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Collections Cameos

In each issue of our newsletter, we feature an object from our collection. Browse the archives of articles from our newsletter that relate to our collections, or click on a topic below.

The De Morgan Vase
Venetian Ewer
Frances Glessner’s Piano
Abraham Lincoln Life Mask and Hands
Adjustable-Back Morris Chair
Isaac Scott Pilgrim Vase
Silver oil lamp
Shakespeare Statue
The Table-Talk of John Selden

The De Morgan Vase

This robust, colorful vase displayed on the music cabinet in the parlor is the work of one of the late nineteenth century’s most innovative ceramic artists, William Frend De Morgan (1839 - 1917). The large vase, nearly 16 inches tall, features circular lug handles set against a bulbous baluster-shaped body. Masted Medieval vessels under full sail navigate seas filled with jumping fish in green, blue, turquoise, and yellow.

De Morgan was born in London and enrolled in art at the Academy Schools in 1859. Three years later, he met William Morris, and abandoned painting to join Morris’ team of designers. He executed numerous glass and tiles designs, and painted panels for furniture designed by his associate Philip Webb. While working on stained glass, De Morgan discovered that silver pigments caused an iridescent surface on the glass. His subsequent experiments on tiles to reproduce this effect resulted in the first luster tiles being produced in 1870. In 1872 he opened a pottery works and over the next decade produced some of his finest work, including many pieces based on traditional thirteenth century Islamic pottery from Turkey, Persia, and Syria. His “Persian colours,” as these ceramics came to be known, became the hallmark of his work and the fashion throughout Victorian England.

This vase was most likely produced in De Morgan’s ceramic works in Sand’s End, London, and would have been purchased by the Glessners about 1890. Large vases such as this were the most expensive pieces produced, and were painted by De Morgan himself, or under his close supervision.
(February 2008)
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Frances Glessner’s Piano

The magnificent grand piano in the parlor is the product of renowned piano maker Steinway & Sons and furniture designer Francis H. Bacon. The piano was ordered in May 1887 while the Glessners were visiting New York. Nahum Stetson, Chief of Sales for Steinway, personally supervised the production of the piano, and the mechanics were “the best they could produce” according to John Glessner.

The piano is an early example of Steinway’s Model C Parlor Concert Grand Piano, the second largest of Steinway’s seven grand piano models. At 7 feet 5 inches, it is only a few inches shorter than a concert grand piano. When the instrument was finished, Theodore Thomas, founding conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and an intimate friend of the Glessners, traveled to the Steinway factory and tested the instrument, giving it his approval before delivery to A. H. Davenport in August. At Davenports, designer Francis H. Bacon designed elaborate floral and scrolled carved detailing in mahogany complete with satyr masks and a keyboard cover inlaid with floral and diamond patterns in walnut, birch and mother-of-pearl. The completed instrument weighed 900 pounds and cost $1,500. It was delivered to 1800 S. Prairie Avenue in late December 1887. Paderewski, Dvorak, and Rachmaninoff were among the many world-famous musicians to entertain the Glessners and their friends on the instrument through the years.

Fanny Glessner Lee donated the piano to Harvard University in the 1930s in honor of her parents close friendship with Charles Eliot, president of the university from 1869 to 1909. In 1979, the piano was returned to the museum and has been displayed in its original location in the parlor ever since.

The General Bushnell March

The piece of sheet music sitting on the piano was written by Carl W. Kern and published by the Springfield School of Music in 1894. Asa S. Bushnell was the senior partner in the farm machinery firm of Warder, Bushnell & Glessner and served as governor of Ohio from 1896 to 1900. His Richardsonian Romanesque style home in Springfield Ohio, designed by Robert H. Robertson, was the finest in that city and is now occupied by a funeral home.
(May 2008)

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The Table-Talk of John Selden

In 1895, the Chicago Tribune published an article entitled “Books in Expansion - Art of Extra-Illustration Has Followers in Chicago.” The article describes the process that its followers, including John Glessner, would follow: “(1) To buy from book marts everywhere standard publications, elegant in type, paper and illustration; (2) to take them apart and insert additional illustrations suggested by the text; (3) to rebind with all the elegance known to modern times.” John Glessner’s interest in the art was detailed and a listing of the books he had completed was included: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Walton’s The Compleat Angler, Cavendish’s The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, and Selden’s The Table-Talk of John Selden.

Selden’s book features eleven added illustrations, including portraits of John Milton, Martin Luther, and Cicero. A small pencil notation by Glessner on the back of each plate indicated to the binder exactly where each illustration was to be inserted. Pencil marks on the front of each plate show the remnants of the lines Glessner drew to guide himself in cutting the plates down to size. The volume was rebound in rich marbled covers and a burgundy leather spine.

Glessner’s interest in this artform was chronicled in a volume entitled A Monograph on Privately Illustrated Books - A Plea for Bibliomania, published in 1892 by Daniel M. Tredwell. Both Selden’s and Tredwell’s volumes now reside in the bookcase in the master bedroom.

