Sunday, February 12, 2012

SAPPHIRES AND SUFFRAGETTES: The Unsinkable Mrs. William H. Klapp

Image from "An American Designer of Jewelry" 
House & Garden, October 1903

Among the fashionable and artistic women Gustav Manz created jewelry for in the early 1900s was a society matron who might have stepped out of (or into) an Edith Wharton novel. Born to a prominent Philadelphia Quaker family, Elinor Evans Klapp (1845-1915) was the second wife of William Henry Klapp, a manufacturers' agent and dry-goods merchant. Her boldness—choosing a suitor not only divorced but (horrors!) Presbyterian—compelled the Society of Friends to put her "out of meeting." The marriage ceremony took place at her parents' home on the first Tuesday in June 1866, in the presence of Philadelphia's mayor. Sticking to at least one aspect of Quaker tradition, the bride did not receive a wedding ring (though she later bought herself one in Paris). "She wished 'plain' language on us," a great-granddaughter later recalled, and to the end of her life used thee and thou when addressing family. 

Above: Elinor Evans Klapp, circa 1870s  
Photo from Klapp family archive; used with permission

Elinor Klapp spent most of her married life in Chicago, raising two sons and keeping house, before taking up jewelry design in her mid-40s. Tasteful settings for carved gems and remounting stones passed down as family heirlooms became her specialty: She readily admitted resetting the solitaire from the engagement ring William bought for her "after her own notion." (From Newark Daily Advocate, 20 August 1908)  

Klapp's trajectory as a standard-bearer for simplicity and balance in adornment was parallel to that of her elder son Eugene, a civil engineer by training who had co-founded The House Beautiful magazine ("wherein taste goes farther than money") with two friends in 1896. Eugene became a tireless champion of his mother's work, often tucking mentions into columns he wrote under the pseudonym "Oliver Coleman." The death of Elinor's 17-year-old son, William Allen, from typhoid fever in 1887 had been preceded by the loss of her youngest child, Lawrence, from scarlet fever at 19 months. Battling grief and the declining health of her husband were incentives to use her talents out in the world. 

House Beautiful co-founder Eugene Klapp guided readers toward rooms organized and decorated according to "sound simplicities and lasting truths"

Klapp's entry in the 1914 edition of Who's Who of American Women described her as a "designer of art objects [who] favors woman suffrage." An avid collector of ancient Roman and Greek intaglios, she had means to travel to France every August to scout gems and objets at the Parisian shop of Raoul Heilbronner, renowned antiquities dealer. When in Rome she visited the workshops of "Signor Castellani" and took in the latest the Etruscan-inspired gems the house was famous for. An early mentor was jeweler and ceramacist Florence Cary Koehler, a founding member of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society who taught jewelry design at the Architectural Sketch Club.  

Passionate and pragmatic, Klapp sallied forth promoting an aesthetic that had little truck with 19th century ideals of self-effacing womanhood and less with adornment purely for show. If anyone thought fashioning gem mountings a remarkable vocation for a Quakeress (even a renegade one), her view of  the honking diamond stomachers and tiaras favored by Gilded Age hostesses set doubters straight. In an interview with House Beautiful's art critic Harriet Monroe she lambasted the monotony of style and extravagance: "I abominate diamonds... or rather I begrudge them their excessive prominence..." While diamonds occasionally found a place in her pieces, the massing of brilliants was nothing more than "a vulgar display of ill-used riches—it actually nullifies the special quality of the stone." (From "An Experiment in Jewelry": House Beautiful interview by Harriet Monroe, July 1900,) 

Designs by Mrs. Klapp featured in House Beautiful, July 1900 

A clipping from the Chicago Record-Herald pasted in a descendant's scrapbook and hand-dated Sept 9, 1905 features a photograph of the spacious workshop Mrs. Klapp installed in the family's Chicago townhouse, with natural light from two large windows (no "prodigality of draperies" in Mrs. K's world!) and jeweler's bench for the artisans she hired to do the actual metalwork. The "swirl" symbol Klapp used as her maker's mark derived from a painting of vaporous spirits by "Mr. Fedder" (either a misspelling or intentional parody of the expatriate muralist Elihu Vedder's name). Altogether fitting, the reporter concluded, for a woman who "knew not whence the impulse to be a worker in silver and gold and precious stones came to her nor whither it may lead her." 

