Monday, July 26, 2021

The Reappearance of La Maison des Musiciens... 100 years later!

A few years ago, I wrote about the Maison des Musiciens that disappeared from Reims in the hostilities of the First World War over a hundred years ago. A copy of the façade has just been unveiled at the original site, some 800 years after the initial construction of the building! For the moment, most of the base is fenced off by metal hoarding so the final effect is not yet visible, but here's a glimpse of two of the five musicians. Hmm.... Not entirely sure what to think for the moment as the project still looks rather too 'clean' and more than a little like a 3D print-out, but perhaps some city grime will lend a greater air of authenticity and age to the whole.

Beyond The Owl and the Pussycat...

The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea… The opening words from the Edward Lear nonsense poem must have been written into the childhood experience of so many over the past 150 years but I am not sure if they are recognized or appreciated today in the same manner. Perhaps the magical power of the written word has been spirited away by the sea of images that smart screens bombard us with each day, thus rendering books almost obsolete. Do children still love such whimsical writings now- the limericks, verses and prose with their accompanying illustrations ? They were all created by an individual who would introduce himself as Mr Abebika Kratoponoko Prizzikalo Kattefello Ablegorabalus Ableborinto Phashyph - such was his joy for language. I don’t believe we share that same linguistic savouring - that appreciation of word experimentation in terms of sound, shape, function and meaning – at least not at the present time when everything has to be conveyed at speed, in Twitter-comptible size. Perhaps as a result of that, we are simply losing the will and ability to play with language and find fun therein… Just take a look at Lear’s suggested plural form of the hippopotamus… Hippopotamice !
However, language aside, I recently discovered that Lear’s 'bosh’ writings were but a small part of his life’s work. In fact, he had initially sought to distance himself from his nonsensical literature for many years, fearing – as was indeed the case – that it would detract from his more ‘serious’ undertakings. When writing for the children in his entourage as a young man, he had even signed as 'Derry Down Derry', and it was only later on in life that he actually used his real name next to his Nonsense collections. How ironic then that most of his fame appears to be based on this very thing – to the point that the name Lear has almost become synonymous with limerick or was at one stage. Yet far from being some avuncular Victorian, occupying himself with witty scribblings from the comfort of a vast country pile, Lear’s talents as travel writer, topographical painter, and natural history illustrator led him into a unique existence of adventure across Europe, the Middle East and Asia that I had never imagined. The quaint drawings that illustrate Lear’s nonsense writings give no indication to his skill as a highly-accomplished draughtsman. Futhermore, whilst his renown in Great Britain resides solidly on The Owl and Pussycat, The Jumblies and so on, in many of the countries he explored and painted, he is a revered artist. Why hasn’t his extensive talent been acknowledged and acclaimed in his homeland ? Why don’t we know more about Edward Lear ?
The more I have read about Lear, the greater my appreciation of this incredible man and the deeper my indignation that he still has so little recognition ! He was certainly not dealt a good hand in life and the odds were stacked against him in terms of poor mental and physical health from early childhood. His life circumstances alone sound almost Dickensian from the outset. Born in 1812 as the 20th child ( !!!!) of Ann and Jeremiah Lear, he had to be raised by his eldest sister, Ann, since his parents could not cope with the financial burden. When his stockbroker father was sent to debtor’s prison, the young Lear had to earn his own living through illustration work. Having being taught drawing and painting by his sisters Ann and Sarah, and possessing remarkable ability from a young age, Lear was able to make his way despite having no formal artistic training. However, from childhood he experienced the debilitating effects of epilepsy that was little understood and even less accepted at a time when grand mal episodes were akin to possession by diabolic forces. The sense of shame never left Lear who learnt to retire from company before a seizure set in but would also isolate himself when in the grips of the ‘morbids’ – the bouts of depression that would dog him to his final days. Suffering from a poor chest – with respiratory ailments such as bronchitis and asthma – his health was compromised severely and if that wasn’t enough, failing eyesight affected his draughtsmanship !
Yet as life was pitiless in the 19th century, and the workhouse beckoned for those sliding downward, Lear forged ahead despite a constant concern about a lack of steady income. Unlike a 21st century counterpart who would surely be tempted to expose and explore their suffering and point an accusing finger at the shortcomings of the pater familias and the family set-up, Lear moved onward and further afield. He was driven by a restlessness that kept him active and adventurous, leading him to wander, instinctively and repeatedly, on ‘jaunts’ towards the warmer climate of the Mediterranian coast. Lear’s affable nature meant that he had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. His artistic ability and versatility, social adaptability and amenable personality seem to have opened doors for him. He was even invited to give drawing lessons to Queen Victoria ! He himself acknowledged that he had social contact with individuals from « an immense variety of class and caste » - holding frequent exhibitions in order to sell his work. Friendship was further maintained by the humourous letters, illustrated with his comic, often self-deprecating drawings. Nevertheless loneliness plagued him throughout life and he felt himself to be a perpetual outsider, forever the eccentric, adventurous foreigner pushing further afield, stretching his horizons. Perhaps he was also on the spectrum too, as has been hinted, and maybe was homosexual - either way he remained unmarried to the end of his life. Company took the form of a loyal misshapen cat, ‘Foss’, (17 years of feline companionship) and a faithful Albanian servant (30 years of service, albeit as a « thoroughly unsatisfactory chef » !). Lear died just a few months after the demise of Old Foss…
Lear’s artistic talent was made apparent from the age of 15 when he started to earn a living by carrying out medical illustrations for doctors and hospitals. It was, however, his ornithological illustrations that earned him early recognition in 1830. Drawing from the live specimens at London zoo, Lear wished to publish his own book on parrots - The Family of Psittacidae – at the age of 19. Compared to the work of the great American artist and naturalist , John James Audubon (1785-1851), whose work may appear somewhat stuffy and stuffed (based on preserved specimens ) Lear’s studies possess great vitality and naturalness.
It is not surprising, incidentally, that Lear’s art should be so admired by Sir David Attenborough… During his period at the zoo, Lear encountered Edward Stanley - Lord Derby (the first of several). Like many Victorian gentlemen, the latter had a keen interest in natural history and requested that Lear draw the living and preserved specimens from the private aviary and menagerie in the vast estate of Knowsley Hall. From 1832 to 1836, Lear worked in this imposing setting, not only producing the commissioned animal studies but also writing nonsensical verse to entertain the children staying in the grand home. Many of the words and names he invented seem to have drawn inspiration from the exotic animals catalogued in the newly-assembled natural history collections. Lear’s Pobble (with no toes), Dong (with a luminous nose) and Quangle-Wangles sound no more bizarre than the actual Tasselled Wobbegong, Red-Lipped Batfish, Lowland Streaked Tenrec, Aye-Aye and Gerenuk.
A desire to paint the foreign landscapes he saw during his travels, along with the need to adandon the detailed animal studies that were injuring his eyesight meant that Lear decided to settle in Italy and journey from there to find new subjects for his art. For the rest of his life, he made extensive trips, observing and noting what he saw in drawings and paintings that serve as a precious recording today of what life was like in countries such as Greece and Albania. There are several episodes on You Tube to an eye-opening documentary - An Exile in Paradise: The Adventures of Edward Lear that track his incredible journeys… and his amazing art. In view of all that then, it therefore seems odd that Lear should be so revered in relatively far-flung countries, but in his birth country we are incapable of getting any further than The Owl and the Pussycat.
(Above from

