Roger Howlett, November 8, 2020

Title

Roger Howlett, November 8, 2020

Subject

American Architecture
Blue Lady Eating Club
Erie Canal Museum
Carriage and Harness Museum
Childs Gallery
Columbia University
David Ellis
Drawing
Foxy
Geology
Otsego Lake
Hamilton College
Hickory Grove
Holy Trinity Monastery
Louis C. Jones
Main Street
Mount Van Hoevenberg
Painting
Richard Upjohn
Sugar bush
Syracuse Central Technical High School
Syracuse, New York
Tunnicliff
Utica City Hall
Winter Carnival
Yale University

Description

Mr. Roger Howlett was born at Memorial Hospital in Syracuse, New York in 1945 and attended Syracuse Central Technical High School. His mother grew up on the south side of Syracuse and his father is from Morrisville, New York. Growing up in Syracuse, he attended public school, where as a teenager he took part in a number of activities, including attending concerts and taking painting lessons at the local art museum. After high school, he attended Hamilton College where he met the people who helped to bring him to Cooperstown.

While at Hamilton College, Howlett originally had a strong interest in geology, and he had a focus on geology until the first semester of his junior year. As a member of an all-men’s, liberal arts college, he was actively involved in a fraternity on campus. His time at Hamilton College exposed him to the man who helped get him into the Cooperstown Graduate Program, David Ellis, a professor of history and a friend of Louis C. Jones, the founder of the Cooperstown Graduate Program.

Howlett joined the Cooperstown Graduate Program Class of 1966-1967 and was in what would be characterized as the museum track today, but he also took a few courses in folklife. In his time at CGP, he wrote a thesis on Utica City Hall, a building designed by the famous architect, Richard Upjohn. In his spare time, Howlett enjoyed ice fishing with professors, bobsledding with friends, hosting the “Blue Lady Eating Club” at his “town house” in Cooperstown, and caring for his pet fox, Foxy.

This interview occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic; as a result, I interviewed Mr. Howlett remotely via Zoom. Mr. Howlett was in his office at Childs Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts, where he is currently the Senior Research Fellow.

Creator

William Kleffner

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2020-11-08

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mpeg
49.6mB
image/jpeg
144 pixels
movie/mpeg
26mB

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image
Moving Image

Identifier

20-010

Coverage

Upstate New York

Cooperstown, NY
1940-2008

Interviewer

William Kleffner

Interviewee

Roger Howlett

Location

5838 NY-80, Cooperstown, NY

Transcription

WK=William Kleffner
RH= Roger Howlett

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

WK:
This is the November 8, 2020 interview of Roger Howlett of Childs Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts, by William Kleffner for the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s Research and Fieldwork course recorded at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Cooperstown, New York.

WK:
First question: where were you born?

RH:
Syracuse, New York; Memorial Hospital.

WK:
Can you tell me a bit about it?

RH:
About Syracuse?

WK:
Yes. About where you lived, where you were born, maybe the hospital you were born in.

RH:
It was Memorial Hospital.

WK:
Could you tell me a little bit more about Syracuse, New York?

RH:
Syracuse is and was a mid-size city. When I was born there, it was filled with different light industries and some more impressive industries like a major GE [General Electric] Plant, Carrier Corporation. And it was a good place to grow up; I’ve said Syracuse is a great place to be from. It had just enough culture that I could find, even as a preteen, concerts and things that I could go to that I liked. I took painting lessons at the art museum. The grade school, junior high school, and high school were all, I think, quite wonderful in their own way. And it gave me a good basic high school education. My mother’s parents were from the south side of Syracuse. My mother grew up there and my father grew up in Morrisville, New York.

WK:
What did you do while growing up in Syracuse?

RH:
I was very interested in both art and science, so from an early age, I painted. Although that was more, even then, kind of fun, hobbyist painting. I thought I was going to be a geologist, so I was a great rock and mineral and to a lesser extent, fossil collector.

