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.