Overlooked No More: Clara Driscoll, Designer of Visions in Glass for Tiffany

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

Though there are existing photographs of Clara Driscoll, no one knows how tall she was, what her voice sounded like or how she walked or moved.

What is known is what she left behind: beautifully wrought lamps of many colors, which she designed over three separate tenures at Tiffany&Company, from 1888 to 1909.

As head of the women’s glass-cutting department, she led a staff called the Tiffany girls, who selected, cut and placed tiny pieces of glass in what would ultimately emerge as unique lamps, each given a name.

There was the Cobweb lamp, with lacy cobwebs stretched taut against branches sprouting tiny blossoms. And there were the Arrowhead, the Butterfly and the Wisteria lamps, along with the Deep Sea, the Dragonfly and the Geranium. Elements of nature — languid flowers and scurrying insects, lively fish and moving water — were favorite motifs of Tiffany and Driscoll.

The lamps are still in demand; in December 2015, a Dragonfly lamp from Andrew Carnegie’s collection sold for more than $2.1 million at Sotheby’s New York.

Yet when Driscoll died in 1944, “her achievements were forgotten,” said Margi Hofer, vice president and museum director of the New-York Historical Society and a co-author of “A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls” (2007).

Driscoll was mostly anonymous because Louis Comfort Tiffany, a son of one of Tiffany&Company’s founders, promoted himself as “the chief designer of the lamps,” according to “A New Light on Tiffany.”

What made Driscoll more widely known, some six decades after her death, were her letters. She, her three younger sisters, Kate, Emily and Josephine, and their mother, Fannie, exchanged letters prolifically (Emily once wrote one that stretched for 38 pages). Their surviving letters, which numbered about 350, ended up in two different places.

In 2005, Nina Gray, an independent curator specializing in decorative arts, found a trove of the letters at the Queens Historical Society in New York City. Both she and Martin Eidelberg, professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, learned that other letters were kept at Kent State University Library in Ohio.

Gray and Eidelberg went on to team up with Hofer to write “A New Light on Tiffany” as the catalog for an exhibition that introduced Driscoll to the public at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan in 2007. Its museum has 132 Tiffany lamps, 100 of which have remained on view and 63 of which are attributed to Driscoll.

Clara Pierce Wolcott was born on Dec. 15, 1861, in Tallmadge, Ohio, outside Akron, to Elizur V. Wolcott and Fannie (Pierce) Wolcott, both teachers. Her father, who was also a farmer, died when Clara was 12.

Clara went to Western Reserve School of Design for Women (now the Cleveland Institute of Art), worked for a local furniture maker and in 1888 moved with her sister Josephine to Brooklyn, finding rooms in a boardinghouse, in the hope of becoming artists. That year, both sisters got jobs at Tiffany Studios in Manhattan, at East 25th Street and what is now Park Avenue South.

In a letter dated June 29, 1898, Driscoll wrote about how her Butterfly lamp came to be. Her idea, described to Louis Comfort Tiffany, was for a glass shade depicting golden butterflies against a pale blue sky scattered with wispy clouds. The metal base would include a glass mosaic depicting yellow primroses on stems with leaves of many shades of green.

Tiffany was so excited by the scheme that he started drawing ideas on a blotter, but, Driscoll wrote, “he wavered off into such vague lines that you could scarcely distinguish them from the gray of the blotter.”

“And then,” she added, “he would say — ‘well, work out your own idea.’”

Once her design was approved, the Tiffany girls got to work: One drew a cartoon of the design to scale on tracing paper and placed it under glass over a light box. Another selected colored glass from sheets measuring roughly 15 by 15 inches. Still another cut pieces from the glass, paying close attention to color and striation. Another staff member then cut a piece of thin copper into narrow, noodle-like strips and bent, or “foiled,” them around the edges of the pieces, so that each could be soldered into place.

The women did every step of the process except the soldering, which was done by a men’s glass-cutting department. (Only the men were allowed to work with heating tools.) The entire assembled shade was then electroplated.

Besides lamps, both the men’s and women’s departments also designed and executed stained-glass windows — or at least until 1903. That year, the Tiffany company acceded to a demand by the Lead Glaziers and Glass Cutters’ Union, which did not admit women, that only union members — that is, men — be allowed to make the windows.

But the women did design and execute small objets d’art, like candlesticks, picture frames and tea screens — three-sided leaded glass panels that stood about 7½ inches high and that were placed around a teakettle being heated by burners to keep a breeze from blowing out the flames.

Driscoll was smart, pragmatic and “intrepid,” the curator Hofer said. In April 1899, Driscoll and another designer, Alice Gouvy, created the Dragonfly lamp to sell for $250 (about $9,000 in today’s money). One customer, a woman, wanted to buy it on the spot, but Tiffany said she had to wait: The prototype was to go to London for an exhibit at the Grafton Galleries. Driscoll would go on to make three more Dragonflies, one for that customer, one for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair and one for display at the Tiffany Studios showroom.

Driscoll lived a career-girl life frugally. (When her grandmother died, her mother sent her the grandmother’s undergarments, and Driscoll wore them.) By 1902, she was making $35 a week, or $1,820 a year (about $63,000 today). She occasionally went to the theater, in one instance seeing Sarah Bernhardt in Alexandre Dumas’s “Camille.” She collaborated with the modern dancer Loie Fuller, making three colored-glass screens to throw light on Fuller as she danced.

Driscoll lived in boardinghouses to avoid cooking and house cleaning. In 1888, while living in Brooklyn, she met Francis Driscoll, who worked in real estate; they were married the next year.

In her day, once a woman became engaged or married, she was expected to leave work, so Driscoll gave up her Tiffany job and remained at home until her husband died on Feb. 21, 1892. Left little money by him, she returned to Tiffany.

In 1896, she became engaged to Edwin Waldo, who worked at University Settlement, a social services agency in Manhattan, and who was also a painter and a musician.

She left Tiffany for the second time, and on a trip ahead of their wedding, she and Waldo went to Ohio, where he lectured about the settlement house. There he fell ill and soon inexplicably disappeared.

After Driscoll failed to find him, she returned to Tiffany in 1897. Six years later, Waldo popped up in San Francisco, pleading temporary amnesia.

Driscoll became smarter about men. In 1909, after more than a decade of friendship with a fellow boarder named Edward Booth, they married.

By then, in her late 40s, she had developed chronic headaches and failing eyesight.

Driscoll and her husband summered on the New Jersey shore, in Point Pleasant, until he retired in 1930. They moved to Florida, where she learned to drive a car (by all accounts badly) and died on Nov. 6, 1944, in Ormond Beach, just north of Daytona. She was 82. The cause listed on her death certificate was acute coronary occlusion.

Her occupation was listed as housewife, though it is known that she also painted scarves.

The scarves no longer exist, unlike her beautiful, colorful lamps.

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