Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Robert Chanler's Magical Screens & Rooms and English Coffee Cake

Robert Winthrop Chanler 1900 (photo from Rokeby Collection)

A few years ago, I came across a photo of a darkly enchanted, Audubon-with-an-Edward Gorey-twist of a room at Rokeby House in upstate NY. Generations of a single family have called it home since 1688. I love the photo - the image haunts, gently but persistently.   

NYT's photo
Photo from Antiques Magazine by Pieter Estersohn

At first, I thought it had been painted by a traveling primitive artist, but it seems my beloved crow room was painted by a teenaged Rokeby inhabitant named Robert Winthrop Chanler (1872-1930) and it was quite revealing. The scarlet opium dream poppies in the foreground are a brilliant escape plane - set apart from the sere, colorless, background landscape. It feels like Chanler’s black-feathered harbingers are circling and swooping between the plane of the dull world and that of the bright fire of inspiration - at least that is what a teenaged me would say if I had done it. I think Chanler spent none of his life in the dull normal. He left Rokeby as a teen but returned to his childhood home often for the rest of his life - staying in his childhood bedroom with his crows.


Crows, ravens, flamingos and peacocks were to have a lifelong fascination for him, not just seasoned with, but often bathed in - scarlet.

I ran into more of his work again a few weeks ago and it seemed like the world was telling me to start digging. To begin, I bought a great book on the subject, Discovering the Fantastic.  It’s full of fine, passionate essays by a passel of experts from diverse fields.  It is rich with illustrations of his work and his life.  Aside from his youthful crow room creation, I discovered Chanler had painted, sculpted and carved himself a rather formidable catalogue of work from the 1890s to his death in 1930.  

At 6’4”, Chanler was a giant of a man with giant appetites, work ethic and personality. Honestly his life would make quite a movie.

Poet Mercedes de Acosta recalled of Chanler: "Bob was gargantuan. Everything about him--hands, feet, shoulders, head--were all enormous. And his hair, thick and tightly curled, stood out about five inches from his head, making him seem that much taller and his head that much bigger. His voice bellowed out like the roaring of ten bulls and it could be heard a block away.”

Born in 1872, Chanler grew up at Rokeby as one of the 'Astor Orphans' – the ten children of John Chanler and Margaret Astor who both died of pneumonia a few years apart (Mary in 1875 and John in 1877). John’s will provided each child with $20,000 a year to see them through when they were young (more came later). They grew up without much supervision.

Chanler portrait by Pene du Bois

 The money allowed Robert to marry and run to Paris in the 1890’s where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts.  He was not suited to the structure of the school (or to marriage), saying he was,   "disgusted with the sterile instruction of atelier and academy"and scampered to Italy where he pursued his own, far more satisfying course of study in art, culture and history.  He devoured Italian murals, grottos, paintings, sculptures, buildings and books that resonated with him and which led him to thrive as an artist on his own terms.

Place St. Georges, Edmond Georges Granjean, 1879

A 17th-century K’ang Hsi screen

 He was a sponge for learning about pretty much everything but a particular encounter would change his life course. “A major turning point in Chanler’s career occurred after he happened upon a 17th-century K’ang Hsi screen in a little shop on the Place St-Georges in Paris. The “richly lacquered surface” of this screen “awaken[ed] countless aesthetic atavisms” for the artist and suggested “fascinating possibilities for future development.” The screen inspired him for 25 years as he worked and re-worked it's secrets.

Chanler at Woodstock with Hervey White

 Chanler’s great Woodstock friend and fellow non-conformist, Hervey White, thought Chanler was “… probably the most imaginative artist America has produced.”  White admired much about Chanler, fondly recalling, “That day he talked European history like the creator, though he had not slept and had been drinking all the night. He could correlate his subjects in any period, the politics, sociology and art. He could elaborate with the customs of the populace, he could give incidents for illustration of his points, then break off with a personal explanation… He was a man of great emotion and great mind.”


