Monday, September 23, 2013

A Collection of Paperweights

Paul Stankard, 1982.  Lampwork spring beauty with rootball,
roots, and buds.  
On a recent visit to the Boston area, I caught up with an old friend who treated me to a whole afternoon's survey of his paperweight collection. Clarence (so I will call him here) has been buying paperweights since the early 1980s, when he and his wife chose them as a way to organize their trips to antique and flea markets: Here was something particular to look for. 

I can understand why. Paperweights are small, always beautiful, and there is magic in them. The glass worker's skill and the science of optics create exquisite miniature worlds far more brilliant, colorful, and breathtaking than our own. To handle a paperweight is to fulfill one's wishes for both whimsy and order, coexisting in an object that fits in your hand. We can take godlike satisfaction over the unity of a paperweight's system. Yet to experience a fine specimen's disciplined yet dreamy beauty is a profoundly human satisfaction: It's to receive a gratuitous gift of pleasure, however illusory.

In 1993, Clarence advanced swiftly from purchaser to collector once his curiosity led him to the very end of an estate auction held upon the death of an elderly, local eccentric; a person who had filled her house with collection upon collection of disparate objects. Although there were no paper weights among the lots, Clarence "could smell them. In that environment, they just had to be there." 
Half of a paper weight from
Perthshire, Scotland, ca. 1990.

His instinct proved so just that, once the family got to know him, he was invited back to the house many times. Each visit revealed more paperweights. His study in dealers' catalogues helped guide Clarence's purchases and establish fair prices. The long and short of the story is that, after having picked out 200 pieces on his own over the course of a couple years, ultimately, the family offered him the final 170 for a very low price. He accepted the offer. "That was when I began collecting," he says. Now, his knowledge and his collection are both vast, yet every piece he owns is special. Each paper weight has stories—its own history, and the story of Clarence's relationship to it.

1990s Perthshire paper weight, as above,
seen from a different angle
I was fascinated to see some half-paperweights, which Clarence has acquired from manufacturer's representatives who visit the few high-end stores that retail such luxury wares. My photographs show that the design itself is indeed a flat collection of miniature elements, carefully placed on prepared ground, assembled within a round form that holds them in place. The crystal is poured over it, the whole is heated and shaped as it cools. 

The sample shown in these two pictures is a millefiori paper weight: Its design has been composed of sections cut from thin glass canes, each of which is composed from several layers of colored glass. Millefiori means "a thousand flowers," which illusion is created by encasing layer upon layer of colored glass, then stretching them until they are very thin; cooling and cutting them into small sections—like cookies from a roll. This excellent video posted on YouTube by the Discovery and Science Channel illustrates and explains the entire process. 

Clichy, spaced millefiore, 1845-1860.
Clarence's collection ranges across the remarkable variety of paper weights. I was surprised to find that there are paper weights even in the folk art manner, which commemorate weddings and anniversaries with rough designs, or exhibit frit (ground-glass) slogans like "God bless our school," "Rock of Ages," or "Home Sweet Home." 

The focus of this collection is millefiori, though, and once I started looking with Clarence, I found myself exploring a wonderland of variations on a theme.

Where I've come to associate the finest glass with Venice, the most prized paperweights come from three French manufacturers, Clichy, St. Louis, and Baccarat, and from American glass works in New England. To the left is an antique Clichy, Clichy being prized for the vividness of its colors. A scan of the large collection time and again proved this to be true. Anyone with a choice would pick this out of a group for its robust color. Its design is one of many standards. The "spaced millefiori" means that each flower is placed without touching its neighbors.

Baccarat close-pack millefiore, 1849.
In contrast to the spaced presentation is the "close pack" millefiori, such as the Baccarat paper weight to the right. This has so many flowers, so small, and any spaces between them are filled with elements almost incomprehensibly small. Remember that the rounded crystal magnifies the size of the millefiori actually placed on the base. Remember, too, that each of the components of the tiny, colorful flowers is a glass filament, fused to its neighbors. So each millefiore is a rare work of glass art in itself. A paperweight like this is filled not only with beauty, but with hours and hours of the most delicate and painstaking work, some of which produced flawed products that never saw the light of day.

In that Baccarat close-pack, toward the right is a white cane with a black rooster formed inside it; at the top, rolling toward the back, similar form can be seen. These tiny animals are the mark of Baccarat paperweights, as are the years of manufacture, also memorialized on minute canes—in a long cane just below the center, with alternating red and blue marks.