WK:
Where did you attend high school?

RH:
Syracuse Central Technical High School. Which was a magnificent building. It was the Central High School for Syracuse, so it had as mixed a student body as you could get in race, ethnicity, color, and in every course that I had there was that same mix of race, ethnicity, background. Including a fair number of students who were first-generation Americans.

WK:
After high school, where did you acquire your bachelor’s degree?

RH:
My grandfather suggested that I look at Hamilton College; and I applied only to small, liberal arts men’s colleges. Of the ones that I was accepted at, Hamilton College was my first choice.

WK:
What kind of program did you get involved in at Hamilton College?

RH:
Academically, again, I thought I was going to be a geologist, so I was deep in geology right up until the first semester of my junior year. I was also, because everybody was, an active member of a fraternity. That was no special distinction, because more than 90% of the student body were in fraternities, and everyone was guaranteed a place if they wanted to be.

WK:
After college, what brought you to the Cooperstown Graduate Program?

RH:
I had heard about it; I’m trying to think where the first place was that I heard about it. In any event, Louis C. Jones was a graduate of Hamilton College, so he was always taking a look at who might be a likely student for Cooperstown. David Ellis, who was professor of history and particularly noted for his love of local history, was a great friend of Jones. I think, probably, David Ellis was the first person to suggest that I look at Cooperstown.

WK:
What attracted you to this program the most, do you think?

RH:
I had been interested in museums. I was interested in material culture, but I don’t think I knew enough to call it that. I was very personally interested in local history. I had done my senior art paper on the architecture of the Utica City Hall, which is a Richard Upjohn building and was one of only nineteen buildings [and] was a very major [part of the] history of architecture in the United States. In any event, it was recognized by everyone outside of Utica, and Utica demolished it. So, in a sense, my saving of the Utica City Hall was documenting it.

WK:
What research did you conduct during your time at the Cooperstown Graduate Program?

RH:
I had not finished all that I could see could be done on the Utica City Hall, while at Hamilton, so it became my thesis for Cooperstown. A copy is filed in the Fenimore Art Museum, formerly New York State Historical Association library at Cooperstown.

WK:
Could you tell me a bit about your research with the Utica City Hall?

RH:
It included going to the city hall itself, and even though it was closed down, I was still able to get access to it. And with a friend from Hamilton, we proceeded to do measured drawings of the building, which was quite wonderful. It allowed me to go deeper and deeper into newspaper archives and into the Upjohn papers at Columbia University in the Avery architectural library.

WK:
What was the curriculum like at the Cooperstown Graduate Program?

RH:
Well, I was, I think it was the second year. Or maybe it was the third. Which was it? The second or the third?

WK:
I believe it was the third.
RH:
So, everything was developing. The curriculum centered around who was teaching and what they wanted to teach, but it was a great group of professors, including Louis and Aggie Jones. It had some considerable characters, particularly Per Guldbeck, who taught exhibit design and had done the major exhibit at the Famer’s Museum, “The Farmer’s Year.” He was kind of our survivalist, the man who could explain anything to do with pre-industrial culture.

WK:
Who would you say was the biggest influence on you at the Cooperstown Graduate Program? Faculty-wise? Louis Jones?

RH:
Louis Jones was definitely an influence on all of us. He was a professor, but he was also the director of the New York State Historical Association. His second-in-command, Minor Wine Thomas, was equally influential and a character and definitely taught many students how to drink bourbon.

WK:
Why was he such a big influence on you?

RH:
I think, in a lot of cases for many of the students, we first learned to be semi-cultured adults. The kind of information that was brought to bear from many different sources and this great group of people that were at the New York State Historical Association, and, identically, the same people at the Cooperstown Graduate Programs, really opened our eyes to all kinds things that we didn’t know about, things that we didn’t either know existed or had done once over the top, and they influenced us to do a deeper dive.

WK:
Were there any other faculty members or even students that had an influence on you during your time at the program?

