Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Chateau in the Woods...

With a few days off work, the warmer, albeit windy weather led me on a walk in the wilderness to track down the remains of a chateau in the woods. Le château de Toussicourt was one of seven grandiose edifices around the town of Hermonville, of which few have survived to the present day. 

Whether grand or minimal, their vestiges offer a glimpse of very different pasts, fates and fortunes…

Whilst I anticipated difficulty locating the elusive Toussicourt, in fact the site turned out to be clearly – even blatantly - visible from the road. However, as the domain was not indicated by any signs, I assumed the chateau must surely be set in the heart of the woods, far from the intrusions of the 21st century.

View from the main access route - front of the chateau grounds with wild boar prints in the mud.

The unwelcome attentions of ramblers and urbex-ers are naturally discouraged, due to the standard hazard risks posed by game hunting, dangerous masonry and of course for trespassing issues. 

As a result, I set off for the hills and finally came across the high stone wall flanking the side of the grounds, complete with a grand gate –chained up - that led tantalisingly onto the land. This reminded me of The Secret Garden, with all the anticipation of what lay beyond the ivy-covered entrances and the frustration of not gaining access to it. 

As I was not prepared to break into the grounds, I just wandered further along the lane, feeling a bit disappointed. I was very surprised to find a very wide clearing at the back of this whole area and could barely contain excitement that transported me back to childhood. I would have loved to have made such discoveries back then! 

Brick walls, in varying degrees of ruin, still remain of the chateau outbuildings. Brambles, thickets and trees of all shapes and sizes have taken over the land, whilst ivy has grown up and over all the building vestiges. I can imagine this could be quite dangerous to visit, especially for any kind of activity other than simple observation and would be damaging and disrespectful for the grounds too and all that they represent. 

Atmospheric visions of window openings and doorways have been created, all leading nowhere, offering no views but suggesting numerous secrets and stories that are now buried in the rubble and undergrowth. 

I kept wishing I could be transported back to the 19th century, just to be able to experience its gentle past glory that can only be glimpsed at in the old black-and-white photographs that always seem to lend themselves to flights of imagination. 

Working my way towards the front of the grounds, I came across where the former gardens must have lain, with their lawns stretching out. Wild boars now leave their mark ; cloven-hoof prints in the mud and upturned soil heaps creating half-hearted molehills and trenches. 

The land here is curiously devoid of trees, bushes or even saplings, which leaves you to assume it has been cleared regularly, and so preserving some spirit or essence. 

Of the body of the chateau itself, there are but a few vast metal girders that protude like massive bones from undergrowth where piles of bright green, mossy stones lay amassed.

Several distinct features of the cellars are still visible, and to the left, on what was once the side façade, stands a relatively well-preserved fortified structure that resembles a low turret, with its slit openings, and crenelated crown. 

This dates back to the chateau’s later years and can be identified on photographs prior to the First World War. The images that remain from the turn of the last century attest to the beauty of the Toussicourt domain and to the peace and tranquility of the pre-war period.

The grand façade once looked down towards an ornamental pond which has certainly been maintained over the years and now adds to the eerie emptiness of the grounds.

Reeds grow elegantly from the water and the stumps of truncated columns rise up at the top of the structure and beyond stands the main entrance to the chateau.

Situated at the end of what must have once been a majestic tree-lined alley, we can still imagine the original stature of Toussicourt. Today the fields that flank this path-way are plain, feature-less expanses of arable land.

A large wrought-iron gateway dominates the view, serving as a vanishing point, although it is now the chateau beyond it that has simply vanished.

The gates are not, of course, the original ones and perhaps nor is much of the stone wall that encircles the front of the domain in a curious manner. The impressive height and width of the gates, is not equalled by the walls. 

Although entry is in theory barred to the public, any visitor can simply step over the lowest parts of the stonework that offers no fortification whatsover. This seems to add to the strange atmosphere that reigns here, and highlights the void beyond, where the chateau had once stood. 

Nothing could give the slightest indication to the devastation that was soon to befall the region in 1914 with the onset of the Great War. Nor could it be imagined that the the chateau itself would be actively used during the hostilities, or that it too would be a casualty. 