Partial list of items for sale from catalogue for opening show of Chicago 
Arts & Crafts Society, 1897
Art Institute of Chicago Records Collection

Where it led was the burgeoning craft-show circuit, where Arts & Crafts society members exhibited their amateur handiwork beside the wares of professional artisans. Twenty-two of Mrs. Klapp's designs were on display at the Chicago society's opening show in October 1897. 

In its review of a Minneapolis show that featured jewelry by Jane Carson, Bessie Bennett, and other midwestern metal artists, The Craftsman praised the "great delicacy of feeling that is distinctive of the work of Mrs. Eleanor (sic) Klapp of New York, showed to advantage in her arrangements of pearls, turquoises and opals, which were inset in various articles for personal adornment and use. Combs, pins, and buckles vied with each other in beauty, and novel effects were secured in chains, pendants, and buttons." At the arts-and-crafts exhibit held at the St. Louis Wednesday Club in 1902, featuring work by Louis Comfort Tiffany's highly esteemed associate Edward Colonna and Klapp's mentor Florence Koehler, "Mrs. Klapp... vied with her teacher in the beauty of her designs and the finish of workmanship." (From International Studio, 1902, "American Studio Notes" contributed by Minnette Slayback Carper)

Arrayed with Klapp's showpieces were works by several younger, up-and-coming metal-artists Margaret Rogers, Mabel Wilcox Luther, Grace Hazen, and Marie ZimmermannAs Pat Kirkham and Toni Greenbaum note in their book on American women in design, well into the 1900s fabricators of precious metal did not admit women as bench workers. The few women who actually picked up hammer or torch were a special breed, either self-taught or learned alongside male relatives in family firms. 

Rolling chairs at the Paris Exposition, circa 1900 
Photo: Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Collection

Undaunted by the perpetual struggle to coax her own experienced metal artisans—many of them European emigres—"out of their beloved ruts," Mrs. Klapp managed to send 40 of her custom mountings to the Paris Exposition of 1900. As the only American woman represented in the jewelry category she received honorable mention. A year later, she shipped a case of her showpieces to the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. 

Two years after Buffalo, in 1903, the Klapps followed their eldest son and his family to New York City. By then Eugene had married Margaret Hotchkiss, and was a principal at the engineering firm Parsons, Brinckerhoff & Klapp with friends William Barclay and Henry M. Brinckerhoff—co-inventor of the third rail. Having established "a distinctive place in the arts craft movement of the West," Mrs. Klapp stepped up her ambition to create a profitable atelier in Manhattan, where clients who prized discretion could confidently bring heirlooms or semi-precious antique stones picked up on their travels to be refreshed with modern, one-of-a-kind settings. A prospective bride's engagement ring took the form of a red rose, "the latter a $3,000 ruby—dropped in a shower of dew—myriads of rose diamonds...supported by rose leaves of green gold." (From American Art News, 15 August 1905) 

Mrs. Klapp in her studio with unidentified artisan
 Chicago Record-Herald, circa 1902
Newspaper clipping courtesy of a descendant

In 1908, the year of her husband's death, Klapp moved into Bryant Park Studiosa ten-story loft building for artists opposite the New York Public Library; early residents included Fernand Leger, Winslow Homer, and Edward Steichen. The nearby New York School of Applied Design for Women provided a steady flow of assistants to handle the mechanical drawing while practical craftsmen carried out the chasing and setting. As she raved to a reporter for American Art News: "Nowhere have I found designers so quick to grasp my ideas, so skillful in working them out as among the students the school has sent to me. It is doing a praiseworthy work not only for women but for art." Izabel M. Coles, an interior design student from Cooper Union, filled the role of design associate for Mrs. Klapp before getting hired by the special orders department at Tiffany & Co. Coles later opened her own jewelry studio on East 57th Street.

