Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A White Page...

I always love the beginning of January, when the year and world appears bright, fresh and new. And yet from most perspectives it appears to be a rather dark and depressing time, with the driving rain outside, the biting winds and bracing temperatures that gnaw away at all that is exposed. And at the start of 2021, we are cruelly exposed to far more than the habitual extremes of the Winter elements which lay seige to our homes.
That silent, invisible, uninvited guest - Covid - is still seeking to enter each household, steathily plant its feet firmly under the table, unbudgeable and unyielding, ready to systematically strip away all that represents hearth and home, like some monstrous cuckoo. As we have to respect the curfew and confines in house and home town, our thoughts fly freely towards family, friends and far places or at least ones further afield than those of our current situation.
In the face of all of this, I am still trying to keep hold of the strange peaceful feeling of the new year. This time it might not be a white page for us to write on as we wish, to start anew and script the days and months ahead. The paper is already marked by the passage – threatened or real – of this unwelcome visitor which has left its signature on our lives in indelible ink. So perhaps a white page is not an appropriate image for the opening month of 2021 but the light petals of the Azalea might be… As a flowering shrub with multiple symbolic meanings, some contradictory, it seems to sum up sentiments towards the present situation.
Alongside the usual associations with purity and calm beauty generally linked to white flowers, the azalea also symbolizes care for oneself and one’s family. In Chinese culture, it is referred to as sixiang shu – the thinking-of-home bush – and expresses homesickness and the desire to return to the family. How appropriate in an extended period of lockdown! Meanwhile, in its thirst for reading the cryptic language of flowers, Victorian Britain saw the hardy azalea from Asian countries afar as a symbol of resolve, reserve and emotional restraint. Supporters of the Temperance Movement even went as far as to use the bloom to indicate their abhorence of alcohol, although I have as yet to see a refusal of any kind of tipple in the current confinement.
For all its delicate, bright elegance, the azalea does nevertheless possess a potent, dark side. As a member of the Rhododendron family, its leaves and flowers are highly poisonous. Such is its toxicity that ‘mad honey’ is produced from its nectar, leading to confusion and life-threatening illness in those that ingest it. Not surprisingly, the azalea is therefore seen to represent a death threat – again most relevant as we are in the clutches of Covid.
And yet in spite of the unsettling overtones of this plant and above all, of this particular period in our history, I just want this flower to highlight beauty, hope and resilence in the Winter months before Spring returns.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Reasons to Be Cheerful...

In suitable manner, I came across a number of Levalet art works around town this week and although others have been removed, I did find a few from this Odyssée collection that have resisted. The theme of the Odyssey seemed most relevant to see out 2020. Countless times this year, I have wondered if we too have actually lost our way or quite simply lost the plot. I did think that the Covid crisis would enable us to reassess the way we live; how we behave towards one another and every other living being, how we treat the space we occupy - the Earth - and how we use our time here. We might have pondered over all of these considerations to a greater or lesser degree and made changes here and there, but often in the aim of returning to 'normal' and 'getting life back on track'.
But surely this whole event has pointed out how our way of living, for many of us at least, was in need of a re-evaluation and that it was already in danger of being derailed, sooner or later? Yet for all that has happened, many of us still have not learnt much. Finding direction in life - or rather a new way of living - appears to be getting more and more complicated... You might as well ask an alien to point out the right path to follow...
Or Mickey Mouse. After all, most of us seem to think that our existence is going to roll out like a Disney film - happy, safe and secure. Yet there is no certitude of that, or the contrary for that matter, especially in 2021. Besides, some things are all the better for being unpredictable... Likewise, we assume that our lives will offer more and better - an assumption that means that we are no longer able to actually take stock of what we do have and be grateful for it. So as this new year is about to unfold, I will continue to draw up my own list of reasons to be cheerful. Here is Ian Dury's in his 1979 song; Reasons to be Cheerful: Part 3.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

La Nature...

On the day that I found the beautiful silk and sequin fan in a local antique shop, I also came across the above bronze decorative moulding - presumably taken from some piece of furniture. The enigmatic expression drew me in and I could not resist the temptation of becoming its next guardian for the coming years!