Like so many individuals of the Lost Generation, the chateau would never see the end of this war ‘to end all wars’. 

As French chateaux go, Toussicourt was not, in fact, by any means 'ancient'. A chateau in the Louis XVI style was constructed at the end of the 18th century between Hermonville and Villers-Franqueux, at the behest of the head of the wealthy Cliquot family.

Indeed, the ‘Seigneur de Toussicourt et d'Hermonville’ had been ennobled by Louis XV at Versailles in 1765 and needed a country property worthy of his fine position – up until the French Revolution in 1789. 

The chateau entered into the possession of the Arnould family in the early 19th century, until finally becoming one of the homes of the baron Guillaume Krafft and in turn, his son Hugues. During this later (and final) stage of the chateau’s existence, the domain was built up in line with the aspirations of the family made rich through their contributions to the champagne trade with the Louis Roederer house. 

The park was made more elaborate still, with further gardens and the impressive central drive-way. Nothing could indicate that within a few years these same lawns would soon be used to accommodate French troups of French footsoldiers, who camped out in the grounds whilst the officers took refuge in the chateau itself. Like the château itself, few would survive the ravages of the war…

Hugues Krafft

Indeed, Hermonville – and therefore Toussicourt – was situated near the fort of Saint Thierry and the Front, with the strategic site of the village of Loivre and the fort of Brimont. Artillery was installed in the highest zones in the area, a centre for special espionnage and reconnaissance missions for pilots was inaugurated in Hermonville, and medical facilities and a cemetery were likewise set up.

Although it freed itself from enemy troups, the village was subject to assault and after the prolonged onslaught, the chateau was left in a pitiful state. The centre of the edifice appears to have been ripped apart by a direct bomb hit in 1917 and whilst it could perhaps have been restored to its former state, funds permitting, this did not happen.

Agence de presse Meurisse. Agence photographique

At the end of the hostilities, Hughes Krafft took the decision not to use the money given as a war indemnity to restore Toussicourt, preferring instead to use this sum to finance a project closer to his heart; the restoration of L’Hôtel le Vergeur. More about that another day….

From this period, the domain of Toussicourt went from a certain Mr Charbonneaux, to a farmer from the neighbouring village of Villers-Franqueux in 1958. Since the abandonned chateau was considered to represent a danger to the public, the remaining architectural structures were knocked down, leaving what we see today, and letting us imagine what its past had been.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Porte de Sèvres...

Along the impressive Boulevard Saint-Germain in the 6th arrondissement, stands an almost imperceptible vestige from the Parisian Belle Epoque. Indeed, as throngs of tourists and Parisiens alike stroll or scuttle in the Haussmannian landscape of the Rive Gauche, few may notice the beautiful ceramic plaque on the flank of a building that closes the discreet little Square Félix Desruelles, just next to the Eglise Saint-Germain.

St-Germain-des-Prés is not only thought to represent quintessential Parisian chic, with its luxury boutiques and restaurants but also to reflect the traditional literary and intellectual core of the city. Indeed, the famous cafés of Les Deux Magots, Brasserie Lipp, Café de Flore and Café Bonaparte are renowned as the former gathering points for great intellects, writers and artists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Man Ray, Picasso, Léo Ferré or Georges Brassens from the 1920s. However the monumental Porte de Sèvres dates back to a moment in history when the whole world turned to the City of Light to observe its shining examples of modernity and audacity, promising an bright, illustrious future. Held in 1900, the Exposition Universelle de Paris was the fifth and last of its kind in the capital, following those of 1855, 1867, 1878 and 1889. It drew visitors in their droves over the months between its opening in April and closure in November. The first World Fair – the 1851 Great Exhibition of Crystal Palace, London – enticed a meagre 6 million visitors whilst the Exposition Universelle of 1900 announced over 50 million.

It is difficult to imagine how this vast, dazzling display must have appeared to a public, little accustomed to such sights. Immense pavillions and palaces were constructed in the very heart of the city, representing different nations, inventions and technologies. The sheer scale of the exposition and the scope of the other worlds and realities exhibited must have been incomprehensible to the average visitor. I wonder what they could have thought of the Palais de l’Electricité, with its spectacular arrays of sparks or the incredible moving pavement – ‘La rue de l’avenir’ ?

