Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Samuel Chamberlain - a newly-found source

A long time back, I became interested in what architecture historians call "vernacular architecture." Old houses is the better term. The plain, L-plan Ohio farmhouses were the first, then my uncle's house in Canal Winchester, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Christian Gayman house in Canal Winchester, Ohio

Somewhere way back when, I took a blind alley down Frank Lloyd Wright houses -- but, of course, these aren't vernacular. Guess you could call them houses with a cultured accent and brilliant vocabulary.

Then came craftsman bungalows, which for years I thought were named by Sears, which sold kit houses in the early-mid 1900s and most of which were craftsman bungalows. In fact, they're out of the arts & crafts movement in the early part of the 20th Century, and most derive from medieval cottages.

I suppose that's how I came (during my days as a potter) to the making of hundreds of miniature medieval homes in stoneware. Most were modeled on slices of hills; some were flat with a base to hold potting soil -- and small house plants became trees.

(There's a side influence: a miniature porcelain incense burner, a model of Ann Hathaway's cottage, that my mother shared with me when I was small. Its wall height is exactly that of my stoneware miniatures, though it was not in my possession when I began the stoneware series. Mom and I cracked it by putting lit incense in it, so I was able to witness first hand -- and at my hand at that -- the creation of a "condition problem," that value-deflating attribute made famous by Antiques Roadshow.)

I recently decided to try painting houses -- bungalows, at first. I unearthed a paperback book I bought a long time ago for $8, Samuel Chamberlain's Domestic Architecture in Rural France, originally published in 1928. It has a subtitle right out of the 19th Century: "Sketches in lithograph, drypoint, pencil and wash, of small chateaux, farms, town houses, cottages, manoirs, windmiills, gates, doorways, details, etc. from Burgundy, Auvergne, Provence, Normandy, Brittany and the Touraine."
My copy is a reprint by the Architectural Book Publishing Co. in 1981 (ISBN 8038-1578-6.) You can get used copies of the paperback (published 1981 and 1999) beginning around $25 now, though someone is selling -- or more likely, not selling -- the 1981 paperback for $10,004. That makes 1928 first edition by Hastings House hardcovers a bargain at merely $508 (with stops at $950, $2,600, on up to $3,500.)

The drawings inside are incredible. I bought the book before I ever picked up a brush, because it contained my favorite genre (or dialect), medieval cottages. Some of these disappeared forever in the bombings of World War II. Now, after struggling with art for a while, I look at it and I see how mastefully Sam has delimited details through contrast, how he brings out the planes of the buildings and their irregularities. Interestingly, so many lean to the left that I wonder if maybe Sam had my problem, astigmatism.

Samuel Chamberlain was born in Iowa in 1895, lived for many years in Senlis, France, ended up back in the States teaching at my alma mater, University of Michigan. He finished his academic career at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a long way from Iowa. He'd been introduced to Europe while in the abulance corps in World War I, and he played among the luminaries of Gertrude Stein's famous gatherings of the 1920s -- along with another WWI ambulance driver, Ernest Hemingway.

After an enthusiastic reception of the pricey Domestic Architecture of Rural France, Sam apparently never missed a chance to publish book after book -- drawings, etchings, photographs (he moved from hand-drawn art to photography some time in the 1930s), cookbooks, local history. Famous for his archictural renderings, he produced hundreds of commissioned works that are finding their way on to the art market. He died in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1975.

I'll be playing with some of his images using color sources both from contemporary postcards and photographs and modern pictures. It's not clear how many of his subjects were shelled out of existence in 1944-5, and many of them were already close to piles of rubble in 1928. However, I can find several survivors in contemporary photos, especially a goodly number from the town of Breton town of Dinan, which escaped war damage.

A mixture of half-timbered with brick and stone nogging, cut stone, and brick, they feature a broad range of roofs: thatched, tiled, and more. I expect them to be both challenging and fun.

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