Although it is not in any particular Art Nouveau style, my decorative moulding has a mysterious air that reminds me of the sculpted bust La Nature by the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860–1939), itself said to be modelled on the elegant Cléo de Mérode.
As 2020 draws to an end, I hope that my decorative moulding will act as a talisman to ward off ugliness in any form in 2021 so that I can find some beauty, elegance and wonder in any situation or setting!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Au Bonheur des Dames and the Advent of the Shopgirl...

I visited the exhibition of James Tissot : L'ambigu moderne at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris this summer. At that time, as chance would have it, I had just finished reading, Au Bonheur des Dames, by Emile Zola and although the two experiences were unconnected, I ended up noticing the parallels running between the work of the painter and the novel in question and reaching a similar conclusion regarding both. In fact, the Zola/Tissot link was already well established - unbeknowst to me at the time of my visit - and their names often cited together. Both Zola (1840 – 1902) and Tissot (1836 – 1902) created frescoes of their changing contemporary society in the second half of 19th century France - and England too, in the case of Tissot. In 1869, the critic Elie Roy remarked that « a painting by Mr Tissot will be enough for archaeologists of the future to reconstruct our era. » Zola’s vast literary cycle of twenty novels - Les Rougon-Macquart - was collectively referred to as the Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire. The novel Au Bonheur des Dames was the eleventh in this cycle.
This dramatically evolving universe was largely reflected and refracted through the role and image of women, as a point of departure at least. Indeed, Zola’s social, anthropological and genetic study used a certain Adélaïde Fouque as a starting point to encompass all the currents and classes of French society through the descendants of this ‘Tante Dide’. Tissot, meanwhile, was famous for his society portraits of London and Parisian women. Although his work may have been dismissed by John Ruskin in 1864 as « simple colour photographs of vulgar society », his decade spent in England led him to great success on par with that of the famous English portraitist, Lawrence Alma-Tadema. His best-known works today are probably The Ball On Shipboard (1874) and On the Thames (1876) which offer an image of social mores, with a certain irony – albeit one largely lost on us today.
It was one of the fifteen works from Tissot’s series La Femme à Paris (1883-1885), painted on his return to his native France, that has encouraged Zola/Tissot associations and comparisons ever since its creation. The Naturalist scenes of Tissot’s series largely mirrored aspects of Zola’s cycle wherein studies of the life on the boulevards, avenues and entertainment venues of Paris replaced the social conversation pieces of the most influential and affuent layers of society. La Demoiselle de Magasin (1882-1885) presents the same protagonist as Zola’s Bonheur 1883 ; this new feminine figure emerging on the commercial and social landscape of the capital - the shop girl.
Engraved versions of Tissot’s La Femme à Paris series were initially intended to be accompanied by literary text, and various authors were to be invited to write around Tissot’s mise en scène. Unfortunately this linking of illustration/text did not come about but his life work has acted as an aesthetic inspiration for film directors, costume and set designers for many years – with the likes of Jane Campion, James Ivory and Martin Scorsese. The Biblical illustrations that were the focus of Tissot’s last years - La Vie du Christ - even found reference in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark !
Both Zola and Tissot witnessed the changes to the fabric of French society brought about by the industrial revolution and later through the ambitions of Napoleon III during the Second Empire as France sought to reassert its influence in Europe and around the world. The French economy was modernized through mass industrialisation, the banking system overhauled, the railway system developed, the merchant marine grown to become the second largest in the world, modern agriculture established and social reforms brought in to give rights to workers and a few opportunities for women too. This whole process was crystalized by Haussmann’s transformation of Paris and other major cities, dragging the capital out of the shadows of the Ancien Régime to become a vast, modern metropole and le grand magasin was the shining example of French success par excellence. However, in order to emerge radiant, the city of light was built on the ashes and rubble of old Paris. Huge swathes of the built-up land had been swept away to make room for the axes of the grand boulevards. Seemingly inspired by the 1843 call « Éclairez-vous, enrichissez-vous…. » (statesmen François Guizot) , dingy Medieval hovels that had housed the populations were demolished for the imposing immeubles haussmanniens that would be the showrooms for the newly-affluent bourgeoisie.
