Archives For Aesthetic Movement

Frederick Walton, Gilded Age Inventor

Standing on the shoulders of the Industrial Revolution, the Gilded Age spawned an astounding number of inventions that profoundly changed life inside the American household. Those last few decades of the 19th  century will always be known as a great era of invention. Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb and built the first power station; he also gave us the phonograph for listening to music and the kinetoscope for watching motion pictures. Alexander Graham Bell created the telephone. Eastman Kodak produced the first camera for amateurs. Dr. John Pemberton sold the first bottles of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. John Kellogg accidentally discovered flaked cereal and changed American breakfast forever.

Frederick Walton isn’t as famous as Edison or Kellogg, but his defining invention is just as ubiquitous as Frosted Flakes. Walton, an inventor from England, gave the world linoleum.

Walton started his career working with his father and brother in a small family workshop where they manufactured India rubber (natural rubber made from the sap of the rubber tree, and a favored waterproof industrial material).

In 1855, Walton happened to notice the way a used can of oil-based paint would develop a thick, leathery ring around the lid. The flaxseed oil in the paint seemed to slowly oxidize and harden over time. “It occurred to me that…I could use it as a…waterproofing material, similar to [natural] india rubber,” Walton wrote. After figuring out how to fast-track the natural oxidization process by boiling the oil, he began to experiment with the material’s durability, attempting to dissolve the plastic-like oxidized oil in a solvent, or seeing how it took to water, oil, or heat. It was—as you know, if you’ve ever had a linoleum floor—impervious. It was also cheaper than India rubber.

In 1863, Walton took out a patent for the “Improvement of the Manufacture of a Wax Cloth for Floors”. He used straightforward Latin for the name of his new material—flax, also known as linseed (Latin: linum), and oil (Latin: oleum). The ingredients and process he outlined in this and subsequent patents—oxidized linseed oil mixed with coal dust, cork or sawdust and resin, and pressed into sheets with electric rollers—are almost identical to that of 21st-century linoleum. In 1864, Walton launched the Linoleum Manufacturing Company in Staines-Upon-Thames.

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Statue of linoleum workers on the high street of Staines-Upon-Thames, England, commemorating the workers of Walton's factory.

Statue of linoleum workers on the high street of Staines-Upon-Thames, England, commemorating the workers of Walton’s factory.

Factory workers inlaying linoleum flooring.

Factory workers inlaying linoleum flooring.

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Linoleum became increasingly recognized as an inexpensive and easy-to-clean decorative material for dining rooms, passages, and kitchens. This illustration from the 1920s advertises an attractively painted linoleum rug.

This illustration from the 1920s advertises an attractively painted linoleum rug.

Linoleum became increasingly recognized as an inexpensive and easy-to-clean decorative material for dining rooms, passages, and kitchens. So what was initially meant for commercial and industrial use—protecting factory floors, for example—migrated into European and American households. Subsequent linoleum companies hired artists to paint decorative designs on the flooring surface, eventually integrating pigments in the manufacturing process. Molds and stencils created texture and inlaid patterns for hallways or carpet surrounds, until the material hit the height of popularity as 20th-century kitchen flooring.

 

From Linoleum to Lincrusta

Linoleum may have been a practical material, but Lincrusta-Walton would be a beautiful one. Walton patented this material, thinner than linoleum and beautifully sculpted with artistic patterns, in 1877. Again, the term is Latin, lin for linseed oil and crusta for a hardened material like plaster or stucco.

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Walton outlined a manufacturing process similar to that of linoleum—oxidized linseed oil  blended with wood fiber, gum, resin, and paraffin wax and spread onto a canvas or paper backing. But once embossed by rollers and skillfully painted after installation, this new material could pose as hand-tooled leather, repoussé metal, carved wood, or ornate plasterwork—all coveted top-end home finishes during the Gilded Age. (Business-minded Walton was well aware from the beginning of Lincrusta’s copy-cat abilities; the first patterns he designed were imitations of Cordovan leather, a Renaissance mark of prestige.) Lincrusta was far less expensive than what it imitated, and as a new middle class of Americans with disposable income began to design and build grand homes in New York, Boston, and Chicago, provided an expanded palette for interiors striving for extravagance. By 1885, Beck & Co.—a Connecticut firm licensed by Walton’s firm—offered 150 different patterns of Lincrusta inspired by Egyptian, Greek, Persian, Moorish, Japanese, Medieval, Renaissance, Louis XIV, and Eastlake motifs.

Lincrusta would be purchased unpainted in an embossed pattern.