RH:
Fred Rath was my thesis advisor, and he had it as part of his background to do with the history of American architecture, and I think that many people at that point thought that I was going to be an architectural historian. But as I moved forward in graduate school, my interests shifted more and more to painting, prints, drawing, and sculpture, but maintaining the interests in architectural history.

WK:
What did you enjoy about the Cooperstown Graduate Program?

RH:
Frankly, it was the freedom of having my own apartment, my own car, and a lot of like-minded students that were ready for adventure. I can remember driving my 1958 Chevrolet station wagon full of students up to Lake Placid and Mount Van Hoevenberg, in the winter, where we all rode the state bobsled down Mount Van Hoevenberg on the Olympic bobsled course. And driving back, it was a full moon night, white snow everywhere, and being able to turn the headlights off on the car and drive for miles by moonlight.

WK:
In addition to the bobsled, what did you enjoy doing in your spare time as a student?

RH:
Well, I did watercolors because that’s always been my hobby. Something that I think would be impossible today but was fairly odd on my part was I went down Main Street to the hardware store, I don’t know whether it still exists on Main Street or not, but in any event, I was getting some tool or part for something that I needed to work on the apartment and I saw a box with furry little faces sticking out of the box. And I looked at them and I said, “What are these?” The proprietor said, “Oh, they’re fox kits. A farmer shot a vixen and then realized she had a litter, dug up the den and brought the kits here. Do you want one?” And I, very stupidly, said “Sure! I’d love to have a fox as a pet.” And thus, begins the very long story of the adventures of Foxy.

WK:
Could you tell me a little bit about the adventures of Foxy?

RH:
Well, I had a little townhouse in the only slum in Cooperstown and the fox came home with me. I found that it was amenable to eating dry or wet dog food, and it grew apace, and it was quite friendly, but very nervous with anyone he didn’t know. At a point, he did something, I don’t know what it was, but it was like he peed inadvertently on something, so I did the puppy thing of putting his nose in it and giving him a little whack with a rolled-up newspaper. He looked at me, jumped into my favorite chair, and peed all over it. We went a couple of rounds until I realized the fox was not giving up and we were on the path to thermonuclear war. After that, the fox had a pet “me.” You either were going to be the fox’s roommate or his subordinate, you were not going to tell him what to do. As we got through the year and closer and closer to the summer, I had signed up for my very first trip to Europe, and I don’t know if somebody is interviewing Dick Slavin, but he would have a version of this story. The fox went to the Carriage and Harness Museum, which has been destroyed, as you know, probably. But, anyway, there were dog runs and dog cages for all kinds of hunting dogs, then empty, and the fox went there for the summer. The fox got out for walks, including one with Mrs. Jane Clark. She spotted the fox and said, “Young man, is that a fox?” and Dick Slavin said, yes, it is. She said, “May I approach it?” So, the Patroness of Cooperstown, Mrs. Clark, met Foxy. As I got back from Europe, it became clear that the fox was not coming with me to New Haven. I had a job at the Yale University Art Gallery, but among the many faculty and employees of NYSHA and the program was Hi Gross, who was the official [hand quotes] “trapper,” and Hi said, “I’ll take the fox.” Hi later recounted his adventures with the fox, which he had an empty dog run with chain-link fence that had quite a lot of space. He put the fox there, bedded him down, gave him food and water, and went in the house and had his meal, went to bed, went to sleep, got up the next morning, walked to the front door, looked and saw the fox was at his stoop, staring up and looking at him. So, he looked around and found out where the fox had dug out underneath the chain-link fence to get to him. So, Hi did the proper thing and filled it in. Thus, day number two the fox is on the step looking up at him, and Hi said, “You know, it took the fox five days to train me.” After that, the fox came and went as he felt like, the chain-link fox house and dog run was his, he knew that, but if Hi was out in the garden, he would garden with Hi. They spent lots of time together. Then, one day, as Hi said, he just didn’t come back. About three weeks later, he came back, stayed a few days, and disappeared again. Then, he was really gone. As High explained, it was close to a year later that Hi was in the garden, gardening, and the fox came out of the brambles and bushes and just sat there and looked at him, then turned away and walked out. Hi said, “I think he met a lady fox.” It has always been my contention that many of the foxes in Otsego County may descend from Foxy because he had a true advantage over all of the rest of the male foxes. The advantage? He’d had a rabies shot.

