Lighting throughout the 19th century Victorian home illuminate numerous portraits and scenes created on porcelain – ranging from simple, milky white colored images to detailed, brightly-colored drawings. This is the third year that the Blair Museum of Lithophanes has been housed at the Schedel Arboretum and Gardens and it seems the arrangement is working quite well.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better location,” Julia LaBay Darrah, curator of the Lithophane Collection at Schedel, said of the collection. Perhaps it is destiny that the lithophanes, which were popular in the 1880s, fit so naturally in this home built in that same time period. Themed items are featured throughout the season and the displays are changed regularly.
“We have much more space [at Schedel Gardens] for storing and displaying the lithophanes,” Darrah said. A new database system allows the Museum to rotate the inventory so guests can be exposed to more of the collection.
From Europe to Northwest Ohio
A lithophane is a thin slice of translucent material, typically porcelain, that is carved, creating three dimensional images that are revealed when lit from behind. Invented in France in the 1820s, lithophanes became popular in many countries. However, Germany became the main producer through the remainder of the 18th century.
The world’s largest collection of lithophanes was created by Toledo native and Scott High School graduate Laurel Gotshall Blair beginning in 1965. A world traveler, Blair discovered the art form and quickly began building his collection. The Blair Museum lithophanes feature a wide range of shapes and uses:
- Plaques: the most basic lithophane shape and can be rectangular, square, oval, circular or trapezoid.
- Candle, table or fireplace screens: intended to protect one’s eyes from a flame, and are placed on a candle stand, mantle, attached to a wall sconce or suspended from a chandelier.
- Complexion fans or hand screens: purely a Victorian invention, the fans and screens were designed to protect the waxy makeup of men and women from melting by protection from heat sources.
- Nightlights, food and tea warmers: in addition to illuminating small areas, these items were also excellent for keeping tea and food warm.
- Lanterns and lamp shades: relatively scarce today, the Blair collection has several hanging lanterns utilizing lithophanes as panels. The Blair collection boasts the largest single cast lithophane lampshade in the world.
- Steins: lithophane images are often used at the bottom of a cup, mug or beer stein.
From Toledo to Elmore
Blair used his home as his first museum, displaying about one-third of his large collection. He donated the entire collection to the City of Toledo just prior to his death in 1993. The city then renovated a building in the Toledo Botanical Garden (then a city park) to house the collection. It was open in the Botanical Garden from 2002 until Metroparks Toledo took over daily operations of the Garden, and closed the museum in 2019. The lithophanes collection was moved to Schedel’s estate home in Elmore and opened in 2021 after the home was renovated for the collection.
“When we were at Toledo Botanical Garden, we were limited to displaying all the same things, all of the time,” Darrah said. Now, in the new space, they are able to display more pieces. “So many things had been stored away, and it’s nice to blow the dust off and bring them out for viewing. Even the docents (tour guides) from our Toledo Botanical Garden days say we keep finding new things to display.”
The current season, which opened April 1, features a bird theme from the collection while acknowledging the area’s position in the region’s bird migration routes. A gift shop at the back of the building (which opens to the grounds of the 17-acre garden) features lithophanes and other locally produced gift items for sale.
Darrah said the museum is preparing its first traveling exhibit composed of winter-themed items that will be on display in Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art from November 2023 through February 2024. The Museum, in the 19th century Baum-Longworth-Sinton-Taft historic house, is a fitting location for a selection of the 19th century lithophanes.
Visit the Blair Museum of Lithophanes during the same times and hours as the Schedel Arboretum and Gardens, April 1 through October 31, Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm and Sunday from noon to 4 pm. 19255 W. Portage River South Road, Elmore. 419-862-3182.