Chanler was nearly as famous for his bacchanalian proclivities as he was for his art. Wine, drugs and food were in abundance at his all-night parties on multiple floors of his house.  Yet that wasn't the whole picture.  He worked as hard as he played and was a disciplined artist and an indefatigable researcher with an unquenchable curiosity.


I think my favorite part of reading his story was discovering the way his books and research constantly refreshed and inspired his work. So often we think of artists as lonely engines of creativity when in fact they are often constantly reacting and renewing that energy – interacting with often disparate subjects to thrust them down new creative lanes - it's a method I identify with completely. Chanler’s Chinese screen discovery led to research on techniques like Vernis Martin and investigation and experimentation into replicating antique styles and methods. He studied Gothic cathedrals,  tapestries at the Musée de Cluny, Frescos at Palazzo Medici Riccardi , Boboli garden’s grottos in Florence and decorative arts at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London while studying Audubon, Kipling, Zoology, ichthyology and history just to give you an tiny peak at the range of his panoply of interests and explorations. The enormous breadth of those interests often cross-cultivated – his study of flora and fauna inspired his plasterwork for the Gertrude Whitney Studio. 

Even his disastrous marriage to opera singer, Lina Cavalieri, led to a creative burst. After a wound-licking withdrawal, the marital misadventure begat a masterpiece of a screen with  intimations of the Cluny tapestries (like a nightmare, the lady that was cradling the unicorn is transformed into a rapacious black beast attacking a defenseless white deer - meant to represent Chanler as the deer and Cavalieri as the ravening beast).

The lady and the unicorn Cluny tapestry

Lina Cavalieri by Boldini

Leopard and Deer or Death of the White Hart Screen by Chanler 1912

 It wasn’t just what he had seen in his travels that fed his imagination – he owned a fabled library. In a marvelous article by Avis Berman  about Chanler and his work at Whitney’s studio, Berman noted: “While Chanler lived in Europe, he assembled a prodigious library that he productively scavenged for images.  He owned hundreds of illustrated volumes on painting, sculpture, architecture, historical interiors, tapestries, screens, costume, natural history, voyages of discovery, flowers, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and mythological creatures. He also had several books on stained glass that were considered bibles within the profession, and monographs devoted to the cathedrals of Chartres and Bourges, both bywords for sublime stained glass.”


New York Times music critic, Olin Downes, spoke glowingly of Chanler’s library after a visit to The House of Fantasy. It resonated with me – your books tell a story of who you are:


“You know, a library is just such a place to explore as the South Sea Islands or anything else.  That is, if the man who owns the library has a mind with any room in it. I have seen libraries as pinched, prudish, narrow, afraid, as the people who owned them.  But this library, like Chanler himself, was an adventure. Splendid adventuring books of all kinds. Not only the kind of books an artist would have to have, but poems and sciences and philosophies, history, travel books by explorers of realms seen and unseen; Le Tour du monde” (doesn’t that excite you?), and many books by learned savants about the bottom of the sea.”


Chanler generously gifted 500 volumes of his research library to Cooper Union that arrived with a note: “Mr. Chanler frequently consulted the exceptionally fine library of French, English, Italian, and German books on 18th century decorative arts, collected by Miss Sarah and Miss Eleanor G. Hewitt, and given by them to the Cooper Union Art Museum. Using and appreciating these books, as he did during his lifetime, he realized that his own library which had been so useful to him in his mural and screen work, would be of real and permanent value to the students of Cooper Union Art Classes, as well as to the many others coming to the museum.” (you can see the list of Chanler’s donated books and even read some of them HERE  to have your own tour of the Chanler adventure).


From crow rooms at Rokeby to digs all over Europe, Britain, the American west and New York, Chanler finally settled on E. 19th street after his breakup with Cavelieri. 

House of Fantasy – 1912-30

Most of the books resided in his amazing house/studio in the 2 buildings he combined at 147 East 19th Street that he called The House of Fantasy (he also had Rokeby and a farm in upstate NY).  I could only find 2 interior pictures of 19th St., so what the interiors looked like is only left to us in contemporary descriptions (which Discovering the Fantastic provides so richly).  

