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
December 2017 - Galle Vase "Tempus Stellae"
The museum collection contains nearly a dozen pieces by the famed French glassmaker, Émile Gallé (1846-1904), one of the major forces in the French Art Nouveau movement. His pieces, which feature beautiful enamel work (as seen on this example) or cameo glass, received praise beginning with the Paris Exhibition of 1878. At the height of his popularity, his company in Nancy employed over 400 artisans in his glass division alone. The firm also manufactured ceramics, furniture and small objets d’art.
The hexagonal barrel-shaped vase, measuring 12-1/2 inches in height, dates to the late 1880s and was originally displayed on the mantel of the bedroom used by the Glessner’s daughter Fanny. It is currently displayed on the dresser in the courtyard bedroom.
An overall design of snow laden bamboo branches, with two brown-toned birds is clearly influenced by Japanese art objects, which Gallé began collecting in 1872. Gallé first saw nearly 2,000 pieces made by Japanese artisans at the Exposition Universelle of 1867 where he represented his father’s firm, Gallé-Renemer, purveyors of ceramics. In 1871, still representing his father’s firm, Gallé traveled to London for the Exposition there. During that time, he visited the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) and saw their Japanese collection.
The process of creating a piece such as this began with the creation of the design which would be transferred to the body of the vase using a sepia-colored paint. The piece was then fired at a low temperature to affix the design to the body, a process called “le petit feu,” or little firing. Enamel was then applied following the sepia lines. Two types of enamels were used - translucent enamels which could be fired at a medium temperature, and opaque enamels which required a much higher one. A single piece might require several separate firings. This piece features enameling in blue, gold, green, brown, and black.
If the piece was to be engraved as well, this process followed enameling. Occasionally, a portion of the piece might be flashed (covered with a thin sheet of glass of a different color from the body) then engraved to let the underbody show through. This can be seen at the base of the vase where the layer of “snow” is etched with the Gallé name.
Gallé was a deeply religious man, and many of his pieces feature religious symbols. This vase features the Chi-Rho (shown at the upper left of the vase in the image above), one of the oldest Christograms, consisting of the Greek letters chi (x) and rho (p), the first two letters of Christ in Greek. Above the Christogram are found the Latin words “Tempus Stellae,” meaning “time of the star.” The phrase is taken from the story of the arrival of the three wisemen in Bethlehem to pay homage to the Christ child. The Latin version of Matthew 2: 7, “Tunc Herodes clam vocatis magis diligenter didicit ab eis tempus stellae quae apparuit eis” when translated into English reads, “Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them.”
November 2017 - Sketches by Francesca Alexander
During the Glessners’ trip to Europe in 1890, they were anxious to meet the well known artist Francesca Alexander (1837-1917). Her father was a successful Boston portrait painter, and when she was 16, he moved the family to Florence Italy, where she soon began collecting folk songs and stories from amongst the Tuscan peasants. In 1882, she was introduced to John Ruskin, the leading English art critic of his era, who was enchanted with her work. He purchased her illustrated manuscript of transcribed songs, entitled Roadside Songs of Tuscany. He remained a close friend and colleague and wrote the preface for this book and two others including The Story of Ida, a copy of which was owned by the Glessners. He lectured about her work and distributed her drawings among various English museums, bringing her worldwide attention and making her an attraction for visitors to Florence.
On March 29, 1890, the Glessners visited Alexander in her apartment, which John Glessner described as “very small, decorated with all manner of things and many flowers. On one wall I counted more than 75 objects hanging - paintings, cabinets, photographs, brackets, etc.” She was reluctant to sell any of her drawings, all of which were unfinished, due to her failing eyesight, but after the Glessners sent Fanny’s companion, Violette Scharff, back to her with an armful of Alpine roses, she consented. The portrait of a young woman shown on the left side of the frame is only partially done, being sketched with a pencil and the face detailed with pen and ink in a stippling technique. The second sketch depicts a peasant woman whom the Glessners met during their visit. Executed in pen and ink in a cross hatching technique, the sketch features the prominent signature of the artist. The two sketches were placed in a double frame made by Isaac Scott specifically for the artwork that stood on John Glessner’s side of the partner’s desk in the library.
October 2017 - Nutshell Laboratories Carrying Case
Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) is widely regarded as the mother of forensic science. In 1932, she endowed the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University, the first of its kind in the United States. Two years later, she presented the department with a library of 1,000 volumes, named in honor of her long time friend and colleague, Dr. George Burgess Magrath, who served as department chair.
