A new book by Douglas Jackson recounts the extraordinary story of Lancashire’s world-class collection of Tiffany glass on display in Accrington

Great British Life: Joseph and Elizabeth Briggs with their children Viola (left) and Joseph Ashworth, pictured during a visit to Accrington in 1901Joseph and Elizabeth Briggs with their children Viola (left) and Joseph Ashworth, pictured during a visit to Accrington in 1901 (Image: not Archant)

How an art nouveau treasure-trove came to Accrington is a story as fascinating and romantic as the glass itself. It is the story of Joseph Briggs, who in 1891 when he was just 17 shook the cotton dust of Accrington off his boots and bought a one-way ticket to New York looking for adventure. And he found it on his first night in the new world.

After the rigours of immigration control Joseph checked into a local dosshouse and went to bed – and next morning he woke up next to a real-live cowboy called Seth Hathaway, who promptly offered Joe a job in a Wild West show. One of his tasks was holding up playing cards for the gunslingers to shoot out of his hand!

Hathaway was an expert horseman who had appeared in Buffalo Bill’s first Wild West show in 1883, when he re-created the harrowing rides of the legendary Pony Express service. When he met Joseph he was working for one of Buffalo Bill’s rivals, an equally flamboyant showman called Pawnee Bill.

Great British Life: The Haworth Art Gallery in AccringtonThe Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington (Image: not Archant)

The Lancashire lad probably spent up to two years touring with Pawnee Bill, but by 1893 the show was heading for Europe, so Joseph decided to look for a more conventional job. He spotted a ‘youth wanted’ advert for Tiffany’s new glass works where, after long years of experimenting, Louis Comfort Tiffany was introducing the lamps, vases, stained glass windows and other artistic creations that would bring him universal and lasting fame. At first Joseph had no success, but during a chance meeting with Tiffany he impressed the American entrepreneur with his artistic skills, and landed the job.

For the next 40 years Joseph was personally involved in some of its most sensational commissions, initially as Tiffany’s personal assistant and in due course as head of the company. He became one of the firm’s finest craftsmen, responsible for some of its greatest works. (There are also persistent rumours of connivance between the two men to hush up a scandal, a not infrequent occurrence in Tiffany’s life at this time.)

Joseph’s speciality was designing and creating mosaics, artworks large and small that developed from Tiffany’s stained glass windows. As head of the mosaic department, he masterminded a series of incredible works. These included mosaic panels for the new St Louis Cathedral, a huge glass safety curtain for the opera house in Mexico City, and an equally imposing, 50ft wide mosaic picture of a garden for the lobby of an office block overlooking Independence Square in Philadelphia. In addition, Joseph created several smaller items that are now considered masterpieces. These ranged from lamps that combined glass and pebbles – real pebbles from streams near the company’s glassworks - to carved wood pieces, including exquisite clocks and humidors.

Great British Life: Mosaic bookMosaic book (Image: not Archant)

Joseph’s private life was equally remarkable. In 1898, against the social conventions of the day, he married an African-American woman called Elizabeth Jenkins, whose parents had been born as slaves but who was also descended from Scottish nobility – in fact her great-grandfather was a Scottish Jacobite who fought with Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden before being kicked out of Scotland. For most of their married life the Briggs lived in the pleasant New Jersey community of Wood-Ridge, where Joseph built and decorated one of the biggest houses in town, and the Briggs had six children (although one died in infancy). They also owned a substantial holiday cottage in the New Jersey resort of Budd Lake.

When art nouveau and Tiffany passed into the dark years of obscurity in the 1930s Joseph had the unenviable task of closing down a company that was a shadow of its former self, literally throwing away large stocks of unsold items.

At the same time he also sent more than 130 of the finest Tiffany pieces back to his home town. By then they were commercially worthless and for many years were stored out of sight in a cupboard. However, when art nouveau came back into fashion in the 1970s the town opened its first exhibition of Tiffany glass at the Haworth art gallery, and today the collection is beautifully displayed in several rooms. Its importance is now fully recognised: it is extremely valuable, and pieces are much in demand for international exhibitions.

• Mosaic by Douglas Jackson tells the fascinating story of Joseph Briggs, and includes a foreword by the Lancashire antiques expert Eric Knowles. It is available from the Haworth art gallery in Accrington, from the publishers, 2qt of Settle or directly from the author (douglasjackson256@btinternet.com). The gallery is open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, noon to 5.30pm and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4.30pm