Baccarat spaced millefiore on lace (upset muslin), 1848.
This Baccarat spaced millefiori (left) shows the characteristics clearly. These animal figure canes first appeared in 1846. They were produced after Baccarat's general manager, Jean-Baptiste Toussaint, found his young nephew, Emil Gridel, cutting animal silhouettes from black paper to amuse himself. Toussaint was inspired to borrow the silhouettes and have molds made from them: Thus the "Gridel figures," the tiny animal forms that appear in "classic" Baccarat paperweights in 1846. The classic period for paperweight paperweights is generally considered 1845-1860 for French paperweights and slightly later for New England paperweights. 
Ysart family, made in Scotland,
mid-20th century

Millefiori are also arranged to form symmetrical designs of stars, garlands, and fancy combined elements of many sorts. The Ysart family is credited with the birth of Scottish paperweight making in the 1930s. Originally from Spain, Salvadore Ysart and his family moved first to France and then to Scotland in 1914 at the start of World War I. This weight from Scotland is surely from the hand of an Ysart. Clarence is sure he can tell which family member; but there is no signature, so there is no way of stating it with certainty. I admire its five point-star—surely more difficult and clever than an even number—and its feel of a fine piece of jewelry laid on a velvet cloth.

Lampwork paperweights encase flowers, environments, animals or objects formed from glass (lampwork) in crystal, like the Paul Stankard work that opens this article. A fine lampwork artist's creations will give such an air of reality as to trick the viewer into believing them real: "How did you get those flowers in there?" as if they were inserted into a bottle rather than having had red-hot glass poured over them.

Chris Buzzini, lampwork floral, 1993.
Chris Buzzini's lampwork arrangment of wildflowers is certainly uncannily realistic. If it hints to a novice like me that the flowers aren't real, it's because they are so uniformly fresh, so much more evenly in bloom than I've ever experienced with real plucked flowers. The colors are so saturated that the bouquet gives almost more satisfaction than it would in reality. This is one of the joys of the paperweight as art form: the appeal of a permanently magnified, purified, and clarified reality that we are just a crystal surface away from achieving.

Buzzini has been at work in this medium for years. On a video at his website, he discusses his art while producing one of his paperweights.

Another contemporary master of lampwork is Paul Stankard, whose 1982 spring beauty opened this article. Clarence has collected another, far more complex work by this artist, which shows his interest not in an eternally fresh nature, but in its decay as well. The paperweight has a domed and a flat side, but on each there is a scene, each with equal and compelling visual interest. Not only is the lampwork phenomenal, but this work implies a narrative, which is very unusual among the works I saw.
Paul Stankard, environmental study, flowers and decay
on "sand," 1984. Top.
It's striking in the first place to have a carpet of "sand" to set a realistic stage for the plants. Usually, lampwork floats on a crystal sea; millefiori lie on black grounds or nestle among lace. A representational background is unusual and highlights the fact that the flowers are a little droopy. They even look like they need the support of the ground they lie on. 

But the big surprise comes on the flat side, on which there is usually nothing except a signature and/or a date, and not always either of those. It feels like we are in geological terms literally beneath the scene on top. Or, perhaps, we are a little way down the beach, in a tidal pool: It certainly feels like we are looking into shallow water.

Paul Stankard, environmental study, flowers and decay 
on "sand," 1984. Bottom.
The root ball and root that we saw in the spring beauty (top) are repeated here, but are taken in a mystical direction by forming the elements of a witchy mermaid whose fins and scales are replaced by willowy, waving roots. In her brown and green, wet setting, she is fascinating, both sexy and repellent at once. But she can only grow once her arms and legs take hold. Will she replace the morning glory whose days are numbered?Having looked at hundreds of paperweights with Clarence, I'm ultimately glad that I photographed only these few, under his generous guidance in his professional studio. Each piece is its own world of wonder and delight. Even after looking through a dozen, I knew enough to look deeper and deeper into them, and to see more in each one.

Clarence tells me that though there are many collections of paperweights in the United States, there are three major ones open to the public. One is the Rubeloff Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. Also in the Midwest in the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah, Wisconsin. Finally, the Corning Museum of Glass, in Corning, New York has a distinguished collection, which was featured when I visited around twenty years ago.

In this blog I don't say much about connoisseurs and scholars. I don't write against connoisseurship as much as I write to reassure those who lack it that art is available to all of us. 

But my afternoon among the paperweights was an excellent reminder of the value and the satisfaction of expertise. For Clarence, his pleasure in sharing it was obvious. For me, I hope it was equally clear how great the pleasure was for me to have that chance to learn and to know.
With a thousand flowery thanks to Clarence for his patient help with details in the preparation of this article.

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