Credit Due: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls



After three years of negotiation, the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History is about to become the only U.S. venue outside of New York City to host A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls. The exhibition showcases a previously little known creative force: Clara Driscoll.
For many years, it was believed that Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), the founder of the famous jewelry store in New York, was the sole designer of his lamps, windows, and other luxury items. Recently, letters by one of his employees, Clara Driscoll (1861-1944), have re-surfaced, proving that she designed many of Tiffany’s most recognizable and beloved designs, including the Dragonfly, Wisteria and Poppy lamps.

A New Light on Tiffany, features approximately sixty lamps and other objects that Driscoll and other women in her department designed and created. While employed by Tiffany, Driscoll wrote extensively to her mother and sisters back in her Native Ohio. Her letters provide rare insight into the inner workings of the Tiffany studios, working women at the turn of the 20th century, and the history of New York. In addition, this stunningly beautiful exhibit has surprising links to Albuquerque and the Southwest.

The collection highlights the sensibilities of the Tiffany women’s glass cutting department Driscoll supervised. A writer from 1894 describes why women first entered the field—it was believed “that women’s fingers are more nimble, their eyes are more sensitive to nuances of color, and they possess a special disposition for decoration. Equally important, they were thought to be more easily directed.” The exhibit showcases their ability to carefully place diverse, opalescent glass into designs inspired by the natural world.

Clara Driscoll eventually managed this women’s glass department and wrote prolifically about her experiences. Her letters are a major, surprising find. Martin Eidelberg, a professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University was lecturing on Tiffany when an audience member brought Driscoll’s correspondence to his attention. Eidelberg was shocked, saying “I think Tiffany would have died” if it were known that Driscoll designed some of Tiffany’s most famous lamps. Eidelberg became co-curator of this exhibition with the independent scholar Nina Gray and the New York historical society’s curator of decorative arts, Margaret K. Hofer.


Arrowhead shade
Designed by Clara Driscoll, c. 1904
Cattail Pond Lily base, designed c. 1904
New-York Historical Society
Gift of Dr. Egon Neustadt

Driscoll’s correspondence is fascinating. Long before e-mail, Driscoll’s mother Fannie invented a way to stay in touch with her daughters, binding letters between them all in a ‘round robin’ fashion. After remaining in family attics for years, the letters were eventually donated to archives at Kent State and the Queens Historical Society.

Driscoll’s letters provide unusual insights—such as how bicycling led to female emancipation, how it felt to ride the New York subway for the first time, and how a woman manages to create in a male dominated field.
For example, Tiffany fostered Driscoll’s talents, took her on a sketching trip to Europe, defended the women’s glass cutting department to a male union that wanted them closed, and encouraged Driscoll to think of art independently of commerce. And he let her design—lamps, ink wells, clocks, tea screens. Driscoll writes to the women in her family about how she worked with Tiffany to design her Butterfly Lamp:

June 29, 1898: “Last and most important…is a big beautiful lamp made of the evening primrose. Like the field of them on Mr. Root’s land (in her home town in Ohio). This in mosaic will be the lamp and a cloud of little yellow butterflies which you know look exactly like the primrose blossom, in a net work of gold wire made in beautiful lines like the lines of smoke—is to be the shade. I described this to Mr. Tiffany while he was in Mr. Mitchell’s office sitting in front of he electric fan in Mr. Mitchell’s chair waiting for him to come in, and looking as if life were a burden that he could not support much longer. But when he heard about the primroses, he braced up at once, seized a pencil and began to make pictures all over Mr. Mitchell’s clean blotter and talking to himself and to me, while the fan made his thick curls stand up around his beaded brown like a halo, after this fashion—“The lamp mutht be tall and chlim’ (the words tall and slim being unnaturally lengthened while he drew long and down lines to illustrate) “like the flowerth, and the thade—“ but every time he came to that he wavered off into such vague lines that you could scarcely distinguish them from the gray of the blotter and then he would say—‘well work out your own idea.”

Clara Driscoll in her workroom at Tiffany Studios
with Joseph Briggs, 1901
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Except for a brief citation in The New York Daily News in 1904, Driscoll was never credited for her work. Due to her era and her gender, one might assume that Driscoll was resigned to obscurity, accepting her rare chance to design without question. This is incorrect. Did Clara want to be credited for her designs? Yes.

“I told him (the supervisor of lamp production at the Corona factory) I would give my mind to it and get him out some good designs if he would keep it before the public that I designed them…He has agreed to do it and to blow my trumpet whenever opportunity offers. I feel that I must get up a commercial reputation as well as an artistic one.”

–Clara Driscoll, January 9, 1902



Did Driscoll consider opening her own design studio? Yes.

As the exhibition catalogue states, “Her idea was to start a small-scale Arts and Crafts venture back there (in her native Ohio). At the core of this scheme, often referred to as ‘the ideal Future,’ was the idea that Clara would organize members of her family and friends to work in a handicraft cooperative, and she would provide designs and manage the undertaking.” Driscoll dreamed her project would “sufficiently occupy the time and ability of such bright capable girls and at the same time bring in a little money appeals to my heart and I hereby solemnly swear that it shall be done.”

Although she pursued her dream, she got married instead. Driscoll’s work was regularly interrupted by marriage—three times. One husband died, another ran off. These tragedies allowed her to return to her work at Tiffany Studios. At the time, women were promptly fired for marrying. Driscoll disapproved of this policy, both as an artist and a manager. “I was interrupted by a poor little fool of a girl…she is barely eighteen and she came to announce her marriage to her beau who is a few weeks younger than she and who earns two dollars a week. Think what is before them. Of course she gives up her work here and her salary of $7.50. She was one of the best of the new ones and would have been getting nine dollar a week in a few months. It makes me sick to think of it.” She referred to the parties her workforce gave to engaged girls, calling them “those poison wedding lunches.”

Driscoll also details the wonder of New York and how it inspires her: attending the unveilings of inventions in electricity and transportation, new plays, music concerts, art exhibits and long bicycle rides.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum will host events that make connections to the local community, including tours of local stained glass and a public opening and programs on Mother’s Day. The exhibit runs May 8–August 11, 2011, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Tuesday – Sunday at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History 2000 Mountain Road NW Albuquerque, NM 87104 505·243·7255.

Elaine Avila is a playwright, art critic and holds the Robert F. Hartung Endowed Chair of Dramatic Writing at the University of New Mexico.

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide - Volume 25

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