April 2008 Issue
Urban Legends - Blair Museum of Lithophanes
Vibrant museums, old neighborhoods and architectural treasures –– a tour of Toledo’s historic highlights shows you the Glass City’s fascinating character and culture.
Unlike Charles Dickens or “gingerbread” houses, lithophanes — porcelain castings with three-dimensional pictures that are visible only when light passes through them — are products of Victorian Europe that leave most of us in the dark. Which is why, new to Toledo and attending a plant sale at the Botanical Gardens, Margaret Carney was shocked when she noticed the sign for the Blair Museum. “I did a double, then a triple take,” says Carney, now the museum’s curator. “I looked at my husband and said ‘did that say lithophanes?’ ”
Carney, who holds a Ph.D. in Asian art history with a specialty in ceramics, says the ethereal artwork was an immensely popular means of decorating for middle-class European households in the mid to late 1800s. The Blair Museum, named for wealthy Toledoan and collector Laurel Gotshall Blair, houses his 2,300-plus-piece collection, and is the only museum on the planet exclusively devoted to the art form. “Most lithophanes were produced by porcelain factories in England and Germany,” says Carney. “I would have expected the museum to be in Europe.”
The process of creating these delicate castings is as fascinating as the result. “Artists would carve images into beeswax using dental tools,” says Carney. A mold was made from the carving, which was then filled with porcelain and kiln fired. The end product is deceptively plain in ambient light. “If you found it in your attic, it would look like a rough piece of porcelain,” she says. “Without lighting you would probably just throw it out.”
The museum’s collection takes many forms, including portraits, nightlights, tea warmers and even beer steins. Not surprisingly, many of these are rare and one-of-a kind pieces.
“This is the only Lincoln lithophane we know of,” says Carney, pointing to what looks like a photograph of a wavy-haired man resembling the 16th president. “It was made as a tribute after his death, but the company realized that they got the hair wrong, so they didn’t make more,” she says. Tours are free, although it’s easy to see how this place could inspire an expensive hobby. Just know where to look: “I see them for sale on eBay,” Carney says, “but only a handful of those are actually old.” n
On the grounds of the Toledo Botanical
Gardens, 5403 Elmer Dr., 419/245-1356. www.lithophanemuseum.org