Towards the end of a whirlwind 10 days, I found myself standing in the middle of Unity Church in North Easton, Massachusetts. While Richard Hill, organ player extraordinaire, filled the church with music, I watched as sunlight cascaded through the two glorious John LaFarge windows, casting colorful shadows and pockets of illumination across the dimly lit interior. My most memorable learning experiences over the years have been those that have taken place away from my desk, and the Victorian Society in America’s Newport Summer School is no exception.
I came to Newport wanting to gain a well-rounded understanding of architecture, decorative arts, and design in Victorian America. But, and this comes as no surprise, as a glass historian and curatorial assistant at The Corning Museum of Glass, I came to Newport with glass in mind. I wanted to understand how the material was incorporated into the designs of these opulent Gilded Age homes and churches. I longed to see these beautiful works of art as they were meant to be seen: in situ. The VSA Newport Summer School did not disappoint in providing so many of these opportunities.
Stained and leaded glass windows have been an influential and important aspect of architecture for centuries. They provide a way to break open architectural walls and allow natural light in. These windows have another important job though—they act as a canvas, another surface to be filled with iconography and design. In this regard, stained and leaded glass windows located within a building not only allow for illumination, but also alter the incoming light in a manner particular to the buildings in which they reside.
In what can only be described as a complete Victorian-opulence overload, I found myself constantly pausing in front of the glass: a moment of peace in front of the windows by Tiffany Studios at Trinity Church, time alone in front of the relocated John LaFarge windows at Salve Regina’s Our Lady of Mercy Chapel, careful inspection of a window at Chateau Sur Mer, a splash of color and light in the dim stairwell at the Governor Henry Lippet House. These windows and their interaction with the outside light were a break from the interior decoration and design. I found myself reflecting time and again on how glass can act as a bridge between the interior, exterior, and the architecture it sits within. It is often hard to remember this important feature when researching or exploring windows within a museum collection. In the field, though, the artistry and interaction of glass and light with their architectural surroundings was, at times, simply breathtaking.
Each of us arrived at the Summer school with varied backgrounds and different approaches. While I was perpetually drawn to glass, I enjoyed watching everyone’s passion rise to the surface: the Horticulture expert, for example, who shed light on how a landscape may have originally looked; the Lead Building Surveyor who provided insight into the buildings we visited from the perspective of care and maintenance; our contextual historians who provided us with background on the families and eras we studied. It was this diverse group of individuals, led by the knowledgeable Dr. Richard Guy Wilson (Commonwealth Professor and Chair of Architectural History at the University of Virginia and course director of the VSA Summer School) who enriched and enhanced my experience. Since arriving to the decorative arts field, I’ve watched colleagues leave for the VSA Newport Summer School and return ambassadors of the program. Their recalled experiences greatly influenced my decision to apply. Now I’ve returned from the program not only as an ambassador of the Newport Summer School for years to come but, gratefully, with newfound knowledge and an expanded group of remarkable colleagues.
The Victorian Society in America (VSA) is the only national non-profit organization committed to historic preservation, protection, understanding, education, and enjoyment of our nineteenth century heritage. Founded in 1966 as a sister organization to the Victorian Society in the United Kingdom, the VSA has since fulfilled its mission through publications, symposia, architectural tours, and its famous Summer Schools. Alexandra Ruggiero, curatorial assistant at CMoG, was awarded a scholarship to attend the Victorian Society in America’s Summer School in Newport, RI from May 29– June 7.