trust through her track record of excellent design and her strong leadership of the women’s department at Tiffany Studios that brought the designs to life. To her credit, she served for the pure joy and art’s sake, without much glory or major accolades for her design efforts during her lifetime. In the end, as the companies drive for profit appears to smother the artistic freedoms she had so enjoyed, she chooses love and marriage, and a life apart from Tiffany.
It’s definitely a thought-provoking, human interest story of historic proportions I would LOVE to see up on the big screen some day perhaps!