The sea change in commerce offered a new class of clientele - with unprecedented purchasing power - the opulent goods on which to spend their wealth and, above all, the place in which to do so. Dark, dank shops based on the antiquated Ancien Régime model – like the one in Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Racquin - were sunk into the ground, whilst the new cathedrals of modern commerce took root – les grands magasins. Haggling over the limited supplies in cramped conditions offered by specialised shops – quite literally, the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker – became a thing of the past as the enormous dry-goods stores drew in a mesmerized public, enticing them with the stunning arrays in the vast shop window displays. It is the advent of the grand magasin and the demise of the traditional shop that is the focus of Au Bonheur des Dames, as the hero/anti-hero Octave Mouret « consigned the corpse of old-fashioned trading to the grave, swept into the common hole all those putrifying pestilential remains which were becoming a disgrace to the bright, sun-lit streets of new Paris » (Au Bonheur des Dames).
Zola drew inspiration from concrete facts of recent urban reality – referring back to the elevation and subsequent evolution of a rather ambitious haberdashery shop on the corner of Rue de Sèvres and Rue du Bac, Rive Gauche, by the Videau brothers in 1838. The arrival of the modest, yet determined entrepreneur, Aristide Boucicaut, who transformed the original establishment, was what inspired Zola’s Au Bonheur, with its shady protagonist Octave Mouret. Boucicaut’s vision and business acumen, partnered with that of his wife Marguerite, saw the initial workforce of 12 employees explode to around 2000 as the premises grew in volume over the years through the acquisition of land on which to expand. Within decades, the huge department store Au Bon Marché dominated the retail world with a business model unparalleled anywhere else. Others would naturally follow in its wake, shortly after - namely the big names : Magasin du Louvre, La Belle Jardinière, Printemps, BHV, La Samaritaine and then Galeries Lafayette
To house his vast store, Boucicaut had an imposing building constructed in 1869. Its Haussmann-style Classicist façade offered the public distinctive bay windows and easily recognisable grand entrances on the outside. The fictionalized accounts of the store’s conception are provided by Zola who used Boucicaut’s notes to aid him in his research and to guide him in his descriptions of this empire and its founder ; Boucicaut/Mouret. The architects Boileau father and son, followed the advice of Gustave Eiffel in their use of the latest ironwork technology to create a vast open central area within to great dramatic effect, illuminated from above and leading onto galleries, with sweeping stairways, balconies and viewing points. Furthermore, to ensure that provincial visitors to the store could stay in comfort during their trip, the grand Hotel Lutetia was erected in 1910 at the behest of Mme Boucicaut on the other side of the Square Boucicaut. «All this iron work formed an excessively delicate architecture, an intricate lace-work through which the daylight penetrated, the modern realization of a dreamland palace, of a Babel with storeys piled one above the other, and spacious halls affording glimpses of other floors and other halls _ad infinitum ». (Au Bonheur de Dames)
Industrialization and commoditification led to seemingly endless possibilities as supply and demand were transformed through mechanised manufacturing and a new retail concept. Au Bon Marché was indeed at the head of this movement and instigated the emergence of the modern-day consumer. Everything was amply catered towards the client’s needs at the store ; the introduction of fixed prices as opposed to ones variable according to the profile of the individual (à la bobine) ; pile-‘em-high, sell-‘em-cheap principle ; self-service ; off-the-peg garments replacing made-to-measure clothing; seasonal goods ; sale by correspondance via catalogue ; home delivery ; satisfied or reimbursed policy ; seasonal advertising and marketing ploys.
