One of the most wonderful mixtures of new technology-electricity-with elegant hand-crafted materials, in this case glass and metalwork, is this table lamp. It shines forth with the strength of electricity but uses soda glass to create a glow more associated with a pre-electrified era. William Arthur Benson, who was trained as an architect, took up metalwork at the suggestion of pre-Raphaelite painters and designers Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. He focused on metalwork, hiring, in 1881, a brass and copper-worker John Lovegrove who worked with him for many years. They mixed hand and machine production successfully by adhering to high quality materials and methods. This lamp includes some machine-created pieces that could be considered a standard part, although the parts could be used in other ways depending on the form of the object. It also includes handwork, and combines Benson’s specialty of metalwork with a shade by James Powell & Sons’ Whitefriars Glassworks, the longest running English glassworks, who produced hand-blown and mold-blown pieces with a type of soda glass that had been used in some of their early glass wares. But, they like Benson, also saw a new aesthetic for their work, combining the new fashion for opalescent glass with their traditional techniques.
It seems very fitting to post this blog shortly after the death of its donor, Paul F. Walter, who, himself, lit the way in seeing the significance of daily objects, giving the museum a variety of works that showed his passion for both the old and the new, from historic glass to textiles. His gentle nature combined with passionate interest and generosity made him a beacon to Cooper Hewitt curators. We will very much miss his cogent comments and readiness to help in our Collections Committee meetings. A search of objects he has given the museum shows the breadth of his interests, and provides insight into how to see significance, but does not replace his presence. This lamp continues to inspire us all.
Sarah D. Coffin is head of the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.