John J. Glessner and his library
John Glessner was passionate about books. He was an avid collector, and we are privileged to have nearly 3,000 of his volumes in the museum library, many containing inscriptions and letters from the authors. John Glessner was a lifelong member of the Caxton Club, joining the club in the year of its founding, 1895. A 1933 article from the Chicago Tribune, regarding the Chicago bookbinder Edward Hertzberg of Monastery Hill Bindery (who was exhibiting his craft at the Century of Progress) indicates that John Glessner’s love of books never subsided: “John J. Glessner, Chicago industrial magnate, now 90 years old, still comes to the bindery with choice volumes under his arm that he wants redone.”
(August 2008)
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Silver oil lamp
Standing nearly 36 inches tall, this stately oil lamp has occupied a prominent place on the grand piano in the parlor since it was purchased by the Glessners during their one and only trip to Europe in 1890. The lamp is executed in the neo-rococo style popular during the reign of Victor Emmanuel II, who ruled as the first king of a unified Italy from 1861 to 1878.

The lamp features four armatures decorated with scroll chasing containing wicks, all protruding from a bulbous oil basin. Above this assemblage is a pear-shaped knob supporting a silver ring from which lamp tools, including a snuffer, wick trimmer, and two wick feeders, are suspended on long silver chains. The top of the lamp shaft is crowned with a coronet-shaped handled surmounted by a tiny finial.

Although John Glessner referred to the piece as “an antique Roman lamp brought from the Eternal City” (Rome), the few silver Roman oil lamps that survive are of a completely different configuration and much more modest in design. As such, it is safe to conclude that a silversmith in Rome in the 1870s made “invented” lamps such as this for the American tourist trade. Regardless, the lamp would have been right up to the minute in style, and would have fit well with all of the other revival pieces the Glessners purchased for their home.
(Rolf Achilles provided information for this article)
(November 2008)

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Abraham Lincoln Life Mask and Hands

During April 1860, Chicago sculptor Leonard W. Volk created a plaster mask of Lincoln, in preparation for a life-size statue he had planned. The plaster was carefully applied to Lincoln’s face, and after about an hour the mask was gently removed, creating a remarkable likeness of the future president. In May, Volk was in Springfield and arranged for the hands to be cast on the Sunday following Lincoln’s nomination for president by the Republicans. (The right hand is clearly swollen due to all of the handshaking from the preceding few days). Volk later gave the casts to his son Douglas, who in turn gave them to a fellow art student.

In February 1886, a group of three men organized a plan to purchase the casts and present them to the National Museum in Washington, D.C. (now the Smithsonian Institution). John Glessner was one of 33 men who subscribed to the plan, and for his donation of $85, he received a bronze version of the casts, which were delivered to him in May 1886. The back side of the mask contains an inscription which identifies Glessner as one of the subscribers. The original plaster casts were presented to the National Museum in 1888, along with an illuminated manuscript listing Glessner and the other subscribers. The Glessner set is one of the very few originals to remain intact and to still be displayed in its original location.

Lincoln Books

John Glessner was a Sustaining Member of the Lincoln Centennial Association, organized in 1909. His library contained over three dozen books and booklets on Lincoln, which he kept on a shelf in the southeast bookcase. Volumes included the collected annual papers of the Association, and such standards as Carl Sandburg’s two volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. One of the more interesting volumes in the collection is Abraham Lincoln in New Hampshire, which recounts Lincoln’s one visit to that state in 1860. The author, Elwin L. Page, was a friend of George and Alice Glessner, and Alice presented the volume to her father-in-law upon its publication in 1929.
(February 2009)
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Venetian Ewer

This elegant glass ewer, which sits atop the north bookcase in the library, was created in one of the many glass factories on the island of Murano adjacent to Venice. Since the tenth century, Venice had boasted a tradition of decorative glass production, due to its surplus of skilled craftsmen who emigrated there from Aquiteia and Byzantium. The Grand Council of Venice ensured its exclusive domination of the glass industry by banning the emigration of glass artisans and the divulging of trade secrets; both crimes were punishable by death.

This light green glass ewer’s gracefully elongated body, applied handle and large spout are decorated with polychrome enamel painted in Renaissance-derived scroll-shaped floral designs on a gold vermicelli background, above and below which are horizontal rows of gilt scales highlighted with tiny painted enamel dots. The clarity of the glass color and the intricate decoration exemplify the finest of 19th century Venetian glassware.

The ewer was a gift to John Glessner from his daughter Fanny in 1884, on the occasion of her parent’s fourteenth wedding anniversary, as recorded in Frances Glessner’s journal, “Fanny gave her Papa a (blue) Venetian glass ewer.” Her gift was placed atop a bookcase in the library of their Washington Street home, and later moved to the mantle of the library in their Prairie Avenue home. Certainly, John Glessner thought of this object when describing the family’s “collection of Galle and Venetian and other rare glass” in his book about his beloved home, Story of a House, which he wrote in 1923 for his children.

