A wobbly old Argand lamp with a dull surface and broken parts sat unnoticed for years in an obscure corner of Bartow-Pell’s dining room. Now, after restoration, this former diamond in the rough shines as one of the most beautiful pieces in our collection.
The stunning double-arm oil lamp was made in England (possibly in Birmingham) about 1830 and was sold in New York by the stylish high-end retailer and importer Baldwin Gardiner, who was located at 149 Broadway. Although this lamp did not belong to Mr. and Mrs. Bartow, it’s possible that the couple may have made purchases at this popular shop near their New York City residence after they got married in 1827 and started furnishing their home.
The range of surface treatments and the richness of detail announce that this was an expensive lamp. Glass prisms and multi-faceted cut-glass elements reflect light, matte and burnished brass surfaces add complexity, and patination creates contrast. The ornamentation includes a wreath, leaves, and flowers, and the oil font is shaped like an urn, a popular classical form. Using evidence found on the lamp, the conservator restored the original finishes; stabilized the frame; repaired and replaced broken and missing glass elements and shades; and added reproduction chimneys.
Lacquered finishes were used on all English brass objects that were imported into the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. This method replicated the look of French gilt bronze (also known as bronze doré, fire gilding, or ormolu) but avoided the expense of gold and the high toxicity of mercury. The English technique involved using acid baths to bite into the brass and render it an appropriate shade of matte lemon yellow. The bright or highlighted areas were burnished, and the surface was lacquered (sometimes with tinted lacquers) to tone the color and prevent tarnishing. Lacquer, however, will eventually disintegrate, which means that the underlying brass will tarnish and the carefully designed effect of the contrasting matte and burnished areas will disappear. At Bartow-Pell, the lost art of lacquered brass has been beautifully re-created in our restored lamp.
Lamps like this one were inspired by ancient urns, stands, and vessels, many of which had been discovered by archaeologists in southern Italy. Lamp makers learned of these classical forms through the engravings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), which allowed them to cater to a populace that was enamored of the ancient world and eager to embrace objects made in the classical taste.
Argand lamps were invented in 1782 by the Swiss scientist Aimé Argand (1750–1803) and were a vast improvement over earlier lighting devices. They were cleaner and had a much brighter flame, thanks to a cylindrical wick sleeve that allowed better air circulation. Oil—often whale, but sometimes colza (rapeseed) or other varieties—was poured into the reservoir at the top. Gravity then allowed it to flow through the arms into the burners where the wicks were located. Oil lamps required frequent cleaning, however. In the 1828 edition of The House Servant’s Directory, Robert Roberts grumbled: “I have been in some houses where the rooms were almost filled with smoke and stench of the oil, and the glasses of the lamps clouded with dust and smoke . . . this is a very disagreeable thing indeed.” He went on to say that it was the servant’s fault “if they [the lamps] are dirty, or not in good order.”
A robust economy, the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, and technological advances made possible by the Industrial Revolution created a favorable environment for commerce and produced a large demand for all types of merchandise. Retail stores abounded in large cities, and Broadway was the place to shop in New York City. Frances Trollope described the scene in her 1832 book Domestic Manners of the Americans: “From hence [the Battery] commences the splendid Broadway, as the fine avenue is called, which runs through the whole city. This noble street may vie with any I ever saw, for its length and breadth, its handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent trottoir, and well-dressed pedestrians.”
Baldwin Gardiner (1791–1869) was the younger brother of silversmith Sidney Gardiner (d. 1827). After working in Boston and Philadelphia, Baldwin moved to New York in 1827 and set up his furnishings warehouse on Broadway, where he sold a variety of luxury goods, including silver and imported lamps, such as the one at Bartow-Pell that bears his retailer’s mark.
We thank our generous donors who helped to defray the cost of restoring our glorious lamp, which reigns supremely from the dining room sideboard, just as it might have done in a fashionable and affluent home in the nineteenth century.
Margaret Highland, Historian
Thanks to Carswell Rush Berlin for his help on this post.