Within a short space of time, a trip to Au Bon Marché took on a quasi-devotional aspect as daily visitors would flock to this unique universe as if to some strange place of worship. The cult of shopping was born. Like the most exotic museum exhibits, the dazzling displays of wares on offer hypotized the ever-growing hordes, driving them into a frenzy of limitless consumerism, and the relentless desire to purchase ever more goods, to obtain the latest novelty. Not only did the visitor come to admire the merchandise of this illustrious setting, they also came to observe and be observed by Le Tout-Paris, much as they would indulge in a trip to the theatre, dressed in their finery. Boucicaut did his utmost to ensure that any visitor entering his empire, would soon be captive in thought and deed, caught in the cogs of consumption. With Mouret we see the fine-tuning of this materialist machine destined to consume its clientèle in the most ruthless, relentless manner. « …..the customers, despoiled and violated, were going away in disarray, their desires satisfied, and with the secret shame of having yielded to temptation….» (Au Bonheur des Dames)
The shopaholic thus came into existence as did the shoplifter, regardless of social class or financial means. Neither were able to free themselves from this addictive experience and were, moreover, largely unwilling to be freed from their intoxication. Indeed, those who found the greatest freedom in this retail universe were the female visitors, previously unable to leave the confines of the home unless accompanied by a chaperone. The female client, a hitherto unexploited vein of purchasing possibility was the most ardent disciple in this temple to the hedonist material world. « ….spent her leisure time in his establishment, those shivering anxious hours which she had formerly passed in churches: a necessary consumption of nervous passion an ever renewed worship of the body with the promise of future divine beauty. » (Au Bonheur des Dames)
To serve this feminine clientèle, the shop assistant was conceived - la demoiselle de magasin – and was to find as much, or even more emancipation and constraint in this universe as the female patrons she served. For the first time, young women could become financially independant and benefit from the new rights and conditions available to workers, albeit meagre. If she played her cards right by learning enough of the airs and graces from the women she served, she might advance in the social game of snakes-and-ladders and catch an elligible male willing to ‘keep’ her. The story of one such demoiselle is the basis of Zola’s novel, with the rather mouse-like Denise Baudu torn between her loyalty for her uncle and his down-trodden traditional shop and her irrepressible fascination for the fortune-seeking bounder Mouret with his mercantile marvel, Au Bonheur des Dames. Ironically, this love interest – with the will-they, won’t-they dynamics between these two characters proved to be the least intriguing aspect of the novel, in my opinion at least.
Of far greater interest was the role and functioning of the main protagonist – the marvellous yet monstrous department store itself. As it grows in size and significance throughout the story, we see it greedily covet and consume tracts of land, competitors, customers and employees such as la demoiselle de magasin herself…. except Denise. Many of the actual work conditions in the novel and the terms used to describe them may appear somewhat antiquated to us now. Nevertheless the constant pressure in the workplace, the total erosion of work-life balance, poor relations and back-stabbing in the work teams, job insecurity and the constant threat of finding yourself on the street at the drop of a hat – literally - are alarmingly relevant today. This was the real strength of Au Bonheur des Dames – a relevation of the social grind behind this shiny, powerful machine. You can only wonder what Zola would think of the glories of the gig economy and today’s heroes/antiheroes ; Bezos, Gates and Musk. Octave Mouret is perhaps an ancestor to these modern-day magicians who have transformed whole economies and lifestyles but is only a caricatural representation of mercantile power as he flits around his store like a machiavellian Willy Wonka. Unlike the calculating Mouret, Boucicaut had other aspirations for his retail empire and a different vision of his position therein. Despite their drive for commercial succès, the Boucicauts – husband and wife - were intent on improving work conditions for his employees with the provision of accommodation, paid holidays and medical check-ups, amongst other things. A vast amount of the Boucicaut fortune was bequeathed to the employees on the death of Madame and the statue in the park Le Square Boucicaut is in memory of her social contributions and charitable work.
