Most of the objects in the house today belonged to the Glessner family. Discover more about the collections at Glessner House through the stories of the artists and designers who created the objects which the Glessners owned and cherished. Descendants of John and Frances Glessner generously donated these items to the museum, where they continue to be cared for in their original setting.
Object of the Month
September 2016 - "Asiatic Plants" Transferware Soup Tureen
This early Victorian transferware soup tureen, an ever-present yet often overlooked Glessner family heirloom, historically occupied the lower shelf on the Dining Room sideboard. The blue “Asiatic Plants” pattern was likely manufactured by English potter William Ridgway (active 1830-34), or his successor firm Ridgway, Morely, Wear & Co. (1836-42). Part of the booming ceramics trade in the county of Staffordshire, the piece was produced at either the Bell Works in Shelton or Church Works in Handley, then exported to the American market.
John Jacob Glessner, writing in March 1927 to the members of the Monday Morning Reading Class regarding the decorative items in the house, mentions "There is...an old English soup tureen and ladle that was my mother's ninety years ago," setting the date of acquisition to about 1837. Mr. Glessner’s parents, Jacob Glessner and Mary Laughlin, were married in 1838 and the tureen is presumed by museum staff to have been a wedding gift.
The tureen with matching tray and accompanying ladle (in another unidentified pattern) evidence the fad for Asian motifs which persisted throughout the nineteenth century. The exotic plants on the tureen and quaint Chinese village scene on the bowl of the ladle were directly influenced by trade being opened to the east. Beginning in the eighteenth century, European potteries attempted to emulate the fine, hand-painted blue and white porcelain being exported from China. With the growth of the English middle class, the demand for more affordable tableware resulted in the advent of under-glaze transfer-printing: a process in which intricate designs are engraved into copper plates, inked, and transferred onto to thin tissue paper. From the paper, the design is then transferred to bisque porcelain before it is glazed. The majority of ceramic goods on the market during the time the Glessners lived were produced in Staffordshire, England with American potteries coming into their own right toward the second half of the nineteenth century.
The tureen and ladle have remained in the Glessner family since 1837, being passed from Mary Laughlin Glessner to John Jacob Glessner to his daughter Frances Glessner Lee, then to her granddaughter Martha Lee Batchelder. In 1995, Glessner House Museum received the treasured heirloom, which is currently on exhibit in the Butler’s Pantry.
August 2016 - Handpainted bowl by Frances Glessner
Frances Glessner is well known for her work making silver objects and jewelry, but it was only in recent years that it was discovered she was also a fine amateur china painter. During the last three decades of the 19th century, china painting became an extremely popular hobby for women, launched in large part by the publication in 1877 of China Painting by artist Mary Louise McLaughlin, the first manual on the subject in the United States written by a woman for women. A decade later, artist Luetta Elmina Braumuller began publishing a magazine on the subject entitled The China Decorator, A Monthly Journal Devoted Exclusively to This Art, which became the recognized authority on the subject.
The shallow oval dish in the museum collection is the only example of Frances Glessner's china painting abilities. Measuring 10.25" in diameter, the bowl is painted in shades of orange-red with a gold edge. An avid bird watcher, Glessner decorated the bowl with a branch of pink wild roses holding a small bird's nest containing two eggs. A smaller branch above appears to be cherry or apple blossoms. It may well have been painted from life during the time spent each summer by the family at their New Hampshire estate, The Rocks.
Frances Glessner presented the bowl to Charlotte Johnson, the wife of the Glessners' long-time chauffeur, Swan Johnson. (Charlotte worked as a cook for a family in Lake Forest). When Johnson closed up her Andersonville apartment in the early 1960s, she gave the bowl to her good friend May Stoesser, who preserved the bowl and its story until presenting it to Glessner House Museum in 2010. Today the bowl is displayed on the dresser in the corner guestroom.
July 2016 - 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 wicker feeders - are suspended on long silver chains. The top of the lamp 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. Isabella Stewart Gardner, for example, purchased a very similar lamp in October 1886 during a visit to Florence Italy; the piece is now displayed in her Boston museum.
Regardless of the "historic basis" of the lamp, it 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.