In our digitally-enhanced, device-enabled, over-stimulated universe, we would find it hard not to be underwhelmed, assuming that we had been able to lift our eyes from the 'precious' smartphones we clutch, Gollum-style, in the first place...

And yet in the Belle Epoque, the exposition would have been a breath-taking experience – an incredible assault to the senses and imagination.‘Projected motion pictures’ had been developed by the Lumière brothers in the very last years of the 19th century and were simply light years away from the cinema films that would later stun audiences with their images of the future.

Most of the immense edifices constructed for the Exposition were not built to last, yet that made them no less impressive and it should be remembered that the Eiffel Tower, erected for the 1889 Exposition, was in fact only intended as a ‘temporary’ feature ! Many buildings were largely stuccoed façades, of which nothing or little remains today. Nevertheless, the towering Porte Monumentale that welcomed the visitors and the huge globe-shaped planetarium – the Globe Céleste were no less incredible to behold. Other constructions, however, are still very much part of the Parisian landscape and skyline today – the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais for example, along with the Alexandre III bridge. Below ground, the first Metro lines were inaugurated with great pride to coincide with the Olympic Games – transporting visitors from the Porte de Vincennes to the Porte Maillot. The prowess of France’s production and arts were likewise showcased in the Pavillon des Manufactures Françaises on the Esplanade des Invalides. 

The merging of industry and craftsmanship with new materials and innovative usage was particularly exciting and the ceramic work of the Manufacture de Sèvres met much acclaim. Indeed, its organic, plant-like forms and unusual colours were very much  in l’air du temps and adorned buildings and monuments alike. The date 1753 figures on the porte ceramique in the Square Félix Desruelles – referring to the year that the porcelain production had become Manufacture Royale, shortly before the site was transferred from Vincennes to Sèvres in 1756. Indeed, from 1740 the porcelain had received support from Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour and the emblematic Sèvres coulours became synonymous with crown and court ; rose Pompadour, vert Vincennes, bleu de Sèvres, jaune de Naples, bleu Céleste.

By 1900, the work of the Manufacture de Sèvres was far more accessible and targeted a diverse clientele - Le jeu de l'écharpe by Agathon Léonard, for example met great success at the exposition. The porte monumentale de Sèvres originally decorated the entrance to the Pavillon des Manufactures Françaises and is its last remaining trace, having become the property of the city of Paris in 1901 and transferred to its present position in 1905. It was designed in enamelled stoneware by the architect Charles Risler and sculpted by Jules Coutan, and bears a large arch-shaped panel supported by columns, decorated with flowing Art Nouveau forms of plants, fruit and flowers. In the centre part is a woman representing the art of pottery-making, and again at the top a haut-relief depicts the art of ceramics. Towards the bottom is an owl – enigmatic figure of wisdom or learning.

This aesthetic movement became the symbolic expression of the Belle Epoque. In Paris, Hector Guimard’s strange, curving, fluid forms are integral to the Metro entrances, yet similar flowing lines would proliferate in architecture and its decoration elsewhere; wrought iron, mosaics, frescos, stained-glass windows and, of course, ceramics. Shortly after the Exposition Universelle, the Ecole de Nancy was officially founded and French Art Nouveau was expressed to its fullest form under Emile Gallé, the Daum, Louis Majorelle in art, furniture, pottery, glassware, jewellery…

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Head down... A Heads-up.....

Levalet - Reims
I realised the other day that I am starting to look around me less and less, as I scurry about, stressing over my latest rat-race issue and the most recent first-world problem. The proof of this was my suddenly noticing a Levalet collage piece that is already battered and torn, so by no means a 'recent' addition to the urban landscape of Reims city centre, and yet I must have passed it many times already, without even realising. As it is pasted onto the walls of a grotty underpass that I drive through at a certain speed in the rush hour, that could be excused to a degree.

