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Where does the tradition of “afternoon tea” come from? (And why is tea such a big deal in England?)

Today’s blog is part of an occasional series dedicated to answering visitors’ questions.

A cup of bold, hot, watery brew, often with a splash of milk and spoonful of sugar, is how many people in England start their day and refuel in the afternoon. But tea hasn’t always been the staple it is today. In the mid-17th century it was a new, precious commodity in the West, a luxurious import from the farthest reaches of the British Empire. One early adopter in 1660, Samuel Pepys, referred to his first “cup of tee” as a “China drink.” This most quintessentially British drink is actually borrowed from other cultures, through the Empire’s colonial enterprises in China, India, Japan, and Kenya.

As such, drinking tea was at first a privilege reserved for royalty. And it was there, in the upper echelons of society, that the cozy ceremony we call ‘afternoon tea’ evolved.

In the wealthiest households of the 19th century, the evening meal was being served later and later in the evening. This new fashion meant there might be seven or eight hours between lunch and dinner. As the legend goes, Anne Russell, Duchess of Bedford, was tired of what she called “that sinking feeling” that came on at around four o’clock. She began ordering a small extra meal to be served in the afternoon. It included a cup of tea with milk and sugar, dainty sandwiches, and cakes. She invited women friends to join her, and it turned into a daily occasion for socializing and gossip. Queen Victoria was among Anne’s closest friends, and soon afternoon tea was also a daily ritual in the British Royal Court. The much-admired queen started a new fashion in the process, as other classes began to adopt afternoon tea as well—cementing its place in English society.

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Given the social position of the ladies among whom afternoon tea evolved, this was no casual affair. One’s best bone china and silver were brought out for serving, while the choice of tea exhibited the hostess’s taste for the exotic, expensive sundries of China, India, or Sri Lanka. The availability of sugar, also an import, in addition to refined cakes and buttery pastries, were also signs of a household’s prosperity. Servants attended the guests’ every need during these afternoon meals, with the hostess supervising.

New fashions emerged especially for the occasion, and the “tea gown” was born. A tea gown was initially designed to be worn inside and was only appropriate in the company of other women. Its comfortable, flowing silhouette—inspired by medieval styles and the Japanese kimono—offered  women a few hours’ reprieve from the restrictive corset. In the Driehaus Museum exhibition Dressing Downton, Cora Crawley’s elegant beaded tea gown with green velvet jacket is an excellent example of this style, which eventually became acceptable for more formal occasions where men were present.

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By the beginning of the 20th century, the era of Downton Abbey, afternoon tea was still an occasion for a conspicuous display of wealth, taste, and manners. Stirring one’s cream and sugar into the tea without touching the sides of the cup, or breaking a scone in just the right way, signified one’s station in an extremely class-conscious society.

Afternoon Tea Today

The Second World War and subsequent rationing of butter, sugar, and eggs caused afternoon teas to fade for a time in the mid-20th century, but the tradition returned after those austere years. Afternoon tea is as popular in England today as weekend brunch is in America.

Rather than taking place inside the home, however, the best afternoon teas of today are served in public places. High-end hotels and distinguished department stores, like Claridge’s and Fortnum & Mason in London, have deep roots in tea culture and commerce in England, and offer the most traditional repasts. Their tea menus are small hardbound books, commanding the diner’s attention with a wide variety of loose-leaf black, green, white, and herbal teas. After a few sips of tea—or, as is just as popular today, champagne—a three-tiered serving tray is presented at the table with a flourish. The lower platter contains delicate finger sandwiches with light fillings like cucumbers or smoked salmon. The central platter is dominated by tender, buttery scones, served with jams and clotted cream, which is a thick spread with a texture between butter and whipped cream. To finish, the top platter is arranged with delicate patisserie.

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Meanwhile, contemporary restaurants and up-and-coming chefs reinvent the standards while staying loyal to the spirit of afternoon tea. Afternoon tea at the Modern Pantry in London’s foodie-centric Clerkenwell district features mismatched antique china and unique takes on traditional favorites, including rosewater-infused scones, lychee bellinis, and chia-seed bread.

 

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The Driehaus Museum offers a unique afternoon tea experience in honor of this English tradition and to celebrate the exhibition Dressing Downton. The Museum’s elegant historic setting and special menu offer all the elements of a proper afternoon tea, including seasonal scones, cake breads, and tea sandwiches. The experience also features tea with a contemporary Chicago twist, featuring a tea blend by the local purveyor Rare Tea Cellar. To purchase tea tickets, click here.