Painter George Biddle wryly observed, “here [House of Fantasy] one met much of the youthful eagerness, the post-bellum intellectual sexual emancipation, the esthetic curiosity, the Bohemianism and the promiscuity of the period.” 

It sounds like a glorious playground for a wild child like Chanler and the who's who of artists, writers, intellectuals and flaming youth of the period who joined his circus - dancing and drinking in the living room with curtained banquettes ‘like an opium den’  while, " baboons [were] chasing each other on the dado level".  It was a place "where guests and regular members of the household... could lie at ease while they talked, argued or made love." There was also a dining room, the "setting for the Bacchanals [which] formed a major part of the Chanler legend, featured a frieze of chimpanzees that encircled the room."  Entertaining spaces were bedizened with a zoo's worth of animal art that often echoed the antics of the guests.

Henry Tyrrell, in a piece entitled “Bob Chanler’s Creepy Art” described, "A personally conducted “run through” [of] Mr. Chanler’s studio-house in East Nineteenth street is the sensation of a lifetime. It is something like a moving picture film of the Tales of Hoffman and Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” jumbled up “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” Only such a place as the bachelor’s apartment, atelier and zoo combined - could fully explain the man and his art."


Chanler’s private retreat was kept locked and only special guests were invited into the sanctum sanctorum, which he called the “Gobi Desert”.  Many of the elements of the famous Whitney studio in Greenwich Village were first auditioned in Chanler’s room – including the fireplace, ceiling treatments and serpent-swirling stained glass windows with a bedroom that had a 7’ x 12’ bed that accommodated 8 and was made from Duchess County trees.  


A writer named Konrad Bercovici described his impression of the house “From the stairway to the studio in the garret, it is decorated and painted in the most fantastic way, with serpents and grotesque animals crawling over one another in the most vivid and subtle colors, red tongues hanging from leaping dragons, and porcupines embossed in gold jumping over one another – Naiads and sylphs and giraffes and elephants, pell-mell grouped only because of harmony of color and movement and not because of the natural proximity of their habitats. All that is weird is painted on that stairway.”

The house wasn’t just inhabited by Chanler’s painted animal creations, there was also an animal annex with live monkees, fish, lizards. snakes and toucans in residence, a pond for flamingos, vines with a lighting system for different effects, as well as a giant aquarium for fish. He used his menagerie as a living reference in his work.

He installed an ostentation of scarlet peacock panels in a guest room in his house that remained till 1924.

Peacocks are a symbol for immortality.

Whistler’s Peacock room, 1876-7

I can't help but feel Chanler's Peacock room was an homage to James Whistler’s famous blue/green Peacock Room. Chanler was very fond of the immortal bird and painted it often but made it his own --  surrounded in RED.

Diana Vreeland's Garden in Hell

Just as Chandler was inspired by Whistler, I think his goddaughter, Diana Vreeland, was inspired by the divine red peacock room at 19th Street, when she created her famous, "garden in Hell" living room.


But 19th Street wasn’t just his home. Chanler’s studio took up the width of both buildings and had skylights to illuminate the labors of the decorative workers who manufactured Chanler’s complicated pieces.  Within it would be found, “every known and unknown bird, beast, fish or fowl” ensconced in a “paradise of gorgeous vegetation and design.”


It is here the stained glass, murals, plasterwork and the beguiling Chanler screens were made.

Panther screen with peacock reverse

4 peacocks

Harriman Screens 1915
Porcupines and flipside of screen, nightmare

Deco screen with nudes  
Deco Zebras

Chanler’s friend and chronicler, Ivan Narodny described the process of making the screens:

“The screens are first made of white satinwood,
exquisitely fine, to which is applied a certain kind of
fine muslin. Then the process of painting the wood
over the muslin for a background upon which to
paint is begun. The foundation paint is carefully
put on and then rubbed in with skill. Many coats of
paint must be used to obtain the proper finish, which
looks like enamel, before the real work of applying
the design is begun. Two months are necessary for
the first preparation to be made complete, for
several coats of paint repeated at intervals must
needs take long in drying. Then, when the artist
begins his designs the time speeds on into months,
even two years or more in some cases, before the
eagerly sought for quality is obtained. Beginning
with one color, the end is often quite a different
tone. Even starting with one design, another of
quite different form will be the complete work”.

