At the encouragement of his friend Thomas Edison, interior designer Louis Comfort Tiffany invented an electric lamp with a stained-glass base and shade. He sold the first one in 1899, and the lamps went on to become coveted collectors items. About a century later, Christie's auctioned one off for $2.8 million.
But the woman who designed most of the lamps could never afford to own one.
Clara Driscoll came from a humble farming family in Tallmadge, Ohio. She was 21 when she found work in New York City at the Tiffany Glass Studios in 1887. More than a hundred years later, Tiffany scholars have finally discovered what she did there
Martin Eidelberg, professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, recently discovered a cache of letters that Driscoll had written to her mother and sisters back in Ohio. Based on those letters, Eidelberg and his co-curators at the New York Historical Society are creating a groundbreaking exhibition featuring 50 Tiffany lamps and exposing the role that Clara Driscoll played in the lamps' design.
Before Driscoll's correspondence surfaced, Eidelberg says that all they knew of her was a mention in a 1904 New York Daily News article. That story credited her with designing the Tiffany Dragonfly lamp that had won a prize at the Paris International Exposition in 1900.
"There was a little sketch of it so we know exactly which model it is," Eidelberg says. "It's a rather low, squat fuel lamp with a mosaic base, with bronze dragonflies and arrowheads going around the bottom, and a conical shade with dragonflies as well."
Eidelberg found no mention of Clara Driscoll in the company literature, but he says her letters substantiate the claim that she was the designer of all of Tiffany's lamps that had nature themes.
Tiffany himself was an avid gardener and loved nature as much as art. A proponent of the arts-and-crafts movement, he was passionate about bringing nature's wonders into American homes by using such themes to make everyday objects beautiful.
Tiffany was a sophisticated New Yorker. He was the son of the famous jeweler, Charles Tiffany. For him arts-and-crafts was an aesthetic philosophy.
But arts and crafts were second nature to Driscoll, the country girl who was 20 years Tiffany's junior, according to exhibition co-curator Nina Gray.
"I think there was a long tradition and history in Ohio, certainly with the Ohio potteries, woodwork and glass-making," Gray says.
After reading her letters in the Kent State University archives, Gray traveled to Tallmadge to see the house where Driscoll was raised and to walk through its garden.
"I think that wherever somebody grows up, it's always in their soul," Gray says. "I can remember one letter about Larkspur, which is sort of a bluish-purple flower. She wanted her sister to send her some so she could show it to Mr. Tiffany. So clearly there was something deeply ingrained in her heart and her soul."
The letters reveal that Tiffany met with Driscoll at least once a week to go over her designs, and often praised her. But Eidelberg says that in his company literature Tiffany gave credit to no one but himself.
The exhibition about Louis Comfort Tiffany's studios, Clara Driscoll and the women who worked with her, opens Feb. 23 and continues through May 28 at the New York Historical Society.
Vivian Goodman reports from member station WKSU.