Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Tale of Thirty-Five Tiles

On November 7, 2018, the master bedroom reopened to the public upon completion of an exciting restoration project.  For the first time in 80 years, the fireplace surround once again features the 35 tiles designed by William De Morgan that the Glessners had installed when the house was completed in 1887.   The project had been on the Glessner House wish list for more than twenty years and came to fruition through the generosity of long-time museum supporters and volunteers Steve and Marilyn Scott, and The Society for the Preservation of New Hampshire Forests, which returned the tiles to the House in 2017. 

As work was underway on the Glessners’ new house at 1800 Prairie Avenue in 1886 and 1887, they actively shopped for items to furnish and decorate their home.  Among the items selected were several sets of tiles for some of the eleven fireplaces in the house.  Two fireplaces – those in the master bedroom and the courtyard bedroom – received tiles designed by the well-known English designer and ceramicist William De Morgan.  De Morgan worked closely with William Morris, so the selection of his tiles fit nicely with the other Morris & Co. products the Glessners acquired, including wallpapers, textiles, rugs, and upholstery fabrics.

The tiles selected for the master bedroom were of two different designs which were installed in an alternate pattern across the face of the fireplace.  A total of thirty-five tiles, in vivid shades of blue and green resulted in the most vibrant of all the fireplaces in the house.  It appears from other decorating choices throughout the house that blue was clearly a favorite color of Frances Glessner, so it is no surprise that she would have selected the tiles for her most private space in the house. 

To finish off the fireplace, the Glessners selected an antique brass surround that probably dates to the mid- to late-18th century.  Frances Glessner noted in her journal that they visited numerous antique shops in Boston purchasing fireplace fittings for their new home, so that is most likely the origin of the surround they selected for this room.

After the death of Frances Glessner in 1932 and John Glessner in 1936, their daughter Frances Glessner Lee spent a year seeking out an organization or institution to which she could donate her parents’ home.  After reaching an agreement with the Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) to accept the building, she arranged for the removal of three sets of fireplace tiles, including those in the master bedroom.  She was in the process of building an addition to her cottage at The Rocks in New Hampshire and had three fireplaces designed specifically to accept these tiles.  Those from the master bedroom were placed in her library/office where she could enjoy them while sitting at her desk.

The master bedroom at Glessner House received new tiles made by the American Encaustic Tiling Company.  Featuring a very dark green matte glaze, they did nothing to indicate the vibrancy of the original tiles.  The firebox was also rebuilt to a different size at this time, and the brass surround was removed and shipped to The Rocks, although not used in Lee’s library/office with the De Morgan tiles.

Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962 and her family continued to occupy the cottage until the death of her daughter, Martha Lee Batchelder, in March 1994.  Batchelder had been instrumental in returning many of the original furnishings to Glessner House, and it was her desire that the fireplace tiles would eventually return to the House as well.  However, she died unexpectedly while vacationing in Bermuda, and that wish was never put down in writing.  The cottage was sold soon after, and through the years, attempts wee made to retrieve the tiles from the new owner, but all efforts were unsuccessful. 

In 2015, the cottage was purchased by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forest, which had been gifted the adjoining property constituting the majority of the original The Rocks estate in the 1970s by Frances Glessner Lee’s children.  Knowing of the long interest we had in obtaining the tiles, the Society contacted us and offered the three sets of tiles as soon as they could be safely removed and transported back to Chicago.  The tiles were removed in late 2016 and were then driven back to Chicago in the spring of 2017. 

With the tiles safely back at Glessner House, work began in earnest on planning for their reinstallation.  Long time docent Marilyn Scott, and her husband Steve, an active volunteer at the house, provided funding for the project in recognition of their 50th wedding anniversary.  The Chicago Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution gave the house a grant to restore the 18th century brass fireplace surround. 

Amazingly, although the tiles had been installed and removed twice, only one had been lost.  Victorian Ceramics, a British company specializing in replicating De Morgan tiles, created the missing tile.  Berglund Construction was engaged to undertake the project which involved removing the tile installed in the late 1930s, rebuilding the firebox to the original size and reinstall the tiles.  The project was complex in that metal straps and flanges on the brass surround were meant to fit into the brickwork to secure it in place, so precise measurements were taken to ensure the rebuilt firebox would accommodate the surround.

An interesting bit of information was uncovered during the project.  Many of the tiles had a notation on the reverse painted in black noting “TOP” followed by a number.  It was quickly determined that the notations were painted onto the tiles in 1887 to indicate their exact placement on the fireplace.  The notation was still visible on 25 of the tiles, resulting in those tiles going back in exactly the position where they had been installed 131 years earlier.

As work was underway on the fireplace itself, accessory items were acquired to replicate the appearance of the fireplace in historic photographs.  This included identifying the original brass jamb hook for holding the fireplace implements as well as the original brass coal tongs.  Modern brass tools including a broom, shovel, and poker, were acquired to match the originals.  Photos also revealed that the Glessners lined the coal basket with newspaper before filling it with cannel coal – a premium grade of coal that burned longer and brighter than regular coal.  A basket which sat on the hearth would have held newspapers waiting for use in the fireplace.  A splint wood basket of similar proportions was acquired, as was an 1889 Chicago Tribune, part of which was placed in the basket, and part of which was used to line the coal basket.

