Four Chelsea Houses by Elizabeth Piper

On display in the master bedroom of Glessner House Museum are four small etchings depicting houses in the London neighborhood of Chelsea. Just as they did in the Glessners’ time, the four prints, each under four inches tall, hang in a single frame alongside the bed, amongst intimate family portraits, and immediately below a painting of Frances Glessner’s mother.

The four etchings are the work of British artist Elizabeth Piper, an active printmaker between 1892 and 1932. She trained at the Clifton School of Art in Bristol and the Royal College of Art in London, as well as in France and in Belgium. Piper was a member of the Royal West of England Academy and an Associate of the Royal Engravers. She was skilled as both an etcher and a painter, and her works, which she exhibited often, were purchased by both the city of Leeds and Queen Victoria.  The Glessner prints are each signed in the bottom right-hand corner, in pencil, by the artist.

Carlyle's House

Carlyle's House

A Shift in Collecting
Though records have not been found to confirm exactly where and when the Glessners acquired the four prints, it is highly unlikely that they purchased the works through their regular print dealer, Frederick Keppel. The majority of prints in the Glessner collection were purchased through Keppel, with detailed receipts that document these purchases starting in 1877, and spanning a 14 year period. Frances Glessner also recorded the purchases in her journal, describing the way in which she and her husband John chose the artworks.

The firm of Frederick Keppel & Co. often sent several dozen prints over to the Glessners for review. The Glessners would then sift through the works (regularly with the company of close friends), and through rounds of elimination, they would send back works they did not care for, and purchase the prints they felt they could not live without. At the height of their collecting in the 1880s, they were purchasing as many as 21 prints at once.  Frances Glessner’s journal entries show the great enthusiasm with which they collected prints for a time, and demonstrate the way that the Glessners became community authorities on the medium through their collecting.

Frances Glessner was a member of both the Fortnightly of Chicago and the Chicago Society of Decorative Art, and was asked multiple times to present for both organizations. In the autumn of 1881 she documented her preparations for a paper on etchings and engravings for the Fortnightly. A number of journal entries show the special care she took in presenting the topic, from carefully selecting prints from the Glessner collection and borrowing selected artworks from Frederick Keppel, to reviewing her paper several times over and having it critiqued by others before she presented it.

Despite the fervor that both John and Frances Glessner showed for the medium, they rarely added to their print collection after the late 1880s, and the additions that they did make show a rather different approach to collecting. Even though there was continued mention of Frederick Keppel in the Glessner journal through 1899, the once frequent entries describing the viewing, selecting and purchasing of numerous prints in a single transaction ceased after December 27, 1891. Instead, the Glessners purchased prints in smaller quantities, and the purchases they made often took place during out of town visits or special exhibitions.

Another key shift seems to have taken place in the Glessner’s collecting habits from the mid-1880s onward; the Glessners added pieces to their collection that represented the contemporary output of the medium. The collection, which remained heavy in prints taken from plates produced by Dutch and French artists of the 17th and 18th centuries, began to include a few works by artists who were contemporaries of the Glessners, with pieces by printmakers such as Albion Harris Bicknell, Henri Guerard, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and of course, Elizabeth Piper entering the collection.

Queen's House

Queen's House

Four Chelsea Houses in Chicago
Though Elizabeth Piper worked and exhibited in Great Britain for most of her life, it is known that she was represented at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A text published by Rand, McNally & Company in 1894 titled, Art and Handicraft in the Woman’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893, detailed the involvement of women artists at the fair. Within that text is an article titled, “Great Britain- Art,” written by Mrs. E. Crawford, which provides a summary of the types of work by female artists from Great Britain on exhibit at the fair. Crawford notes that some of these women were able to show their works not just in the Woman’s Building, but also in the Palace of Fine Arts, and states, “among the etchings and engravings excellent examples of the work of Mrs. Dale, Miss Ethel Martyn, and Miss Elizabeth Piper may be found. When the exceedingly high standard of the work which Great Britain has sent to Chicago is taken into account, it is a significant and encouraging fact that forty-five women are represented among the British artists exhibiting in the Art Palace.”

Piper showed a print of a woman at a spinning wheel in a carefully documented interior in the Woman’s Building, and a number of architectural etchings in the Palace of Fine Arts. It has been noted that among these architectural prints were etchings not only of prominent cathedrals, but also of the homes of Carlyle, Rosetti, Turner and Eliot-- the same four locations that appear in the signed prints owned by the Glessners.

As noted in their journal, the Glessners were frequently in attendance at the World’s Columbian Exposition, and though it cannot be proved with certainty that the Glessners purchased their four small etchings at the fair, it is certainly a powerful suggestion that they were at least made aware of Piper and her work at this point. With the Glessners’ changing collecting habits, the idea that they may have become interested in a set of prints by a contemporary artist at such an event certainly adds power to that suggestion.