Unfortunately, Zola used the rather flat and implaussible Mouret/Denise love story as a vehicle to approach the grit of the novel, with the result that some parts of the work left me a little indifferent. Not only that, but Zola seemed to fall into the same trap as the feminine clientele he so aptly describes – he too is uttlerly mesmerized by the fabrics, frills, feathers and frou-frous that form the basis of each mois du blanc, or sales promotion. Just like his frantic female customers, Zola cannot break free from his obsession - lengthy passages endlessly detail apparel and its materials in a linguistic Black Friday frenzy which seems to sideline the plot. As much as I love descriptive passages, with the beauty of the words and images these convey, parts of this novel were lacking sufficient framework to hold the weight of this avalache of adjectives and adverbs. The storyline simply did not weigh up to the quality of the language itself... « The bright satins and soft-tinted silks--the Reine and Renaissance satins with the pearly tones of spring water; the light silks, Nile-green, Indian-azure, May-pink, and Danube-blue all of crystalline transparency--flowed forth above. Then came the stronger fabrics: warm-tinted Merveilleux satins, and Duchess silks, rolling in waves of increasing volume; whilst at the bottom, as in a fountain-basin, the heavy materials, the figured armures, the damasks, and brocades, the beaded silks and the silk embroidered with gold and silver, reposed amidst a deep bed of velvet of every sort--black, white, and coloured--with patterns stamped on silk and satin grounds, and spreading out with their medley of colours like a still lake in which reflections of sky and scenery were seemingly dancing. The women, pale with desire, bent over as if to look at themselves in a mirror. And before this gushing cataract they all remained hesitating between a secret fear of being carried away by such a flood of luxury, and an irresistible desire to jump in and be lost in it. » (Au Bonheur des Dames)
Strangely, I felt the same feeling of admiration yet disappointment at the Tissot exhibition. I was familiar with the works that are probably the best known in England, namely those actually painted during his English sejourn in the 1870S, including The Captain and the Mate; The Captain's Daughter; Ball on Shipboard ; The Gallery of H.M.S. 'Calcutta'. The bold style of painting, with bright colours and curious interplay of characters, with their enigmatic expressions had always caught my attention and I thought the rest of his work would be equally intriguing. However, whilst all his paintings offer similar degrees of excellence in their execution, with incredible detail and realism worthy of certain Pre-Raphaelite works, and a boldness that recalls certain Impressionist works, the whole seemed a little flat.
The enigmatic quality of his most successful works is somehow lacking in others so that breathtaking painting techniques cannot hide the impression that the content, composition or overall mood is somehow anaemic and does not pull together as in, for example, The Circle of Rue Royale 1866. Although his ability to render texture and substance is truly amazing, like Zola in Au Bonheur, the plot is sometimes too weak to bear the accumulated detail. His love of fabric and fashion of all types is manifest throughout his career – not for nothing was he the son of a cloth merchant and a milliner ! Like Zola, his artistic output was prestigious – producing numerous large-scale paintings throughout his career – many of which featuring his muse -model-lover, Kathleen Newton. On her premature death from tuberculosis, he left England for France where he went on to produce La Femme à Paris series. His final years were spent accomplishing the illustration of the Bible following his renewed interest in the Catholic faith and spiritualism during his mourning.
On the day of my visit to Musée d’Orsay, I decided to visit Au Bon Marché – now known as Le Bon Marché and as I approached the store, I went through the gardens of the Square Boucicaut, with its statue of Madame. This was probably just as well since I found little other trace of the life and spirit of the original department store or its founders. It was interesting to see this emblematic block of buildings standing much as it must have done in Zola’s time but it seemed far less imposing than I had anticipated and appeared humbled by the sprawl of jumbled architectural styles that surround it Likewise, the volume of the galeries within the store seemed rather modest and offered none of the stunning grandeur I expected to see and yet can still be found in the flagship store of Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann. Acquired by the LVMH Group in 1984 under Bernard Arnault, Au Bon Marché was rebranded and refurbished in 1987 and a grand central escalator was installed. Its criss-cross form divides the central area to dramatic effect – « straddling tradition and modernity », according to the store literature. It surely looked futuristic at the time of its installation, but it just struck me as reminiscent of slightly dated airport architecture that is culturally anonymous.
