Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
Susan Vreeland is well known for her historical novels, all featuring figures from the world of art. Her newest, just released in paperback, Clara and Mr. Tiffany is about the Tiffany studios, and the young women who worked there - most importantly Clara Driscoll, who was an important designer for the studios for many years.
We learn about the establishment of the Tiffany jewelry store – Charles Tiffany buying up jewels in Europe in 1848 “when Louis Philippe’s regime collapsed and the aristocracy was on the run and sold their jewels for half their value.” Tiffany reset the jewels in new styles to appeal to the Vanderbilts and the Astors and their like – and, as we know, he was very successful.
In 1893 Charles’ son Louis Comfort Tiffany exhibited spectacular stained glass windows at the Chicago World’s Fair and secured his reputation as a master of art glass design and production. The world of stained glass production in the Tiffany studios - where the women’s department employed unmarried women only - is a fascinating one. This is Clara Driscoll’s world – one she left for a brief marriage – but later returned to, and spent many years there developing an important career in art glass.
We see the New York City of the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s through Clara’s eyes, as she explores a rapidly growing Manhattan. Clara walks across the incredible Brooklyn Bridge, she rides the newly opened subway uptown from Union Square, and like anyone new to the city she visits the Statue of Liberty - “Liberty Enlightening the World.” If only the employers of women at this time had been enlightened! These are the early days of labour unions - for men only - and there are no rights for female workers.
Clara lives in a boarding house near Gramercy Park where she quickly makes friends among the other boarders, especially with a couple of young men, artists themselves. It is a lively and satisfying life, although Clara does wish for a husband, a partner in life, despite the fact that she would have to leave her job if she were to marry. We learn about the lives of some of the Lower East Side immigrants, some who are encouraged to train as artists at the various art academies – perhaps some will become future members of what became known the Ashcan School of Art. Some of these students also become workers in Clara’s studio at Tiffany –taking them out of the poverty and crowded conditions of the Lower East Side.
Clara and Mr. Tiffany is a novel about art and artists above all else – as one character says, to become an artist “it takes a person who delights in looking long and deeply at something until he sees how its shape can be rendered in changes of hue, and who can re-create that on a flat surface”. Of course it takes far more that that, but that is a good start – and it is a good description of Clara’s approach.
Clara Driscoll is now credited with designing many of the elaborate stained glass lampshades for which Tiffany is most famous – when she was working at the Tiffany studios her name was unknown, but an exhibit of her work in 2007 displayed her talent to the world, and planted a seed that for Susan Vreeland eventually led to the writing of this novel.