Narodny recognized that in Chanler’s art, the artist danced with “various kinds of elemental picturesque beings – birds, octopi, fish, butterflies, magic flowers and monsters, ironic lines, primeval organic life that struggles for higher forms most violently”  and believed that  “legendary, fairy, or allegorical themes become the best magic mediums in [Chanler’s] symbolism.”  He was interested in “the spirit of nature”, where “emotional potentialities can be concealed and expressed in abstract art images and by defying every articulate description.” 

Battaille Soumarine/ Astrological Screen 

He described Chanler's 1917 Battaille Soumarine/ Astrological Screen as "symbolic fairy tale of the deep sea” that figures “those elemental life forces outside and within ourselves, which we both fear and love." I feel that when I see it and much of his other work.  


Whitney Studio’s stained glass panels - now for sale in a NY antique store, Retro Modern

Chanler created a whole, immersive and visually interactive space in Gertrude Whitney's Studio with seven stained glass windows as well as the shimmering sea-and-stars emblazoned plasterwork ceiling and a fiery fireplace.  The light from the stained glass and the fire in the fireplace would play on the metallic sheen on the plaster.  It must have been a remarkable to experience the dancing light on the undersea cast of swirling creatures (Lauren Drapala’s essay is fun to read if you want to dig deeper).


Chanler finished Whitney’s studio in 1923.  B.H. Friedman, author of a 1978 biography of Whitney, described the room and its effect on the viewer, “What’s new, startling, and unique is the decorative design of the mantelpiece and chimney. A huge fire, in molded plaster, painted mostly bright red and gold, blazes from the floor, twenty feet up the chimney, and across the ceiling where the sculptural forms flatten into low relief. Half hidden among the flames are nymphs, birds, fish, reptiles, dragons, gargoyles, a fantastic world of real and imagined animals.” Friedman also observed that Whitney had always enjoyed her studio and would relax there with her lover, Josh Hartwell, “while watching the lively flames in Bob Chanler’s exotic fireplace and sipping cocktails.”


Working on the restoration of Whitney’s studio, Lizzie Frasco revealed, “The ceiling and fireplace were covered in a thick layer of white paint after Whitney’s death in 1945 to make it more amenable to future inhabitants. While the white paint certainly belies the sculpture’s original polychrome appearance, the twisting and curling flames molded in bronze at the base and the plaster moving up the chimney towards the ceiling suggest the work’s once-lively nature…. the original paint layers included a variety of pigments and glazes, mostly red, on top of bright copper leaf.”

the Whitney studio as it is now.

the Whitney studio ceiling now
the Whitney studio ceiling now
the Whitney studio ceiling now
the Whitney studio fireplace now
Colorized using information gathered with examining underlying paint.

Colorized using information gathered with examining underlying paint.

Colorized on the right
Colorized using information gathered with examining underlying paint.

A 1928 photo of the fireplace that appears to be covered in a metallic sheen

inspirational screen – flames mural panel 1913

Probably Chanler’s best known work is the ceiling of the pool at Miami’s Villa Viscaya   that he did from 1916-24 - work which took a good deal of inspiration from the work of a 16th century court ceramist and favorite of Catherine de Medici named Bernard PalissyPalissy’s work was rediscovered and copied when Chanler was young and Palissy-ware was very popular toward the Art Nouveau-end of the 19th century.  A few pieces of it can be seen at Rokeby.

Original Palissy  ceramics, 1550s

Original Palissy  ceramics, 1550s

Original Palissy  ceramics, 1550s

Original Palissy  ceramics, 1550s

Palissy ware 1880s (Portuguese)

Palissy ware 1880s (Portuguese)


Paul Chalfin, Viscaya’s decorator, was very worried about Chanler’s reputation as a wild boy and tried to get Chanler off the project but John Deering, the owner of Viscaya, had the last word. Chalfin’s letter to Deering showed how distraught he was about working with Chanler:

“I should still have much hesitancy in definitely fixing on the character of this room because of the participation of Mr. Chandlet [sic]. You know how fearful I am that in participating with a genius as wayward as Mr. Chandler [sic} something should be done down there which might get beyond me.”