Tea of a Different Color

All real teas come from the same species of plant, Camellia sinensis. The different types, often denoted by color, have to do with when the leaf is harvested and how it’s processed. Here are a few of our favorites explained:

Black tea is made of withered, crushed, and fully oxidized leaves, a process that helped it survive the long boat journey to Great Britain from the Far East. This might be why black tea is still the most popular. Regional varieties include Assam (India), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Darjeeling (India), Oolong (China), and Lapsang (China). English breakfast tea is a blend of Kenyan, Ceylon, and Assam.

Earl Grey tea is a black tea to which the essence of bergamot, a type of citrus, has been added. It’s named for Charles Grey, the British Prime Minister in the 1830s. A London Fog is a kind of latte made with Earl Grey tea, milk, and vanilla.

Chai tea comes from India, and is black tea simmered with milk and spices including cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, ginger, and cloves.

Pu’erh is a fermented black tea on trend in the Western world, but has been prized for ages in China for its health benefits.

Green teas are unoxidized, which is why the leaves retain their fresh green color. The flavor is grassier as a result, with lower caffeine content. Varieties include Matcha, Sencha, Gunpowder, and Hojicha.

White teas are made from young, delicate tea buds, and mostly come from China. They are the least processed, with very little caffeine and subtle flavor.

Redbush tea, or rooibos, comes from South Africa. Naturally caffeine free, it’s a robust but smooth brew made from the needle-like leaves of the Aspalathus linearis.

Herbal tea is caffeine-free and comes in many forms. Rather than from the leaves of the tea plant, it’s made from other dried leaves or roots, including ginger, peppermint, licorice, or raspberry.

 

Images
A Family of Three at Tea, attr. Richard Collins, ca. 1727. From the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O56103/a-family-of-three-at-oil-painting-richard-collins/
Portrait of actress Irene Castle in a tea gown, 1913.
Photograph of tea advertisement found on Feast: An Edible Road Trip.
Photographs of afternoon teas by Lindsey Howald Patton, 2015.

 

Resources
Fortnum & Mason, “A Short History of Afternoon Tea” (https://www.fortnumandmason.com/fortnums/short-history-of-afternoon-tea)
Fellows, Elizabeth. Tea at Downton: Afternoon Tea Recipes from The Unofficial Guide to Downton Abbey
The Tea Spot, “The Leaf” (http://theteaspot.com/about-tea.html)

Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection (1884), a beautifully bound two-volume set that brings to life William H. Vanderbilt’s monumental “Brownstone Twins” and their contents on New York’s Fifth Avenue, is now on view in the Sculpture Gallery at the Driehaus Museum.

The Museum’s new acquisition forges a special and important link between two prosperous late 19th-century businessmen and their devotion to collecting art. Samuel M. Nickerson may have lived in Chicago, while the name of William Henry Vanderbilt was synonymous with New York. But they were both enthusiastic parts of the same wave of artistic interest across America at the turn of the century, which resulted in real cultural phenomena: rooms like our Sculpture Gallery, private collections open to the public as a precursor to museums, and publications like Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection.

William Henry Vanderbilt I (1821-1885). Illustration originally published in Harper's weekly, v. 29, no. 1513 (1885 December 19), p. 845. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

William Henry Vanderbilt I (1821-1885). Illustration originally published in Harper’s weekly, v. 29, no. 1513 (1885 December 19), p. 845. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

William H. Vanderbilt was the eldest son of railroad mogul Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and inherited the largest slice of his father’s massive fortune. He did a fine job in railroads himself, and nearly doubled his inheritance by the time of his death. In 1879 he embarked on a $3 million building project that would permanently etch the Vanderbilt name in New York brownstone and American architectural history. “Nothing so magnificent had before been attempted in New York in the way of a private residence,” The New York Times remarked afterwards.

Exterior. Corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty First Street, 1883. B/W negative, 4x5in. The Brooklyn Museum.

Exterior. Corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty First Street, 1883. B/W negative, 4x5in. The Brooklyn Museum.

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Fifth Avenue at Fifty-First Street, 1900.

Fifth Avenue at Fifty-First Street, 1900.

The Vanderbilt residence at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street was technically two mansions connected by an atrium; his daughters lived in the second with their husbands. It was a feast for the eyes. The architect-decorators were Christian and Gustave Herter, German-born cabinetmakers favored by New York’s elite, and they worked with experienced architects Charles Atwood and John Snook to anchor their profuse decorative elements to a standing structure. No two rooms were alike, and all were exactly to the taste of the moment. Just like the original interior designers of the Nickerson Mansion, the Herter Brothers favored a creative pastiche of historical and cultural styles all arranged together in interesting ways. You had vast groupings of artistic objects heaped on fireplace mantels, walls divided into three or more sections before reaching the ceiling, elaborate carvings in exotic wood, and jewel-tone colors. One’s eye never quite knew where to land.

Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection is really a book of description. And just as we trawl through Curbed or Pinterest to see how tastemakers arrange their interiors or tune in on television for sneak peeks of celebrity’s homes, this description was hungered for by America’s new middle class and nouveaux-riche.

Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection, The Holland Edition, Volume I and II, by Edward Strahan, published by George Barrie, 1884. The Collection of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection, The Holland Edition, Volume I and II, by Edward Strahan, published by George Barrie, 1884. The Collection of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

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Published in limited number—1,000 editions, of which the Driehaus Museum’s acquisition is #712—of beautiful materials, included richly grained and gilt-edged brown leather and deep blue silk inner linings, Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection offered entrance to the private world of the wealthiest man in America. The reader is treated to a vivid tour of the home, from the Boudoir’s ivory-inlaid ebony walls to the grand three-story Picture Gallery, as well as Vanderbilt’s private art collection, which included around 200 paintings.

 

BOUDOIR. Second Floor—North-East Corner. In the foreground, Turner’s Fountain of Indolence, “by far the largest and most important Turner in America. It was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1834, and was obtained in 1882 from the dealers Agnew & Sons.”

BOUDOIR. Second Floor—North-East Corner. In the foreground, Turner’s Fountain of Indolence, “by far the largest and most important Turner in America. It was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1834, and was obtained in 1882 from the dealers Agnew & Sons.”

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The author, Edward Strahan (Earl Shinn), was an influential self-made American art critic who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and returned with a mission—not to make art, but to write about it. He wanted to dazzle American eyes and minds with the wonders of great art, examples of which so few of them had seen. Even the publisher, George Barrie, seemed to emphasize the artistic quality with his beautifully bound books filled with lavish artwork. A year before coming out with Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection, Barrie put the visions of the 1893 Chicago’s worlds fair into people’s homes with an illustrated two-volume set, World Columbian Exposition MDCCCXCIII, Art and Architecture. He also collaborated with Shinn on a series called Art Treasures of America.

They were proponents of a vast sort of gentrification campaign for young America taking place at the end of the 19th century, which needed men like William Henry Vanderbilt. You might call this a kind of Mediciean mindset. Many Gilded Age barons like Vanderbilt saw themselves as bringers of an American Renaissance in which the powerful and wealthy contribute to the public good and encourage the flourishing of the arts. So when Vanderbilt spent over $1 million to amass works by Alma-Tadema, Bougeureau, Corot, Daubigny, Delacroix, Dupré, Fortuny, Millet, Millais, Rousseau, Troyon, and Turner, he had more than his personal financial portfolio in mind. Upon the grand opening of his mansion in 1882, Vanderbilt hosted two receptions, “to one of which he invited other multi-millionaires of the town to inspect his treasures, and to the other poor artists who had never been able to see the great galleries of Europe.” Afterwards, visitors were admitted by card on Thursdays. This was, according to one publication, “an important element in cultivating the artistic taste of the metropolis.”

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"Figures from 'Down to the River' by L. Alma-Tadema."

“Figures from ‘Down to the River’ by L. Alma-Tadema.”

 

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Incroyables, by F. H. Kaemmerer.

 

Like Vanderbilt, Samuel M. Nickerson opened the Sculpture Gallery to art students and other interested Chicagoans, not only his personal guests. Art collections were viewed as public treasures, obtained by privilege but not to be hoarded. Rather, they were to be shared for the enjoyment and betterment of society at large. There was a deep belief during the aesthetic movement that exposure to exceptional beauty somehow elevated us, changed us, improved us as humans. Writing about that subject today, Alain de Botton puts it like this:

“What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess the objects and places that touch us through their beauty.”

 

 

 

 

 

Resources
Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
Bibliopolis, “Publisher: George Barrie”
Dictionary of Art Historians, “Shinn, Earl / Edward Strahan, pseudonym”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Library Table, Herter Brothers (1864-1906)
The New York Times, “Frick Remodeling Vanderbilt Mansion, Will Make Over One of Famous Brownstone Twins. Alterations to Be Costly: William H. Vanderbilt Built the Two Houses in 1880 at the Cost of $3,000,000—George Vanderbilt’s Tenure.” April 16, 1905.
The New York Times, “C. Vanderbilt Gets Mansion and Art, Property Worth $6,000,000 Reverts to Him by Grandfather’s Will on Death of George W. House Let to H. C. Frick. Stands at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street and Cost $1,600,000—Art Valued Above $1,000,000.” March 10, 1914.
Nathan Silver, Lost New York, p. 121-122

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.

