Sunday, March 28, 2021

How Much Is That Doggie...?

How much is the doggie worth indeed? Not much, if you go by his 'family' who kindly dumped him off at the animal shelter yesterday, without the slightest qualm. The poor dog was quivering and wimpering as if sensing what awaited him, whilst the owners just turned heel and left. Oh, but did manage to utter a witty 'Au revoir, le chien' as they did so. How drole. And the reason for this special treatment of Man's Best Friend? "He sometimes cries in his sleep". I don't know what made me cry more - the poor dog's distress - or the base behaviour of certain humans. I am sure that this lovely animal will soon be adopted by people worthy of being a pet-owner; not sure if anything could save the original owners from their rot...

Crochet Away...

Still rows and rows of hexagones to crochet, but the work is slowly taking form. 'Slowly' is indeed, very definitely, the operative word here. I have been busy with this for over a year and a half, but as I no longer travel by tram, or indeed travel anywhere for that matter, I have lost quite a lot of valuable crochet time.
This will eventually be a rather large wall-hanging yet for most of its existence so far, it has been a growing bundled mass that resides on the bed, generally used as a sleeping area for one of the cats. Not sure what it is about wool - even in its most synthetic form - it just draws in the felines! She is in no hurry for this to be completed and hung on the wall! But just guess who really doesn't like having her photo taken, with or without her woolly surroundings...

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Sweets Violets... For 11th March

This morning I went looking for my favourite flowers - discrete little violets - to mark the date and fond memories of my sweet, mischievous feline friend. The years have passed, and with them the pain of his loss, so that all that remains now are those memories of a great deal of fun and companionship and of course the sweet violets that appear each year to ensure I don't forget him in any way... As if that were possible!

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Spring Sunlight in the Cemetery...

In a city, a quiet walk surrounded by greenery is often hard to come by but fortunately the old cemetery at the end of my street is pretty and peaceful...
Time-worn gravestones, ivy-strewn and coloured with moss and lichen have a calming quality that the unyielding marble tombs do not, so I prefer to wander around the oldest parts of the cemetery, near the crumbling old walls and under the branches of the yew trees.
I love looking at the now barely-legible carved inscriptions, even though these can only ever refer to someone's sad loss, regardless of the countless years that separate their lifetime from ours. Yet somehow the decades and centuries that have passed since those beings left this life make this feel less morbid and more reflective.
The symbols of Life, Death and Eternity are found everywhere, often appearing to be almost quaint today since their exact significance is largely lost on us today.
Many of the religious allusions are indeed unintellible; a whole realm of meaning has been shut off to us as we cannot read the scripture in the sculpture as our ancestors could.
There are several oddd-looking owls on the older tombs, peering down on visitors, staring on in their wisdom, probably dumb-founded by our ignorance!
A swan-like pelican feeds its young - supposedly with its own blood - in a sign of charity and sacrifice.
Solumn figures guard the corners of headstones...
Some almost smiling, others eyes lowered...
Almost resembling symbolic Green Men.
And finally Springtime flowers, ephemeral yet perennial.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Berries and Bright Skies...

We recently had the experience of freezing temperatures but bright, beautiful blues skies...
The berries were flaming in the bushes, readily picked off by the hungry blackbirds, who certainly were not ready to be caught in the act in any photo, try as I might!
The burst of colour and light - and a few welcome days off work - have made me look forward to getting back to my various craft projects which have all been of 'Work In Progress' status for well over a year now!

Naughty Naiads on La Fontaine Subé...