There was none of the French chic and perhaps I was looking in the wrong parts of the store, but I could find few of the original features of the grand magasin of Zola’s time. Whilst Zola and Tissot’s respective works buckle under the heaped ornamentation for the lack of an iron-girdered structure, the modern-day version of Au Bon Marché appears to have been stripped of much of its 19th century decorative finery so that only the bolts and beams remain. There was no information available on the history – actual or fictional – of the store and none of the staff I questioned knew anything on the subject nor could they indicate any of the vestiges of its glorious past. Maybe I was just unlucky that day – but I am not inspired to return. I did find a few decorative tiles on the store façade as I was leaving, but they were in a state of neglect and made me feel sad. That, plus the sight of an array of gaudy, vulgar sneakers, with clumpy plastic soles and an eye-watering price tag, all brazzenly on display in the luxury footwear department. Au Bonheur des Dames, indeed !

Monday, November 30, 2020

First Frost For The Last of The Month...

The bracing cold night air of the final days of the November caught everybody's breath, as did the sight of the beautiful cathedral standing majestically ahead, with the bright moon beyond it.
Sadly I have never been able to do any photographic justice to any of the eight phases of the moon, as it waxes and wanes each month but the magic of the original sight is there in my mind's eye at least...
The stonework looked like a backcloth of lace in the illuminations that have now brightened up the town, in preparation of Christmas, as the last autumn leaves cling onto the trees...
Then for the early morning of the very last day of the month, frost had decorated everything with its own lacy designs - my favourite of these being the beads of ice on spiders' webs.
The icy threads of silk hung down, in impressive proportions, magically draped from lamps and sign posts, thankfully distracting my gaze from the bland urban landscape beyond. If that is not magic, I don't know what is!

A Flutter on Fans...

Walking around the back streets in the city, I came across the display window of a little antique shop. Les antiquaires must surely be leading a hard existence ; their wares appearing to attract so little curiosity and custom. The eyes of the world are rivetted on the latest smart and virtual universe that effortfulessly opens itself up to the user. Why indeed bother with the remains of long-gone eras that seem to have minimal relevance today, and even less so with the current health issue ? As I peered in at the antiques that had once been fabric and ornamentation to the lives of beings decades and even centuries ago, I felt rather sad. The majority of these would possibly find little use today, accustomed as we are to time and labour-saving devices that can easily be replaced and forgotten, financial means permitting. Every aspect of our practical lives and the myriad of pleasure-seeking concerns for our leisure time are catered for by objects and gadgets that can be disposed of when obsolete or simply no longer in line with our latest taste or expectations. Few appear to have a tale to tell and in the process we too seem to have little to say, despite all our Facebook friends, ‘likes’, chat and sharing. Right now our tech-reliant lives seem to be turning us into clones and drones, caught in a monotonous yet hyperactive routine of staring and squinting at screens throughout the day. It is quite a relief to escape from the virtual world of communication to return to a contemplative past version of the real one !
Amongst the array of articles, was a disparate collection of folding, hand-held fans – heaped together somewhat unceremoniously. These looked quite forlorn, with all their faded, worn and torn former finery laid out in the bright, unforgiving shop lights yet forever over-looked and neglected, destined for oblivion. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I always do with antique pieces, who had once owned these articles. Which woman had once flicked and fluttered these elegant ‘dress’ objects, and in which ceremonious circumstances ? Again, as always, I wondered what these individuals would think of the objects now used in place of these redundant ones. How would they view our lives and us ? The sophisication of today’s technology is such that our ancestors, however recent, would have no comprehension of our society – structure, function, values and behaviour. Our lifestyles would surely baffle them, just as they are starting to perplex me.
Well, there was something calming about looking at these fans, with the simplicity of their design and function yet elegance in their form and embellishment. What could each one and every one of these reveal of its unique path towards the present and of its previous owner(s) ? Naturally, the primary raison d’être of the fan is functional ; flicking away troublesome insects, shielding the owner from the fireside heat or blazing sun and above all, generating a current of air for cooling purposes. However, from its origins in the Far East in the 7th century, the fan assumed other roles once it had made its way to Europe in the 15th century via Portuguese traders. The Spanish, French and English courts adopted this instrument not only as a distinguishing mark of elegance – but also one used to convey illicit messages when the spoken word was silenced by courtly etiquette. Indeed a richly-decorated fan was proof of class, but could be wielded as a wand - changing the social situation of its owner through the establishment of an opportunistic relationship with a man of stature, via the deft switch of this object. Paris and Versailles became the focal point for all that was fashionable and luxurious in the late 17th century and in 1673, an Association de Eventaillistes was formed with the king as its patron. Although China and Japan had been the primary source of many fans, the sophisticated French fan artisans provided fine quality goods.