 

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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“We strongly advocate the use of different styles in different rooms, to avoid the monotonous effect invariably produced by the fanatic apostles of the so-called Eastlake or Modern Gothic. For the same reasons it will be necessary for articles of luxury, as Easels. Hanging Shelves, Cabinets, etc., to use motifs from the Mooresque, Byzantine, Japanese, etc., though diametrically opposed to the prevailing style of the room.” – August Fiedler

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William August Fielder

The principal interior designer of the Nickerson Mansion was William August Fiedler. He was German, born at Elbing in 1842. August Fiedler as he would later come to be known studied architecture in his native country but immigrated to the United States in 1871. Like many of his fellow countrymen, he found his way to Chicago, taking advantage of the post Chicago Fire building boom. A perfectionist in his pursuit of quality, Fiedler began his career the way many architects of the period did–as an interior designer.

 

 

fieldler advertBy 1877, he had his own furniture business, A. Fiedler and Company at 24 - 26 Van Buren Street. As a decorator, Fieldler would leave behind a lasting legacy in the richly carved details of the Hegeler Carus Mansion in downstate LaSalle, Illinois, built between 1874-1876. The high finishes of his custom woodwork and furniture attracted the attention of Samuel Mayo Nickerson who hired him to design some of the rooms for his new home at 317 Erie Street in Chicago (now the Richard H. Driehaus Museum at 40 East Erie). fiedler dining room

Fiedler’s impeccable attention to the smallest elements of style shine. He created unique parquet flooring and architectural flourishes with such precision and beauty that he went bankrupt by not charging his wealthy clients enough to compensate for the quality work he produced.

Visitors to the Hegeler Carus Mansion will recognize many similarities between that home and the Nickerson’s Marble Palace. The hand turned columns and cornices of the two homes are reminiscent of each other as are the ornate carvings that surround the fireplaces. Fiedler’s innovative use of turned wood spindles, decorative mantels and wainscoting are common to both interiors.

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Millwork detail, Hegeler Carus Mansion

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Fiedler carved sideboard, Hegeler Carus Mansion

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Parlor with parquet flooring and custom millwork, Hegeler Carus Mansion

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Germania Hall now the Germania Club at Clark and Germania Place.

But August Fiedler also began to design buildings here in Chicago and around the Midwest. He completed the Germania Hall in 1888 along with fellow architect John Addison and built private homes in Blue Island and Milwaukee.

 

Moorish_palace_labyrinth,_august_fiedler_archIn 1893 when the World’s Fair drew the curious multitudes to the White City, one of the standout buildings was Fiedler’s Moorish Palace, patterned after the Alhambra of Spain. It was one of three pavilions Fiedler designed for the Colombian Exhibition.

Long time Chicagoans will remember Henrici’s Restaurant on Randolph Street, another Fiedler project. On the city’s Gold Coast, 1547 North Dearborn Parkway is another of his sumptuously detailed interiors replete with lavish woodcarvings in an 18,000 square foot city estate.

In 1893, Fiedler was named the first Chief Architect for the Chicago Board of Education. He supervised the construction of fifty-eight schools and designed many including Burley, Goethe, Eugene Field and Pullman.

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Fiedler was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He died in Chicago in 1903.

 

For information about our upcoming trip to the Hegeler Carus Mansion on Wednesday, June 4, please visit our website.

 

 

Sources:

A. Fiedler and L. W. Murray, Artistic Furnishing and House Decoration, (C. H. Blakely & Co., printers, 1877)

http://chicagohistoricschools.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/william-august-fiedler/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Burnhamandroot/Sandbox

 

 

For the Museum Store, L’Esperance Tile was commissioned to craft two custom tiles inspired by the J. & J. G. Low Art Tile Works tiles found in the Driehaus Museum—which, with their embossed natural details, jewel-toned colors, and sheen, are among the most stunning surviving elements of the this 1883 mansion.

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The Victorian era was the golden age of the ghost story. We asked Bradley Deane, associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota Morris, to share a few spooky favorites from the period—all with an art twist.

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Chicago’s 19th-century elite lived together and died—or at least were buried—together, too. You can find them in Graceland Cemetery on the North Side.

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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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After his well-received lectures on Gilded Age taste at the Driehaus Museum, Ulysses Grant Dietz agreed to a follow-up chat. Read on for the conversation.

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