A thing lost can never truly be replaced. Still, we try.
Among the more heroic efforts in the art world of late is the new Laurelton Hall Galleries at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in this small town north of Orlando. They celebrate Louis Comfort Tiffany and the penultimate expression of his aesthetic, the vast home he named Laurelton Hall, which was destroyed by fire in 1957.
And what a loss, since few people knew what it had been. Tiffany (1848-1933) built it between 1902 and 1905 as his country estate with 84 rooms on eight floors, surrounded by 600 acres on prime Long Island, N.Y., waterfront. It was filled with all things Tiffany and very few survived, most of them now at the Morse.
Tiffany was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, who founded the famous luxury goods store in New York. Today, the elder's name is most associated with jewelry and that little blue box, while his son's is commonly entwined with the beautiful stained glass lamps.
Tiffany was given all the advantages the son of wealth would expect, but he was never a dilettante. He was a talented painter but, influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, he became interested in the decorative arts and creating a unified environment with them in the same way that Frank Lloyd Wright insisted on designing all the furniture and accessories for the homes he designed.
Though he established ceramics, textile and jewelry studios, his great love became glass. He was fascinated with its potential as a medium so similar visually to paint. He became famous and even wealthier by his innovative use of glass and his genius for marketing his work. He revolutionized the concept of the stained glass window, using color-infused glass instead of the more common clear glass colored with paint. He adored the glass that others rejected as inferior; he saw the impurities as a way to give his designs nuance and texture. He revived the old art of glass mosaic, or tesserae. His craftspeople and artists, under his strict supervision, created architectural elements and decorative objects for homes, churches, even the White House.
Laurelton Hall was his most eloquent artistic statement but, because it was a private residence, only family and friends stayed there for many years. In 1915 he established a small school for artists on the grounds, hosting a handful for several months at a time. That opened it up a bit more, though the artists didn't have access to the entire house. Photographs of it were published in arts and lifestyle magazines of the day, so there was some sense of its treasures but not in any meaningful, experiential way.
There were many equally grand mansions in that gilded age, but none with such a totality of vision. It was not built; it was created.
Tiffany set up a foundation that would preserve Laurelton Hall after his death, but the foundation's trustees deemed it too expensive to maintain and sold it. Its furnishings were auctioned and all that remained were fixtures and windows. After the fire, members of the Tiffany family contacted Hugh and Jeannette McKean to help salvage whatever was left. Hugh McKean, by then the president of Winter Park's Rollins College, had been one of those students at Laurelton Hall and the couple were friends of the Tiffany family.
They had founded the Morse Museum, named after Jeannette McKean's industrialist grandfather from whom she inherited a fortune, in Winter Park in 1942. (There is no known relation to Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, who founded the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg.) It was originally called the Morse Gallery of Art and located on the Rollins campus, where Hugh McKean was an art instructor, then head of the art department and, from 1951 to 1969, the college president. It was stocked mostly with paintings, sculpture and furniture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and from the Arts and Crafts movement and Tiffany Studios. It relocated to a temporary building in 1977, then to its current permanent site in downtown Winter Park in 1995, the year Hugh died. Jeannette died in 1989. They had spent decades hunting for more furnishings from Laurelton Hall that had been sold and dispersed, eventually owning the world's largest group of materials from the home. They already had a huge collection of works by Tiffany on display at the museum; most of the works from Laurelton Hall were kept in storage and occasionally lent to museums. (They had given the surviving, magnificent loggia to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it is exhibited in the Engelhard Courtyard of the American Wing.)
Now they have been assembled in a 12,000-square-foot wing — which opened last month — with 10 galleries that can accommodate about 250 objects, archival materials and photographs. The most dramatic is the Daffodil Terrace with the original columns topped with capitals embedded with bouquets of glass daffodils, and a skylight lined with iridescent glass tiles. More flower-covered capitals from other parts of the mansion are displayed nearby for a closer look.
And close is where you want to be to study Tiffany's glass. Tiffany stocked Laurelton Hall with the best of the best from his output and arranged it artfully in rooms he designed with elements he had collected from around the world and paintings he owned or did himself.
He really was a fine painter with, obviously, an eye for color. One of the most charming is My Family at Sommesville, 1888, a pastoral scene, very Winslow Homer, of his wife, four of his children and a nursemaid in a field of wildflowers, one of the children perched on a cow.
But the windows are the real stunners. From a distance they glow with variegated color and pattern that blend into representation. Only closer study reveals the intricacy of the design that in detail becomes an abstraction. He creates what seem to be shadows and dimension sometimes by layering glass or raising portions of the metal framework. Few of the windows are flat.
The one form he could never master was the face. There was no way to create variegated skin tones or features without the interruption of the lead that held the pieces together. So he resorted to painting the faces and did so with varying success. Tree of Life's narrative of the human condition is awkward and clumsy, the faces and figures cartoonish. Taming the Flamingo is much better, the woman's profile more finely drawn. But the real interest is in every other part of the window, especially the flamingos set against a pot of flowers.
He must have known this; most of the windows he chose for Laurelton Hall play to his strengths. You can almost feel the weight of the branches dripping with exquisite lavender wisteria that formed a long, narrow transom spanning the dining room. The earthiness of a bed of pumpkins and beets becomes a transcendent composition of nature's bounty. Unlike Tree of Life, four panels portraying the four seasons bear eloquent witness to time's passage.
The galleries are not period rooms; they are suggestive of the originals and seeing the remnants is more than poignant. Louis Comfort Tiffany was an artist of beauty and devoted his life to following a credo that always came with a memento mori. What a dazzling place it must have been! One longs for a vanished past while feeling grateful for what remains.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.