June 2016 - 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, The Story of a House, which he wrote in 1923 for his children.
Many well-known 19th century glass artists including Daum, Tiffany, and Galle, were inspired by the traditions and technologies of Venetian glass making. Numerous examples of their work may be seen at Glessner House Museum. Salviati & Sons still produces traditional Venetian art glass objects on the island of Murano. Using historic photographs taken by George Glessner, they reproduced the glass shades now seen on the wall sconces in the parlor and main hall.
May 2016 - Silver by Frances Glessner
Frances Glessner (1848-1932) began taking lessons in metal work from Madeline Yale Wynne in November 1904. Wynne was a highly talented metal worker and a charter member of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society, founded at Hull-House in 1897. Soon after, Glessner began lessons with two other talented metal workers as well. Annibale Fogliata was a native of Milan, Italy, and came to Chicago in 1904 to teach metalworking at Hull-House. Her third teacher was Frederik W. Sandberg, a native of Sweden who lectured extensively at the Art Institute and had exhibited his wares at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
Among the first pieces made by Frances Glessner was a small salt cellar which she presented to her husband for Christmas just one month after her lessons began. It is one of three pieces on permanent display at the museum in the silver closet of the dining room. The largest piece is a calling card tray that for many years sat on the table in the main hall, to receive cards from lady visitors. The third piece, shown above, is a charming bowl with an elegant scalloped edge made for her youngest granddaughter, Martha Lee, born in 1906. It is engraved "MARTHA LEE FROM F.M.G."
Frances Glessner set up her silversmithing studio in the basement of her Prairie Avenue home, in the room directly below the dining room. Her silver mark consisted of her initial "G" encircling a honeybee, the symbol of another of her favorite hobbies - beekeeping. Trademark features of her work include simple clean lines and visible hammer marks across the surface. She actively pursued her interest in metal work for about a decade, making countless pieces as gifts and expanding to make jewelry as well, usually long chains set with semiprecious stones. Her journal is full of letters from thankful recipients.
April 2016 - Pompone de Bellievre Engraving
This portrait, created c. 1670, was engraved by Robert Nanteuil (c. 1623-1678), after a painting by Charles LeBrun (1619-1690). The subject, Pompone de Bellievre, shown in the print with long hair and a moustache and wearing exquisite furs, was a French magistrate and statesman. He was an ambassador to England, and from 1653 until his death in 1657, served as the first President of the Parliament of Paris.
This engraving was purchased by the Glessners from the respected print dealer, Frederick Keppel. Keppel wrote and lectured widely on the subject of fine prints, and in his essay, “The Golden Age of Engraving,” he wrote that the portrait of Pompone de Bellievre by Nanteuil was among the finest engraved portraits in existence, making a good copy of the work something that was hard to acquire. Receipts from Frederick Keppel show that the Glessners purchased their first copy of Pompone de Bellievre for $48.00 on December 11, 1879. Two weeks prior to the purchase, Frances Glessner wrote about the process of selecting the engraving in her journal. The Glessners seemed to have closely followed the guidance of Keppel in selecting prints for their home, and a receipt from the dealer, dated November 29, 1881, shows that they returned their first copy of Pompone de Bellievre, and purchased one of higher quality for $150.00. Once again, the selection of the engraving is described by Frances Glessner in a journal entry in which she noted that Isaac Scott (who created many frames for the Glessners’ collection) participated in the selection process, and that the print was chosen for its superior quality.
The Glessners collected over one hundred prints, the majority of which were purchased from Frederick Keppel between 1877 and 1891. John and Frances Glessner both wrote of the joy the process of collecting prints brought them. In a speech that John Glessner wrote in 1927, he described their collection as a whole, going through their home room by room to point out individual artworks of all types. In his description of pieces in the parlor, he went into specific detail about their portrait of Pompone de Bellievre, noting that the engraving was of the best quality, and among the choicest prints they owned.
Just as it did during the Glessners’ time, the engraving is currently displayed in the parlor in its original Isaac Scott frame of mahogany and bird’s eye maple.
