125 Treasures: Tiffany & Co. Silver and Narwhal Tusk Dressing Table and Chair



 Tiffany & Co. Dressing Table and Chair Set

Viking Dressing Table and Chair
Tiffany & Co.
American
Designed 1903; completed 1905
Sterling Silver and Narwhal Tusk
Bequest of James and Sallie Dooley, 1925
Maymont Mansion Collection, 25.354.1-3

Without doubt, one of the greatest treasures of Maymont is the extraordinary dressing table and chair made by Tiffany & Co., America’s premier designer and retailer of luxury items. Exhibited in the dream-like setting of Mrs. Dooley’s Swan Room, it is every bit as fantastic as her Swan Bed. Fashioned from elaborately-chased sterling silver and four entire narwhal tusks, the overall effect of the Maymont set is one of sheer luxury and exoticism – an example of the “conspicuous consumption” for which the Gilded Age is known.

The Tiffany & Co. marks, which appear in several places on the set, and the Tiffany & Co. archives point to 1903 as the date of its design. It was completed in 1905, the year when Tiffany & Co. opened the doors of its new flagship store and well-heeled clientele flocked to the palatial, Venetian Renaissance-style building on Fifth Avenue. Among them, according to the recollections of Mrs. Dooley’s great nephew, were James and Sallie Dooley. Perhaps it was that very day that they first gazed upon the remarkable Tiffany & Co. creation, which had recently been completed. Soon thereafter it graced Mrs. Dooley’s boudoir and, in 1925, became part of the Maymont bequest. (1)

However extravagant it seems, silver furniture was not unprecedented. It was the height of fashion for 17th century royalty. And during the heated competition among designers vying for awards at the great expositions at the turn of the 20th century, there was a spate of furniture made of silver and other costly materials.

Setting the Maymont ensemble apart from all other show pieces of the era is the use of narwhal tusks, which form the posts and legs of the chair and the dressing table. Amazed visitor reactions range from “Awesome!” to “What’s a narwhal?” The male of the Artic species, a whale (Monodon monoceros) grows a long, twisted ivory tusk from its upper jaw. Viking seafarers passed off the tusks as unicorn horns for a king’s ransom in Europe during the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth acquired a narwhal tusk set with jewels, paying what was said at the time to be enough to purchase an entire castle. A coronation chair, incorporating multiple narwhal tusks, was created in 1671 for the king of Denmark. The full height of the two narwhal tusks used as the supporting posts of the Maymont dressing table are 6’ 3”.

While Mrs. Dooley’s own narwhal “throne” stands alone among decorative arts of the Gilded Age, it aligns with two themes that emerged at the time – Arctic designs with polar bears, walruses, and icebergs, inspired by 19th century exploration of the far North, and Viking-inspired design, spinning off of archaeological excavations of Viking burial ships in the 1880s and the early 20th century. Tiffany & Co. first introduced its Viking pattern in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition, displaying a Viking punch bowl, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. Even a replica of a Viking ship was displayed in a lagoon at the exposition in celebration of Viking exploration of America. In Tiffany & Co. archives, the designs for the vanity set made to match the dressing table refer to it as the “Viking Toilet Table.” The designs are dated 1903, the very year that an ancient burial ship was discovered in Oseberg, Norway. With its narwhal tusks capped by silver dragon-head finials, much like the prow ornaments of Norse long boats, and ornamental silverwork of fantastic interlaced beasts, reminiscent of early medieval carving, Maymont’s dressing table and chair are the ultimate expression of Tiffany & Co.’s Viking style.

