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Twain And The Decorators

Louis C. Tiffany's Design Work To Be Marked At Twain House Lecture

Nancy Schoeffler

June 17, 2010

Sam and Olivia Clemens were pleased with the interior design work that Frederic Schweppe — a designer from Elmira. N.Y., who had worked for Olivia's parents, the Langdons — did for them on the second floor of their Hartford home.

"But he wasn't the name," says Patti Philippon, chief curator at the Mark Twain House & Museum.

When it came to the more public first-floor areas of their grand Victorian home on Farmington Avenue, Sam Clemens, aka Twain, wanted "the latest, the greatest decorator."

And that was Louis C. Tiffany, son of the founder of Tiffany & Co. jewelry store. Tiffany's partners in his New York interior design firm, Associated Artists, were Candace Wheeler, who later designed the Red Room at the White House, Lockwood DeForest and Samuel Colman.

"As much as Sam was lampooning the Gilded Age, he was very much living the lifestyle," Philippon says. The Clemenses "were really showcasing Mark Twain as a person of taste. They knew how much this house meant to his reputation."

What's striking, Philippon says, is that after spending "all of this money — Olivia's money — on this lavish house," Clemens put so much faith in the decorators, just because of their reputation.

"It's a wonderfully loose contract: 'We will paint or paper at our pleasure.' They left it up to Tiffany to do what was tasteful."

In the $5,000 agreement Clemens signed with Tiffany, the design firm stipulated three times that design decisions — about stenciling, about how to decorate the dining-room ceiling and whether the woodwork in the first-floor hall would be decorated — would be "at our option."

Tiffany sent Clemens the contract on Oct. 24, 1881, and just two days later the contractors were at work in the house. At one point, Philippon says, Clemens called them "the unholy decorators." The family had lived in the house since 1874 and were settled in, so the design activity was disruptive.

"He wanted it done," Philippon says. "They were being shuffled around."

The design work included walls and ceilings for the front hall, the library, the dining room, the drawing room, the "Mahogany Room," as the first-floor guest room is called, and the second- and third-floor walls and ceilings, which are visible from the front hall.

"It's not very much money compared to Tiffany's other contracts," Philippon says, but the contract did not include furnishings, accessories or draperies. DeForest late did some design work on fireplaces for Clemens, including teak panels imported from India and brass sheets, and Wheeler designed the ornate, beaded draperies — inspired by Indian saris — on the sliding doors between the drawing room and the dining room.

Much of the Tiffany design work seems inspired by the Middle East, very much in vogue in the Victorian era. The stenciling in the front hall is silver, with a starburst-patterned wooden tracery over it, and Philippon says that in gaslight, the silver paint would have flickered, giving the impression of mother-of-pearl.

In the drawing room, the lighter salmon stencilling includes bells and paisley swirls, evocative of India. The deep burgundy and gold-colored embossed wallpaper in the dining room, in a pattern of "Japanesque poppies," gives the impression of being more luxurious leather. The library is in peacock blue, adhering to the design aesthetic of the day, when blue or green was frequently used in libraries and other family spaces, Philippon says.

The Tiffany contract also included several windows, but it's not known what became of them. The Clemenses had decamped from Hartford in 1891 because of financial difficulties — it was cheaper to live in Europe — and their daughter Susy, who stayed in upstate New York, died in 1896 at age 24 during a visit to see friends in Hartford.

Philippon says Olivia Clemens felt that the family could never live there again. The Clemenses finally were able to sell the house in 1903, but the stained-glass windows were sold separately.

Because many people knew of the Tiffany connection to the Mark Twain House, as early as 1958 people began to donate Tiffany works: vases, glass, picture frames, silver, a desk set and stained glass windows, including many pieces that Tiffany designed for his own family's use.

Much of this collection — along with the Clemens children's christening silver and the Ram's Head-patterned silverware (engraved with Olivia's maiden name, Langdon) — will be on display at the museum on June 27, when John D. Loring, design director emeritus of Tiffany & Co., will speak about Tiffany's work at the Mark Twain House. The Mark Twain House is said to be the most significant, publicly accessible example of Louis C. Tiffany's design firm's work still in existence.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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