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Published: Sunday, 7/27/2008

Shedding light on lithophanes

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Nineteenth-century German lithophanes mounted in a lamp, left, and a candle shield. Nineteenth-century German lithophanes mounted in a lamp, left, and a candle shield.
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When faced with the prospect of writing the first-ever book encompassing the entire 180-year history of lithophanes, Margaret Carney knew precisely where to start.

Victorian humor. Those were the parts I wrote first; the fun chapters, said Carney, curator of the Blair Museum of Lithophanes at Toledo Botanical Garden.

In a 19th-century French lithophane, well-dressed monkeys trim a cat s whiskers. In others, mostly German, a pair of young women dump a concoction on the head of a peeping Tom; a sooty chimney sweep causes havoc when he tries to enter a butcher s shop, and a politician sets his tri-cornered hat on fire while reading by candlelight.

Not only is Toledo home to the sole museum and largest collection of lithophanes in the world, a Toledoan has produced a book devoted to these porcelain objects that were popular decorations in 19th-century European homes.

Hardbound and weighing in at 224-glossy pages, the newly published Lithophanes (Schiffer Publishing Ltd.) is packed with 370 crisp photographs and information ranging from how they re made, their various forms, patents dating to 1827, and contemporary artists, and the genesis of Toledo s lithophane museum. There are even notes on where to find lithophanes made of chocolate.

It s a very scholarly book but it s very readable, too, said Posy Huebner, a member of the Blair Museum s board of directors. I think the photography is wonderful.

Lithophanes are three-dimensional porcelain plaques that reveal their images when backlit by candles, oil lamps, sunlight, or electric bulbs. Popular from 1830 to 1870, they have a subdued, night light-quality about them and the look of old engravings. Their themes are often sweet and romantic, religious and literary, and occasionally erotic.

They were fashioned into lamp shades and sconces, tea pot warmers, beer steins, and table plaques set on lovely cast-iron stands (a decorative art in themselves). They could be surrounded by panels of stained or painted glass and installed into doors and windows.

In the late 20th century, five men, all passionate collectors, were working on lithophane books, including Laurel Blair (see sidebar). None succeeded. In the book s introduction, Carney notes, ...writing the book is far more complicated than a simple porcelain plaque might lead one to believe.

Producing a lithophane starts with a sheet of beeswax on a backlit glass panel, on which an artist uses precision tools to carve an image. Where the wax is carved thinnest, more light will shine through. Artisans (who were fairly well paid, Carney discovered) spent weeks, even months, refining a wax carving. Some are especially complex, such as those including landscapes, detailed backgrounds, or many characters, such as a 1`replication of Leonardo da Vinci s The Last Supper or William Penn s Treaty with the Indians (based on an engraving which in turn, was based on a Benjamin West painting).

From the wax model, a plaster cast or mold is made, and into the mold, liquid porcelain is poured or pressed. Porcelain, like its earthenware and stoneware siblings, is made of clay but its recipe calls for ingredients such as kaolin, feldspar, and glassy materials. It s fired at hotter temperatures than its siblings up to 2,300 degrees.

Lean and quick-witted, Carney, 59 spent most of 2007 writing the book. She energizes her day by race-walking a half-marathon, which takes almost three hours each morning (she clocks in at just less than five miles per hour).

With a doctoral-degree in Chinese ceramics, she was founding director from 1991 to 2003 of the Museum of Ceramics at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where she also taught ceramic world history.

She arrived in Toledo in early 2003 with her husband, Bill Walker, when he became head of ceramic research at Federal-Mogul Corp., which owns Champion Ignition.

Walker proof-read Lithophanes and took most of its photographs.

Carney and Walker spotted the Blair Museum in May, 2003, when they attended a plant sale at TBG. My immediate reaction was I ve got to work there!

She became its first director in early 2004, her part-time salary paid by George Banana George Blair, brother of Laurel Blair who had amassed the lithophane collection and donated it to the city of Toledo. George Blair also paid for the book.

Carney started a newsletter and a membership program, unwrapped lithophanes from boxes and organized them, and combed Alfred University s archives on the topic.

Much information and lithophanes themselves were destroyed during wars, said Carney. Lithophanes had already begun to wane in popularity by 1879 when Edison developed his incandescent light bulb.

Carney contacted collectors and museums around the world, went to England to peruse a dozen collections, and translated German documents with the assistance of Heide Klein, a Blair board member.

Limited by time and budget, Carney came up with a dozen chapters and a bibliography of hundreds of citations.

The tome is winning high praise from the handful of lithophaniacs who have seen it. Curtis Benzle, a Huntsville, Ala. artist who makes translucent porcelain objects, says it fills a need.

Prior to Margaret s book there was very little about lithophanes that even the experts understood, wrote Benzle in an e-mail to The Blade. The book s strengths are Margaret s thorough research and her ability to connect lithophanes to a larger cultural context.

Its hundreds of photographs are an asset that makes it possible for even a novice to understand the visual appeal of this art form.

Jim Sapp, of Colorado, manages a group and newsletter for collectors of Victorian candle holders called Fairy Lamps.

It is and will continue to be a valued reference for many decades to come, wrote Sapp last week in an e-mail to The Blade. Just today, I purchased a lithophane fairy lamp. I immediately turned to Margaret s book for information that could be found no where else.

While the photographic documentation is indeed impressive, I appreciate and value the in-depth research Margaret did to identify the companies, source of the artistic scenes, production methods, and company records and advertisements. To conduct this in-depth research and make it available to others is indeed a gift of love. Those who collect lithophanes or porcelain art in general are forever in her debt.

Barbara Britsch, one of a dozen Blair Museum docents and a retired Lourdes College English professor, appreciates the book s scholarship and its visual presentation.

For the layman, it s a beautiful book to look at, said Ms. Britsch. As a docent, it is giving me a lot of new information.

Lithophanes can be purchased for $55 at the Blair Museum at Toledo Botanical Garden, 5403 Elmer Dr. It can also be purchased and shipped for $64.95 at www.lithophanemuseum.org. The museum is open 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, May through September, and by appointment. There is no admission fee. Information: 419-245-1356.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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