Frank Tolles Chamberlin, 1873-1961

This text comes from a typewritten announcement composed by Chamberlin's family on the occasion of his death in 1961. The announcement is located in the Architecture and Fine Arts Library, USC.

F. Tolles Chamberlin died on July 24, 1961 in the house in which he had lived for the past 40 years. In November 1957, and again in November 1958, he had almost died from heart attacks, followed by a case of facial shingles. In May 1959, he had to have the "Eisenhower" operation, then another, in July, for adhesions, but recovered enough to walk more than a mile and to ride half a day in the car. He was eager to live and to work, and was full of plans for a sculptural monument, a major composition for oil, and many other projects in painting and etching but found he had neither strength nor the eyesight to carry them out. From this period of greatest recovery he grew weaker until, for the last few days, he was unable to rise from his bed.

His interest in current events was undiminished, and he listened to a great many daily newscasts and commentators, as well as all the editorials and articles on art and education that we could read to him.

F. Tolles Chamberlin was born in San Francisco on March 10, 1873. When he was 7, his grandfather Chamberlin died and the family returned to the farm at Ascutney, Vermont, where he enjoyed a happy and fairly typical farm childhood; attending a one-room school, tramping Mt. Ascutney's slopes with his much treasured rifle, driving the team at haying time, learning the trickery art of cracking butternuts, or the delicious art of "sugaring off" in the snow filled maple woods. He loved the farm life of New England with its changing seasons as he had loved San Francisco's busy waterfront and the Napa Valley ranch. He took great pleasure in listening to his sister's music lesson. In fact, since the age of 3, when he was taken to see Pinafore, music was a lifelong enthusiasm.

About 6 years after they came to the farm, it was sold and Tolles' father, hoping to make a fortune for his family, joined his brothers in Texas where real estate was booming. He was soon followed there by Tolles' older brother harry, while Tolles and his mother and sister stayed in Hartford. Tolles attended public school and Hannan Business College there and, at the age of 15 he took his first few drawing lessons in the old Wadsworth Atheneum from Dwight W. Tryon whose criticisms he remembered with pleasure all his life.

Tolles' first position was in New Rochelle with Mr. Nathan Barrett, landscape architect, making technical drawings and water color renderings. A little later he taught in Miss Lowe's School for Girls in Rye, N. Y. Before long he was able to take advantage of a more attractive opening in New York in the architectural office of Mr. William Wheeler Smith, at no. 7 Wall Street. His work there must have been unusually promising, for Mr. Smith wanted him to stay on and inherit the business. During these years of architectural work, he was attending night classes in drawing and painting with George Bridgman and George De Forest Brush at the Art Students League.

Tolles' heart was set on going abroad, so resigned from Mr. Smith's office in order to try for the Lazarus scholarship to the American Academy in Rome, which was only possible at 3-years intervals. Tolles passed the perspective examinations with the highest marks on record. The main part of the test was a problem in mural painting, and when the preliminary sketches were approved, each contestant was given a private studio, and three weeks to complete the study to scale.

The coveted prize won, Tolles sailed for Rome in November 1908 to spend three days happy and profitable years, which fortunately he was able to extend to four. In 1911 he received his F. A. A. R. During these years, besides working in his studio, he traveled extensively, studying painting and sculpture related to architecture. It was for this that the academy was founded, after the World's Fair of 1893 had demonstrated the serious lack of understanding among our painters and sculptors of this relationship.

The muralists and illutrastor, Frank Millet, who was chosen to succeed Frederic Crowninshield as Director of the Academy, came to Rome in 1912. He astonished and delighted Tolles by asking him, shortly after arriving, to return with him and take over his Washington studio and to carry out his New Bedford mural commission. Had it not, been for his figure - "The Cup Bearer" - Which was nearing completion, but not yet ready for casting, he would have sailed with Mr. Millet---and been lost with him on the "Titanic".

On returning to New York, Tolles was invited to give six weeks to teaching classes in life and nature forms at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design. The students begged him to continue, and in the end he gave four years---rewarding years---for the students were eager, earnest and appreciative.