In the early 1940s, she set up the Nutshell Laboratories at her home in Littleton, New Hampshire, located on a sprawling estate known as The Rocks. Over the next several years, she crafted twenty meticulously detailed miniature death scenes, on the scale of one inch to one foot, that were used by state police officials to hone their skills at investigating crime scenes. The models depicted murder, suicide, natural, and accidental death. Although no one model depicted a specific investigation, everything illustrated was based on actual cases. The level of craftsmanship was extraordinary. Tiny doorknobs turned, and the keys in the locks actually worked. Lee knit tiny stockings for some of the corpses using straight pins. Assisting Lee in the construction of the models was craftsman Ralph Mosher, who built the rooms and much of the furniture. After his death, his son Alton continued with Lee until her own death a decade later. Alton Mosher related the story that he made a rocking chair for one of the models, based on a rocking chair that Lee owned. When brought to her for review, she set it on the table and pushed it to start rocking. Noting that it did not rock the same number of times as the actual chair, she returned it to be made again. Her attention to detail was truly amazing.
The models were premiered at the first Seminar in Homicide Investigation for State Police which Lee held at Harvard in 1945. They were named "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death" after an old police saying, "Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell." Students attending the seminar would be assigned two models and given 90 minutes to study each one. Each model would be accompanied by information reported to the "Nutshell Laboratories" giving clues as to the identity of the victim, and their family and financial situation. At the end of the seminar, the students would provide verbal reports, and the point illustrated in each model was disclosed. The models were not designed as "whodunits" but rather were crafted as "an exercise in observing, interpreting, evaluating, and reporting."
The exact function of the carrying case, which measures 12" x 20" x 25", is unknown, although Lee traveled widely across the United States in her pursuit of professionalizing crime scene investigation, so it is likely she used it to carry the tools of her trade. She was eventually awarded the status of police captain by nine states and the city of Chicago for her work.
An exhibit entitled "Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death" opened at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. on October 20, 2017 and continues through January 28, 2018. It is the first time that the nineteen surviving Nutshell Studies have been on public display. The solutions will not be revealed as the models continue to be used in the bi-annual police seminars, held since the late 1960s (after Harvard closed its department) at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Maryland.
September 2017 - Japanese Singing Bowl
One of the first objects visitors notice upon entering Glessner house is the large bronze bowl set upon a table in the main hall. Displaying a dark patinated finish, the bowl measures 14 inches in diameter and is an example of the Glessners’ interest in Japanese design. Known as a singing bowl, the piece is a standing bell positioned with its bottom surface resting on a cushion.
H. H. Richardson had a singing bowl of comparable size in his study which the Glessners would have seen during their visit to his Brookline, Massachusetts home in 1885. It is probable that this is where they first came up with the idea to acquire one of their own, as the bowl appears in the earliest photographs taken of their Prairie Avenue home in 1888. John Glessner later referred to it as “a Japanese temple gong of sweet tone” from the celebrated collection of Captain Brinkley. That reference was to Francis Brinkley (1841-1912), an Anglo-Irish scholar who resided in Japan for over 40 years during the Meiji period, and authored numerous books on Japanese culture, art and architecture. He amassed an important collection of Japanese art and pottery, much of which was destroyed during the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923 and during World War II.
Gongs of this type were found in all Japanese temples and were an important part of Buddhist worship, being rung to signal the beginning and ending of periods of silent meditation. They were also used during chanting, and were an important element in traditional Japanese funeral rites and ancestor worship. The bowls, which were also widely made and used in Tibet, Nepal, and China, could be rung in two ways. One was to strike the rim of the bowl with the padded end of the mallet, producing a deep tone. The other was to slowly run the wooden end of the mallet around the exterior perimeter, gradually producing a sweet, higher pitched, tone that “sung.”
Wear on the mallet would indicate that the Glessners rang their singing bowl both ways - to call guests to dinner and for special occasions including ushering in the New Year, as occurred on December 31, 1893, when Chicago Orchestra conductor Theodore Thomas was given the honor. On December 31, 1909, Frances Glessner herself struck the gong, having attended the symphony concert earlier in the day to hear the premier of Frederick Stock's Symphony No. 1, which he dedicated to the Glessners.
