Porcelain Treasures in the City of Glass: World’s largest collection of Lithophanes

. August 1, 2017.
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The world’s largest collection of 19th-century translucent porcelain plaques is at the Blair Museum at the Toledo Botanical Gardens.

Amassed by the late Laurel Blair, a Toledo eccentric with a penchant for growing orchids, the works have been nested on the campus of the Toledo Botanical Gardens since 1993,  drawing international visitors.

Laurel Blair with a small portion of his lithophane collection, c. 1965. Photo by Steve Warren

Laurel Blair with a small portion of his lithophane collection, c. 1965. Photo by Steve Warren

Discovering magic

Lithophanes are molded porcelain plaques formed from a wax model, with carved details. The ⅛ inch thick panes, typically only a few inches square, appear three-dimensional with intricate detail when backlit.

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The 19th-century European art form is peculiar and specimens are rare. Blair first discovered the art form during an October 1961 meeting with fellow members of the International Musical Box Society. Blair, whose father began Blair Realty and Investment Company in 1908, a major 1920’s Toledo developer, described his first viewing of a pane “… this small white piece . . . made me stop and contemplate its beauty. I had never seen anything like it before and there was another close by which was equally as beautiful in all of its details.”

The Museum’s current curator, Stephanie Mattonie speaks about Blair’s passion for the art form, “When he found lithophanes he said he had fallen in love. So, he started buying a few… then a couple more… then [he] would buy collections as fellow collectors would pass.”

One of a kind

“This is the only museum in the world dedicated to lithophanes. Our collection includes almost 24,000 pieces,” says Mattonie. “Most Toledoans don’t know about the Blair Museum. However, we are a destination location for many international visitors that read about us.”

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An art historical niche interest, lithophanes provided an “affordable (way) for the emerging middle class to have a piece of art in their home,” explains Mattonie.

Today, 3D printing has sparked a small revival and, as well, an assortment of laser-cut lithophanes are offered in the Museum’s gift shop.

Future enchantment

Mattonie, who came on board as the curator in January 2017, enthuses “for me, this place is like Disneyland. When I come in and light things up…. It’s all just so beautiful. My first reaction is ‘enchanting.’ ”

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The current display is charming and captivating, including jewel-encrusted frames featuring water sprites, depictions of attractive women, and other seductive scenes of nature illuminating curiosity.

In June 2017, the Toledo Area Metroparks took over operation of the Toledo Botanical Gardens, but since the Museum is owned by the City of Toledo, its future seems clear. “As far as we know, everything is going to stay the same with The Blair. We look forward to greeting guests on a regular basis,” says Mattonie.

Blair Museum of Lithophanes
1-4pm, Saturdays and Sundays, and by appointment.
May through October. Free
5403 Elmer Dr., 419-245-1356. Lithophanemuseum.org