Sunday, December 13, 2009

Joseph Burr Tiffany, International Man of Mystery (#3 in a series)

The record is silent regarding the whereabouts and doings of Joseph Burr Tiffany from late 1884 until mid-1886, when he is once again listed in a New York City directory.1 Can anything be gleaned from what was written about Tiffany later in his life?

A pair of profiles of Tiffany which appeared in 1912 are noticeably consistent in the details they offer:
"Mr. Tiffany’s education has been entirely along the lines of art. He studied applied arts with the world-famous house of Tiffany and Co., of which family he is a member. The celebrated artist John LaFarge was his mentor in his study of color schemes, after which he took a course with Adrian Pottier in order to acquire a knowledge of all the details of decorative art which he would need in later years.
After Mr. Tiffany had completed his studies along these lines he entered the warerooms of C.H. George so that he could study stuffs and fabrics, and then he went to Europe, where he acquired a thorough intimacy with rare tapestries and hangings, and a general knowledge of art that is possessed by few living Americans.
Subsequent to his return to America Mr. Tiffany took up the interior decoration of artistic homes, and some of the most beautiful homes in this county bear evidence of his artistic knowledge and ability.” 2
"[Tiffany’s] thorough knowledge of the applied and fine arts, rare stuffs, fabrics, and tapestries of mural decoration, has given him a reputation that has become international.
One of a family to which the world of art is deeply indebted, it was but natural that he should early turn his thoughts toward all things beautiful, and as soon as he had completed his collegiate education, he took up the study of applied arts with Tiffany & Co. From there he went into the studio of John LaFarge to obtain a though knowledge of color schemes, after which he took a course with Adrian Pottier that he might possess that intimacy with the ideals of decorative art which would be needful in his future vocation.  His further desire for an intimate knowledge of the beautiful took him to the warerooms of C. H. George so that he might study stuffs and rare fabrics, after which he spent several years in the great art centers of Europe, filling his brain with a knowledge of architectural decoration covering all periods; an intimacy with rare tapestries and hangings that is possessed by few and such a fund of new ideas as would only find a place in an active, artistic and enterprising brain. Returning to this country, Mr. Tiffany took up the interior decoration of artistic homes, and many of the finest residences owe their beauty to his rare talents.” 3
But are those details accurate, or even probable? Could Tiffany have studied with LaFarge, studied with Pottier, and then worked for C.H. George in the space of perhaps 18 months – from October 1884 until May of 1886 – let alone spent “several years in… Europe”? The evidence strongly suggests that Tiffany’s European sojourn could not have occurred later than the first half of 1886. Absent any firm documentation of Tiffany’s travels, the timeline presented in the articles is certainly suspect…  and there is little to bolster the remaining biographical detail.

John LaFarge is perhaps best remembered today as a designer of stained glass windows, and as Louis Comfort Tiffany’s principle competitor and rival. 4  But LaFarge was also equally accomplished as artist, writer, and decorator. From 1880 until  1885, he was the Art Director of the LaFarge Decorative Arts Company, until the company collapsed under the weight of aesthetic disputes, legal actions and allegations of financial mismanagement. No records exist to show what employment Joseph Burr Tiffany may have had with the LaFarge Decorative Art Company.

Adrian Pottier was the nephew of August Pottier, one of the founders of Pottier and Stymus Manufacturing Co. When that firm was dissolved in 1888 after 33 years in business, Adrian Pottier was named as President of the Pottier-Stymus Company, its successor. As with his purported relationship with LaFarge, the only documentation of Tiffany having studied under Pottier are the 1912 articles.

An 1887 city directory gives the first hint of Tiffany’s nascent business, when he is listed as “pres. [president] 21 Spruce & decorator, 152 Fifth Avenue.” 6 Since 152 Fifth Avenue was also the address of the aforementioned firm C.H. George & Co., “Importers of Paper Hangings and Textile Fabrics. Furniture Makers and Decorators,” at least that part of the biography seems to be accurate. And perhaps Tiffany was in their employ after his European travels, rather than before.7

While the inconsistencies cannot be resolved with the limited information available, it seems certain that J.B. Tiffany spent this time preparing to launch his own company. While affiliations such as those mentioned in the 1912 articles would have been beneficial for the stated artistic reasons—training in color and decorative arts, hands on experience with  materials—they would also have provided Tiffany with insight into three different types of decorating firms: the “boutique” artistic approach of LaFarge; the large scale, full service behemoth that was Pottier and Stymus; and the retailer-who-offers-custom-work, C.H. George. (to be continued)