Singing bowls are widely available today and are commonly used in meditation exercises, although most of these are much smaller so that they can be held in the palm of the hand.
August 2017 - Partner's Desk
One of the largest pieces of furniture in the house is the partner's desk, which serves as the centerpiece of the library. Constructed of quarter-sawn oak, the desktop measures five by eight feet, providing 40 square feet of work space for John and Frances Glessnser. Inspiration for the piece appears to have come from an even larger desk in the study of H. H. Richardson, which the Glessners greatly admired.
The piece is one of several made by A. H. Davenport and Company in 1887 specifically for the house. (See December 2015 "Steinway Grand Piano" and October 2016 "Morris Adjustable Chair" for additional pieces). It was designed by Charles A. Coolidge (1858-1936), one of three architects who reorganized H. H. Richardson's firm following his death in 1886 as Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. Coolidge was a graduate of Harvard University and received additional training in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before entering Richardson's firm in 1882, quickly rising to become a senior member of the firm. He achieved a national reputation for his work, beginning with the design of the Stanford University campus in California in the fall of 1886. In 1892 he moved to Chicago to establish a branch office for the firm, which received numerous commissions in Chicago including the Art Institute and the Chicago Public Library (now the Chicago Cultural Center). He and his wife Julia (sister of his partner George Shepley) became close friends of the Glessners.
Detailing on the desk includes acanthus leaf carvings at the four corners and carved panels set into the two ends. Each side of the desk features eight drawers, an open shelf and a large cabinet, providing equal work and storage space for both John and Frances Glessner. Two large "hidden" drawers are located just below the desktop at either end of the desk; featuring no handles they are opened by grabbing finger holes carved into the bottom edge of the drawer. The piece features two outlets on the desktop providing an easy way to plug in table lamps.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of the desk is its existence at all. Although large homes such as the one built for the Glessners usually featured a library, the room was typically the domain of the male head of the household and was used for conducting business and entertaining male friends. The presence of the partner's desk indicates clearly that the room was designed to be used equally by both John and Frances Glessner, yet another example of their progressive thinking. They were so fond of the desk that they had additional partner's desks made by Davenport (albeit slightly smaller in scale) which were given to their children and are still used by their descendants.
The desk remained in the house when most other furnishings were removed following the death of John Glessner in 1936. It was used by both Armour Institute and the Lithographic Technical Foundation during their occupancy of the building, and it hosted meetings in the mid-1960s when architects and preservationists gathered to formulate a plan to preserve the house.
July 2017 - Gien Ewer and Basin
In October 1875, the Glessners attended the Interstate Industrial Exposition in downtown Chicago. Among the pieces they acquired was this handsome ewer and basin manufactured by the French firm of Gien, considered one of the finest faience manufacturers in the 19th century. The company dates back to 1821 when Thomas Hulm/Hull purchased an old convent at Minimes and opened his new factory to produce faience using English methods. Early pieces tended to be more utilitarian in nature, but later the firm began producing decorative pieces and dinner services, often copying older objects that combined old and new decoration inspired by other manufacturers in Europe as well as pieces from the Middle East. The last half of the 19th century is generally regarded as the pinnacle of faience production by Gien. The firm won numerous awards at international expositions throughout that time period.
The Glessners' piece is a close copy of Rouenware which was made in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Rouen, then a major center of French pottery. A similar ewer, dating to about 1700, appeared in a recent exhibition of pieces from the MaryLou Boone Collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The two are virtually identical in shape, including the applied handle, although the blue and white decoration differs.
A mark on the underside of the basin, consisting of three crenelated towers with a ribbon beneath bearing the name GIEN, dates the Glessners' piece to the first half of the 1870s. The three towers design is also used in a medallion beneath the lip of the ewer, and serves as the central motif in the basin. Additional decoration includes a royonnant design inside the basin and a variety of richly detailed floral decorations and foliate scrolls across the body of the ewer and basin. The heavy lip of the ewer is decorated with a twisted rope design. One of the most unusual features is a pair of grotesque masks forming handles for the basin, which sits atop four pyramidal peg feet.
The piece is currently displayed in the courtyard bedroom on a side table. The firm of Gien is still in existence and continues to produce high quality earthenware. The Gien Museum was opened in 1986 featuring numerous pieces from throughout the firm's history, including special pieces created for the various World's Fairs.