Lincrusta would be (and is still today) purchased unpainted in an embossed pattern, such as this one featuring  acanthus leaves.

 

Lincrusta wainscoting painted to resemble wood in an 1890 Boston home.

Lincrusta wainscoting painted to resemble wood in an 1890 Boston home.

Lincrusta lost none of the practical applications it shared with linoleum, however, and advertisements called it the “indestructible wallcovering.” Indeed, it proved waterproof, easy to clean, insect-resistant, and less prone to warping or cracking over time. Decorators and tastemakers enthusiastically recommended Lincrusta be applied to walls as dados, fills, and friezes.

 

Lincrusta at the Driehaus Museum

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion (Fisher Period, ca. 1900).

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion (Fisher Period, ca. 1900).

Lincrusta took the American nouveaux riche by storm, appearing in six luxury cabins aboard the fated ship RMS Titanic, in the White House, and John D. Rockefeller’s New York home.

For their new mansion in 1883, the Nickersons blended the latest in building technologies, such as fireproofing and indoor plumbing, with the latest in fashionable interior design.  Lincrusta featured prominently in the Dining Room and Smoking Room of the residence. In the Dining Room, the wall fill above the elaborately carved oak wainscoting emulates Spanish leather. Its design—embossed and scrolling leaves, painted burgundy and highlighted with gold by master artisans on-site—is inspired by the Renaissance. In the Smoking Room, the Lincrusta frieze featured a Japanesque pattern of red, black, and gold chrysanthemums.

When restoration of the Nickerson Mansion commenced in 2004, the Lincrusta in the Dining Room showed damage from objects hung on the walls, including framed paintings and stuffed animal heads.

When restoration of the Nickerson Mansion commenced in 2004, the Lincrusta in the Dining Room showed damage from objects hung on the walls, including framed paintings and stuffed animal heads.

 

Detail of the Japanesque chrysanthemum pattern on the Lincrusta upper frieze in the Nickerson Mansion Smoking Room.

Detail of the Japanesque chrysanthemum pattern on the Lincrusta upper frieze in the Nickerson Mansion Smoking Room.

During the 2004-08 restoration of the Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion, conservators found the Lincrusta had survived. But a hundred years’ worth of grime, salt, and nicotine stained its surface, and decorations (the Nickersons hung paintings, and the mansion’s second owners, the Fishers, displayed stuffed animal heads on the walls) had damaged it further. Late 19th-century advertisers had perhaps exaggerated Lincrusta’s strength; the material is actually more brittle and delicate than the hard materials it emulated. Care needed to be taken with cleaning so as not to damage it further. Parma Conservation, a Chicago firm, designed a unique solution to meticulously lift the grime without damaging the painted surface. Fill for missing areas was cast from molds taken from the intact Lincrusta, then painted to match. Today, the Lincrusta is luminous, complementing the sheen of the beautifully restored wood paneling in both rooms, as it did in 1883.

 

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion after restoration.

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion after restoration.

 

 

“Take one step inside the Nickerson Mansion and its splendor is obvious. Yet behind every architectural detail there are hidden stories. They are the stories of the craftsmen and artisans who created the carved mantles, tiled mosaics, scrolled marble capitals, and elaborately painted decorative schemes on the walls and ceilings within the house. It would be almost impossible today to find artisans capable of producing such exquisite details—the necessary skills are all but extinct.”  (Peter Schoenmann, Head Conservator of Paintings and Murals, Parma Conservation)

 

Resources
“Lincrusta-Walton: Can the Democratic Wallcovering be Revived?” Bruce Bradbury. The Old-House Journal, Vol. X No. 10, October 1892.
“Linoleum,” Bonnie Wehle Parks Snyder. Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History and Conservation. Edited by Thomas C. Jester (Getty Publications, 2004).
“Linoleum: A Chiswick Invention,” Ralph Parsons. Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal No. 5 (1996).
“Added Dimensions,” Lynn Elliott. Old House Interiors, Summer 2004.
“Conservation of Lincrusta-Walton Wall Coverings at the Nickerson House,” The Richard H. Driehaus Museum. http://www.driehausmuseum.org/pdf_documents/Driehaus_Museum_Lincrusta.pdf

Art, according to John Ruskin, the influential writer of the British Arts and Crafts movement, is most beautiful when its forms are derived from nature.

Now, when we call Nature beautiful, it’s often her finer moments we’re thinking of. A rose, with its velvety bundled petals, is beautiful. So too are the colors of sunset, the splendor of a tree in summer, the simple asymmetry of a starfish, or the spread of a peacock’s tail.