WK:
Could you tell me a little bit more about Hi Gross?

RH:
Well, I didn’t know Hi awfully well, but he was on-site in The Farmers’ Museum to explain early American trapping and what you got from it, how you cured pelts, how pelts were in the earliest days of the exploration of the western part of New York State. The pelts were a source of cash money or trade, so he was, I would say, an interpreter. He lived his interpretation. He was actually a trapper.

WK:
You mentioned that the fox lived with you in your townhouse?

RH:
Well, I mean, yes. It was a kitchen and a living room, downstairs; a small bedroom, a larger bedroom upstairs, and the fox had the run of the place.

WK:
Did you have any other roommates that lived with you?

RH:
Dick Slavin. The one that I was talking about earlier who cared for the fox in the summer from the Carriage and Harness museum. Dick, I hope is being interviewed by somebody, because I am sure he would be a good interview.

WK:
Who was your landlord?

RH:
I don’t remember her name at this point, but she had all three of these little townhouses on Susquehanna Avenue. Have you been able to be around Cooperstown enough to see the streets? Or has the lockdown been such that you don’t know Cooperstown that well?

WK:
I have been able to get at a little bit; I work part-time at a local grocery store here [Price Chopper Market 32].

RH:
Oh, good.
[TRACK 1, 21:25]
WK:
In addition to the state bobsled, what did you like to do in your spare time?

RH:
One or more of my fellow students would join me, and we would go jaunting off looking at everything; landscape, domestic architecture, hop kilns, barns. And one of the things that I had already done from Hamilton is go to Holy Trinity Monastery, and I think that everybody was quite astonished to go to Holy Trinity Monastery. A little bit of Mother Russia in upstate New York? Have you been?

WK:
Not yet.

RH:
Anyway, it’s in Jordanville, New York.

WK:
Did you attend any of the local festivals?

RH:
Our year-project of documentation was a sugar bush, so we got involved in, I wouldn’t say a festival, but the maple syruping families knew each other and knew how to have a good time. But everyone in my class had to do a sugar house somewhere.

WK:
Were there any restaurants or shops that you frequented?

RH:
Well, certainly the Hickory [Grove]. It was on the road up the west side of the lake, the Glimmer Glass. That became, sort of, our de-facto clubhouse where the owners, Paul and Madeline, knew us well and we would come in anywhere from eight to ten o’clock and stay until midnight. I think there is still something there, but it’s on the wrong side of the road now. It was on the west side of the west road. We went to the Tunnicliff. We were all kind of poor. The faculty were awfully good about inviting a few of us to dinner on a fairly regular basis.

WK:
Where did you usually get invited to dinner?

RH:
They usually invited us to their home. Including Caroline and Sheldon Keck; they were part of the community, and there you had to be on your very best behavior. But I was invited at least twice to the Kecks’ for dinner. You know who they are?

WK:
I do not. Could you tell me who they are?

RH:
They founded the SUNY conservation program for the conservation of oil paintings. Actually, the building you’re in right now, half of it was oil painting conservation. It hadn’t been built yet, but after I left, they built the conservation lab and space for some administration for the Cooperstown Graduate Programs. Frank Spinney and his wife, Alice, were particularly wonderful in terms of inviting students to dinner. Frank had been most recently director of Old Sturbridge Village, and he and Alice basically retired to Cooperstown, so he was in his upper-sixties or early-seventies and was very much enjoying teaching at the school. He and his wife taught us lots of things about decorum and deportment in the museum world. I remember Louis Jones saying that the museum world floats on a cushion of alcohol, and either you learn to successfully deal with it, or it deals successfully with you.