June 2017 - Pretyman Wallcovering
The most elaborately decorated room in the Glessners' home was the parlor, where they entertained friends including Prairie Avenue neighbors, architects, authors, artists, university presidents, and musicians. The highlight of the room was an intricately painted burlap wallcovering designed and executed by the English decorator William Pretyman in 1892. Although the wallcovering had been painted over by the time the building was acquired by the museum in 1966, it was meticulously recreated and installed as part of the parlor restoration project, completed in the fall of 2011.
Pretyman was born in Aylesbury, England in 1849 and immigrated to the United States in the early 1880s, settling in Chicago in 1885. A close friend of architect John Wellborn Root, he provided decoration for a number of building by Burnham & Root including the dry goods store on the first floor of the Reliance Building, and Willard Hall in the Women's Temple, as well as the banking room for the Society for Savings in Cleveland, Ohio (his only known surviving work outside of Glessner House). Other Chicago projects included a redecorating of the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church on South Michigan Avenue, The Church of the Atonement in Edgewater, and the MacVeagh House on Lake Shore Drive. He was appointed the Director of Color for the World's Columbian Exposition but resigned soon after the death of his friend Root, and the decision to create the "White City." He returned to England in the mid-1890s and died there in 1920.
In 2011, the Denver based firm Grammar of Ornament analyzed historic photographs of the parlor and one surviving unpainted section (from behind a wall sconce) to recreate Pretyman's elaborate design. The canvas panels (substituted for the original burlap, but with a similar coarse surface to enhance the reflective nature of the metallic paints) were primed and painted with a grey base coat. A silver metallic ground was applied over which a gold metallic paint was randomly scrumbled to create the metallic variations found in the original. Two variations of hand-cut stencils were designed to create the negative or reddish copper background before the application of the final detail stencils that articulate the actual design elements. A deep violet acrylic base was stenciled first followed by the application of tinted copper paint. Two additional stencils were used to create the small line details that created the actual design of birds, and foliage. Silver highlights completed the design, and the panels were ready for installation, which took place over three days.
The parlor was revealed to the public at a special grand opening on October 14, 2011. Funding for the project came from a generous bequest from docent Bunny Selig, gifts in memory of docent Aileen Mandel, a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, and donors to the 125th Anniversary Fund. Members of the Selig and Mandel families cut the ribbons in purple and teal, officially opening this jewel box space within Glessner house, that has since become a favorite of visitors.
May 2017 - Kutani Bowl
Measuring more than 19 inches in diameter, this boldly colored porcellaneous stoneware bowl is an example of ao (green) Kutani and is dateable to the 1870s period when the Glessners first began collecting Japanese objects. Original Kutani ware was only made for a brief period in the Kaga province during the mid-17th century, but the process was revived in the 19th century. Ao Kutani refers to pieces that are decorated all over in green, yellow, and purple, usually with geometric background patterns. A "fuku" (good luck) mark on the reverse of the piece indicates it may have been produced at the Yoshidaya kiln, built on the site of the Old Kutani kiln.
The Glessners' piece features a bold design of bamboo stalks and leaves with cherry blossoms, all set against a background of stylized chrysanthemums. The sides are turquoise with stylized scalloped clouds. The bowl appears in photographs of the Glessners' home on Washington Street taken about 1880, so it is clearly among the earlier pieces of Japanese manufacture that the Glessners purchased. In their Prairie Avenue home, the piece was always displayed atop the Isaac Scott-designed bookcase in the upper hall.
The bowl was severely damaged in 1996 and the pieces were put into storage for nearly twenty years. In 2013, a full restoration of the bowl was undertaken by The Conservation Center, utilizing a generous gift to the museum from the Chicago Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, The First Chapter (of which Frances Glessner was a charter member in 1891).
Since being returned to the museum, the bowl has been displayed on the library table in the upper hall, also designed by Isaac Scott. It is a reminder of both the Glessners' interest in Japonisme, and Frances Glessner's connection to the founding of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
April 2017 - Iznik Tiles
During construction of the house in 1886-1887, John and Frances Glessner spent considerable time shopping for items for their new home. Among the most interest items they acquired was a set of Iznik tiles for the dining room fireplace, the name Iznik derived from the city in Turkey where the tiles were made.
