By Amelia Tarallo
Hometown Weekly Staff
On Sunday, January 5, the Needham Public Library hosted the first installment of its yearly McIver Lecture Series. Each year, a theme is picked around which to center the talks. For 2020, the theme is glasswork. On that note, Curatorial Assistant in American Art Elizabeth Fox of the Worcester Art Museum traveled to Needham to teach an audience about two of the most groundbreaking minds that ever existed in modern glasswork.
Fox began the lecture by summarizing what led to the public’s rising fascination with stained glass during the mid 1800s, as well as how the beautiful glasswork was actually made. Then, she moved on to discuss the works and techniques of John La Farge and Louis C. Tiffany.
In 1873, La Farge began to focus on making stained glass with its stability in mind; most stained glass had a tendency to become discolored and crack over time. La Farge used a method that incorporated the use of opalescent glass. This method changed stained glass forever, allowing light in to produce different shading for pieces. “One can paint pictures with glass rather than on glass,” Fox summarized about the update in stained glass technology. In short, the technological leap could be compared from going from horse and buggy to a motorized automobile. Just years after, Tiffany began using the opalescent glass in his own work.
In 1880, La Farge was granted a patent for his method of making windows. Just a few months later, Tiffany submitted his patent for an almost identical methodology. This resulted in La Farge coming close to filing a lawsuit against his competitor, but ultimately refraining for unknown reasons.
Fox ended the lecture by revealing what happened to a few of La Farge’s well-known windows. Following Mount Vernon’s merger with the Old South Church, the La Farge windows were donated and transported to the Worcester Art Museum. Over the years, the beautiful windows had suffered at the hands of local pollution and general aging, leaving them in desperate need of repair. It wasn’t until 2018 that some of the La Farge windows were displayed alongside some of Tiffany’s stained glass in an exhibition titled “Radiance Rediscovered: Stained Glass by Tiffany and La Farge.” Only then could people once again appreciate both the craftsmanship of and competition between the two luminaries - just as people once had during the artists’ lives.
With help from Elizabeth Fox, the first McIver Lecture of 2020 delivered that same experience to a delighted Needham audience.