WK:
What did the Cooperstown Graduate Program building look like when you were a student?

RH:
Well, it was the White House, which I think is still there. Well, of course, they’ve done so many changes recently, but where the NYSHA Library was built out at the north end of the big complex, on the very north edge of the property was a white building with two stories, porch, I think it’s there today, known as the White House. That was the program administration and faculty office, as well as at least, two, maybe as many as three classrooms.

WK:
Did you work at all while attending school?

RH:
I don’t think I had a job that paid enough money to think about. I had a Scriven Foundation Fellowship which paid for my tuition and gave me a $2,000 stipend. I was able to, back then, live within that $2,000. Things were much cheaper. In my and Dick Slavin’s apartment, we had an eating club that met at least four days a week, maybe five. We had various different people on cook and clean up, and you could not spend more than fifty cents per person, per dinner, unless you were given special permission. Like it was a holiday feast or something, but otherwise people expected to come and pay fifty cents for their dinners. And we could actually do it!
WK:
Could you describe some of the meals that you ate in this “eating club?”

RH:
Everything from spaghetti; there was certainly a good pasta and rice load in it. Beef, occasionally. It would probably be beef stew because they would be tougher cuts of meat. Chicken, occasionally fish if we could find it at local markets, but, unfortunately, the growing season in Cooperstown, by the time we arrived in September, it was pretty much gone. It didn’t start up much until late June. So, it was mostly grocery vegetables, grocery meats, maybe the same grocery you’re working in.

WK:
That’s a possibility. I work at the Price Chopper Supermarket.

RH:
I don’t think it was called that then, but it might have been in the same place.

WK:
Could you tell me about any of the members who were involved in this eating club?

RH:
Cheryl and Jim Gold. At that point, they had just discovered each other, but they later married and were a long-time couple until Cheryl’s sad and tragic death a few years ago. Obviously, me and Dick Slavin since we were living there. Nichol Forsht, Bob Koolakian, Bob was enthusiastic about any food we prepared and was always upbeat. John Ott. John was from Pennsylvania, and he was a nothing exotic, I don’t want to eat anything I haven’t eaten before. No surprises, Mr. Meat and Potatoes, so he would come into a dinner and go, “Oh, blah, I can’t eat that!” So, we did have various food critics. Once again, I think Dick Slavin would be a big help to fill in anybody I have forgotten. There was a plate, I don’t know where it had come from, but it ended up as one of the plates in the cupboard for serving food on. It had a lady with a big, fancy Victorian, blue hat on. So, we named the eating club the “Blue Lady” after the dinner plate. Oh, and for heat in the apartment, through the winter, I had worked at the [Erie] Canal Museum in Syracuse, the summer before to get some museum experience. While I was there, I took a phone call from a lady who lived up in the university section of Syracuse, wanting to give a cast iron stove to the Canal Museum. Frank Buchanan Thomson, the director of the Canal Museum, agreed that the museum did not need a cast iron stove which had wood-coal on the left side for four burners and gas on the right side for four burners. I said to Frank, would it be alright to tell her I would like it, if we don’t? He said, well, what do you want it for? I said, I’ve just rented an apartment in Cooperstown and it has no heat. He said, call her up, see if she’s willing to give it to you. She was more than willing. And my brother and I moved this cast iron stove, which weighed a horrendous amount, it seemed like it was in tons, not pounds, but we got it in the back of my Chevy station wagon and drove it to Cooperstown and unloaded it in the kitchen. That was the kitchen range, which had wood-coal below, wood-coal warming oven above, four gas burners on the right, four burners for the wood coal box on the left, and that was what we did all of the cooking on. I went to Hyde Hall, or up next to Hyde Hall, where Tommy Clarke lived. He was the descendant of George Hyde Clarke, who had built Hyde Hall. I don’t know how I matched up with him, but in any event, he let me borrow a wood coal stove for the living room for the time I was there. It was missing two finials that should have been there. I offered to find the correct finials as “rent.” So, I picked it up. Dutifully, when I left the apartment, I returned the wood coal stove to Tommy Clarke with two brass finials. As I say, I don’t remember why I even knew him, but he was the heir to the last of the acreage of the great Clarke tract. He basically came off as a well-educated, but definitely into it, up-to-his-elbows, farmer. And I think that there was some tension between the old Clarkes and the new Clarks as to who was really Cooperstown’s most important family. Certainly, the Singer Sewing Machine Clarks had a lot more money, but then they couldn’t say that in 1804, they could walk on their land all the way from Albany to Cooperstown. I think the tract is over 300,000 acres.