Having finally caught sight of the peeling, tattered remains of this sequence of collages during a drive home in the impressive gusts of wind from Storm Ciara, I went out to investigate, on foot...

I think the collage illustrated the separation of a couple, in view of the expression on the faces of the protagonists. Unfortunately, I couldn't lift the other poster as the wind was buffeting it, me and the camera. The final gloomy image is the boy, heading off, head down...
Searching for further information, I discovered that in fact there had initially been seven posters in this sequence and that the whole scene had only been posted up at the beginning for the year. I don't know if the missing posters were removed by admirers or taken by speculators as Levalet currently has art on show in Paris and is earning ever-greater acclaim.

I have just become aware of another work (above) - Tourner en rond - that has also passed me by, as I travel home on the evening bus. I decided to walk back last night to track it down...

Unfortunately a number of parts are missing from this piece too so that it is difficult to grasp what is actually going on from the remaining images. However, this work initially featured the same individual going through the (trompe l'oeil) door, entering the wall cavity and then sliding out again from the blockhouse window, to resume his circular trip in an ad infinitum movement worthy of M;C Escher.

It is stuck onto the once-futuristic exterior walls of my daughter's old secondary school. In view of the sheer volume of young teenagers tramping past everyday, I would say that it has fared quite well, all things considered.
As a result of my regret at having missed out on so much, I have resolved to start looking up and around me again. This really has been a heads-up in every sense!

Friday, January 31, 2020

Visual Catnip...William de Morgan and William Morris...

Design for printed fabric - Honeysuckle - William Morris - 1874
Over the new year period, on a trip to Birmingham I went back to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I love being there and going back to the paintings, ceramics and sculptures that feel like a remote backcloth to life. Born in Brum, but leaving the Black Country for the West Country as a child, meant that ‘The City of a Thousand Trades’ was linked to visits to the family and the familiar ; the art gallery and the jewellery quartier. 

The Blind Girl - John Everett Millais - 1856
The Pre-Raphaelite room in the gallery mesmerized me from my earliest years. I used to be shown the intricate details on the painting – painstakingly realised with such realism and in such iridescent colours. Yet with age, at one stage I grew tired of this visual overload, and shrugged it off as Victorian excess, as heavy and stifling as the typical 19th century home interior. However this tardive teenage rejection did not last long. I took up a more objective vision of art and its appreciation in general and no longer felt the need to be apologetic about any admiration I might feel for any aspect of any kind of art. Why should you feel intimidated by the dictates of (someone else’s) taste ? Or the new directives imposed on past works and visions that have been taken out of context ? I was very sad to see that the painting that had absolutely fascinated me in childhood (Hylas and the Nymphs – J.W Waterhouse 1896) had been removed from Manchester art gallery due to issues concerning the portrayal of women and their assigned role in society/life. 

Hylas and the Nymphs - J.W Waterhouse - 1896 (
Despite being ill for my latest visit to the art gallery, I did manage to make my way up to the permanent display of ceramics and tilework in the decorative art section of the applied art collection. This is housed on the open upper floor of the imposing ‘greenhouse’ gallery structure - typical of the Victorian age and widely found in libraries and stations with characteristic expanses of glass supported by ornate wrought iron. 

Design for wallpaper - Wild Tulip - William Morris - 1884
As always, one of the key exhibits on display here was work by William de Morgan (1839 – 1917). His art - pottery and ceramics - exemplifies the social and aesthetic values of the Arts and Craft Movement, just like the work of his friend, William Morris (1834 – 1896). Both men were born at a time when mass manufacturing was being driven and enabled by the industrial revolution, and was transforming life in 19th century Britain. Likewise they had witnessed first-hand the saturation of every part of society by soul-less mass produced goods whose manufacture had a dehumanising effect on the labourers and each individual for whom they were destined. I can’t help but wonder what William Morris himself would think of his prints being reproduced today in order to manufacture cheap clothing for global juggernaut H & M, in conditions dictated by fast fashion? Or indeed the Strawberry Thief, amongst his other designs, being plundered to adorn every conceivable surface, from oven gloves to teaspoon rests, much in the same way that The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady ‘accessories’ were hugely commercialized in the 1980s. 

