Book Review: Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel by Susan Vreeland

Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel

Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel

by Susan Vreeland

New York : Random House, 2011

ISBN: 9781400068166

After another brief pause in life we are back reviewing books.  This review is from Katherine who just loves this book.  While it is a novel it is based on fact — there really was a Clara who ran Tiffany’s “women’s” studio which came out with some unbelievable Tiffany pieces.  Would Tiffany have been “Tiffany” without Clara and the other ladies?  Read this book to see for yourself.  At the end are some links to view her work.

Synopsis:

Louis Comfort 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 Driscoll’s romantic misfortunes insure that she can continue to craft the jewel-toned glass windows and lamps that catch both her eye and her imagination.

Katherine’s Review:

History comes alive and in full color with the novel Clara and Mr. Tiffany.  And color is the main component of this love story with Tiffany stained glass.  And what is wonderful is that while the book is a novel it is all based on fact.  And as a side note I listened to part of it on book on CD and the reader is absolutely fabulous – so either enjoy a great read or a great listen – all of it is superb.

There truly was a Clara Driscoll and as most know there was Tiffany jewelry and in particular for this story the famous Tiffany glass.  Clara headed the “women’s studio” of Tiffany glass for Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the patriarch and owner of the family business of Tiffany jewelry.  The women who worked with Clara were the only females in the glass art world of New York and beyond.  It was considered a man’s occupation and Clara, with the women she hired, set out to show Louis Tiffany and the world how much artistic skill and creativity women could bring to this art.

In this story we move from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair through the next 12 years as Tiffany glass and Clara receive awards, honors and many commissions for windows, mosaics and lamps.  But we also see the egotistical side of Louis Tiffany as he continues to take credit for the designs and art of Clara’s skill.  Women were just there for his needs.  He even treats his twin teenage daughters, trying to break away from home to go to school at Bryn Mawr, with little respect and tells them that they should stay home instead of trying to expand themselves.

Clara worked in the women’s studio for Louis Tiffany and struggled against the anti-female bias of the company and world of that era.  Clara was a first-rate artisan but she didn’t end up with the full respect of the company  We see the men’s Glaziers and Glass Cutter’s Union begin to agitate and their anger ferment when they see how well the women do with both the creativity and production of Tiffany windows and lamps to the detriment of their own organization.  When it came to deciding which group was right the women’s studio suffered until they too, following the women’s suffragette movement, decided to take a stand.

We also find Clara continuously seeking what I note is Louis’ love of her work, her creativity, and just maybe of herself – something he could never give her due to his marriages and their social status.  Clara seemed to wish for his attention and even love throughout the book.  When told of Louis Tiffany’s visits to the mosaic group Clara notes “Under my skin burned the heat of coveting his two visits a week, but I couldn’t say a word.  They were my friends.  The creative collaboration I had let myself believe I alone had with him was intimate and passionate.  Now it was cheapened by seeing his more attentive collaboration with them.  I was still just one of his minions.”

Louis Tiffany doesn’t do anything to change these thoughts he had to note that Clara might have for him.  At one point Clara notes that “He cupped his hand under a peony tenderly, as if it were the chin of his beloved, for the sake of the frailty of one petal about to all.  Beauty is everything, isn’t it?” His gaze moved from the blossom to my face in the most penetrating way. No, it isn’t, but I refrained from contradicting him.  My mouth tensed involuntarily with an awful tightness.  I wished I didn’t have my glasses on, wished my nose were smaller, my mouth more upturned, my eyelids less droopy, my hair more stylish.  Oh, what was the use?”  In the end, her love for him – his creativity, artistic skill and even life – would keep her skills and endeavors with the Tiffany glass under the Tiffany sway.

Clara’s love for both Edwin and Bernard would be her sustaining hope.  These two were a whole different life for Clara.  First was Edwin who was her artistic muse but would end up disappearing forever after declaring his love for her.  Then Bernard, the Englishman who seemed untouchable due to his “marriage” would come into her life and be an anchor as changes begin to happen as the 20th century modern era arrives in many aspects of New York life.

Throughout the book color plays such an important role and it should when we think of stained glass.  Every page highlights the colors in and of the lives of the characters, and it is so vibrant and thrilling.  Form and structure also are so important to the characters and this is highlighted in the building of the triangular “Flatiron Building” on Broadway and Fifth Avenue that “at a certain angle, only one of its long sides was visible, so it looked like a completely flat building, a mere façade without any width at all, like a giant piece of cardboard balanced on end and painted with windows.  It was both disconcerting and thrilling.”

What is amazing is that all of this is true.  In the midst of the book I actually started researching the Tiffany lamps and windows, plus the characters.  Clara Driscoll has been reborn in the recent research (much of the life and work of Louis C. Tiffany was destroyed in the fire of his mansion Laurelton Hall in 1957) through the letters of Clara Driscoll.  This research has been noted in the following references (with excerpts):

http://www.antiquesandfineart.com/articles/article.cfm?request=769

While Louis C. Tiffany (1848-1933) was the artistic genius behind the creative endeavors of Tiffany Studios, the discovery of a cache of correspondence written by Clara Driscoll (1861-1944), head of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department, has revealed the substantial contributions of the women who labored anonymously to create Tiffany’s masterpieces.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/26/arts/26iht-tiff.html?pagewanted=all

Clara showed an aptitude for art and attended design school in Cleveland, working for a local furniture maker before moving to New York, where she enrolled in the new Metropolitan Museum Art School. By 1888 she was employed at the Tiffany Studios, where she remained for more than 20 years.  Most of this was unknown to scholars as recently as the fall of 2005, when a man approached Eidelberg after a lecture, said that he was a descendant of Clara Driscoll, and asked if he was interested in seeing letters that she had written at the turn of the 20th century. Eidelberg had recently published a book about Tiffany lamps and knew Driscoll’s name in connection with a group of women who, during a strike by the men of the Lead Glaziers and Glass Cutters Union in 1892, were hired in large numbers by Tiffany to cut glass.

http://www.nyhistory.org/web/PDF/tiffany_ada.pdf

New York Historical Society presents the exhibit A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls

I have to say that this is a book that is a must read for those who love history, love stories, the art world and just anything that is so beautiful.  This is the perfect book to read or listen to for enjoyment and enlightenment.

 

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