Two Framed, Mythological Engravings after Claude
Bart Chapin had mentioned that his brother Mel in Massachusetts had some prints from Melville’s collection, but that did not prepare me for what I saw as soon as I entered the home of Melville and Elizabeth Chapin in Cambridge a year later. Two large landscapes after Claude Lorrain in frames that appeared to date from the nineteenth century were the unmistakable treasures of their living space. I did not yet know that William Woollett’s 1782 engraving of Claude’s Enchanted Castle was one of the most celebrated images in the history of British printmaking. Nor did I have any idea who the four figures in that print’s large, framed companion engraving might be. But these two highly accomplished prints immediately showed me that Herman Melville was a more discriminating and accomplished collector of European Old Master engravings than I had previously recognized.
Melville Chapin was the older brother of Edward Barton Chapin, Jr. Their mother Jeanette Ogden (Thomas) Chapin was a granddaughter of Elizabeth and Herman Melville, born a year after the Herman’s death. Bart Chapin in Maine had mentioned that his brother Mel had “quite a few” prints from Herman Melville’s art collection, so as soon as I had absorbed the visual impact of the two magnificent framed engravings after Claude, I asked Mel if he had any other prints from the collection of the great grandfather he was named for. Melville Chapin, like his namesake, had married an Elizabeth, but he and the former Elizabeth Ann Parker were more casually known as Mel and Lizanne. They quickly assured me that, “Yes, we have other prints from Herman Melville’s collection,” leading me to a room in which they generously showed me about two hundred family prints and photographs among which those from Herman Melville’s collection were indiscriminately mixed. My initial visit to their Cambridge home clearly required a more extended sequel.
Bart had said that he and Mel had split the Melville prints they had inherited from their mother quite evenly between them, so I had been hoping and expecting to see about as many prints from Herman Melville’s collection here as I had in Maine. The two large, framed engravings after Claude were obviously two of those, but which of those among Mel and Lizanne’s own substantial collection of images had once been his? By then, there was a likelihood that the prints they had preserved from Mel’s great grandfather might be the subject of an essay in the Harvard Library Bulletin once we could sort out which had once been his. Several were immediately identifiable by the handwritten initials of Mel’s mother (“J. O. T.”) on the back of the print. Several others were likely candidates because of their close affinity with prints I had already seen at the Berkshire Athenaeum and in the homes of Priscilla Ambrose and Bart Chapin. But how would we distinguish other prints the author had collected from the wide range of pictorial acquisitions from Mel and Lizanne’s own inquisitive lives?
I separated out what I could on the first day of my return visit to their home, but further study would be required in establishing exactly which ones had come to them through Mel’s mother from Herman himself. These were the early days of Kinko’s, so Mel and Lizanne generously allowed me to take all remaining candidates to my hotel for overnight study and notetaking, the next morning having photocopies made of any print that might require further study after I returned home to northern Kentucky. We have already seen one wonderful print from their collection in chapter 1 of this website, Küslen’s exquisite print of della Bella’s etched double portrait of a Persian slave boy and a camel (CAT 68). Other prints from the Melville Chapin collection will appear in subsequence sections of this chapter and subsequent sections of this site.