Chinese Scrolls: A Taste Of Foreign Lands

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Twenty eight years ago, while working as a private chef for a French woman who didn’t want to hire him in the first place, Robert Simmons picked up a peculiar hobby: collecting Chinese scrolls.

Sitting on his patio overlooking Big Fresh Pond in Southampton, Mr. Simmons is surrounded by an Asian-themed garden decorated with Buddha heads and flowers, sipping on iced coffee and listening to classical Chinese music. He is thumbing through a book on his lap, categorizing the 173 Chinese scrolls he owns, elaborate ink drawings and watercolor paintings done on silk and paper tapestries.

Mr. Simmons, a native of Savannah, Georgia, was a Culinary Institute of America graduate working around the world at high-end hotels. In the late 1960s an opportunity for private chef work brought him to Southampton. He first worked at the Irving Inn, an old Victorian hotel across from the Southampton Inn. After a few years, he decided to move on from commercial work and began looking for private chef jobs.

He interviewed with Germaine Gossler Christie Benjamin Cromwell, the fourth and last wife of Ambassador James H.R. Cromwell (whose first and second wives were automotive company heiress Delphine Ione Dodge and tobacco heiress Doris Duke). At the time, she denied him the job because of her disdain for American chefs, and the lack of American culinary notoriety at the time.

Little did he know, a circuitous turn of events would eventually bring him back to Ms. Cromwell years later. She would eventually provide the impetus for him to experience and love Chinese art.

After he wasn’t hired by Ms. Cromwell, Mr. Simmons took a job on Fishers Island, New York, for a German chef cooking for Ambassador John Hay Whitney. During his two years there, he was given the use of Mr. Whitney’s yacht on his days off. On those days, he would sail from the easternmost end of the Long Island Sound to Southampton to visit the French chef, Marcel Berthol, who did get the job cooking for Ms. Cromwell.

A few years later, when the French chef was ready to retire, he recommended Mr. Simmons as his replacement. The second time around, Ms. Cromwell agreed to give the young American chef a shot. He ended up working for the couple for 15 years, until Ms. Cromwell’s death in 1987.

“She was a wonderful old grande dame here in Southampton,” he said of his employer.

When her husband was away traveling for work, Mr. Simmons would take Ms. Cromwell out on the town in Manhattan. She had a huge Chinese scroll collection, both in her Southampton home and her apartment in the city. The chef would spend hours studying the artwork, he recalled.

“She would let me anytime I wanted to just go out, sit and look at everything,” Mr. Simmons said.

In 1985, Mr. Simmons took his first trip to China to start his own collection of scrolls. Staying at a commune outside of Canton, he got his first ones from people in the commune who painted them. His love of the artwork continued to grow over the years.

“From there it just blossomed out into anything Chinese, as you can see looking around here” Mr. Simmons said gesturing to his garden retreat, filled with Chinese influences.

During his four subsequent trips to Asia, he just kept collecting and collecting. It doesn’t matter if the work is ancient or brand-new, Mr. Simmons just collects what strikes his fancy.

“If it looks old and I like it then I’ll buy it,” he explained.

Some of the scrolls are 5 to 6 feet long, hand illustrated with dark black ink made out of large solid ink blocks that are ground up and mixed with water. Others are colorful watercolors, all are painted on either silk or parchment

Though he’s traveled to approximately three dozen different countries, China is the one that he keeps coming back to, he said. When pressed, he admitted that the draw was most likely because of its difference to American culture, and the idea that China is still such a foreign land, particularly from the place where he grew up.

“They are wonderful works of art, we Americans are not used to it, but it’s something that grows on you if you sit down and contemplate it,” Mr. Simmons said, adding, “down in Savannah you didn’t have anything Oriental, we had one Chinese restaurant and we never ate there,” he laughed.

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