With a sharp turnaround in temperatures, the last few days have transformed the town-centre fountains into strangely bubbling, trickling ice chauldrons of freezing water and then back into free flowing water courses in the air and light of Springtime. This sudden change in weather has seen a flurry of thick, fleeced garments giving way to tee-shirts, mini skirts and shorts – at least for those ready to brave this premature Spring. It would seem that everyone wants to make the most of this burst, however short-lived it may prove to be, and no one cares about this pre-seasonal déshabillage.
When one of the most famous rémois fountains – la Fontaine Subé – was inaugurated in the 1906, the generous display of feminine curves in the form of the four symbolic naiads was considered to be somewhat inappropriate. So too, was the idea of installing a fountain in the first place, since such abudant water usage was considered wasteful in a city where supply was limited.
Erected thanks to a generous donation from the local wool merchant Auguste Subé (1807-1899) the fact that not one of the nymphs had a stitch of clothing on did not go down well with the honourable townsfolks of Reims, itself famous for its textile industry ! I myself have often wondered how, when étiquette and social mores banned the female form from respectable public sight, art and architecture laid out a full-on flesh smorgasbord, without the bat of an eyelid !
Even the extended notions of artistic licence and extensive references to Greek and Roman mythology cannot account for such freedom exercised at a time when the exposure of an ankle would be deemed outrageous… Nevertheless, these four hardy water nymphs have witnessed how the fountain has braved the weather of time and circumstances, from the rain of initial criticism, the showers of schrapel during the Great War to the cruel storm of enemy occupation in WW2. Whilst Reims was emptied of its civilian population during the war years 1914-1918 to become la ville martyre de France following the decimation of its cathedral and blanket destruction of the city, Fontaine Subé emerged relatively unscathed.
Set on the central axis at the heart of urban Reims it stood its ground, literally surrounded by the rubble of flattened buildings. Unfortunately, several of the monument’s symbolic statues did suffer war wounds, losing various limbs and extremities. The poor nymph representing the river Suippe had already suffered the indignity of having her name incorrectly sculpted from inception (an extra ‘s’added that still remains today), in the Great War she was decapitated. La Vesle, meanwhile was totally obliterated.
This sorry state of affairs drew less sorrow than derision from the inter-war critics, with one remarking on these sugary-sweet Belle Epoque expressions stuck on maimed bodies « du même sourire automatique propre aux vendeuses de bazar ». It is true that the figures on the fountain lack Art Nouveau edginess and do indeed appear somewhat stodgy and cloying on closer observation. Yet the fact that the Fontaine Subé somehow survived the 20th century makes it one of the key emblems of the la cité des sacres and a symbol of its modern history.
Place d’Erlon was the site selected for the erection of this monument to Reim’s honour, just after the turn of the last century. Formally known as Place de la Couture until the mid-1800s, this area was the social and economic centre of the city. It was renamed in commemoration of Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Comte d'Erlon, a marshal of France, whose statue once stood where Fontaine Subé was to be built. The poor old Drouet now looks down from his pedestal in another part of town, far away from ‘his’ place, still proud yet somewhat forlorn, as his bright-green features weep, and his bronze form is utterly ignored by the traffic speeding past. How strange that History should elevate certain figures for a time and then seem to fling them back into civilian obscurity…
Fontaine Subé is a striking shape on the long, wide expanse of Place d’Erlon; the golden statue perched majestically at the top of the column is truly stunning in the sunlight. And yet its fate was nearly sealed in the 1950s when town planners considered its total demolition. The monument is 17 metres in height and is surrounded by a low stone base, currently acting as a perch for people snacking, chatting or texting since all the cafés, restaurants and bars are closed. The column draped in vines, refers to the illustrious champagne production of the region, whilst the winged figure of Fame – La Rénommée - is supported by allegorical forms. A female form represents the city of Reims ; Mercury - trade ; a blacksmith – industry and a shepherd symbolises agriculture. Towards the base of the column are our four water nyaids, busy honouring the rivers around Reims - La Suippe, La Marne, La Vesle and l'Aisne.
The winged figure that balances lightly on top of the globe at the summit of the column is not in fact the original one and was only added at a relatively recent date (1989). When the city was occupied by the Germans in the Second World War, the statue was removed in a cruel snub to the citizens of Reims and was melted down for its bronze in 1942. The column remained in the same despoiled state until the late 1980s when the new golden form was set in position to light up Place d’Erlon again and to such effect that it is difficult to believe that it has not always been there.
More recently the water nymph La Vesle was reinstated after a hundred years’ absence, as was the head of La Suippe ! Indeed, in 2014, Fontaine Subé was selected for renovation. Today a closed-circuit system supplies the fountain with water, now flowing in a manner unseen in its century-long existence. Special night-time lighting illuminates the whole in a way that we find pleasing but would have totally amazed the rémois of 1906. Even the original critics would have been bowled away by the magic of the water cascading down, the glowing Rénommée hovering in the night sky above and the play of light on the naked forms of those naughty nymphs !