Gustav Manz stock book record for a ring set with almandine supplied by Mrs. Klapp (the work was completed after her death)
Winterthur Museum, Joseph Downs Collection

If she hadn't known Gustav Manz's work for F. Walter Lawrence before her move to New York, Mrs. Klapp saw a lot of it at the National Arts Club, where she loaned some of her pieces to an exhibit of "Jewelry and Precious Stones, Modern, Old and Oriental" held at  the club's galleries on West 34th Street in November 1903 (a few years later the club moved to its present location opposite Gramercy Park). The New York Times reviewer remarked on Mrs. Klapp's "excellent taste" as well as the "bold" and "beautifully wrought" gems in Lawrence's cases—most of them executed by Manz, whose studio was located at 13 East 30th. Among them were an iridescent glass fragment framed by tiny palm trees and a camel train approaching a stand of pyramids (motifs Manz adapted again and again for Lawrence and other retailers) as well as an ornate peacock "corsage" with eyes in the separate feathers formed of colored jewels—all destined for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition the following spring. 

Gustav Manz costbook record for a Polar Bear scarfpin purchased by Mrs. Wm. H. Klapp, Black Starr & Frost, and Charlton & Co. circa 1911 
Winterthur Museum, Joseph Downs Collection

Klapp was characteristically frank about her role in the production, as well as her demanding standards: "I am still looking for my model craftsman, the one who will work out my ideas with intuitive sympathy and consummate skill. When I find him, he shall have half my kingdom..." Just as she cultivated discriminating clients who appreciated her historical yet not overly rustic schemes fabricated "in accord with early English and Roman work," she rued the dearth of jewelry artisans with the aesthetic sensibility to see that "a wrong curve is so near a right one." (From "An Experiment in Jewelry," House Beautiful: July 1900).

Above and below: moonstone and diamond brooch designed 
by Elinor Evans Klapp incorporating intaglio of Nike 
carrying wreath carved by Ottavio Negri 
Bronson Family Collection

Gustav Manz was one of a few behind-the-scenes goldsmiths of the period who received recognition and credit as a fabricator, notably in the catalogues for the Providence Art Club crafts show in 1901 and the St. Louis Expo in 1904. This would change as the arts and crafts movement veered toward a more nativist outlook and as Manz's shop increasingly sold iterations of his designs to multiple retailers for resale under their own label. His forte were Egyptian revival, Renaissance and other historical mountings, along with botanical and animal miniatures carved in the style of Antoine-Louis Barye.  

Always on the lookout for the best of the best, Mrs. Klapp called at Manz's studio numerous times, according to notes in the jeweler's ledgers. Whether she was tempted to barter half her kingdom is unknown. But he was the very model of the classically trained craftsmen she had met at Casa Castellani in Rome and London, and along with F. Walter Lawrence, supplied goods for Tiffany & Co, Marcus & Co, Theo B. Starr, T. Kirkpatrick & Son, Shreve Crump & Low, J.E. Caldwell and many other Gilded Age jewelers. 

Scenic brooch executed by Gustav Manz. The piece was exhibited 
by F. Walter Lawrence at the National Arts Club in 1903 
and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904
Town & Country, December 1903 

Through the years of her husband's illness and after his death in 1908, Mrs. Klapp led an active social and professional life. She traveled to Glasgow and visited Havana with her son Eugene, continued to lend her work to group shows, and designed keepsakes for friends and family—delighting her daughter-in-law Margaret with a ring set with a miniature of her grandchild by British-South African artist Mary Helen Carlisle. She provided a pendant of moonstones set in diamonds on an "exquisitely designed" necklace of platinum for Trustees of the Pratt Institute to present to the school's departing Librarian. 