Chanler wanted to conjure a Renaissance grotto to impress his American patron using the Palissy techniques from the lost Montmorency grotto in a masterful new way and picked up the cost himself for the extra time it took to finish it (Palissy made molds of real items to add to his ceramics – shells, foliage as well as fish and creatures - it looks like Chanler did as well). The light and texture of the room, even with the deterioration, has a magic to it and I hope the recent restoration has restored the shimmering paints which have been lost over time. You can see the hints of their lustre in the closeups below.

I am looking forward to seeing the pictures of the restored ceiling with the renewed colors and metallic fish shimmering in the reflected pool light – looking alive. Chanler must have intended that it always would have that quality of magic that the sun, filtering through the arches, would create - his magic living on after his death.

There are so many more screens and places (like the Colony club in NYC and the Coe house in Long Island) you should see or visit if you can. I have loved this Chanler excursion and sort of hate to leave. I doubt we will experience a man of his like again – more’s the pity.


So, what to eat?  In perusing accounts of Chanler parties I read of lots of silver cocktail shakers -- found Chanler loved absinthe way too much and that what people remembered most about his parties wasn't the overindulgence but the quality of the guests.  The parties were full of fascinating people and conversations - and that is the best kind of party food, isn't it?  So, I imagine morning-after food instead -- with the menagerie fluttering about the breakfast banquette and bits of cake being fed under the table.

I had been wanting to open Aunt Babette’s Cookbook, Foreign and Domestic Receipts for the Household 1889   for a while - it was exceedingly popular back in the day. Although she Americanized the names of favorite Jewish dishes, the opening pages proudly displayed a Star of David.  It also gave a remarkably empathic direction for dealing with staff which sets it apart from most of the books  of the period that I’ve read. 


“No one serves from mere choice, therefore we should treat those serving us kindly, and not notice every frown or cloud stamped on their faces: they can not smile at all times.  They have their secret sorrows, aches and pains as well as the mistress of the mansion, which alas they can not or will not confide to others…. How pleasant is a home where kindness reigns.” 

Chanler was known to have a hat full of $5 bills on a table by the door at his parties in Woodstock where fellow artists would put food on their own tables for a week or more thanks to those party favors.   Generosity reigned in his homes indeed. Babette would approve.


Her recipes are mostly simple classics with no oven temperatures and very little direction for baking times.

There were a few dishes that I was tempted by – like a cherry pudding and a kraut kugel but he dark, coffee enriched cake won the day – a gingerbread-like cake with raisins and citron that advises you to toss the fruit in flour before adding.  I read somewhere it keeps the fruit from falling to the bottom so it’s a great, antique kitchen hack.   I poured a touch of rum over my slice and loved it, then tried Madeira and loved that too - it has a lovely light texture.  I imagine it would be great with a glaze as well.  ENJOY!

English Coffee Cake


1 c butter (creamed)

2 cup dark brown sugar

4 eggs

1 c molasses

1 cup hot strong coffee

1 t soda

4 ½ c flour, sifted 

2 t cream of tartar

½ t salt (optional)

½ t each of nutmeg, mace, allspice and cloves

1 c raisins

½ c chipped citron


Preheat oven to 350º Butter a large cake pan or 2 layer cake pans  or loaf pan or 12 cupcake size, or 6 m molds  (I halved the recipe and made 3-2c cakes)


Dredge raisins and citron in the flour.  

Add the brown sugar to the butter and cream the mixture, add the eggs one at a time.  Add 1 t of baking soda to the coffee, dissolve. Then add that to butter mixture.  Add the molasses.


Put the cream of tartar in ½ c of flour and mix with rest of flour.  Add the spices and then sift, fold in the 

raisins and citron and pour into the prepared pans (it was enough for 3 molds and rose quite a bit!).  


Bake for 35- 40 minutes for 2c molds - 50 for loaf pan or till tester comes out clean.