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Cabinets, Cases and Cloches...

The beautiful plumage of the exotic birds set out in the grand Victorian display cabinets used to fascinate me when I was little. The irridescence of tiny humming birds with their disproportionate needle-like beaks and delicate little bodies, the exuberance of the specimens of Birds of Paradise, with their elongated, exaggerated forms and feathers and the gaudy vibrancy of the parrot family used to draw me in, as did the rows and rows of mesmerising mounted butterflies, insects and beetles. But unlike the showpieces of the entomology drawers, all perfectly pinned down, labelled and splayed out in regimental order, the taxidermied birds appeared to flit, perch and pose freely. Whilst this painstakingly-staged ‘natural’ state was anything but, it did offer viewers and my young self, an almost voyeuristic glimpse of the fauna and flora of remote lands and leave the imagination free to wonder/wander. At home we did have (and still do) a case of stuffed birds, albeit of a rather more modest type, and of a slightly tatty appearance. Despite their comparatively modest feathering and physique, they certainly attracted me and my marauding fingers. I was always intrigued to see how their feathered forms were mounted and remember now, to my shame, plucking down from the breast of the hapless curlew to investigate further. Under the plumage was straw, yet the body had a certain amount of ‘give’ for when I wiggled his impressive bill, the head nodded in a most satisifying manner. That poor beast with his funny glazed expression suffered a thousand indignities at my childish fingertips. I think his display companion – a fine perky-looking peasant - escaped unscathed, thank goodness and luckily I never gained access to any other stuffed specimens at that age…. The stunning effects created by the displays of creatures from near and far left a lasting impression on me. Although I certainly do not have any urge to pick and poke at mounted pieces today, when I visit the magical emporium of Deyrolle in Paris, I feel myself transported back to that childhood delight of seeing magnificient animals, butterflies and insects in all their glory in a beautiful historical site. As a child, the vast Victorian cabinets at the museum (Birmingham, at the time) seemed to tower above as did some of the larger mammals themselves – generally mounted to strike the most dramatic of poses. Rearing horses, roaring bears standing upright, howling wolves, serpents ready to strike, eagles swooping all brought to life the natural world, just as they had done for the first visitors to admire them. Over the years I admit that I also liked to observe the least realistic-looking mounted specimens which could, quite frankly, be sadly comic to behold. Like a rogues’ gallery in Noah’s ark, these poor beasts were immortalised with the strangest of expressions, often accompanied by contorted body positions that can only raise a smirk when scrutinized with modern eyes. Presumably, effective taxidermy is another case of ‘practise making perfect’ and the 19th century certainly witnessed extensive practice of the craft.
When the rather more erudite (and affluent) Victorians turned their ever-curious, eager eye to Natural history and the wonders of the world as worthy subjects of observation, the art of taxidermy came into its element. It offered life-like, three-dimensional tableaux of all creatures great and small, before the advent of photography and film or ready access to menageries. With our limitless wealth of multi-media documentation available at a click today, it is difficult for us to even fathom this comparative dearth of information. Nor can we imagine how extraordinarily exotic the first mounted creatures must have appeared, at a time when most of the inhabitants of the growing urban areas had little access to any form of nature or wildlife. It is hardly surprising that when the first preserved skin and anatomical drawings of a platypus were sent back to England from Australia at the end of the 18th century people believed it was a mismatch of different animals sewn together for a hoax. The Zoological Society of London – the world’s oldest scientific zoological establishment – was founded in 1828 by Sirs Stamford Raffles and Humphry Davy (of Penzance !), at a time when the lack of such a society and menagerie was considered to be an “ opprobrium to our age and nation”. Until then, natural history cabinets – wonder rooms or cabinets of curiosities - had piqued the interest and bolstered the status of private curators with their collections of exotic items, oddities and rarities, alongside rich specimens of plant, animal, mineral. These were, however of a personal or private nature rather than an open affair and were not in the public domain. Initially actual rooms, these cabinets of curiosity ultimately became display cabinets filled with a glut of treasures, like the hoard of a learned magpie. Such cabinets were the hallmark of intellectual refinement and culture, and were the preserve of the privileged few, but their influence was widespread. The same driving curiosity and desire to collect, observe and understand the wonders of the world was behind the founding of the first great museums. Taxidermy