[Pause]

RH:
So, more questions?

WK:
You mentioned heat in the wintertime, what sort of activities did you do in the wintertime?

RH:
Oh, of course there was some skating, some sledding, and some winter sports, but I had never been a skier. But the best one was Minor Wine Thomas and his fishing shack. Minor Wine was an old family Virginian and a great fisherman, but when he got to Cooperstown, he realized there was a type of fishing that he had never done before, but he took to it quickly. That was ice-fishing. So, he built himself a little fishing shack that was probably six or seven feet by six or seven feet, with a door and a roof. When he put it out on the ice and drilled his hole to put his lures, hooks, and tip ups, he had an old Oriental rug that had had a bad center which he cut out so that you could walk into this and it had a rug all the way around on the floor with a hole in the center of it for the hooks and lures to go down, and for the tip up to flip up when there was a bite. He had one of the tiniest wood coal stoves I’ve ever seen, which kept the interior of the icehouse, ice shack, at a lovely, warm temperature compared to the winds on the lake outside. When you sat down, you found out very shortly you were being offered a glass of bourbon. And if you wanted ice for your bourbon, Minor Wine would say, “just step out and I wouldn’t choose the yellow ice.” Then, of course, Minor Wine did not play this game, but there was a game that was played and maybe it is played to this day, of who can keep his ice shack out the longest during the Spring thaw. When it began to thaw, Minor Wine packed up the stove, the tip-ups, the Oriental rug, and skidded his icehouse right back to wherever it was he stowed it for the summer. But other people were playing a kind of crazy game to see who could be the last on the ice successfully. Of course, somebody’s icehouse always went in the drink as the ice cracked and finished off. As I said, I don’t know whether they still play that game today, but it is sort of an “ice chicken.” I’m trying to think of what else you might be interested in. Oh! There was some snow sculpture and winter carnival.

WK:
Could you tell me a bit more about the Winter Carnival?

RH:
Well, I don’t think I participated as much as I might have, but it was Cooperstown’s Winter Carnival. Certainly, all were welcome, and people came from other places, but I think that you’re going to find other people who get interviewed will have a better recollection. There was a formal dance in Fenimore House, as a part of it. You got your best jacket, your best suit, your best tie, best shirt, and went to the Winter Carnival Ball in Fenimore House.

WK:
How long were you in the Cooperstown Graduate Program?

RH:
One full year, that was the method then. So, you basically had something that looked like three or four semesters, but in a calendar year. Whereas now, you have the summers off, yes? And you have four semesters, two years?

WK:
Yes.

RH:
Yes.

WK:
In your one year, what did you study at the graduate program?

RH:
Well, I was taking the museum course together with the folklife course. You could do one, the other, or a combined degree. A large number of us found that there were some courses in folklife that were interesting that made it useful to be able to combine the two courses, even if it was only one or two classes. I was principally in the museum end of it, but I took a few folklife courses. I do not remember which ones they were.

WK:
Where did your career take you after your one-year program at CGP?

RH:
I had applied to graduate school at Yale and I was a little late, so I got a nice offer from Yale University to work at the Yale University Art Gallery for a year and then go into the graduate program.

WK:
What did you study in their program?