Glass in the Glessner Collection

Many well-known 19th century “art glass” artists, such as Daum Freres, Louis C. Tiffany, and Emile Galle, based their inspiration on the traditions and technologies of Venetian glass making, and numerous examples of their work may be seen in the museum. The pair of layered blue, white and red glass vases on the music cabinet in the parlor are of 19th century Venetian manufacture. (The vases become vibrant orchid when light shines through the body). Salviati & Sons still produces traditional Venetian art glass objects on the island of Murano. Using George Glessner’s historic photographs of the parlor, they reproduced their original glass shades used on the wall sconces.
(May 2009)
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Shakespeare Statue

This beautiful bronze statuette in the Glessner library, measuring 28 inches in height, was created in 1894 by leading American sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward, a first cousin of Frances Glessner. Ward was the son of a prosperous farmer in Urbana, Ohio, where he spent many hours sculpting forms from the mud of a nearby riverbank. His sculpture, The Indian Hunter (see sidebar) exhibited publicly in Central Park in New York City in 1859, became his first work to receive wide public acclaim. He received numerous commissions for large-scale public monuments, including the equestrian statue of George Washington in Union Square, New York. He collaborated on thirteen public sculptures with Richard Morris Hunt, and took into his atelier rising American sculptors Daniel Chester French, Francois Rey and Charles Albert Lopez.

The Shakespeare statuette is actually a maquette of the life-size bronze statue which stands in Central Park. Ward created the original in 1870 for the celebration of the tercentenary of the birth of Shakespeare, and it was dedicated on May 23, 1872. The piece is typical of Ward’s early standing figures, combining a classical pose with his usual objective study of the subject, evidenced in his concern for details of dress, pose, and likeness. At least six copies are known to exist, including one acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In Frances Glessner’s journal, she records a visit to Ward’s New York studio in March 1893, “He showed us in the studio a small model of his Shakespeare which he is working over for us.” The Glessners paid $400 for the piece, which Ward had cast and delivered to their Prairie Avenue home in 1894.

(August 2009)
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Isaac Scott Pilgrim Vase

This vase, or pilgrim bottle, is among the most beautiful and interesting objects in the museum. It is one of four created in 1879 for the Glessners by Isaac E. Scott at the Chelsea Keramic Art Works outside of Boston. Although Scott is well-known for the many picture frame and furniture pieces he created for the family, these are the only known examples of his pottery work.

The tan colored piece measure 141⁄2 inches in height and is unglazed. It was made in a press mold, with the high-relief figures on the front applied later. The obverse is dominated by the figure of a perched bird at left crying to a mythological Medieval grotesque, whose body gently curves to accommodate the shape of the piece. The reverse features incised and relief decoration of long-stemmed flowers and leaves at left and a butterfly at upper right, as well as the inscription “To John J Glessner Esq. of Chicago from Scott . . . Oct 25 1879.”

The Chelsea Keramic Art Works was founded in 1866 by A. W. Robertson, who was later joined by his brother Hugh and father James, an experienced Scotch potter. The firm was known for producing wares of very high quality both in materials and design, and remained in operation until 1889.

Isaac Scott played a central role in the life of the Glessners from the time of their initial meeting at the Interstate Industrial Exposition in 1875, until his death in 1920. The bulk of the pieces made by Scott for the family were created between 1875 and 1883, the year he moved to New York. He moved to Boston in 1889 where he later taught at the Elliott School, an institution devoted to craft arts. Although he was a frequent visitor to the Glessners’ summer estate The Rocks in New Hampshire, there is no record that indicates he ever returned to Chicago to visit their home on Prairie Avenue.
(November 2009)
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Adjustable-Back Morris Chair

The Museum is proud to have an example of one of the most admired furniture designs of Morris & Company: the adjustable-back Morris chair. Big, roomy, and incredibly comfortable, it is a chair in which one of the Glessners could easily spend an evening reading by the fire. The chair has wide arms to accommodate books, a loose cushioned seat, and a reclining back that is adjustable by a hinge at the base and held secure with a brass rod across the back (see detail). In a sense, this was the first Lazy-boy (albeit the former is arguably a more striking composition). The original Morris chair - as it is simply referred to today - was designed by Philip Webb in 1866 for Morris & Co. At the time, the company’s business manager, Warington Taylor, recommended that Webb create a chair based on one he had seen belonging to an old Sussex carpenter. Eventually many variations of the design were being produced in different styles (Flemish, Spanish, Mission), materials (oak, mahogany), and price points ($4.25- $100). By 1905, nearly every manufacturer at the New York Furniture Exchange displayed some form of the chair and it went on to become a must-have for every household in America. Webb’s design is the most common; however it is not the style that the Glessners chose.

William Watt, another designer for Morris & Co., designed our Morris chair in 1883. The two styles, though not far apart in age, are quite different. Webb’s design is more formal with beaded scrolling and a slightly curved frame - more reminiscent of the Queen Anne style, while Watt’s simplistic form is a nice example of arts and crafts design. Our Morris chair has an oak frame and is upholstered in green velvet. An historic photograph of the library taken in 1888 shows that the Morris chair was actually upholstered in a patterned fabric. It seems highly probable that a William Morris designed upholstery was used to match or compliment the adjacent sofa which also shows a richly patterned fabric. In the months ahead, this is yet another mystery we hope to solve on our mission to restore the house back to its original appearance.

(Article contributed by Jessica Ferree)
(February 2010)
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