Lyman Allyn examines the life and creations of Louis Comfort Tiffany

Louis Comfort Tiffany was legendary for the intricately artistic and innovative stained-glass pieces he designed. And his family’s business, Tiffany & Co., is still renowned for luxuriously high-end jewelry.

A new permanent exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum explores this famous figure but through a slightly different perspective, by examining his life, his work — and his connection to southeastern Connecticut.

“Connecticut, with its deep family ties for Tiffany, played a foundational role in the artist’s life, offering a peaceful retreat as well as artistic inspiration and a source of patronage,” the exhibition text states.

“Louis Comfort Tiffany in New London” opened in late October and will be a permanent presence at the museum.

The exhibition reflects a critical moment in the decorative arts, when Art Nouveau was flowering, notes Tanya Pohrt, the Lyman Allyn’s special projects curator. Tiffany (who lived from 1848 to 1933) said that one of the goals in his life was the pursuit of beauty in all its forms, and the exhibition examines how he and his studios followed that mandate.

“Louis Comfort Tiffany in New London” — which Pohrt curated with input from Lyman Allyn director Sam Quigley and director of exhibitions Jane LeGrow — highlights not just items from the Lyman Allyn’s collection but also those on loan, including pieces from Tiffany descendants. They range from stained-glass windows to lamps to dressing sets to jewelry.

The exhibition details how, when he was 18, Tiffany saw ancient iridescent glass at a museum in London, and it made a huge impression on him. He eventually patented a formula for opalescent window glass, which was more versatile and nuanced in color than window glass had been.

“Tiffany is best known for his work in glass, and we have a lot of glass within the exhibition, but it’s nice to show different phases of his career and the different materials he worked in,” Pohrt says. “I am partial to paintings, so I was pleased to put in some examples of his paintings. … One of his innovations was to really make these stained-glass compositions paintings in glass, almost. Tiffany worked to make the glass itself more dynamic and three-dimensional in terms of creating this sense of space that’s occupied by figures. To be able to see the paintings and then the windows, you get a sense of some of these larger interests or the continuity in design.”

Local Tiffany ties: Tiffany spent a lot of time in the region, particularly in the 1870s and early 1880s at his sister Annie’s home in New London on property that is now the site of Mitchell College. He would vacation, sketch and paint there. For the 1880 census, the exhibition notes, he even listed New London as his residence.

Other links to the area were plentiful, too. Tiffany’s parents were both from Killingly. His father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, owned a cotton mill there before heading to New York and creating Tiffany & Young, which eventually became Tiffany & Company.

Lewis Comfort Tiffany’s first wife, May Goddard, came from Norwich, as did his sister Annie’s husband, Alfred Mitchell. Annie’s daughter Alfreda Mitchell married Hiram Bingham III in 1900 and spent time in the region.

What sparked this exhibition: In 2014, All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New London was preparing to move to a different location (from Huntington Street to Jay Street) and decided to sell the Tiffany window, “Come Unto Me,” that had been above its pulpit. Church members wanted to keep it in New London, hence the piece’s purchase by the Lyman Allyn, for a price that wasn’t made public. The All Souls congregation also wanted to keep the window accessible to the public and, Pohrt notes, “to really keep it and its story local, which we were really pleased to be able to do.”

Quigley says he was initially thinking about installing the window, which is 6 feet high and 6.3 feet wide, in a slightly smaller space in the museum along with objects to give the window context. (The museum owns some Tiffany glass and other items that were gifts from members of the extended Tiffany-Mitchell family.)

But when Quigley visited the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., he noticed that, although the venue was a little off the beaten path, people made their way there because they were drawn by the institute’s French Impressionist collection. In other words, name recognition can create a destination in a remote location. Quigley thought that Lyman Allyn could do that with Tiffany, which is a big name in American art.

In addition, Lyman Allyn got on long-term loan from Cedar Grove Cemetery in New London two stained-glass windows, one of them a Tiffany. The windows were originally installed in the Frank Loomis Palmer Mausoleum, but, after one of those windows was stolen in 1991 and then recovered, it and the second window were consigned to storage, because of damage and fear of another theft.