1. Poutasse, Marianna. “Decorating a Hudson River Estate: Robert Bowne Suckley and Joseph Burr Tiffany at Wilderstein.” MA thesis Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts. 1995. p. 32. Tiffany is listed in Trow’s New York City Directory for 1886-1887 as “A decorator residing at West 152nd Street, north Boulevard.”
2. Music Trade Review, December 28, 1912
3. The National Magazine; An Illustrated American Monthly, June 19124. Poutasse, p.32. The directory was Trow’s New York City Directory for 1887-1888.
4. Sloan, Julie L. "The Rivalry Between Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge," Nineteenth Century, the Magazine of The Victorian Society in America, Fall, 1997.
5. Poutasse, p.40.
6. Ibid., p.32. The directory was Trow’s New York City Directory for 1887-1888.
7. Advertisements for C.H. George and Co. show that the company was located at 152 Fifth Avenue  from mid-1883 through December 1887.

Mantelpiece, entrance hall of Cornelius Vanderbilt II House.
LaFarge was the interior decorator, and designed the mosaic frieze.
Vanderbilt Mantelpiece, ca. 1881–83
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (American, 1848–1907)
Marble, mosaic, oak, and cast iron
184 3/8 x 154 7/8 x 37 1/4 in. (468.3 x 393.4 x 94.6 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, 1925 (25.234) 

The Pottier & Stymus factory at Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street, New York City, circa 1872. Destroyed by fire on March 1, 1888. (From Tbe Successful Business Houses of New York.)

Ad for C.H. George & Co., from The Art Amateur; A Monthly Journal Devoted to Art in the Household. This ad ran from August through December, 1887.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Other Tiffany (#2 in a series)

Joseph Burr Tiffany was born on February 13, 1856 in Hudson, NY; his parents were Amanda Cuyler Stoutenburgh, and Joseph Capron Tiffany. He was the youngest of three sons. Little is known of his early life, save that part of it was spent in Norfolk, VA, where his father was "actively engaged in the lumber trade." 1 The family also traveled to Chicago, appearing in that city in the 1860 Federal Census. In 1874, Joseph Burr Tiffany enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, where he studied Mechanical Engineering; he left Cornell in 1876 after six terms and without taking a degree.He had, it seems, decided instead to pursue a career in the applied arts.

Between 1877 and 1882, Joseph Burr Tiffany was employed in various capacities by Tiffany & Co., in their store and manufacturing facility at #15 Union Square, New York City. According to company archives, he worked at first in the "Bronze Department," (1878 and 1879) and later (1882), in the "Jewelry [Manufacturing and Design] Department;" his training, responsibilities and position are not indicated in the company records, but some insight may be gleaned from other sources - the 1878 Cornell alumni book lists Tiffany as a "jeweler," and the 1880 Federal Census gives his profession as "clerk in store." As the records are spotty, it is not known if his employment at Tiffany & Co. was continuous for the entire period, or if he spent time with other firms or at educational pursuits. The record seems clear, however, that his career at Tiffany & Co. came to a close on January 6, 1883. The reason for that separation is unknown. 3
Even in the 19th century, New York City was a shopping mecca, and, in close proximity to Tiffany & Co., several silver dealers and "fancy-goods" emporiums were located on Union Square. Joseph Burr Tiffany was next employed as the manager of one of these stores, the Derby Silver Company, located at #3 Union Square. The contemporaneous book New York's Great Industries had this to say:
“The manager of the store is Mr. J.B. Tiffany, a gentleman widely known and highly esteemed throughout commercial circles.  His presence at the head of the magnificent establishment in Union Square is alone sufficient guarantee of the absolute reliability and merits of all goods leaving its doors…” 4
Despite this glowing endorsement and what seems to be a significant advancement in his career, Tiffany's tenure at Derby Silver Company was brief. On October 22, 1884, he married Fanny Sophia Gere, the daughter of a Syracuse, NY businessman.

And then he vanishes from the public record for over a year. (to be continued...)

Notes: 1. Col. Joseph C. Tiffany obituary, New York Times, July 17, 1889.
2. Ten-Year Book of the Cornell University 1868-1878; Volumes 1-3. (Ithaca, NY: B. Herman Smith University Press.)
3. Poutasse, Marianna. “Decorating a Hudson River Estate: Robert Bowne Suckley and Joseph Burr Tiffany at Wilderstein.” MA thesis Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts. 1995. p. 31.
4. Edwards, Richard, Ed. New York’s Great Industries. (New York: Historical Publishing Company, 1884.) , p. 266.