de Morgan
To mark his disapproval of a period dominated by the race for innovation and technology, William Morris refused to visit the Great Exhibition of 1851. In this machine age, when factories delivered services and manufactured goods to unprecedented levles, art had become an industrialised commodity as another. Even though the work of both Morris and de Morgan would go on to have a significant impact of the decoration of domestic interiors in the Victorian age, they practiced their respective crafts with principle. Indeed, guided by truth and beauty, they believed that craftsman should devote themselves to their art, using traditional techniques instead of mechanically churning out vast quantities of meaningless produce. Like the initial founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, they were influenced by the writings of art critic John Ruskin and yearned for a return to a purer time, exemplified by the Medieval age. 

So it was that de Morgan worked alongside Wiiliam Morris in the 1860s, producing stained glass windows with another important late Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne-Jones. De Morgan’s formal training as a classical artist enabled him to depict Biblical scenes and those from mythology and legends. However, by his own admission, de Morgan was more a designer than a ‘real artist’. He was fascinated with obtaining an opaque, iridescent finish on glass and this led him in other directions. Although he may have established his artistic credentials during this period of collaboration with Burne-Jones, he moved away from the portrayal of angelic, Arthurian or saintly beings. As much as I loved Burne-Jones’ paintings and stained glass when young, and still love his beautiful drawings today, there are only so many wan, winsome and wilting figures in billowing drapery you can take.

Drawing - Edward Burne-Jones
Once themes and draftsmanship become a little too standard, satiation point is soon reached, although judging by the Victorian appetite for such art, their threshold was considerably higher than mine. The paintings of de Morgan’s wife, Evelyn (1855-1919), are a case in point - for me at least. The beautifully executed recurrent female forms, striking similar poses in classical themes, soon become cloying. However it is important to realise that she was often obliged to conform to popular tastes rather than follow her own leanings since the income from her art was often the financial linchpin in the de Morgan household. Indeed, William’s scientific experiments in firing and glazing techniques from this time onwards resulted in the exploration of other forms and motifs, but did not ensure any lasting monetary gain whatsoever.

De Morgan drew inspiration from what was termed ‘Persian’ ceramics, although in fact this largely referred to16th century Islamic pottery and majolica from Italy and Spain. In this respect he resembled many other Western artists and writers who were attracted to all things Oriental. They were avid for the exotic, and eager to experience a visit to the Levant to complement or replace the more commonplace Grand Tour of Europe. William Morris himself declared: « To us pattern-designers, Persia has become a holy land».

de Morgan
With his ever-analytical, scientific mind, bolstered by a mathematical training, de Morgan found his forte in creating intricate geometric forms, playing on symmetric shapes, and tessellations. These were common in the Islamic art which he so admired, where rich floral patterns took the place of the human figures whose depiction was forbidden by faith. De Morgan departed from the staple Burne-Jones protagonists and moved away from the purely botanic-based designs of Morris. 

His ceramics were devoted to portraying a multitude of plants and mythological, fantastical and heraldic creatures portrayed in stunning patterns and colours that draw inspiration from Syrian, the Middle Eastern work, and the Iznik ware of Asian Turkey. He had seen such art first-hand when he carried out a commission in the Arab Hall of what is now Leighton House Museum. Furthermore, he would have known of the writings of Owen Jones on the subject of Islamic design from the book 'Grammar of Ornament’ (1856).

Design for wallpaper - Tulip and Willow - William Morris -1873-5
In the late 1860s, interest in home improvement was gathering momentum as changing demographics led to ever-greater property ownership. A renewed desire for tiles meant that production increased to provide surround tiles for fire places, or wall decoration and flooring in kitchens, washrooms, parlours, sitting rooms, hallways and pathways. Companies started to supply an impressive range of ‘art tiles’ to meet demand and to exhibit their wares in the international trade fairs. Yet while the work produced by ‘The Potteries’ - centred around Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire - may have made of England the most significant ceramic producers worldwide, it did not suit de Morgan’s concept of the artist potter/ceramist since it had led to uniformity without intrinsic significance. Thomas Minton and Sons perfected production techniques that enabled them to produce on an industrial scale, thus become a leading Staffordshire company throughout the Victorian era. 