With all these elements in play, the idea for a more wide-ranging and permanent exhibition at the Lyman Allyn took off.

“We started thinking bigger and thought maybe could get loans here and there, maybe buy one or two,” Quigley says. “We decided one window would have been great, but we could make so much more out of it.”

Pohrt says, “Since we had different elements, we wanted to have a kind of permanent collection gallery that would tell Tiffany’s story and how he’s situated within the larger history of American art but to really do that through the local lens of material that represents southeastern Connecticut, the Tiffany’s family ties to this region, and other areas where we had material in the collection that could support those stories.”

Indeed, Quigley notes that this was a perfect opportunity to do what the Lyman Allyn tries to do all the time: to give people a wonderful aesthetic experience but also to give them a sense of history and specifically New London history, where they can learn something new about their own hometown and take pride in that.

Family members lent items, too: Pohrt says, “We spent some time getting to know some folks from all over. We’ve had great success talking to descendants of the family, many of whom still live in the region, the Binghams in particular. Many of them brought things out of their attic and from storage that they have lent and, in a few cases, are giving to the museum.”

Making stained-glass windows come alive indoors: Putting Tiffany windows inside a windowless gallery, of course, comes with its own idiosyncratic issues. Unlike with paintings, as Pohrt notes, “You can’t just nail a few holes in the wall and hang them up.”

The Lyman Allyn people worked with a stained glass conservator and expert out of New York, Thomas Venturella, and they had custom-built LED light pads manufactured to fit these particular windows. Those light pads create a consistent light source without generating heat. They are also very sleek and have a fairly narrow profile, so the windows themselves don’t take up a lot of space.

Having the former All Souls window now at eye level is a marked change for viewers; when windows like this are actually in a church, they are usually set higher up and behind the altar. Being up close to the pieces, visitors can see textures and how, for instance, multiple layers of glass at certain points provide added depth and nuance.

A group from All Souls toured the exhibition, and they said the window looked beautiful, Pohrt recalls. They did note, though, that one of the elements was lost, now that it’s been placed in a very consistent lighting environment. They recalled how, when the window was in All Souls church, at about 4 p.m., the light would come through in such a way that the lake water in the design would look as though it was actually moving; it would almost dance. That’s because the glass has folds and ripples in it, so the light shift created that effect.

Pieces that have just gone public: Many visitors love seeing the Tiffany lamps, Pohrt notes, but there are other objects on view, too, that have seldom if ever been seen outside of the Tiffany-Mitchell family. An enamel copper inkwell, for instance, is on loan and hasn’t been exhibited before. It’s a fairly rare form, with probably a dozen or less still in existence of those little vessels created in enamel copper cut-outs. It reflects Tiffany’s collaborations with other designers; Pohrt thinks this one might have been designed by Julia Munson, who was a Tiffany Studios designer.

Possible portrait by Tiffany: A small watercolor of Tiffany’s father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, is part of the exhibition, and it’s never been displayed publicly before. It’s unsigned, so no one knows if it was definitely painted by Lewis Comfort Tiffany, but it did descend in the family, so chances are good, according to Pohrt.

More to come: Since this is a long-term exhibition at the Lyman Allyn, things will shift as works on loan are returned and new pieces come in. Pohrt thinks, too, that there is more the museum can relay about Tiffany down the line.

“Tiffany is known to have done some watercolors and a few paintings of scenes from this area, from Norwich and New London, that are documented in exhibition registers from the 1870s. But in some cases, those paintings I think have been lost or are kind of buried in private collections somewhere,” Pohrt says. “ … I’m still looking for a painting or a watercolor to show some of that early work that happened in this area.”

If you go

What: Permanent exhibition dedicated to the life and works of Louis Comfort Tiffany 

Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sundays

Admission: $12 adults, $9 seniors, $5 students, $7 active military personnel; free for kids under 12, for members and for New London residents

For more info: (860) 443-2545, lymanallyn.org

 

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