He spent four summers at the Mac Dowell Colony at Peterborough, N. H., where the acquaintance, made in Rome, ripened and led to his marriage with Kathatine Beecher Stetson.

The School of Architecture of Columbia University asked him to conduct the watercolor rendering class, but since the students all joined the armed services the class was soon abandoned. Tolles volunteered also but was refused because of age, and had to content himself with drilling in the 7th Regiment. Having won the Expert Rifleman Medal, he coached others in Marksmanship.

Late in 1919, Tolles and his wife and baby daughter removed to Pasadena where his son was born. Before leaving the East, he had been warned that there were no teaching jobs to be had in Southern Calif. He was much surprised, therefore, when he made a social call on Mr. Townsley at the Ottis Art Institute, to be offered a teaching position there; and still more surprised to be invited my Mrs. Chouinard, before leaving the building, to be co-founder as well as instructor of the "Chouinard Art Institute". Soon after he began these classes he was asked by the Dean of the School of Architecture at U. S. C. to conduct a class in watercolor rendering.

Some years later, when he resigned from U. S. C. to concentrate on the Chouinard, and his own work, this same Dean and a delegation of students came to beg him to return. He refused, but offered to start classes here if there were enough interested. There were. The evening class opened with 19-some coming from as far away as Santa Barbara. Classes continued in Pasadena, with one summer school course in anatomy at the Ottis, until was again called young men away. Tolles was a born teacher. He had a deep interest in his students and enjoyed working with them. A large number of these are now widely known in fields of illustration, commercial arts, animation, and teaching, as well as in the fine arts, but each has developed in his own distinctive way. Tolles taught his students to see, to understand what lay beneath the surface form, to express what they saw intelligibly, but never forced his own style upon them.

Still latter, the returning G. I.'s, seeking jobs and education on the G. I. Bill of Rights, indirectly caused Tolles to lose his large studio - a store building next door to the expanding State Employment Bureau. The demanding for education caused a sudden increase in classes and schools of all kinds and, among others, Herbert Jepson, one of his old students, open the Jepson Art Institute where Tolles taught for a couple of years.

In 1955 the Pasadena Art Museum invited him to make a retrospective exhibition in its largest galleries. The Director, Mr. Joseph Fulton, gave him a very free hand in selecting and arranging the work, and they worked together most harmoniously. The exhibition was comprehensive and varied; oil, water color, pastel, sculpture, drawing and etching; from a delicate drawing of a hummingbird's wing, to a full sized cast of the powerful restrained bas-relief lintel on the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. In fact, most of his major work was shown - save the mural in the library of the McKinley Junior High School!

A man can best be judged by his assembled work - the scope of his talent and his power of expression. But, by its very nature, much of his work was not included in this show at the Art Museum. Like Leonardo Da Vinci, Tolles was almost as much interested in mechanical things as in Art itself. His inventions were practicable and carefully worked out. They included a bilge-keel stabilizer for large ships, an antiglare headlight, and a shade for streetlights that directed all the light onto the street and out of the drivers' eyes. Thirty years ago he tried to get Cal-Tech interested in developing a chemical for dropping on forest fires by mean of an old Army bomber, but the Army said it was an absurd idea since to fly a bomber cost $300 a day! In those days the value of our watershed was not as widely appreciated!

Tolles was also deeply interested in conversation, education, and fine music - especially of the early classic composers - as well as in politics and current events.

He exhibited widely (one-man shows and general exhibitions) and won many awards. Examples of his works are in public and private collections.

At the time of his death he was an Honorary Life Member of The Beaux Arts Institute of Design, The Bookworkers Guild (N. Y. ), The California Art Club, The California Water Color Society, The Pasadena Society of Artists (Charter Member also) and the Artists of the S. West.

We are sending this brief biographical sketch primarily as a notice to friends who either live at some distant, or, being out of town, would miss the local papers, and to let them know (as he never could for he found it hard to write letters himself) how much he appreciated them and how deeply touched he was by all the visits and letters and tributes he received.

Katharine, Dorothy and Walter Stetson Chamberlin.


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