The Yale University Art Gallery is showcasing its magnificent Mabel Brady Garvan Glass Collection in a student-curated exhibition that feels fresh and contemporary. The accompanying catalogue goes a long way to add flesh to the stories behind these objects, beginning with the history of Francis P. Garvan and his evolution as a major 20th century collector.
The son of prosperous Irish immigrants, Garvan was born and reared in East Hartford and educated at Yale College. He went on to earn his law degree from New York University and today is perhaps best known for his role in prosecuting Harry Thaw in the murder of the architect Stanford White. He married into the Brady family of Albany, with his father-in-law the self-made titan of the Albany Gas Company. Upon his father-in-law’s death, Garvan had both the means and the resources by which to begin furnishing his home with fine glass and furniture and other objects.
The country was in the throes of the Colonial Revival movement, in part as idyllic refuge after the ravages of the Civil War, John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attemore Hewitt associate curator of American Decorative Arts at the Yale Art Gallery, writes. “Initial admirers of Americana were drawn to mold blown flasks and cup plates and Garvan was part of the zeitgeist,” he added.
While the Garvan Collection is known particularly for its 18th-century mold-blown vessels and 19th-century pressed glass, it also looks at the importance of glass in many applications. For much of the early 17th century, glass houses sprung up in Virginia to accommodate the needs of a growing nation — light bulbs, laboratory glass and other patented glass — which over time would employ glass as an engine of ingenuity.
The exhibition is organized by theme, and objects glisten in their pristine vitrines. Flasks and bottles present a diverse roster of historic figures, from George Washington to the legendary singer, Jenny Lind. There are exquisite decanters and sugar bowls, compotes and cup plates, a sandglass and a glass rolling pin. From the pressed mold on display that is beautiful in and of itself, to the raw specimens of opal and obsidian on loan from Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, one can’t help but experience this material as magic. Glass proved crucial for the complex microscope as well as the Wimshurst electrostatic generator, a 19th-century invention which consisted of a pair of glass discs mounted upon a spindle and operating in opposite directions to produce an electrical charge.
“The early history of American decorative arts tended to favor a handful of makers — names that appeared in archival sources, written or stamped on objects, etc., and often, people ascribed lots of material to these people based on scant evidence,” Gordon said. “Additionally, early collectors focused their energies on New England and the upper Mid-Atlantic states, and focused on early material (or what they interpreted as early materials) leaving large geographic areas underexplored and leaving types of glass — like lavishly cut glass — aside.”
Garvan’s collection began with an emphasis on early blown glass, material from the Northeastern United States, and prevalence of items thought to be by Henry William Stiegel — the first glassmaker to have a book writen about him, and to whom many questionable objects are now attributed.
But Garvan evolved as a collector, first through independent study and the acquisition of already-established collections; later, in partnership with Rhea Mansfield Knittle, a self-taught expert in the field, who would help him build a major teaching collection. It was Knittle who convinced Garvan to acquire a significant group of 95 lacy, pressed glass, believed to have been created by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Works. Garval’s lifelong preference was for hand-blown glass, but Knittle knew that these intricate patterned objects were technological marvels.
In 1930, Garvan turned over to Yale the 5,000 objects, establishing the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, which he planned, he said, to continue “improving and perfecting. The collection includes glass, furniture, metalwork, prints, ceramics, coins and other decorative arts.
Among major manufacturers featured in this exhibition are the Boston and Sandwich Glass Works, Pittsburgh Flint Glass Works of Bakewell, East Hartford Glass Works, New England Glass Manufactory and the New Bremen Glass Manufactory. Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps, a stained-glass window by Frank Lloyd Wright and remarkable contemporary glasswork by Lynda Benglis, Alyson Shotz and Toots Zynsky who provide a spirited coda. A sailor’s flask in the shape of a turtle, perhaps created as a special gift, or as a chance for a gaffer to display his virtuosity, is a bona fide show-stealer. Overall, these are objects that dazzle and charm.
When Garvan died unexpectedly in 1937, Knittle had not yet finished a comprehensive inventory of his glass holdings. And while Garvan’s death marked the end of his collecting, his legacy was secure. The notion that Garvan’s objects should “become a moving part of a great panorama of American Arts and Crafts, was visionary,” Gordon writes.