Joseph Burr Tiffany, circa 1912.
"In front of Tiffany's (Union Square)." [1899].  Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Tale of Two Tiffanys (#1 in a series)

There are names familiar to every collector and scholar of 19th century decorative arts, for example, Herter Brothers, Pottier & Stymus, Candace Wheeler, and John LaFarge. There is, however, but one name familiar at a popular culture level: Tiffany. And while some of that fame admittedly can be attributed to jewelry, little blue boxes, and Holly Golightly's morning repast, the word "Tiffany" is also virtually a synonym for "stained glass."

Two men with the name "Tiffany" worked as decorators in the last quarter of the 19th century: Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Joseph Burr Tiffany.

The career and life of Louis Comfort Tiffany - decorator, designer, artist - are well documented. Born in 1848, he was the eldest son of
Charles Lewis Tiffany, the founder of Tiffany & Company. While attending boarding school, Tiffany studied art with George Inness; at age 18 he rejected the idea of entering the family business and instead became an artist. He spent the next decade traveling, working, and studying as an easel painter and watercolorist. About 1875, however, Tiffany increasingly became interested in glass as an artist medium, and with the creation of domestic interiors, initially for himself and his family. In 1879 Tiffany wrote to Candace Wheeler, "I have been thinking a great deal about decorative work, and am going into it as a profession. I believe there is more in it than in painting pictures." More, indeed! Tiffany's work ranged from stained glass, mosaics, art glass and ceramics, jewelry, enamels, metalwork and furniture, to the execution of "artistic" interiors, both public and private, spanning and transcending the American Aesthetic, American Renaissance and Art Nouveau decorative styles.

Joseph Burr Tiffany, on the other hand, is something of a mystery. A typical modern stating of his CV will read something like: "Joseph Burr Tiffany was a prominent New York interior decorator of the late 19th century, known for decorating many Hudson River mansions and especially for the lavish decorations and stained glass he created for Wilderstein. He was an engineer, educated at Cornell; studied the arts extensively in Europe; and was a cousin of Louis Comfort Tiffany (their fathers were brothers). He also designed some pianos for Steinway & Co."

I would like to examine what is "known" about Joseph Burr Tiffany, and, where possible, make additions and corrections to this meager biography. (to be continued...)

Magnolias and Irises, ca. 1908
Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933)
Tiffany Studios (1902–1938)
Leaded Favrile-glass window
60 1/4 x 42 in. (153 x 106.7 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Anonymous Gift, in memory of Mr. and Mrs. A. B. Frank, 1981 (1981.159)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Portière with Border in Renaissance Embroidery (1880)

From the October 9, 1880 edition of Harper's Bazaar magazine:

This elegant portière is of rich maroon velvet, with a border worked on réséda cloth in the popular Renaissance [style]. The border is repeated across the bottom of each curtain, and also at the lower edge of the lambrequin, where it is finished by maroon twisted fringe. The border is composed of single squares, embroidered at regular intervals on the cloth foundation, with intervening bars of gold braid. Fig. 2 shows the embroidery for each square. After the design has been transferred to the material, the several design figures are covered with stitches worked in a vertical direction with a single thread of split filling silk, in which one stitch is worked forward, the needle carried over two threads of the material on the wrong side, and then a stitch worked back. After a design figure has been covered with threads in this manner, transverse stitches are worked at intervals of an eighth of an inch, and fastened down with overcast stitches of the same silk, the latter stitches forming alternating rows. For the blossoms, bluish-pink silk in several shades and bronze silk are used, for the intersecting lines, Bordeaux, and for the leaves and stems, olive, sea blue, and brown silks in different shades. The embroidered squares are bounded by double lines of bronze filling silk, caught down with overcast stitches of the same silk split, while the space between the lines is filled with herring-bone stitches of bronze silk. For the vine ornamentation, cream-colored silk is sewn down with overcast stitches of bronze. The strips of gold braid are fastened down with bronze filling silk, caught down with overcast stitches of the same silk split, and this latter silk is also used for the row of herring-bone stitches ornamenting the braid. The joining of the border and the velvet foundation is covered by silk cord of the same shade. The portière is draped by means of cords of maroon silk and wool terminating in tassels, as seen in the illustration.
Curtains and portières with wide, embroidered "Renaissance" borders were often featured in the popular press, sometimes with lambrequins or cornice pieces, sometimes with only the curtains proper. As horizontally banded curtains became fashionable, often the embroidered borders were also used to divide the curtain panels - ideally, the point of division would echo the height of the dado, as seen in the decoration of the Worsham-Rockefeller Bedroom. (Detail here.)