The emmigration of French Protestants to neighbouring countries of the same religious denomination - England, Holland and Prussia - meant that the skill of such artisans was spread across Europe. French fans had been imported to England ever since the Elizabeth era, but increasing numbers of English craftsman catered for the growing demand for folding fans, with the Guild of Fan Makers established in England in the early 17th century. No longer the preserve of the wealthy classes alone, the use of l’éventail had trickled down the social classes to become mainstream in Europe and by the 18th century, it was in its golden age. Great fan manufacturers, largely set up in Paris, feed this desire for lavishly ornate fans – the Duvelleroy establishment, founded in the 19th century, still exists today. Despite the fan losing favour in the aftermath of the French Revolution years, demand for the accessory ‘Made in France’ was such in South America that Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy set up his business. Fans were works of art in their own right and both the artisans who painted them and the tabletiers who carved the rods and montures frequently signed their pieces, as would a painter his framed painting. Through displaying his work in the Great Exhibitions, Duvelleroy ensured the recognition of the fan as an art form, and was himself awarded a prize medal at The Crystal Palace in 1851.
The role of the fan was such that is the early 18th century a satirical article was published in The Spectator, the periodical published daily to offer the enlightened British public comments on manners, morals and literature. Therein the politician Joseph Addison sought to instruct ladies in the proper employ of the fan in order that they « may be entire mistresses of the weapon which they bear ». Indeed, in the hunt for an elligible gentleman to marry or ‘keep’ them « Women are armed with fans as men with swords and sometimes do more execution with them ». Bearing their tool of seduction in auspicious social occasions, the well-practiced female could ensnare a male using her feminine charms. Later, poet John Winstanley wrote : In Love’s soft Reign, the Sceptre is the Fan, Woman is the Sovereign, and the Subject Man. As part of the tactics for enticement, the ‘communication’ hand-held fan was designed towards the end of the century. This gave ladies instructions on its correct usage, with details printed on the Fanology or the Ladies Conversation Fan itself, whilst the Ladies Telegraph, for « Corresponding at a Distance » bore twenty-six divisions on its leaf sections, corresponding to the letters of the alphabet. The latter must have been rather difficult to master by the female user, and its messages more than challenging for all but the most determined interlocutor, himself surely well-versed in the art! How far these devices were used to converse is not clear, but the simple, yet highly strategic positioning of a fan was thought to speak volumes in the game of seduction.
The Parisian fan-makers, Duvelleroy, assisted its 19th century female clientele by printing a glossary of fan gestures and positions with their meanings, claiming that this secret language of the fan was of early Spanish origin, drawn up by a certain Fenella. Naturally, there were variations in the messages encoded in these decorative elaborations of body language but the principle remained the same. So much so that in 1892 Oscar Wilde wrote Lady Windermere’s Fan with the main character marking out the cadence of the action with appropriate movements of this symbolic object and so underlining the high points of the play.
As any other accessory, changes in taste and usage were played out in the design and materials of the fan over the ages. The fontange folding fan had a rounded, arched ‘leaf’ with the height tapering down from the tall central part towards its ‘guards’ or master sticks. Favoured in the late 17th to early 18th century France, it was Inspired by the elaborate, towering coiffure of a certain Duchesse de Fontanges - one of Louis XIV’s mistresses. The brisé variety was another type of folding fan, but was composed of ribs/sticks and guards alone – no leaf - all supported by ribbon woven through or glued onto the slats and a pivot pin at the base. Closely related to the brisé fans were the Empire fans at the end of the 18th century. The brisé was, in principle, quite simple with its identical sticks, repeating a pattern or motif. Yet fashion dictated that these became more intricate, with detailed carvings, piercings and ornamentation, often creating lace-like effect. Materials used ranged from modest carved wood, perhaps clouté or burgauté with more lavish inlays, bone, horn, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, to ivory, precious metals and ostrich feathers.