In 1886, Frances Glessner noted in her journal during a trip to New York, "We went Thursday morning to hunt up tiles. We found some beauties at Lockwood de Forest's." Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932) was an important figure in the American Aesthetic Movement, largely remembered today for introducing East Indian crafts to America. In the late 1870s he turned his attention to decoration and architecture, becoming a partner in the design firm of Associated Artists, along with Louis Comfort Tiffany, Samuel Colman, and Candace Wheeler. His travels took him to the Middle East, North Africa, and most importantly, British India, where he developed a passion for local craftsmanship. After Associated Artists closed in 1882, de Forest opened his own successful company, supplying decorative items and architectural elements to clients such as Andrew Carnegie, Charles Tyson Yerkes, Mark Twain, and Potter Palmer.
De Forest apparently acquired a significant number of tiles like the ones the Glessners purchased. They appear in at least two other houses with which he was associated, including his own home in Santa Barbara, where they are used on a fountain in an outdoor courtyard. Correspondence between de Forest and the Glessners indicate that he had just enough tiles left to complete their dining room fireplace.
The tiles, which are roughly eight inches square, were made in the Iznik region of Turkey in the middle part of the 16th century. They were installed in various locations throughout the the Middle East including the tomb of Muhi al-din Abn'Arabi in Damascus, Syria. Polychromatic schemes were developed during the middle period of Iznik pottery making using seven colors in various combinations - blue, purple, red, green, turquoise, grey, and black. The body of the tiles is fritware, a composite paste material made from quartz sand mixed with small amounts of finely ground glass (frit) and clay. When fired, the frit melts and binds the other components together. The tile was then coated with a thin layer of white slip - a liquid clay mixture similar to the fritware paste, but more finely ground and purer in composition. The tile was lightly fired to dry it out, and then painted with pigments mixed with frit. The wares were then glazed with a lead-alkaline-tin glaze and fired to a transparent sheen.
The vivid colors and striking design continue to inspire and impress.
March 2017 - Creamware Punch Jug
A piece often noticed by museum visitors in the Glessner dining room is a large creamware punch jug, positioned in the center of the upper shelf on the sideboard. Historic photographs show that the piece was displayed in this location for the entire time the Glessners occupied the house.
The punch jug is a beautiful example of creamware, earthenware made from white Cornish clay with a translucent glaze, developed in England in the last half of the 18th century. Josiah Wedgwood found great commercial success with this type of utilitarian ware, but encountered competition from brothers John and Joshua Green who established Leeds Pottery in Leeds in 1770. It was this latter firm that made the Glessner piece. The clarity and simplicity of creamware meant that its appeal rested on the elegant shapes. The punch jug features a beautifully tapered body 12 inches in height. A cast handle with a projecting thumb piece was attached opposite the lipped spout. Underneath the spout, written in script, is the inscription “6 Quart 1811.”
John Glessner was especially proud of this piece and mentioned it specifically in his The Story of a House: “An old Leeds pattern pitcher, to hold six quarts, and bearing the date 1811, given by the Pottery to Briggs, the Boston dealer, and by him to me, has stood on the sideboard for a good many years, and has often attracted attention for its size and glaze and graceful shape.”
The Glessners owned another piece of creamware which was also displayed on the upper shelf of the sideboard. That piece, known as a punch pot, is probably a bit older, and is believed to date to around 1790. Also produced by the Leeds Pottery, the graceful cylindrical shape with only an applied ball finial on the lid for decoration speaks to the Glessners' sophisticated collecting tastes.
February 2017 - Siamese Rice Bowl
One of the most admired pieces in the museum, and a favorite of the Glessners, is a stunning rice bowl displayed on the side table in the dining room. The object came to Chicago in 1893 as part of the Siamese exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition. In November 1893, just a few weeks after the close of the Fair, Frances Glessner recorded in her journal that "we bought a beautiful punch bowl from Siam - silver and gold." The ensemble - consisting of a large presentation bowl, three-footed stand with pointed scallop edging, and oversized spoon - is composed of hammered silver with applied gold leaf. The surface is coverd with niello - a black mixture of copper, silver, and lead sulphides - which is used as an inlay to fill the intricate designs of flowers, foliage, squirrels, rabbits, and birds cut into the surface of the pieces. Siamese artisans were known for their excellent niello work, dating back several centuries, although the process was also used by craftsmen in various parts of Europe since the Iron Age.
