This early and rare lamp is one of the first four “Dragonfly” lamps made in April, 1899 by the Tiffany designer Clara Pierce Wolcott Driscoll (American, 1861–1944). Originally made to burn oil, the lamp was fitted for electricity in 1970. Most designers who worked for Tiffany Studios worked anonymously, and Tiffany took an active role in supervising all of the designs produced there. Driscoll worked on and off for Tiffany Studios from 1888 to about 1909. She created mosaic lamp bases, small boxes, inkstands, clocks, candlesticks, and Tiffany’s most famous leaded-glass lampshade designs, including the “Daffodil,” “Wisteria,” and “Peony.”
The Museum’s reading lamp was purchased new at Tiffany’s 1899 exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London, and it remained in England until 1970, when it was bought by the New York antiques dealer Lillian Nassau. Nassau sold the lamp to a private collector in New York in 1971. In 2011, Arlie Sulka (who purchased Nassau’s gallery after her death) bought the lamp back from the collector’s heirs.
Tiffany Glass Company was established in 1885 by the artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany (American, 1848-1933). In 1902, the company was renamed Tiffany Studios. Tiffany Studios developed and produced glass for use in stained glass windows, leaded lamps, and other decorative arts until Tiffany’s death in 1933.
Correspondence written by Clara Driscoll describes her experience at Tiffany Studios. During her time there, several versions of the iconic Tiffany dragonfly lamp were introduced, and Driscoll’s letters indicate that she designed at least one version of it. A letter dated April 6, 1899, reads:
"This Dragon fly lamp is an idea that I had last summer and which Alice [Gouvy] worked out on a plaster mould. . . After she had made the drawing on this plaster mould I took it in hand and we worked and worked on it till the cost built up at such a rate that they had to mark it $250.00 when it was finished and every body, even Mr. Belknap, thought it was impractical on account of the cost, but. . . then Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Belknap said—It is very original and makes talk, so perhaps it is not a bad investment. Then Mr. Tiffany got wind and came down and said it was the most interesting lamp in the place and then a rich woman bought it and then Mr. Tiffany said she couldn’t have it, he wanted it to go to London and have another one made for her and one to go to Paris."
(Margaret K. Hofer, Nina Gray, and Martin Eidelberg, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls (London: D. Giles Ltd, 2007, p. 97).
As Driscoll mentions in the letter, one of the dragonfly lamps was sent to London, which was for Tiffany’s exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in May–July, 1899. The lamp was published in the Grafton Galleries exhibition catalog (p. 22), and in an 1899 Tiffany Glass Company trade catalog.
Tiffany had been exhibiting in Europe since 1894 with the well-known art dealer and tastemaker, Samuel (Siegfried) Bing (German, 1838–1905), whose shop in Paris, L’Art Nouveau, gave its name to the international turn-of-the-century style. Bing’s last exhibition that significantly involved Tiffany was at the Grafton Galleries in London. The exhibition included a selection of French paintings by well-known artists, such as Edouard Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Camille Pissaro; sculpture by the Belgian artist Constantin Meunier; and an extensive display of works in glass by Tiffany. In addition to favrile glass vases, there were stained glass windows, architectural mosaics, chandeliers, and lamps with leaded shades. The Museum’s small Vase with Peacock Feather Plique-à-Jour Mount was also featured in the 1899 Grafton Galleries exhibition (2006.4.161) (See Martin Eidelberg, “S. Bing and L.C. Tiffany: Entrepreneurs of Style,” www.19thc-artworldwide.org)