A Conversation on Louis Comfort Tiffany: With curator of American glass Kelly Conway and Tiffany scholar Paul Doros

Paul E. Doros is a renowned scholar on the life and work of Louis Comfort Tiffany. He was the first curator of glass at the Chrysler Museum of Art, located in Norfolk, Virginia, and authored the 1978 publication, The Tiffany Collection of the Chrysler Museum at Norfolk, widely considered the finest collection of Tiffany blown vessels held in any public institution. He went on to work in the Twentieth Century Decorative Arts Department of Christie’s from 1978 to 1988. Paul hosts The Tiffany Studios Resource Center web site (tiffanystudios.org) and has even appeared in a segment of the PBS program “History Detectives.” His most recent project is the critically acclaimed new book, The Art Glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany. This volume reflects his expertise in examining Tiffany’s work and is a visual feast.

Last week, Doros presented a lecture here at the Museum on Tiffany Studios’ Favrile glass and provided a look into the life of Tiffany. While he was here, curator of American glass Kelly Conway asked him a few questions about researching the famous glassmaker.

Kelly Conway: What prompted you to work on this latest book, The Art Glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany? How long does a project like this take to develop?

Paul Doros: The initial concept for the book came shortly after I left as the Chrysler Museum’s curator of glass in 1977. I had always loved the blown Favrile glass objects made by Tiffany Studios and felt, because of the publicity generated by the company’s leaded glass windows and lamps, the vases had never garnered the attention they deserved.

Vase with Peacock Feather Plique-a-Jour Mount, Tiffany Studios, about 1897-1899.

Vase with Peacock Feather Plique-a-Jour Mount, Tiffany Studios, about 1897-1899. (2006.4.161)

Unfortunately, as so often happens, my plans were delayed by the mundane realities of life. However, I continued to research the topic and developed an archive of over 2000 newspaper and magazine articles, Tiffany Studios pamphlets, period photographs and other related ephemera. When my son left for college in 2007, I suddenly realized I had some time to devote to writing a book. After I had exhausted every source of information I could think of, I spent 6 months recording all of my research into a database, and the initial draft took 4 months to complete. From that point, it took another 1½ years to go through another couple of drafts, arrange for the photography, refine the layout, and have it printed.

Conway: Did you experience any particular “ah-ha” moments while researching material for the book, such as discovering a new object or linking new material?

Doros: About three years prior to writing the first draft, I became resigned to the idea of expanding the focus of the book from blown Favrile glass to include the enamelware, mosaics, ceramics, and metalware produced by Tiffany Studios. I simply did not have enough new, unpublished information on just the glass.

Then, the Rakow Library of the Corning Museum of Glass obtained a remarkable trove of documents that had belonged to Arthur J. Nash, the superintendent of Tiffany’s glasshouse, and his son Leslie. That material offered an entirely new perspective on the glasshouse and its production techniques. Then, a year or so after that, I came across another exciting source of information: the Newtown Register. This was the local newspaper that covered Corona, Queens, the site of Tiffany Studios, and there were numerous articles detailing the daily lives of the glassworkers and how the glasshouse was operated. It was the discovery of these two sources that permitted me to write the book I had always hoped to.

Conway: Do you have a favorite object or type of Tiffany glass?

"Lava" Vase with Bronze Mount, Tiffany Furnaces, about 1904-1906. (86.4.14)

“Lava” Vase with Bronze Mount, Tiffany Furnaces, about 1904-1906. (86.4.14)

Doros: That’s like asking a parent which child he loves best. I suppose if I had to select only one type, it would be the Lava vases. The evolution of the motif is fascinating and the style epitomizes the irregular shapes and random decorative “accidents” Louis C. Tiffany desired his glassworkers to create. They are also wonderful objects to handle, with their roughened textures and iridescent drippings in various degrees of relief.

Conway: You have worked as a museum curator, at an auction house, and as an independent scholar. Can you discuss some of the different approaches to collecting and researching material in these roles?

Doros: I think the biggest difference, and advantage, to being an independent scholar is I can focus solely on Tiffany. The Chrysler Museum’s phenomenal glass collection ranges from ancient to contemporary glass and, while I might have a favorite, a curator has to be aware that visitors might be more interested in Sandwich, Mt. Washington, English cameo or French Art Nouveau glass. So, a curator must be well versed in as many types of glass as possible to answer questions from both visitors and other glass scholars.

Working for an auction house also prevents one from truly specializing in any one area. The Twentieth Century Decorative Arts department deals with jewelry, ceramics, silver and other metal objects, furniture, paintings, lithographs, and even Art Deco book bindings, as well as glass, and a certain degree of expertise is required in each area. Plus, there are so many other facets to the job, such as acquiring consignments, designing catalogs, arranging displays and dealing with clients, there is simply not sufficient time to research each object as much as one would like.

Although being an independent scholar is not always as exciting, or fulfilling, as working for a museum or auction house, it does permit me to concentrate on a subject I find fascinating. And the many friendships I’ve formed within the Tiffany world are a bonus and something I treasure.

Conway: Why do you think Louis Comfort Tiffany and his work draw so much popular attention?

Favrile Aquamarine Paperweight Vase with Sea Life, Tiffany Studios, about 1911-1912. Bequest of Ellen D. Sharpe (54.4.6)

Favrile Aquamarine Paperweight Vase with Sea Life, Tiffany Studios, about 1911-1912. Bequest of Ellen D. Sharpe (54.4.6)

Doros: The simple answer is that the majority of objects he designed or inspired are extraordinary from both an aesthetic and a technical viewpoint, and the exceptional craftsmanship is undeniable. The glass itself was an incredible innovation and, I think, the public is still amazed by the range of colors and textures seen in the company’s production. Finally, the publicity surrounding a Tiffany leaded glass lamp when it sells for over $1 million at auction certainly keeps the name of Louis Comfort Tiffany in the limelight.

Conway: What are some of the areas of scholarship still to explore with regards to Louis Comfort Tiffany?

Doros: I think the works Louis Tiffany produced with his own hands, his paintings and photographs, are subjects that definitely need to be researched further. And there are still innumerable questions on blown Favrile glass, which I look forward to trying to find the answers to in the coming years.

Learn more from Paul Doros in his book The Art Glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Vendome Press, 2013.

And watch the lecture “Behind the Glass: The Art Glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany” with Kelly Conway, Paul Doros, and Tina Oldknow from February 13, 2013.