RH:
It was art history, and I found after being there a year and half, I got an offer in Boston for a job in an art gallery, which is where I am still. So, the question was, do you want the job, or do you want to continue going forward with the degree? I took the job. I have no regrets.

WK:
Could you tell me a little bit about the position that you have had at Childs Gallery?

RH:
Well, it started out as assistant to the president, but after three years I was able to buy in to a partial share, and after three more years, I became a full partner. 1970 was when I started in as assistant to the president. 1973, I bought into a small share of the total value of the gallery. It was set up as a corporation. In 1983, my partner wanted to get out and move on, so I bought him out in 1983. From 1983 until 2009, I was sole owner. While here, I planned exhibitions, wrote exhibition catalogs, did research on paintings, became better and better. I mean, my former partner, Carl Crossman, really helped to train my eye to know how to look at a painting, know how to look at a drawing, know how to look at a print. I’ve trained a lot of people since. There is a kind of joke in the art world that everybody used to work for Childs. It’s not quite true, but it’s true enough to be funny and to have a grain of truth.

WK:
What do you enjoy researching the most?

RH:
That’s a great question because there’s the eureka moment when you find something you were either hoping to find or an unexpected find, but I like to do research in many areas, on many things. My major research is in American, but I’m perfectly happy to do research on European paintings, prints, drawings, also. One of the great things is when you can discover in your own inventory something you didn’t expect to be there. An example was a painting that was here when I got here, when Mr. Childs, who founded the gallery, was collecting things after 1983. There were four paintings that he said, Roger, if you want any of these paintings, just make me an offer. Otherwise, I will dispose of them a different way. And I looked at all four paintings and they all had the same attribution: anonymous. I looked at them, and all of them seemed to have a good quality about them, including one that had been known as the Old Italian Painting. So, I bought them all from him, and one of them was quite difficult, but we finally got an absolute correct attribution that we were able to reconstruct, which is almost never the case with something you don’t know really much of anything. We were able to reconstruct a perfect provenance. So, we have it from the painter, right straight through to us. That was a three-quarter length portrait of John Douglas, Bishop of Salisbury, in the Bishop’s Throne at Salisbury Cathedral. It’s by a very talented, but somewhat obscure, English grand-style painter, Robert Muller. Then, the other great find was when we had somebody from the Institute at NYU to do a summer project and Eliza Katz was primarily an Italianist, Italian Renaissance, so we decided to get out everything that could possibly be Italian Renaissance and have her work on it over the summer. The first thing she started working on was the Old Italian Painting and within a week or so, she said, “You know that’s dependent upon Raphael’s painting of the Holy Family that was the gift of Pope Leo X to Francis I of France by Raphael?” And I said, no, I did not know that. She said, the Francis I painting is late-Raphael, and the person doing most of the work on that was Paul Joanidies at Cambridge University. Do I have your permission to send him information and images by email? I said, sure. Then, within a few days, she got a reply from Paul Joanidies, that said, “I never make pronouncements on the basis of photographs or emailed images.” He said, “Nevertheless, I am quite certain your picture is by Giovanni Francesco Penni, Raphael’s primary assistant. It turned out that not only did the attribution hold, but the picture was requested by Paul Joanidies and his writing partner for an exhibition called, Late Raphael. The picture went to the Prado in Madrid, first, for the exhibition. And I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation as a lender, so I went to Madrid for the opening of the exhibition there. And the Queen of Spain thanked me, personally, for lending the picture. We had a lovely eight or ten seconds together. I was treated extremely well by the people at the Prado. That was June, then I think it was October, or late-September, the same show, having been moved on to the Louvre, I received the same kind of an invitation. Naturally, I went to Paris and had an equally fine reception there. No Queen of Spain, though. So, that’s the kind of thing that I like to find. Putting together something that no one has been able to get to put together before. As Paul Sachs at Harvard said to his many classes of museum students, you don’t have to know, you have to know who knows. That’s actually been extremely useful. You don’t have to become the expert in everybody, but you have to know how to find the person who is the current, greatest expert in the area you’re working in.

