One of my favorite manuscript collections in the Phillips Library is that of Samuel V. Chamberlain, noted artist and photographer. Early in his life, while living in Europe, he sketched all that he saw and later in life, he traveled all over New England, photographing homes and local landmarks.
Samuel Vance Chamberlain was born in Iowa in 1895 but was raised in Washington State. He began his academic career at the University of Washington in 1913. In 1915 he enrolled in the architectural program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, but his education was interrupted by World War I. He joined the American Field Service and drove ambulances in France. Stationed at Reims, he used his leave time to travel as much and as far as possible sketching many great buildings of France.
After the war Chamberlain returned to MIT to finish his degree in architecture only to discover his real interest was in drawing. He tried his hand as a commercial artist but it wasn’t for him. He soon returned to France to pursue his passion. While in Paris he picked up skills in lithography and etching.
On the return voyage he met and fell in love with his future wife, Narcissa Gellatly (1899-1988) who had, like him, been a volunteer during the war. They wed in 1923 and had two daughters, Narcisse (1924-2008) and Stephanie (1931-1993).
Together Chamberlain and Narcissa spent much of the 1920s touring in France, Spain, Italy, and North Africa. While living in Paris, Chamberlain studied various printmaking techniques under some of the world’s finest teachers. He and his wife met and socialized with a number of famous American expatriates including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Louis Bromfield, and the sculptor Alexander Calder.
In 1927 Chamberlain received a Guggenheim grant and he moved for a short time to London where he attended the Royal Academy. Out of these travels came two published portfolios, “Sketches of Northern Spanish Architecture” and “Domestic Architecture of Rural France,” and, in conjunction with Louis Skidmore, his first book, Tudor Homes of England.
In 1930 the Chamberlains bought a house in Senlis, a small market town not far from Paris. Though several more books were to follow, the tough economic times of the ‘30s made life in Europe difficult. In the mid-1930s Chamberlain and Narcissa moved back to the United States and settled in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
During his career, Chamberlain worked for a number of publications such as Pencil Points, and published widely on subjects he encountered during his travels. He also wrote and/or illustrated nearly 100 books of architecture and interiors. Chamberlain taught graphic arts at MIT from 1934 until World War II. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Force. He was shipped to Egypt, then to Tunisia and Italy. He was a reconnaissance photographer.
“Hitler Lines”, photograph by Samuel Chamberlain, undated (1940s)
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Chamberlain broadened his focus to include cookbooks and fashion illustrations. The Chamberlains’ love for Europe would lead to the publication of engaging travel books on France, Italy, and England. The couple became experts in matters of gastronomy, and wrote many other books and articles related to the subject. Chamberlain invented the week-by-week photographic engagement calendar in 1940.
During his lifetime Chamberlain was widely respected for his work as a printmaker, artist, photographer, and writer. He was a member of the esteemed National Academy of Design, the American Institute of Architects, and other prestigious societies in America and Europe. He received many awards and was a founding member of the Marblehead Arts Association. He died in Marblehead in 1975.
What I love about this collection is its depth. Chamberlain’s daughters had no children, so his wife donated the entire contents of his studio to the Phillips Library. We have 76 boxes of material including his mother’s diary when she was pregnant with him, personal and business correspondence from 1895 to 1989, a large amount of research material on France and England, his photographic negatives, many photographic prints, many of his published books, and 57 engagement calendars. The American Decorative Arts department of the museum owns several of his copper printing plates, sketches, prints, etchings, watercolors, and a drawing.
The finding aid for his collection, MSS 369, will soon be online and you are welcome to visit our Reading Room in Peabody to learn more about this fascinating artist.