Paul Pearman is no stranger to things rare and valuable. The self-taught mosaic artist has been dealing with precious and semi-precious stones for almost two decades. Recently his reputation earned him a call for help from a local church who needed to restore an antique prayer desk – not just any desk. This desk features inlaid Favrile glass mosaics handcrafted by Tiffany Studios. Tiffany studios was owned and founded by Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder of world-renowned jewelry manufacturer, Tiffany and Company.
It seems fitting that Pearman wound up in the same town as the prayer desk when it needed repair. For one, his artistic talents fit directly in line with the level of repair work needed. From Ethiopian opals and amethysts to tiger’s eyes and dinosaur bones, Pearman has incorporated countless one-of-a-kind items into his mosaic works. He’s stayed true to himself and his craft and he’s been fortunate enough in his career to receive the respect of celebrities who have commissioned him to hand-forge mosaic belt buckles and jewelry. Sheryl Crow, Darius Rucker, Steven Tyler, Cameron Diaz and Carrie Underwood are just a few of famous individuals who wear his iconic belts. When Pearman had an opportunity to repair an original Tiffany Studios piece, he was compelled to be a part of the history that was made by this forefather of glass mosaic work, Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Finding the 130 year-old antique luster glass proved to be a challenge. “I was on the phone trying to track the glass down for months,” notes Pearman. Once he obtained the antique luster glass, he was faced with the task of repairing more than four feet of the mosaic so that the old and the new were seamless. Each square tile consisted of four small triangular tiles. It involved tedious work, meticulously shaping the glass tiles with hand tools and using a machine to ensure the correct thickness. In addition to replacing missing opalescent glass tiles, there were ivory tiles that had to be stained to match the existing aged tiles and replaced into the mosaic. Pearman had the bench at his studio for months where he admits to praying on it frequently. “It was like a cell phone to God,” he says.
“You can’t tell the old glass from the new glass,” says Dr. Tom Swift, a parishioner at St. Paul’s who was instrumental in securing the restoration project. “Paul worked like a Trojan on this thing, painstakingly restoring this desk,” says Swift. The detailed work completed by Pearman is an example of the artistic gift he has been given. Working by hand on a Tiffany Studios prayer desk was a gift to Pearman as well, who says he was humbled by the privilege.
An Ecclesiastical History Lesson
The walnut prayer desk, also known as a prie dieu or a Litany desk, was hand carved with colonial pillars, a carved Greek cross and intricately inlaid with blue and gold glass mosaic tiles that surround the Cross. Mrs. George S. Baker, in memory of her father, Dr. H.W. Desassure Ford, gifted it to St. Paul’s Church in the early 1900s. On the top, where the Book of Common Prayer would rest, is a silver plate made from a melted silver spoon that was one of a dozen spoons that George Washington presented to the Ford family.
The piece provides a history lesson on the type of ecclesiastical furnishings Tiffany Studios was making at the turn of the century.
The Tiffany Studio’s antique prayer desk, dedicated in 1909 at a simple service, was not the only Tiffany item given to the church. At the same time, Mrs. Baker also donated a 6×18 Tiffany stained glass window, which consisted of opalescent glass in the scene of a woman and her children. A representative from Tiffany Studios visited St. Paul’s church in 1908, carefully taking note of the architecture and interior so that the items would correspond to the interior of the church. When presented, the Litany Desk was placed at the foot of the chancel steps, almost directly above the grave of the late Dr. Ford’s uncle, Dr. Edward E Ford, who was the Rector of St. Paul’s for 30 years. In 1916, these generous gifts were left to the destruction of the great Augusta fire of 1916, which ravaged over 30 blocks of Augusta and left many historical items in piles of rubble. The prayer desk was saved in the fire along with the original baptismal font brought from England in 1751. Through time, the desk sat at the church, covered in candle wax, slowly showing signs of its age and conditions.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that St. Paul’s Church learned of the connection the bench had to the late Mr. Tiffany. “We always knew we had the piece, says the Reverend George Muir, but the hubbub about it began a few years ago when we received a call.” That phone call, from a gentleman doing research on Tiffany Studios, tipped them off to the history of the piece. Swift, then had the idea to put the bench into the careful hands of Pearman, who would do the job with reverence and respect.
Providing a timeline of the bench from its point of origin to its current resting place at St. Paul’s church proves to be difficult due to the destruction of records and items in the Great Fire of 1916. Excerpts from The Church Bells, a St. Paul’s church newsletter and The Churchman, an evangelical Anglican Academic Journal published by the Church Society, both have record of the gifts made by Tiffany Studios. In a 1909 issue of the Churchman, a photo of the prayer desk is included with a write up that clearly states that these items were made by Tiffany Studios and donated to St. Paul’s Church.
Today, the prayer desk rests in all its glory in the intimate Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul at St. Paul’s Church. With restoration complete, it is ready for use in Episcopalian liturgical traditions and rituals. In addition to a spiritual experience, those who kneel here will be graced with a fine example of craftsmanship that spans across centuries from the days of the distinguished Tiffany creations to the fascinating Paul Pearman.
This article appears in the February/March 2017 issue of Augusta Magazine.