March 2016 - Isaac Scott Pilgrim Vase
This vase, also known as a pilgrim vase, is among four created in 1879 for the Glessners by Isaac E. Scott at the Chelsea Keramic Art Works outside of Boston. Although Scott was proficient working in clay, even producing stunning examples of architectural terra cotta, the pilgrim vases are the only examples of his pottery work in the museum collection. The tan-colored piece measures 14.5" in height and is unglazed. It was made in a press mold, with the high-relief figures on the front applied later. The scene is dominated by the figure of a perched bird at left crying out 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 with a butterfly above and the inscription "To John J Glessner Esq. of Chicago from Scott . . . Oct 25 1879" at the bottom.
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. By 1889 he had relocated to Boston where he taught at the Eliot School in Jamaica Plain, an institution devoted to craft arts.
The vase was displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of their exhibit "Apostles of Beauty: Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago," November 7, 2009 - January 31, 2010.
February 2016 - Lincoln Life Mask
The bronze life mask and hands of Abraham Lincoln, displayed on the partner's desk in the library, were among John Glessner's most cherished objects. They are exact copies of the original plaster casts made by Chicago sculptor Leonard W. Volk. The face was made in April 1860, and the hands the following month, immediately after Lincoln's nomination by the Republicans for the presidency. (The right hand was still swollen from all the handshaking of Lincoln's latest campaign - a difference that is visible in the casts).
Volk eventually gave the plaster casts to his son Douglas, who later passed them on to a fellow art student. In February 1886, editor/poet Richard Watson Gilder, sculptor August St. Gaudens, and art collector Thomas B. Clarke sent out a letter to a select group of individuals soliciting subscriptions in order to purchase the original casts and present them to the National Museum in Washington (now the Smithsonian Institution). Subscribers who gave $50 received a replica set in plaster; those who gave $85 received a set in bronze. Frances Glessner noted in her journal that their bronze set, inscribed with John Glessner's name on the underside of the life mask, was received in late May 1886.
In 1888, the original plaster mask and hands, together with the first bronze casts, were presented to the National Museum. A total of 33 subscribers provided the funds, including John Glessner and his wife's first cousin, the American sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward. Ward was a good friend of St. Gaudens, so it appears likely he suggested that John Glessner be including on the mailing list, when the original subscription letter was mailed in February 1886.
January 2016 - De Morgan Vase
This robust, colorful vase, displayed on the music cabinet in the parlor, is the work of one of the late 19th century's most innovative ceramic artists, William Frend De Morgan (1839-1917). The large vase, nearly 16 inches tall, features circular lug handles set onto a bulbous baluster-shaped body. Masted Medieval vessels under full sail navigate seas filled with jumping fish in green, blue, turquoise, and yellow. The sail at far right depicts an ouroboros - a snake eating its own tail - a mythological creature symbolizing the cycle of life. (A pair of ouroboros are also carved into the granite on the front facade of the house).
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's team of designers. He executed numerous glass and tile 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 modern luster tiles being produced in 1870. (The Glessners purchased two sets of his tiles for the fireplaces in their master bedroom and the courtyard guestroom). In 1872, he opened a pottery works and over the next decade produced some of his finest work, including many pieces based on traditional 13th century Islamic pottery from Turkey, Persia, and Syria. His "Persian colours," as these ceramics came be to known, became the hallmark of his work and the fashion throughout Victorian-era 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.
December 2015 - Steinway Grand Piano
The magnificent grand piano in the parlor, custom made for Frances Glessner, is the product of renowned piano maker Steinway & Sons and furniture designed 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 a Model C Parlor Concert Grand Piano, the second largest of Steinway's seven grand piano models. Steinway shipped the piano to the A. H. Davenport company in Boston for the creation of the custom made case. Chief 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 the Glessners' Prairie Avenue home in late December 1887. Ignacy Paderewski, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, and Percy Grainger were among the many world-famous musicians to entertain the Glessners and their friends on the instrument.
Frances Glessner Lee donated her mother's piano to Harvard University in the late 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 through the generosity of Gardner Cowles, founder and publisher of Look magazine. Sir Georg Solti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was the first person to play the instrument upon its return to the house. It is still used for occasional recitals and other programs.