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Not overlooked anymore: Clara Driscoll, designer of Visions in Glass for Tiffany

Not overlooked anymore: Clara Driscoll, designer of Visions in Glass for Tiffany

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries for notable people whose deaths went unreported in the Times as of 1851.

Although photos of Clara Driscoll exist, no one knows how tall she was, what her voice sounded like, or how she walked or moved.

What is known is what she left behind: beautifully crafted lamps in many colors, which she designed from 1888 to 1909 in three different tenures at Tiffany & Company.

As head of the women’s glass cutting department, she led a team called the Tiffany Girls that selected, cut and placed tiny pieces of glass that would eventually become unique lamps, each given a name.

There was the spider web lamp, with lace spider webs stretched taut against branches from which tiny flowers sprout. And there was the Arrowhead, the Butterfly and the Wisteria lamp and the Deep Sea, the Dragonfly and the Geranium lamp. Elements of nature—sluggish flowers and scurrying insects, lively fish and moving water—were favorite subjects of Tiffany and Driscoll.

The lamps are still in demand; In December 2015, a Dragonfly lamp from Andrew Carnegie’s collection was sold at Sotheby’s New York for more than $2.1 million.

But when Driscoll died in 1944, “her achievements were forgotten,” said Margi Hofer, vice president and curator of the New-York Historical Society and co-author of “A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.” (2007).

Driscoll was largely anonymous because Louis Comfort Tiffany, a son of one of the founders of Tiffany & Company, applied to be “chief designer of the lamps,” according to A New Light on Tiffany.

What made Driscoll better known some six decades after her death were her letters. She, her three younger sisters, Kate, Emily and Josephine, and their mother, Fannie, exchanged numerous letters (Emily once wrote a letter that was 38 pages long). The approximately 350 letters you received ended up in two different places.

In 2005, Nina Gray, an independent curator specializing in decorative arts, found a repository of the letters at the Queens Historical Society in New York City. Both she and Martin Eidelberg, professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, learned that other letters were being held in the library at Kent State University in Ohio.

Gray and Eidelberg then worked with Hofer to write “A New Light on Tiffany” as a catalog for an exhibition that Driscoll presented to the public at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan in 2007. Her museum has 132 Tiffany lamps, 100 of which are still on display and 63 of which are attributed to Driscoll.

Clara Pierce Wolcott was born on December 15, 1861 in Tallmadge, Ohio, just outside Akron, to Elizur V. Wolcott and Fannie (Pierce) Wolcott, both teachers. Her father, also a farmer, died when Clara was 12 years old.

Clara attended the Western Reserve School of Design for Women (now the Cleveland Institute of Art), worked for a local furniture manufacturer, and moved to Brooklyn with her sister Josephine in 1888, where she found rooms in a boarding house with hopes of becoming an artist. That year, both sisters got jobs at Tiffany Studios in Manhattan, on East 25th Street and what is now Park Avenue South.

In a letter dated June 29, 1898, Driscoll wrote about how her butterfly lamp came to be. Her idea, described to Louis Comfort Tiffany, was a glass shade depicting golden butterflies against a pale blue sky dotted with wispy clouds. The metal base would contain a glass mosaic depicting yellow primroses on stems with leaves in many shades of green.

Tiffany was so enthusiastic about the plan that he began sketching ideas on a blotter, but, Driscoll wrote, “it wavered in such vague lines that they could scarcely be distinguished from the gray of the blotter.”

“And then,” she added, “he would say, ‘Well, work out your own idea.'”

Once their design was approved, the Tiffany girls got to work: one drew a cartoon of the design to scale on tracing paper and placed it under glass over a light box. Another selected colored glass made from slabs approximately 15″ x 15″. Still another cut pieces from the glass, paying close attention to color and stripes. Another worker then cut a piece of thin copper into narrow, noodle-like strips and bent or “foiled” them around the edges of the pieces so they could each be soldered in place.

The women performed every step of the process except for the soldering, which was done by a men’s glass-cutting department. (Only the men were allowed to work with heating tools.) The entire assembled screen was then electroplated.

In addition to lamps, both the men’s and women’s departments also designed and manufactured stained glass windows – or at least until 1903. That year, the Tiffany company complied with a request from the Lead Glaziers and Glass Cutters’ Union that women were not allowed to be only union members – that is Men – who are allowed to make windows.

But the women designed and made small works of art like candlesticks, picture frames, and tea strainers — three-sided panes of leaded glass about 7½ inches high that were placed around a teapot heated by burners to keep a breeze from blowing out the flames.

Driscoll is smart, pragmatic and “fearless,” said curator Hofer. In April 1899, Driscoll and another designer, Alice Gouvy, designed the Dragonfly lamp, which sold for $250 (about $9,000 in today’s money). One customer, a woman, wanted to buy it immediately, but Tiffany said she would have to wait: the prototype was going to London for an exhibition at the Grafton Galleries. Driscoll later made three more Dragonflies, one for that client, one for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, and one for the Tiffany Studios showroom display.

Driscoll lived a frugal life as a career girl. (When her grandmother died, her mother sent her grandmother’s underwear, and Driscoll wore them.) By 1902, she was making $35 a week, or $1,820 a year (about $63,000 today). She occasionally went to the theater, once she saw Sarah Bernhardt in Alexandre Dumas’ “Camille”. She collaborated with modern dancer Loie Fuller and made three colored glass shades to light Fuller while he danced.

Driscoll lived in boarding houses to avoid cooking and cleaning. In 1888, while living in Brooklyn, she met Francis Driscoll, who worked in real estate; They were married the next year.

In her day, a woman was expected to quit her job once engaged or married, so Driscoll left her job at Tiffany’s and stayed at home until her husband died on February 21, 1892. Leaving little money from him, she returned to Tiffany.

In 1896 she became engaged to Edwin Waldo, who worked at University Settlement, a Manhattan welfare agency, and was also a painter and musician.

She left Tiffany for the second time, and on a trip before their marriage, she and Waldo went to Ohio, where he gave a lecture on the Settlement House. There he fell ill and soon disappeared inexplicably.

After Driscoll could not find him, she returned to Tiffany in 1897. Six years later, Waldo showed up in San Francisco and pleaded temporary amnesia.

Driscoll was getting smarter about men. In 1909, after more than a decade of friendship with a roommate named Edward Booth, they married.

By then, in her late 40s, she had developed chronic headaches and declining eyesight.

Driscoll and her husband summered on the New Jersey shore in Point Pleasant until his retirement in 1930. They moved to Florida, where she learned to drive (poorly by all accounts) and died on November 6, 1944 in Ormond Strand, north of Daytona. She was 82 years old. The cause given on her death certificate was an acute coronary occlusion.

Her occupation has been given as housewife, although it is known that she also painted shawls.

The scarves are no more, in contrast to their beautiful, colorful lamps.

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