But many art jewelry makers of the early 20th century embraced all kinds of flora and fauna—even the ones that today might be perceived as…well, the opposite of beautiful. Spiders, bats, snakes, frogs, naked branches, and rotting blossoms have all been immortalized in gold, silver, and stone. What some might consider nature’s ‘dark side’ today was actually a source of intrigue and inspiration—the muse of artists all over the world.

That resulted in some striking motifs in these makers’ works, as you’ll see in a number of pieces on view in our current exhibition, Maker & Muse: Women and Early Twentieth Century Art Jewelry. Let’s take a look at a few of them, and stretch the definition of beautiful in the natural world a little further.

 

René Lalique (French, 1860–1945), Chrysanthemum Pendant/Brooch, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. © 2014 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

René Lalique (French, 1860–1945), Chrysanthemum Pendant/Brooch, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. © 2014 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Take this pendant featuring a trio of chrysanthemums. In the audio tour of the exhibition, Driehaus Museum founder and collector Richard H. Driehaus explains, “This is one of my favorite pieces in the collection, and by the great René Lalique, whose jewelry has always commanded worldwide attention. You can see how each of the chrysanthemums is in a different stage of its blooming.” A picture-perfect chrysanthemum blossom—with its tight puffball shape composed of tiny petals—doesn’t look exactly like these three flowers Lalique has masterfully carved in glass. Instead, the jeweler chose blossoms that were past their prime. The lower petals are beginning to droop and lose their shape, not quite wilting, but almost. Below the flowers Lalique features a misshapen drop pearl, or “baroque pearl”, which further emphasizes the statement this piece makes that beauty can also be found in imperfection.

 

René Lalique (French, 1860–1945), Aquamarine Pendant, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014.

René Lalique (French, 1860–1945), Aquamarine Pendant, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014.

Here’s another example by the masterful Lalique, also on view in the French Art Nouveau gallery of Maker & Muse. In the pendant above, he set an aquamarine stone into and below two pairs of spiked, thorny stems of icy-blue enameled gold. Especially when set against the skin of the wearer, the sharp contours of this piece are striking.

 

Wilhelm Lucas von Cranach (German, 1861 – 1918), Octopus Waist Clasp, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Wilhelm Lucas von Cranach (German, 1861 – 1918), Octopus Waist Clasp, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Also in about 1900, goldsmith Wilhelm Lucas von Cranach created this fascinating waist clasp in the Art Nouveau style; you can see it on the second floor, in the gallery dedicated to a wide variety of German and Austrian art jewelry. The two grotesque large-mouthed fish grasp the body of the octopus—here, a luminous opal—while simultaneously seeming to be entrapped by the creature’s silver tentacles. In addition to the sinuous symmetry of the fish tails and octopus arms, the German goldsmith has given careful attention to texture. Note the fish scales, elongated fish nostrils, and raised suction cups on the octopus’s curvilinear arms.

The Artificers’ Guild (English, 1901–1942), Pendant, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

The Artificers’ Guild (English, 1901–1942), Pendant, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Spiders were other favorite themes. This spiderweb pendant was produced in turn-of-the-century London by the Artificers’ Guild, and is on view in the British Arts and Crafts gallery of Maker & Muse. The spiderweb form functions as a seven-pointed locus for a variety of colorful precious and semiprecious stones; the piece includes opal, sapphire, zircon, tourmaline, amethyst, almandine, garnet, moonstone, and pearl.

 

Frederick James Partridge (English, 1877 – 1942) for Liberty & Co. (English, est. 1875), Tiara with Corn Design, c. 1900. Collection of Richard H. Driehaus. Photo by John Faier, 2014, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

 

In addition to the creepy-crawly side of nature, art jewelers also made the plain and ordinary into something awe-inspiring. This rare tiara by Fred Partridge, an important early British Arts and Crafts jeweler, is one of the highlights of the exhibition. Sheaves of grain are as humble a part of the natural world as there is to be found, and yet these five cornstalks, of semi-translucent horn topped with moonstones, are transformed into a supremely elegant work of art.

 

These are just a few of the stunning pieces of art jewelry featured in Maker & Muse: Women and Early Twentieth Century Art Jewelry. There are many more—over 250!—and the exhibition is open through January 3, 2016. Self-guided visits are included in the price of general admission. For more information, visit the Maker & Muse exhibition site.

 

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J & J. G. Low Art Tile Works was one of America’s great tile companies, and there are many instances of its decorative, low-relief tiles in the Driehaus Museum’s original interiors today.

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