Turner's Last Home

Turner's Last Home

A Shared Interest: Documenting Architecture
Owning the four etchings of Chelsea homes marks another departure from many of the works purchased by the Glessners through Frederick Keppel. The vast majority of the prints that were acquired through Keppel were renderings of important figures, praised for their masterfully engraved hair, delicately depicted skin, and attention to detail in costume and form. The etchings by Piper though, show historically significant architectural sites, pointing to a common interest between the artist and the Glessners.

The Glessners and Elizabeth Piper share a connection beyond that provided by the World’s Columbian Exposition; the two parties are linked through their individual commitments to the preservation of architectural sites. The Glessners showed a commitment to an architectural legacy through their involvement in the construction of their home, their willingness to open their doors to young architects and admirers of the space, and through their written words, which document the house on Prairie Avenue as it was during a key moment in Chicago history.  Elizabeth Piper showed her commitment to architectural preservation through the many prints she created.

Piper spent nearly her entire career documenting significant architectural sites in the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium. She rendered both interiors and exteriors of schoolrooms, libraries, residential buildings, and churches with great attention to detail.  Her prolific production of such series of etchings serves as evidence of her dedication to these places, and in some cases her prints serve as evidence of buildings long forgotten or since dramatically repurposed.

The four prints in the Glessner collection represent well-known homes in Chelsea, the neighborhood in London where Elizabeth Piper was a resident at the time. The homes in the four prints were along Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk, a street that boasted sought after 18th century constructions. The buildings were home to some of the key figures of the Victorian period (the architectural beauty and historical significance of this stretch of homes has continued to draw notable figures to this day, and more recent residents have included members of the Rolling Stones and former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg). The four prints show the home of Thomas Carlyle, the home of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (known as Queen’s House), the last home of Joseph Mallord William Tuner, and the last home of George Eliot.

The inhabitants of these homes were well known figures during the Glessners’ time. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), was a Scottish philosopher, writer, historian, and social commentator. He lived in his Chelsea home with his wife, Jane Welsh Carlyle, a prominent woman of letters, for nearly half a century. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was an English painter, illustrator, and writer, and the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. He worked closely with figures such as William Morris (whose work can be found throughout Glessner House). Rossetti lived along Cheyne Walk from 1862-1882. He is known to have kept exotic animals at his Chelsea residence, and was famously banned from keeping peacocks, after receiving noise complaints. Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was an English Romanticist landscape painter. He was known for his ability to paint light, and his works are now widely admired as important pre-cursors to later styles, such as impressionism. Turner was born in the Covent Garden area of London, but his final home was along Cheyne Walk, where he lived until his death in 1851. George Eliot (1819-1880) is the penname of Mary Ann Evans, who was one of the most celebrated writers of the Victorian era. She lived her last three weeks at her home on Cheyne Walk.

Like Glessner House, many of the homes along Cheyne Walk exist today as historic landmarks, but Piper was depicting these houses at a time when a great boom in development meant huge changes to the Chelsea neighborhood. The picturesque houses along Cheyne Walk had formerly fronted the River Thames, but with the construction of sewer systems and walkways during the late 19th century, the homes found themselves facing the busy Chelsea Embankment. The building of the embankment encouraged further modernizing and rebuilding in the area, which meant the clearing of some older architectural sites, and the building of blocks of flats. Piper’s etchings serve as documents of significant buildings in a key moment when many such homes in London faced an uncertain future.

George Eliot's Last Home

George Eliot's Last Home

The commitment in Piper’s careful documentation of buildings in Chelsea is mirrored by the pride the Glessners took in preserving their home on Prairie Avenue. Though the reasons for changes in the area that surrounded the Glessner home in Chicago were different from those in Chelsea, and though the two events were separated by several years, Chicago’s Prairie Avenue nonetheless saw very dramatic shifts during the Glessners’ lifetimes. These changes meant the demolition of many of the homes neighboring Glessner House. Aware of the architectural significance of their home, the Glessners were compelled to preserve the legacy of the space. In creating written documentation and commissioning pictorial documentation, the Glessners made efforts to document and protect their home. In the opening pages of The Story of a House, John Glessner wrote that the “description of this home may give some indication of how a man of moderate fortune would live in the latter part of the 19th century and the earlier part of the 20th.” His text, written to his children to preserve an image of the physical space and the events that took place inside it, goes on to detail the family’s connection to architect Henry Hobson Richardson, the building of the house, and the way the home was furnished. Through John Glessner’s written word, and through the photographs of the house that he commissioned from the architectural photography firm, Kaufman and Fabry in 1923, the important site could endure, in the face of the threat of demolition.

The four etchings of Chelsea houses are but a very small fraction of the prized Glessner print collection, but they point to telling connections between the Glessners, as print collectors and passionate supporters of the arts and architecture, and Elizabeth Piper as a printmaker and documenter of the built environment

Guest author:   Heather MacGregor, an intern at Glessner House Museum, spent four months documenting the Glessners’ collection of engravings and etchings.  She received her MA from Sotheby’s Institute, London, University of Manchester in May 2016.