was an extension of that scientific approach. In the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Crystal Palace, mounted birds and other animals were incorporated into the lavish displays that stunned the visitors. It laid out the riches of the British Empire under the rule of Queen Victoria and opened the door to a more public taste for all things stuffed ! The so-called father of modern taxidermy, John Hancock, presented his series of birds and amazed the public with the life-like nature of his work. Other specimens of taxidermy astounded the public – not least the elephant used to bear the lavish Indian carriage – the howdah. Fortunately, the overall effect in the exhibition was more important than the detail, for this was no Asian beast, but an African version dressed up for the affair, having spent the previous twenty years on display in a museum in Saffron Walden. A European elk that was remarked to be "all but breathing" certainly took the breath away from the visitors who deemed the creature to have been ‘petrified in his own skin’. Since the word taxidermy comes from the Greek taxis – to move – and derma -skin – that might be a suitable description. Certainly techniques to perform the craft proficiently were evolving in order to keep up with the increase in demand and the huge influx of specimens from all four corners of the world. The treatment of pelts and skins was perfected with the use of arsenic as a preservative and the Victorian approach to skinning and mounting was so efficient that it remains the same today. However, this must have been a gruesome, rather smelly process at best, but that did not deter the Victorians from indulging in all things stuffed ! Whilst professional practioners provided the specimens for both public institutions and individuals of means and distinction, commercial taxidermists flooded the market with their mass-produced work. Meanwhile numerous amateurs took up the craft as a respectable pastime -so much so that even genteel women were encouraged to pursue this form of parlour art by following step-by-step manuals to realise display pieces for their drawing-rooms. Given the scale of its popularity, taxidermy was the direct cause of death of countless animals, and the hunting and trapping of the specimens required brought about immense loss. It was not only used extensively for museum exhibits and hunting trophies, but became hugely popular in milinery as fashionable ladies hats and bonnets were decorated with exotic birds from the British colonies. Such was the demand for these feathered ‘ornaments’ that many species were threatened by extinction. Incidentally, the profit made from the Great Exhibition enabled its organiser, Henry Cole to realise his ambition of improving science and art education through the founding of a complex of institutions. Thus the Science, Natural History and Victoria and Albert Museums, the Imperial College of Science, the Royal Colleges of Art, Music and Organists and finally the Albert Hall were born. It is thought that the Great Exhibition was a source of inspiration -direct or indirect - for England’s most famous Victorian taxidermist, Walter Potter (1835-1918). Although still in his youth in 1851, Potter may well have been one of the numerous visitors stunned by the anthropomorphic antics of the host of stuffed beasts presented by the German Hermann Ploucquet. His witty tableaux caused everyone to linger and laugh - from Her Majesty Queen Victoria to the humblest commoner.
Widely distributed engravings of Ploucquet’s 'Comical Creatures of Wurtemburg’, accompanied by narrative stories, were subsequently made, and were certainly available to Potter too. A preface to one such book later stated that ‘It is not often that one comes across a scientist who is also what one might term a practical humorist’. Perhaps Walter Potter aspired to such a role himself, although he seems to have been a somewhat retiring character, happy to create and exhibit his works from the modest village of his birth in Sussex; Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities. Leading on from an early interest in wildlife, Potter’s mounted menageries were the perfect mariage of the ‘cuddly cute’ offset by the slightly weird and rather macabre. His whimsical scenes would generally mirror recognisably human behaviour and emotions. The parallels of life and death, Man and animal are bound together in a way that probably charmed the average Victorian, but is surely more problematic for most millenials. Modern awareness of animal welfare and a squeamishness towards death – our final frontier and last taboo in the 21st century – mean that Potter’s art is either adored or abhored today. However it should be remembered that in times past, the natural world in general was simply not seen in the same light as now and the Victorian world view was wholly different to ours. Animals were not only plentiful but often undesirable in their living form. They took on a whole new value once their fur/fleece/feathers/leather/skins/horns/hides/claws and teeth had been reaped in as lucrative assets. There may have been a growing consciousness of cruelty to animals – the RSPCA was founded in the 1820s -but it was not commonplace. Living creatures were generally seen as fair game, especially when most