The cockade fan followed, with its simple 360° design, with the handle formed by the extended guards. By the 1840s, folding fans had become more sophisticated with pleated leaves of satin, silk, organdi, or ‘peau de cygne’ (kid skin) often painted with themic scenes on the front (obverse), whilst decorative flowers dressed the reverse. Trimmings of lace and feathers., sequins, pearls and semi-precious stone became popular as fans grew as showpieces. The cabriolet fan, named in reference to the wheel of the horse-drawn carriage bore two, or possibly more concentric leaves, the one above the other. Tassels on the handle were equally ornate, and the whole structure of the fan could be used to conceal all manner of practical objects ! I did in fact get the chance to see just how diverse the world of the fan was when I visited the Muséé de l’Eventail in Paris about twenty years ago. It was truly marvellous – both in terms of the collection itself and the site itself – seeped in history so that I felt as if I had been plunged in another time.
Apparently the fans in the shop in town had all been part of an antique collection belonging to a woman who died earlier this year. Her relatives sold everything off as a job lot to the antiquaire. Just hearing that made me feel a little sad, but not for long as I decided to buy one of the fans myself. And so I am now the custodian of the beautiful black organdi/lace fan, free to invent its past in my present !

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sainte-Chapelle....Paris.

As I was hurrying back to the railway station at the end of my extremely brief day-trip to Paris, I noticed the very visible lack of visitors waiting to enter Sainte-Chapelle. Where there would typically be a long queue, snaking down the street, there was nothing. But nothing is typical for the time being and this was indeed the last free day before lockdown. The usual throngs of tourists were largely absent.
This being too good an opportunity to miss, I quickly entered, racing up the ancient, worn steps for fear of missing the last daylight and my train back home! The beautiful stained-glass windows towered above, still jewel-like bright, despite the grey, rather menacing skies outside. Inside the gold arcades and richly-decorated columns glowed against the regal blue. Also visible on the photos are the pale, ghostly apparitions of the visitors' facemarks...
Sainte-Chapelle and the nearby Conciergerie - where Marie-Antoinette was held prisoner until her execution in 1793 - are the last visible vestiges of the oldest palace of the kings of France. They were once part of the Palais de la Cité, the residence and seat of power between the 10th and 14th century, but now form the Palais de Justice.
The first Capetian king, Hugues Capet had set up the royal government and council in this palace at the end of the 10th century. By the time the first foundation stones were being laid for Sainte-Chapelle, the cathedral of Notre-Dame was already much as we know it today.
Built around 1242, the Sainte-Chapelle held the holy relics of the Passion of Christ - the most valued of these being the Crown of Thorns. The relics enabled Louis IX to elevate Paris as it became known as a New Jerusalem, second capital of Christianity.
The edifice is composed of two structures; the upper and lower chapel. The holy relics were displayed in the upper sanctuary, reserved for the royal family and friends while the place of worship below was destined for staff.
Throughout the chapel, the regal fleur-de-lys blooms, recalling the political as well as the religious importance of the site.
A semi-circular apse is at the head of the basilica form, opposite the rose window at the other end of the chapel and the fifteen stained-glass windows that flank the space enable light to flow in, a myriad of colour.
Although the royal family would have had a privileged existence, you cannot help but wonder if they too were astounded by the sheer wealth of beauty before their eyes.
The mesmerizing shock of light and colour from the chapel is made all the more powerful today, as then, by the contrast with its stark exterior, where dark gargoyles peer down from jagged architectural forms that cast a strict outline against the city skies.
Yet these seem to offer a strange sense of timeless resilience; these wonders have survived the centuries, the passage of all that time, and faced all nature of adversity. It felt quite fitting to be there, on the eve of lockdown...