Blair Museum of Lithophanes houses 2,300 treasuresWritten by Kristen Criswell | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Toledo is home to the largest collection of lithophanes and the only museum worldwide dedicated to the art — the Blair Museum of Lithophanes.
The museum is home to more than 2,300 lithophanes and has approximately 750 lithophanes on display at all times.
A lithophane is a three-dimensional image in translucent porcelain that was a popular European art form in the 19th century.
“What’s amazing is it doesn’t look interesting if the light is not on. [Lithophanes] have to be illuminated, so they were incorporated into useful items in people houses,” said Margaret Carney, curator of the Blair Museum of Lithophanes.
Many lithophanes were displayed as part of lanterns, as candle shields or as fire screens during the Victorian age. In addition to those forms, the museum has lithophanes displayed as night lights and lamp shades as well as in beer steins and tea warmers.
Many famous porcelain manufacturers produced lithophanes as a side job, Carney said. Companies in Germany and France have some of the first patents for lithophanes in 1827, she said.
“[Lithophane] was sort of a fad, but went on a really long time for a fad,” Carney said.
Lithophanes are being produced today, but Carney said the art form’s heyday was from 1840 to 1880. Carney authored a 2008 book, “Lithophanes,” that discusses the history and evolution of the art.
All lithophanes are based on print engravings during the era they are produced.
Skilled craftsmen carved images into beeswax with tools similar to dental instruments, Carney said. The deeper the beeswax was carved the more light that shone through and the lighter the image.
Upon completion, the carved beeswax was used to create molds for the porcelain, Carney said. Once a mold was created a lithophane image could be replicated a number of times.
The museum’s largest flat lithophane, an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, is 15 inches by 10.75 inches. Most of the lithophanes at the museum are smaller, however, measuring roughly 5 inches by 7 inches in size.
When heated in a kiln, 60 percent of the time the porcelain would warp or crack, Carney said. The larger the lithophane, or the thinner the porcelain was in the mold, the more likely it was to break.
Most lithophanes are monochromatic, but some lithophanes have been painted, Carney said. Painted lithophanes are rare, but the museum has some on display.
The Blair Museum of Lithophanes has a special exhibit of fans on display until Oct. 31.
As part of the exhibit, the museum has on display six of the seven known lithophane fans as well as information on other types of fans.
The lithophanes were mounted as hand screens or completion fans to protect individuals from the heat of candles or flames, Carney said.
“In the 19th century men and women’s makeup was made of wax. [Lithophane fans] would allow the person who held it to sit in front of the fire and they would see a beautiful image and the porcelain doesn’t conduct heat, so it protected their faces,” Carney said.
All four of the most famous factories for making lithophane fans are represented in the seven remaining fans, Carney said.
Next year’s special exhibit will feature a contemporary lithophane artist. “Hands Illuminating Porcelain: The Lithophanes of Hannah Blackwell,” will run from April 2011 until October 2011. A special reception to meet Blackwell will be hosted April 30.
The Blair Museum of Lithophanes was founded by Laurel Gotshall Blair, a local businessman. Blair began collecting lithophanes in the 1960s and ran a lithophane museum out of his home in the Old West End, Carney said.
When Blair died in 1993, he left his entire collection of lithophanes to the city of Toledo. After nearly 10 years of efforts, the museum was opened at its current location.
Blair’s goal — to educate others about the history of lithophanes — is carried on by the museum.
The museum is open Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. May through September at no charge to the public. Special group tours for 10 or more are available year-round for $5 a person.
The Blair Museum of Lithophanes is located at 5403 Elmer Drive in the Toledo Botanical Garden.
For more information, visit www.lithophanemuseum.org.