of the population across the imperial century lived no better than animals. Hardship and poverty took its toll whilst the ravages of diseases such as consumption, cholera and typhoid ensured that illness and death were often part of everyday existence for all classes of society. The subsequent fascination with death as the threshold between this life and the afterlife may strike us as morbid but must have been a natural response in Queen Victoria’s day. After all, she herself spent 40 years mourning Prince Albert ! Partly linked to this morbidity was the Victorian curiosity for all things quirky and odd – the freak show being a perfect example. Alongside this was a marked tendancy towards sentimentality and even mawkishness. It was therefore not entirely surprising that Potter’s work as the ‘World Famous example of Victorian whimsy’ proved to be so popular. Indeed, large crowds streamed to visit the museum in Bramber and large numbers of postcards were sold. His success was not down to the quality of his actual taxidermy skills – somewhat rudimentary compared to certain professionals – but because his work responded to a specific set of tastes.
The displays of animals, acting out human scenes, must have been wholly entertaining back then– with toads performing athletics, guinea pigs indulging in a game of croquet, gentlemen squirrels playing cards, louche rats gambling, rabbits attending class in school and kittens drinking at tea party – to mention but a few of Potter’s tableaux. The most famous of all, however, was his diorama of The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, drawn from the nursery rythme Who killed Cock Robin ?. This early two-metre piece was started when he was only 19 and took a number of years to complete, with its vast number of birds (almost 100) and huge amount of painstaking detail that would have mesmerized the visitors. His last work, the Kitten’s Wedding (1890), features costumed cats wearing appropriate formal dress, all made by an obliging neighbour and one of Potter’s two daughters. Naturally, the sight of so many kittens (or any other of Potter’s creatures) makes us feel uneasy regarding the procurement of all these furry martyrs to Victorian art and entertainment. The thought of animal sacrifice rests heavy on our collective conscience, especially when the art in question appears fluffy and frivolous and has no scientific purpose that could partly alleviate our feelings of discomfort. Yet Potter’s creatures were all collected ‘humanely’ – with their little life-less corpses handed over to him by farmers, gamekeepers and private pet owners alike. Apparently the monkey who is gaily riding a goat in one of the best-known pieces was recovered when the animal in question died from thermic shock. A market stallholder had thrown icy water over the thieving beast as a last resort after having tolerated the pilfering on one occasion too many! Ultimately we are hardly in a position to criticise past attitudes and behaviour towards the natural world when we knowingly and willingly endanger it today. The fact that animal rescue centres today are overrun by cats, kittens, dogs and puppies when there is little valid justification just serves to highlight our shaky ethical standards.
The success of the Potter Museum at Bramber waned over the years as interest in taxidermy declined. Tastes changed and mounted animals were at best considered out-dated and at worst rather tasteless and largely unethical. Little by little, mounted displays also fell out of favour in museums. The Bramber collection was maintained by his daughter and grandson but was sold off in the 1970s and moved to Arundel, then set up in the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall in the mid 1980s. In the early 2000s it was put up for auction at Bonham’s, having been divided into separate lots, and thus it disappeared from public view with many pieces travelling abroad. The attempt of Damian Hirst, an avid Potter admirer, to keep the body of work in one piece failed in spite of his £1-million offer. As none of the grand British museums sought to acquire Potter’s collection, this golden opportunity to keep a unique trace of social history was lost. This lack of vision seems all the more ironic as taxidermy has been undergoing something of a renaissance over the past decade. Ethical sourcing of subjects from zoos, safari parks etc on the natural death of the animals in question has rendered the art far more palatable. At the same time, innovative aesthetic approaches have made taxidermy a dynamic modern art form that is not only attracting purchasers but also a whole new generation of practitioners. Whereas the Victorian taxidermist was typically male, pale and stale, today the chances are it will be a young female – often vegan or vegetarian ! Most of these are familiar with the art of Walter Potter. I will probably never own a taxidermied creature, antique or otherwise, but I am currently mounting my own display of beautiful specimens of exotic birds, very slowly assembled from one of the amazing paper kits created by Johan Scherft. It is definitely a long process, worthy of Victorian parlour art, but for the less squeamish. I still can't make up my mind whether to display my mounted birds in a cabinet, glass case or cloche...