The matching vanity set, long thought to be missing, was only known to me through 1926 photographs by Dementi Studios and the empty molded fittings of the dressing table drawers. In 2008, during conservation of the swan furniture, a locksmith was called in to assist with the lock of a dresser. Much to everyone’s surprise, inside we found, wrapped in 1928 and 1930 Richmond newspapers, the matching manicure set, perfume bottle, button hook, comb, brush, hand mirror, and various fittings of the dressing table. This was one of the most memorable events of my 40 years at Maymont. Apparently, the vanity set had been locked away for safekeeping and for about seventy-eight years, “hidden in plain view.” (2)

While it perhaps was intended for exhibition at the St. Louis Exposition, there is no record that the set was included in Tiffany’s exhibit at the 1904 fair. Nevertheless, the Maymont set is an extraordinary example of the creations inspired by the heated competition among designers in this era. With its over-the-top design, extravagant materials, and allusions to a romanticized past, the Viking dressing table and chair would have held a strong appeal for Gilded Age collectors. It stands out not only as one of the greatest treasures of the Dooleys’ collection, but equally a Tiffany & Co. tour de force of world-class significance.

Other Tiffany & Co. objects in the Maymont Mansion Collection include:

  • Silver Presentation Cup: The pattern was introduced by Tiffany & Co. in 1899, and individual pieces would have been specially ordered. This large loving cup was made around 1904.  It is engraved: Presented to James H. Dooley,/by the shareholders of the Richmond and West Point Land Navigation and Improvement Company,/in recognition of his long and valuable services to the company.
  • Gold Pocket Watch: The fine time-piece is one of the few personal items of James Dooley in the Maymont Mansion Collection. It is set in an eighteen-karat gold case, engraved “JHD.” The white enamel dial is marked “Tiffany & Co., New York.” The watch is of a type referred to as a minute repeater.
  • Gold Frame: This 18-karat gold easel-type frame is engraved with the initials “J.H.D.” at the top front of the frame.
  • Fan Box: A hinged fan box covered in grayish mauve silk bears Mrs. Dooley’s monogram “SMD” in gold on the cover with the lid marked “Tiffany & Co.”
  • Silver Service Spoon: This single item in Tiffany and Co.’s Chrysanthemum pattern is the lone representative in the Maymont Mansion Collection of the Dooleys’ Tiffany & Co. silver flatware. Nearly all of the Dooleys’ silver was inherited.
  • Mantel Clock and Garniture: Three-piece polished slate and gilt-bronze mantel set, including a clock & matching candlesticks, was retailed by Tiffany and Co. The clock was made by the famous French clock maker Japy Freres & Cie.
  • Pink Marble Mantel Clock and Garniture: This impressive mantel clock and matching urns made of pink marble and gilt bronze were made in France and retailed by Tiffany & Co. The clock mechanism was made by the famous French clock maker Samuel Marti, winner of the Medaille d’Or in 1900. The clock’s distinctive design features bronze figures of Day and Night inspired by Michelangelo’s Giuliano de’ Medici Tomb in Florence.
  • Annular Clock: The horizontal clock is housed in a gilt-bronze case with a figural group representing “the Toilette of Venus.” Cupid’s arrow points to the hour as the dial turns. The clock is French-made but, retailed by Tiffany & Co..

Even to the end, Mrs. Dooley was a loyal customer of Tiffany & Co. Among her bequests to charity, she directed that her “jewelry and precious stones” be sold to benefit foreign missions of the Episcopal Church, specifying in her will that “Tiffany & Co., Jewelers, of the City of New York” be engaged “to assist in disposing of the same.” Undoubtedly, Tiffany & Co. had been the source of many of the spectacular items in her collection of adornments.  The sale realized $84, 625.00 in 1925.

Notes:

  1. Tiffany & Co/15686 Makers 6426/Sterling Silver/925-1000/C; and Tiffany & Co/15687 Makers 6427/Sterling Silver/925-1000/C.
  2. Dale Wheary, Vanity of Vanities: A Tiffany and Company Rediscovery,” The Magazine Antiques, April 2008, pp. 102-103.

Written by Dale Wheary, Maymont Curator and Director of Historical Collections and Programs, this post is part of a blog series commemorating Maymont Mansion’s 125th anniversary. Each post in the series will detail significant objects, from sculptures and paintings to furniture and fine porcelain, in the Maymont Museum Collection. Read all posts in the series here.

Visit Maymont Mansion to see the Tiffany & Co. dressing table and chair and more from the mansion collection.

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