Sunday, July 25, 2010

From Doulton to Deyrolle...

While in London at the start of our holiday, we visited a favourite haunt of my children - Harrods! Reaching the Knightsbridge area via Hyde park, and then wandering along the pavements leading to this world-famous store already gives you a rich expanse of flora & fauna and a glimpse into how the ultra-rich creatures amongst us may live! This is observation on a grand scale, for while only the truly well-off make serious purchases at Harrods the others can consider a trip to this temple of luxury consumption as a spectacle of "Omnia, Omnibus, Ubique", which is the store motto... Harrods does indeed offer all things to all people, everywhere.

We love the sumptuous decor, excess and expanse of Harrods and I especially enjoy looking at the lavish displays in the richly-tiled food halls. It's literally a mouth-watering sight & site on such a huge scale!
The food halls were built at the very beginning of the last century, and were designed by W.J.Neatby who was in charge of the department of architectural ceramics at Doulton. Neatby sought to bring art and industry together, unifying craft tradition and industrial processes just as William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement had done. The resultant decoration in the Meat Hall at Harrods is beautiful for all its exuberance.

In Paris we went to visit one of my favourite places - namely Deyrolle. I came across this unique 'shop' a few years ago when I just happened to look up at a facade in Rue du Bac, near St Germain des Prés and noticed all manner of strange creatures looking out at me from the first floor!  Maybe I had the eery feeling of being watched, but anyway that's how I found the magnificent Deyrolle.

Established in 1831, Deyrolle is a highly unusual mixture of natural history museum, taxidermy outlet and curiosity shop, all set in a wooden-panelled, parquet-floored decor that dates from the 19th century. Experiencing Deyrolle goes way beyond simple shopping for the eccentric - it's educational and aesthetic too as we see the full extent of  the beauty and mystery of the natural world. When Deyrolle fils took over from his father in 1866 he wished to develop this educational aspect and so built up the supply of teaching materials, notably the wall hangings from the Musée Scolaire Deyrolle designed to educate the public, from primary school to university level. At a time when photographs did not exist, few people had seen life-like images of exotic beasts and Deyrolle understood that "an image is worth a thousand words"... And so it is that you find the domains of zoology, botany & entomology brought together with specimens all presented in an eclectic ensemble that is often humourous, always breath-taking. Frustratingly, but understandable, visitors are not supposed to take photographs inside the actual shop, but few photos could ever do justice to the shop itself. It goes without saying that I would fully recommend visiting Deyrolle, or else just go onto their excellent site - where videos will give you a better insight into its originality and magic. There is an English version, but the images just speak for themselves!  Deyrolle Boutique - Rue de Bac, Paris

Having been so taken aback by this weird experience I raved about Deyrolle to my students so that the few who weren't already familiar with it could make the discovery too. It sadly turned out that the shop had just been severely damaged by fire, and much of the collection had been burnt or charred beyond recognition or recovery, whilst the beautiful shop itself was in a very pitiful state. Now, several years after the unfortunate event of February 2008  Deyrolle seems to have made its come-back and visitors can see the beauty of insects, birds, mammals, coral & sea shells - the exotic and the ordinary - yet all presented in this highly original manner in this unique setting. Even some of the poor singed and scarred specimens were able to rise from their own ashes since the book '1000°c' (Editions Assouline et Deyrolle pour l'Avenir) by Laurent Bochel managed to give beautiful photographic coverage of the accident.

The displays are changed at regular periods so that while we set off to England having seen the majestic peacock and crested crane, we came back to find a butterfly-hunting baboon, complete with net, hat and collector's handbook, riding on the back of a patient donkey!
However, as magical as I certainly find Deyrolle, my daughter reminded me of the stark reality - these were all live creatures and may have met their demise simply to satisfy our curiosity or just plain greed... Nevertheless, all of the flora and fauna represented at Deyrolle suffer above all from the pollution and wide-spread destruction of their natural habitats and the environment as a whole. For every magnificent Morpho butterfly pinned onto an entomologist's display board, thousands more will die through our negligence and ignorance of the natural world.

Thank goodness you can appreciate the incredible beauty of the peacock simply by picking up feathers, as I was very happy to do in Devon when a most obliging peacock kindly shed a few tail specimens as it nonchalantly wandered along a rather muddy farm road! The sublime and the ordinary brought together... And of course I did crack at Deyrolle and bought a sachet of sea shells...A cheat's version of beach-combing - though not too dramatic...
While last at Deyrolle I noticed that detectors have been placed at the exit to prevent people performing their own 'collection' of natural specimens within the shop - I was told that these amateur collectors have even managed to steal relatively large mammal specimens! This shouldn't really surprise me since the Catacombes of Paris are likewise obliged to do a bag-search at the end of the visit as it would seem many people succomb to the temptation to collect skulls!!

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