The results are absolutely stunning.  The tiles are as vibrant as they were the day they were installed in 1887.  Visitors to the House today would never know the long journey the tiles have experienced, were it not for the enthusiastic docents who greatly enjoy sharing the story!

The following article on the life of William De Morgan was written by Loyola University student Andrew Haberman, who worked as an intern at Glessner House in the fall of 2017. 

Early Life
William De Morgan was born in London in 1839, the second of seven children.  He came from an intellectual family, with both of his parents engaged in the social and academic atmosphere of the period.  At age 10, De Morgan attended University School, and he proceeded to University College at age 16.  Following this education, he enrolled at the Royal Academy as an art student in 1859, and by 1862 had his own studio. 

In 1863, De Morgan met the man who would become extremely important in his career as an artist: William Morris.  Morris was one of the leading minds of the Arts and Crafts movement.  This goal of this movement was to provide an alternative to industrialization and promote the value of work completed by the hand of an artist instead of an industrial machine.  Morris was a talented man, but his strength was not in ceramics, so he and De Morgan decided to collaborate.  De Morgan went to work for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., specializing in the ceramic production business, but also making designs for various works such as stained-glass windows.  By the late 1860s, De Morgan became interested specifically in tile making, and made enough tiles in his free time to show to his friends.  He would later claim that he only made three tiles for Morris’s company, but the beginning of his interest in tiles came during his time with the firm. 

Chelsea (1872-1881)
After the fire to his previous place of residence, William De Morgan moved into his new home in Chelsea, where he began to work under his own firm.  The firm specialized in decorated tiles and pots.  During this period De Morgan showed interest in sixteenth century pottery, especially coming out of Iznik, Turkey (the fireplace tiles in the dining room at the Glessner House are examples of this style).  He also gained wider recognition for his exact copies of sixteenth century tiles made to complete a set of originals for the influential Lord Leighton (pictured below).  After this commission earned him more recognition, De Morgan continued working in the “red luster” style, and gained several other influential clients, including Tsar Alexander II of Russia.

Merton Abbey (1882-1888)
De Morgan’s next home was in Merton Abbey, and he created many of his best-known works during this period.  In order to fund his growing business, De Morgan secured what would become a ten-year partnership with businessman Halsey Ricardo.  The tile designs produced during this period are notable for their increase in size (up to 8” per tile, the size of the master bedroom tiles at Glessner House), and more complex imagery.  De Morgan also began working on ship tiling, again completing commissions for Tsar Alexander II.  On a personal note, De Morgan married fellow artist Evelyn Pickering in 1887 (whose painting “Flora” is pictured below), and they remained together until his death.

Fulham and Florence (1888-1907)
In 1888, De Morgan moved to Fulham, where he was able to build his own factory for tile and ceramic production.  Unfortunately, the physical health of De Morgan deteriorated.  He was diagnosed with what was likely spinal tuberculosis, which made London winters especially difficult to bear.  For this reason, De Morgan and his wife spent their winters in Florence.  This made business difficult, but De Morgan used an inventive technique of transferring drawings onto tiles to continue business in the winter months.  Understandably, during this period De Morgan’s work shows a strong Renaissance influence, likely due to his winters being spent in the hub of Renaissance thought.  His panels kept growing larger, and he tended to create ships and animals for his tile designs.  However, the business struggled with the added strain of De Morgan’s frequent absence, and the company was liquidated in 1907.

Later Life and Accomplishments
After the closing of De Morgan’s business, he was able to continue his artistic pursuits through another medium.  By 1910 the illness had worn off, and De Morgan and his wife were able to move back to London.  There, De Morgan reinvented himself as a fiction author.  While historically he is known for his incredible work in ceramics and tiles, the business was never extremely successful financially.  De Morgan’s later literary career brought him the financial stability that he had not experienced in his previous career.  De Morgan’s books were known for their accurate depiction of what life was like in Victorian London, exemplified by his novel Joseph Vance.  William De Morgan died in 1917 of an infection, leaving behind an astounding legacy.

The accomplishments of William De Morgan are numerous and extend beyond the reach of his most known artistic outputs.  He was arguably the most important ceramics designer of his era, and his works contributed significantly to the popularity of the Arts and Crafts movement.  His work on tiles was innovative in style and content.  He was known for creating animals that had an appealing quality while refraining from looking like human features.  The ways in which he produced tiles, specifically the drawing transfer technique that he used during his stay in Florence, also changed how tiles were produced.  The use of the lusterware style also became revived due to De Morgan’s work, as it had most recently been popularized in the sixteenth century. This technique can be seen in most of De Morgan’s works, with a thin metal film covering the surface and creating a shimmering look that is unmistakable.  Outside of ceramics and literature, De Morgan was also a casual chemist, bicycle designer, telegraph code writer, and World War I defense strategist.

Glessner House is privileged to house multiple objects made by William De Morgan.  The most prominent objects are the tiles in the master bedroom and courtyard bedrooms.  The House also contains a colorful loop-handled vase (shown above) in the parlor depicting birds and ships on the ocean, and two large chargers in the main hall, one depicting a dragon, the other two Pan figures surrounded by various animals. 

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