de Morgan
Innovative encaustic tiles opened up additional markets and catered to new demands in tiles for public buildings, institutions and palaces, alongside home interiors. Mass-produced Minton tiles were used to replace Medieval church floors - drawing criticism from William Morris but meeting with approval from the ‘father’ of the Gothic Revival Movement – A.W Pugin. The Palace of Westminster, Victoria & Albert Museum and many other prestigious buildings were decorated using Minton tiles in England and even in the USA with the US Capitol.

de Morgan
 The need for ceramic tiles to meet the standards of the Arts and Crafts Movement led de Morgan to set up his own firm in the 1870s. The continued desire to recreate the unique finish of the rich ceramics created in 9th Century Egypt also led him to virtually burn down his workshop at one stage during a (presumably failed) experiment. Nevertheless, he did finally manage to produce lustreware with such skill that he became an expert in the field. A partnership with the architect Halsey Ricardo resulted in a number of important commissions, including Debenham House, London, in 1905 and the design of schemes for the decoration of twelve P&O liners, and the provision of tiles for the purpose. In 1883, de Morgan was also commissioned by Lewis Carroll to design several red lustre tiles featuring fantastic beasts -  a snark, jabberwock, eagle, dodo, among others – to decorate the surround of a fireplace…
Since de Morgan’s work has no religious content or intent per se, unlike much of the art that had inspired it, it has been criticised for being merely clever geometrical patterns that are soulless. Furthermore, the costly production processes meant that de Morgan’s creations were only truly accessible to a select public, with the obvious financial means to afford such expense. This limited their growth, posing restrictions on the public since it excluded the vast majority and ultimately had an impact on sales. In addition, aesthetics were evolving. 

Taste changes, and as no longer in the spirit of the times, De Morgan & Co folded in 1907. Having finally perfected his lustreware technique in later years, he wrily remarked that “All my life I have been trying to make beautiful things and now that I can, nobody wants them." Indeed, through concentrating on the creative process, he had overlooked the aesthetic mood at the turn of the century, with the result that his motifs and patterns appeared somewhat outdated.

de Morgan
What I find the most endearing and admirable in de Morgan is this earnest, even dogged approach to art and experimentation and the fact that despite being born into a lineage of mathematicians, he was apparently inept at managing the financial aspects of any of his endeavours. For all his love of figures and the beauty of mathematics, he was notoriously bad at the books ! He was also known for his sense of humour – shared by his wife – and again, I think that makes of de Morgan a most congenial character, very far from the dour, caricatural image we might have of the average Victorian. 

de Morgan
The expressive, organic, undulating forms and flowing lines of Art Nouveau had overtaken the heavier, history-bound, cluttered style of the 19th century. The beginnings of change had already made themselves apparent in the black-and-white illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley (1872 – 1898). His art marked a striking move away from the more reassuring style of Burne-Jones which had been a key inspiration and influence in Beardsley’s short life. Whilst Burne-Jones dealt with a dream-like domain of myth and legend, his young admirer’s Aesthetic art bordered on the nightmarish, with its troubling, almost menacing edginess. In this new climate, de Morgan’s designs no longer had their former relevance or success. The Minton company was able to adapt to the times by introducing Art Nouveau designs influenced by the Vienna Secession art movement, founded by Gustav Klimt and others ; de Morgan could not and would not make the change. On the closure of his company, he literally turned the page, and added a new chapter to his life…. through literature. 

de Morgan
It is interesting to think that over his lifetime, he was to have greater success from the novel-writing that he ultimately turned to - once the commercial opportunies of ceramics had finally failed him. Today, of course, the de Morgan name is synonymous with art, and probably not literature, even if William published seven best-selling novels in this final phase of his life, gaining him acclaim in England and the USA. 

de Morgan
These decorative arts operate as visual catnip on me – drawing me in every time. Just the name given to some of de Morgan’s iridescent finishes is enough to make me dream. Moonlight and sunset lustre… How magical is that ? 

de Morgan