A pair of especially fine gilt silver niello teapots, with decoration similar to the punch bowl, were presented to President Franklin Pierce in 1856 by King Rama IV. they are now in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution. John Glessner noted in The Story of a House that "Sir Purdon Clarke of the British said it was a museum piece so fine that our Art Institute should keep an eye on it and never let it get away." Ironically, the Glessner descendants did donate the ensemble to the Art Institute in 1971, but ownership was transferred to Glessner House Museum the following year.
In March 2014, the Deputy Secretary to His Majesty the King of Thailand visited the museum with six others for a private tour led by Executive Director and Curator William Tyre. The Secretary provided interesting information about the piece including the fact that it was not a punch bowl (as the Glessners always referred to it), but rather a large rice bowl. Even more interesting was the fact that decoration of the piece, including a tiger on cross-hatched hills set into the central reserve on the bottom of the bowl, indicated that the piece was originally made for use in the royal household. King Rama V would have later selected the piece for inclusion in his country's exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition.
For more information on the rice bowl and the Siamese pavilion at the Exposition, click here to read an article published on the museum blog in October 2013.
January 2017 - Benson Electric Lamp
This electric lamp, displayed on a side table in the parlor, is among the most important pieces in the museum collection representing the English Arts & Crafts movement. Acquired by the Glessners about 1900, the lamp is a classic example of the work of William Arthur Smith Benson, whose lamps embraced the new technology of electricity while preserving the simple honest lines of Arts & Crafts pieces.
The lamp, which measures 19 inches in height, features a copper flaring fan-form shade with eight blades, which rests upon a turned brass standard with a bell-shaped base sitting upon a square foot, the whole raised on a series of four bun feet. Significantly, Benson formulated a thin lacquer, that was nearly invisible when applied to the copper and brass, but prevented it from tarnishing in the cold damp British climate. The copper blades, which reflect the light, but conceal the light bulb, are also significant to Benson's work. The German architect and critic Hermann Muthesius wrote in The English House in 1904 that Benson was the first to illuminate tables with light reflected from a shiny metal surface, while keeping the actual source of illumination hidden. A similar lamp is found in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
W. A. S. Benson was born into a well-to-do family in London in 1854 and received his education at Eton and Oxford, later training in the office of the architect Basil Champneys. After forming a friendship with Edward Burne-Jones, he was introduced to William Morris who encouraged Benson to open his own metal workshop, which he did in 1880, marketing his items through Morris & Co. Widely regarded as the foremost metalworker of his time, Benson differed from Morris in that he embraced machine techniques as a means of producing domestic articles, thus making them affordable to a broader audience. He was a leading figure of the Arts and Crafts movement and helped found the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888, writing the essay on metalwork for its first catalog. Following the death of William Morris in 1896, Benson became the managing director of Morris & Co., for whom he had also designed furniture and wallpaper.
During World War I, Benson's factory was converted to produce materials for the war effort. He closed the factory upon his retirement in 1920, and died four years later.
December 2016 - The Adoration of the Magi
This cast plaster plaque depicting the three wisemen presenting gifts to the Christ child is one of a series of four fictile ivories (copies made from original ivory or bone carvings) on display over the mantel in the courtyard guestroom. The original piece was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1866 and is currently on display in their Medieval and Renaissance Gallery. Carved by an unknown artist from the bone of a Rorqual, or Finner, whale, it was created between 1120 and 1150 A.D. in northern Spain and measures 14.4" tall by 6.3" wide.
The level of craftsmanship on the original is very high, and the depiction of the kings as pilgrims was very popular along the road to Santiago de Compostela. Additional symbolism includes beasts fighting at the feet of the Virgin Mary, and an owl at the top, which some scholars have interpreted as reflecting the circumstances of "reconquista" in which the object was produced. The largest figure is the Virgin Mary, seated beneath a Romanesque arch from which is hung an elaborately detailed drapery. She wears a pleated head dress and a jeweled diadem. The Christ child is seated on her left knee, with the three kings crowed and carrying staves, offering their traditional gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The maker of the cast owned by the Glessners is unknown, but information from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, which owns a large collection of fictile ivories made in England, provides a possible source. Two Englishmen, J. O. Westwood and A. Nesbitt, made numerous casts of original artworks. The process involved mixing wax and gutta-percha (a natural latex) which was then flattened into a piece larger than the artwork to be copied. The artwork was wetted with cold water or soap, after which the mix of wax and gutta-percha was placed upon it and pressed carefully so as to reach into all the deepest cuts. After the mixture hardened and cooled, it was lifted carefully from the artwork, after which it was ready to receive plaster of Paris. The molds were used to make numerous plaster copies which were widely purchased in the mid- to late-19th century by museums and for domestic use.
