Glass collectors of forty years ago were far different than they are today. There were few, if any, professional consultants in the decorative arts field. The Internet, still in its infancy, was of little or no use in gaining knowledge or discovering desirable objects. And, outside of Robert Koch’s seminal works on Louis C. Tiffany and his various companies and Paul Gardner’s outstanding volume on Frederick Carder and Steuben, there was a severe paucity of published literature on the subject. To be an advanced collector of American art glass at that time, one had to go to considerable lengths: attend seminars, travel to museum exhibitions, spend time at auction viewings and, perhaps most importantly, befriend dealers. In those days, shops selling American art glass were far more than mere galleries. Dealers, such as Lillian Nassau, Alice Osofsky and Minna Rosenblatt, spent hours, if not years, educating their clients in glassmaking history and techniques. It was in this setting that Dr. Edward McConnell, and his wife Helen, high school sweethearts originally from Clarkesville, Georgia, managed to assemble one of the finest collections of Tiffany and Steuben blown glass in the United States.
The McConnell’s original artistic passion was for late nineteenth/early twentieth century American impressionist paintings. Their preferences suddenly shifted after they purchased their first piece of art glass in 1966, a small Steuben fan vase. Obtaining this one, simple piece marked the start of an almost 40-year fascination with glass as both a material and an artistic medium. As with most glass collectors, the McConnells slowly added pieces to their collection as they began studying the subject in depth. But, with the passage of time, they acquired the expertise and taste that allowed them to become true connoisseurs.
Dr. and Mrs. McConnell were also delighted to share their objects with the public. Their hope was that the obvious enthusiasm and love they had for glass would inspire others to learn more about this segment of the decorative arts. With that in mind, the McConnells generously lent a significant portion of their collection to the Georgia Museum of Art in 1984 for “Art Nouveau Glass—A Connoisseur’s Collection,” one of the first major exhibitions of American art glass in the South. The family also displayed the collection at the museum twice more after Dr. McConnell’s passing in 1995: the award-winning “Tiffany Glass from the Collection of the Late Dr. Edward McConnell” in 1996 and “Steuben Glass from the McConnell Collection” which was exhibited from September 1998 to January 1999. The Georgia Museum of Art, located on the campus of the University of Georgia, was a natural choice for these exhibitions. Dr. McConnell was proud to have been in the first graduating class of the university’s School of Veterinary Medicine and he also led the fundraising for the museum’s new home, which opened in 1996.
The fact that the McConnells collected objects made by both Tiffany Studios and Steuben might appear to be an incongruity to some because of the many differences between the two men who controlled each glasshouse and the items those companies produced. Louis Tiffany was short, somewhat stocky and born to one of the wealthiest families in America. Frederick Carder, who led Steuben from its founding in 1903 until 1932, was tall, thin and from a largely middle class British family. Tiffany was relatively shy and reticent because of a severe lisp, while Carder was proud he could swear in French every bit as colorfully as he could in English.
The differences between the two men extended to their glass. Tiffany accepted, and even encouraged, his gaffers to experiment and create decorative “accidents.” The McConnells’ Lava vase (lot 12) perhaps best exemplifies this attitude. Tiffany Furnace’s continual experimentations with texture, as demonstrated by the Cypriote vase (lot 16), was a facet of glassmaking rarely, if ever, attempted at Steuben under Carder. It is also interesting to compare how both glasshouses employed the peacock-feather motif (lots 17 and 27). Tiffany’s enormous personal wealth enabled him to largely ignore cost overruns as long as the desired decorative effect could be achieved. Carder had a far different approach to glassmaking: he demanded that every piece his glasshouse produced was as technically perfect and artistically uniform as humanly possible. Unlike Tiffany Furnaces, which kept no design records, Carder recorded the shapes and colors of every object Steuben made.
However, Tiffany and Carder were similar in three important aspects. First, both were recognized early in their careers as superior colorists and they transferred this talent to their glassmaking. They also firmly opposed mass production and believed in the primary tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement: individual craftsmanship and the creative role of the artisan. Most importantly, Carder and Tiffany fervently believed that all art, and beauty, was based upon nature, and it was their brilliant interpretations of beauty that convinced Dr. and Mrs. McConnell to collect the finest creations of both men.
Paul Doros was formerly the first curator of glass at the Chrysler Museum (Norfolk, Virginia) and is the author of the recently published The Art Glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany (Vendome Press).
by Paul Doros