Ring mounting, left, designed by Mrs. W. H. Klapp  
to frame a miniature portrait of a granddaughter
executed by Mary H. Carlisle, circa 1909
Newspaper clipping found in a descendant's scrapbook

One of her last shows was organized by John Cotton Dana, the maverick director of Newark MuseumSituated on the fourth floor of the city's public library, it ran for three weeks in November 1914. Klapp's pieces were on display with work by fellow members of the Boston Society of Arts & Crafts (Frank Gardner Hale, Josephine Shaw, Mabel Luther, Margaret Rogers, Eleanor Deming, Rosalie Clements); objects produced in Gustav Stickley's New York workshop as well as a items from Asian-imports dealer Long Sang Ti rounded out the exhibit.

Newark Free Public Library provided space for Newark Museum director John Cotton Dana's 1914 "Exhibition of Jewelry"

At the time, Newark was a major jewelry-making center, its factories producing 90 percent of the gold jewelry in the United States by some estimates. Most of the items in Dana's show were available for purchase—a carved moonstone in a platinum and diamond setting by Mrs. Klapp was offered for $350 (about $7500 today). Sales were light, according to notes from the Society's reporting secretary, but attendance by members of the trade was robust, fulfilling Dana's vision of the museum as a provider of "art service" to artisans and manufacturers as well as the general public. Guiding the former to produce and the latter to demand well-designed goods was his objective. 

Writing in the American Federation of Arts journal, Magazine of Art, in 1915, reviewer Emily Graves acknowledged the anonymous hands behind Mrs. Klapp's "exquisite" creations: 

...The work is done by German, Swiss and Italian jewelers, now living in New York, who have brought to this country the thorough craftsmanship of the old world. It is perhaps not entirely irrelevant to express here the tremendous importance of husbanding this wealth of traditional knowledge which reaches America by immigration—knowledge which we have so often in the past allowed to be degraded or lost. 

An undated newspaper interview with Mrs. Klapp, entitled "How to Wear Jewels" and featuring a portrait by Brandenburg, summarized her own mission: to provide an alternative to the faddish, cookie-cutter articles put out by even the best houses. Graves concluded, 

Like many another, sorrow and invalidism opened the way for this 'most blessed work,' as Mrs. Klapp herself would say. She had no technical instruction, but wide travel and intense love of the good, a keen eye to understand what was true and beautiful, a very independent taste, and strong individuality—these combined, have been her inspiration.

"How to Wear Jewels": Mrs. W. H. Klapp by Brandenberg, circa 1913
Newspaper clipping from a descendant's scrapbook

In spring of 1915, the Ehrich Galleries at 707 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, put on display "an interesting collection of unusual jewelry, by Mrs. William H. Klapp, executed under [her] direction." Stand-outs were a platinum neck pendant carved in the shape of a basket dotted with small diamonds known as brilliants and fruits "sculpted out of gems of suitable colors [and] a very handsome corsage piece of Oriental design." (American Art News, March 20, 1915). 

Four months later, on the first day of August, Elinor Evans Klapp died at her home in Clinton, New Jersey. She was 69. Though a few pieces are closely held by descendants, Klapp's output is mostly preserved in arts and crafts journals and in the profiles and reviews her son Eugene published. A privately bound book of jewelry designs remains in the family. "I should not mind being the great-granddaughter of some one who today buys a bit of Mrs. Klapp's work," cooed House Beautiful's Madeline Wynne in the December 1899 holiday gift round-up (Wynne herself was the daughter of the inventor of the Yale lock, and venerated as one of the first women metal artists in America). 

With all the interest in grande dames of the Edwardian era in books and film, Mrs. Klapp seems ripe for rediscovery—or at least a cameo on Downton Abbey

Moth buckle from Original Designs by Mrs. W. H. Klapp,
a portfolio of pen and ink drawings printed and bound in hand-tooled leather 
by her grand-daughter, circa 1915 
Private Collection

Thanks to Mrs. Klapp's family for opening their scrapbooks, and to Courtney Bowers-Marhev, Kay O. Freeman, and the archivists at Winterthur Museum, Newark Museum, and Art Institute of Chicago for research assistance 

Copyright © Laura Mathews, 2014 

All Rights Reserved 

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