During the 1870s and 1880s, the Chicago Tribune featured several articles that discussed plaster casts as art. An 1878 article noted that the managers of the Interstate Industrial Exposition (which the Glessners attended each year) were assembling a large collection of plaster casts. A prominent local dealer was Anthony Equi, so it is highly probable the Glessners either acquired their casts directly at the Exposition or through Equi's gallery.
The four casts purchased by the Glessners were set into custom-made shadowboxes designed and executed by Isaac Elwood Scott. Acquired prior to their move to Prairie Avenue in 1887, the casts were always displayed in the courtyard guestroom once they moved into their new home, where they continue to impress visitors with their fine detailing.
November 2016 - Shakespeare Statue by J. Q. A. Ward
This beautiful bronze statue in the Glessner library, measuring 28 inches in height, was created by leading American sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward, a first cousin of Frances Glessner. Ward was born in Urbana, Ohio in 1830 and, after training with sculptor Henry Kirke Brown, relocated to Washington D.C. in 1857, where he created portrait busts of men in public life. His sculpture, The Indian Hunter, was exhibited publicly in Central Park in New York City in 1859, and became his first work to receive wide public acclaim. In 1861, he set up a studio in New York City, and was elected to the National Academy of Design the next year; he served as president in 1874. He received numerous commissions for large-scale public monuments, including the statue of George Washington in Federal Hall, New York City, the Yorktown Victory Monument, and Integrity Protecting the Works of Man, which forms the pediment of the New York Stock Exchange Building. He collaborated on thirteen public sculptures with architect Richard Morris Hunt, and took into his atelier rising American sculptors Daniel Chester French, Francois Rey, and Charles Albert Lopez. He died in 1910.
The Glessners' Shakespeare is actually a maquette of the life-size bronze statue which stands in New York City's Central Park. Ward created the original in 1870 for the celebration of the tercentenary of the birth of Shakespeare; 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 in the collection of 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 by the Henry-Bonnard Bronze Company in New York. It was delivered to their Prairie Avenue home in 1894.
October 2016 - Morris Adjustable Chair by A. H. Davenport & Company
On December 1, 1887, Frances Glessner made the following entry in her journal, "We found a car load of our furniture had come from Davenport, and had it brought here, unloaded and most of it unpacked. It is very beautiful." The Glessners paid $10,140 to A. H. Davenport and Company for furniture and interior decoration, an expenditure that represented nearly 10% of the total cost of their new house on Prairie Avenue.
The company was founded by Alfred H. Davenport (1845-1905) who began his career as a bookkeeper with the Boston Furniture Company, acquiring the business following the death of its owner. He quickly expanded the business and opened a second showroom in New York. The firm became well-known for its high-end and custom-made furniture, as well as its broad range of wallpaper, fabric, hardware, and other decorative items crafted by various makers. One of their most important projects was new furniture for the State Dining Room, Executive Office, and Green Room, provided for the remodeling of the White House under Theodore Roosevelt. The firm established a close relationship with H. H. Richardson, and created furniture for many of his library projects, the Court of Appeals in the New York State Capitol, and the Warder House in Washington, D.C.
This chair, used by the Glessners in their library, is based on one of the most admired and copied furniture designs of Morris & Company. Big, roomy, and incredibly comfortable, the chair features 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 that fits into a one of a series of grooves. The original Morris chair, as it is simply referred to today, was designed by Philip Webb in 1866 for Morris & Co., and was based on a prototype belonging to an old Sussex carpenter. Eventually many variations of the design were being produced in different styles, materials, and price points. By the early 20th century, nearly every manufacturer at the New York Furniture Exchange displayed some form of the chair.
Several features of this chair including the shape of the spindles and arms, the shape and splay of the front legs, and the cut, color, and finish of the quarter-sawn oak are considered iconic trademarks of the work of A. H. Davenport and Company. The chair was originally covered in a cut velvet fabric known as Utrecht made by Morris & Co. The same fabric was used on several pieces of furniture in the Glessners' library including a sofa and an arm chair.
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, and a trustee of Harvard. In March 1980, it was officially dedicated with a concert of 19th century music performed by Etsko Tazaki, a protege of Sir Georg Solti, who was present for the dedication. It is still used for occasional recitals and other programs.