RH:
More questions?

WK:
What is the current position you hold at Childs Gallery?

RH:
I’m Senior Research Fellow, which means I get to do pretty much anything I want.

WK:
What are you currently undertaking right now?

RH:
I’m currently working on research for a book on Henry Botkin, George and Ira Gershwin’s first cousin. He was born in Boston, but he took off for New York when he was about eighteen. He was taken under the wing of the Gershwin family because he was their cousin. Anyway, it’s going to be interesting, I think. I’ve got lots of material, it’s a matter of sorting it all out because the Botkin family provided me with a treasure chest of material. Also, they turned over a vast amount to the Archives of American Art.
WK:
Could you tell me a little bit more, if you’re willing, about the research you’re conducting?

RH:
I’m not sure what you’re asking.

WK:
Could you describe some of the pieces of material that you mentioned previously?

RH:
Well, there’s a lot of letters home. The area I’m working on right this minute is when Henry arrives in New York from Boston, and the acceptance into the world of the Gershwins. At that point, this is 1916, 17, 18 and George has not been discovered yet. He is a piano pounder at Remick’s Music Store. With the newest Tin Pan Alley songs coming out, they needed someone who could sightread them and make them sound really fun, so the people in the store would go, “Oooh, I want that music, I want that music.” The Gershwins were increasingly connected into the Broadway and off-Broadway show crowd. Henry Botkin just sort of slipped in and became part of the same crowd. His first day in New York, the Gershwin family had bought the Lafayette Hotel, Restaurant, and Baths, down on Lafayette Street and there had been a huge scandal there a few months earlier when there was a police raid, and the alleged problem was there were men having sex with other men in the baths. The son of the owner, who was also the manager, the son, committed suicide. His father said, this building will never be open again. But the Gershwins, with a few other investors, thought that they could buy this very cheap and put it back on the market as a restaurant, hotel, and baths, but they had a lot of empty rooms. So, they invited Henry Bodkins to stay in the hotel part of it and he assured his parents that it was not costing the Gershwin family anything to put him up in their hotel because he described that there were sixty empty rooms or something like that. This is how it sort of begins his New York career. Lots of pavement pounding. As I say, there’s a lot of letters. It’s great to be able to get the detail. This is the great age of illustration, and he wants to be a great illustrator like the people he knows that are doing book, magazine, and other kinds of illustration. Later on in the twenties, he goes to Paris and becomes completely enamored with modern painting. He comes back painting like French Modernists. Still, later, he becomes fully abstract as a painter. Then, in his later part of his abstract period, recognizable figures do get reintegrated into the abstract forms.

WK:
For my final question, how did the Cooperstown Graduate Program shape your career?

RH:
I think it was one of those, I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened some other way, but it was one of those critical steps in moving from Syracuse with an interest in art, but an overwhelming interest in geology. To Hamilton, where I was announced as a geology major for three years and switched to art my last three semesters. From there, having it suggested, I think, probably by David Ellis, the historian of local history, was great friends with Louis Jones who had gone to Hamilton. The steppingstone was to Cooperstown, and then I got good enough recommendations from the people at Cooperstown to secure me, first, a museum place, then a place in graduate school at Yale. And the steppingstone from there to Childs. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have happened some other way, but it is kind point to point to point.

WK:
I would like to thank you for your time and willingness to take the time to share your story with me. This concludes the interview, so I am going to stop recording.

[TRACK 1, 1:00:14]

Duration

1:00:14 - Track 1

Bit Rate/Frequency

109 kpbs

Time Summary

Track 1, Early life - 00:23
Track 2, Hamilton College, Cooperstown Graduate Program - 03:41
Track 3, Life in Cooperstown - 05:20
Track 4, Career after Cooperstown - 042:36

Files

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Citation

William Kleffner , “Roger Howlett, November 8, 2020,” CGP Community Stories, accessed September 16, 2021, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/456.