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

A New Home for Old Ceramic Staffordshire Dogs...

Having had my eye on this pair of copper-lustre Staffordshire dogs in one of the antique shops for some time, I finally succombed to temptation, and so now the next chapter of their story will be written into mine. In theory, these earthenware figures would have been manufactured in the ‘Potteries’ region of England – the Staffordshire area around Stoke-on-Trent ; heart of British ceramic production from the 17th century onward and home to the grand companies of Wedgwood and Spode. However, they may even have been produced in Scotland -around Glasgow or Edinburgh – areas also known for industrialized pottery production, and for developing their own line of ‘wally dugs’ (china dogs). Either way, I have no idea how or when this pair ended up in France but their past must certainly have been somewhat eventful, and not without mishap, as one of the dogs was broken and (rather shoddily) glued together again ! Two sets of Staffordshires have always been part of the decor in my family home and although I grew up with them, I never really wondered about their origins. Now, literally stuck in France due to travel restrictions to the UK, seeing my pair of recently-acquired dogs makes me think of home in every sense and wonder about the paths we lay down and follow, accompanied by our treasured objects. As antiques pieces, I assumed that Staffordshire dogs adorned the wealthiest households, catering for sophisticated taste that would set the discerning owner apart from the masses. In fact, these figures were largely intended for the working classes alone, albeit those with sufficient financial means to splash out on such ornamentation. Initially they were sold locally but manufacture grew as the fashion to dress the fireplace mantels caught on, especially in Victorian Britain when a matching pair of ‘hearth dogs’ was felt to lend a certain touch to the modest home. Thousands of these were first sold at relatively affordable prices at fairs and markets– quite ironic considering that a good pair of authentic Staffordshire models can fetch considerable sums in auction houses and antique shops today.
Although such figures were produced in a variety of breeds – Dalmatians and greyhounds included – the most common was surely the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. This was the favourite dog of Charles II of England and later that of Queen Victoria herself, whose childhood pet ‘Dash’ was represented in paintings by Landseer. These ceramic beasts came in a variety of sizes – some surprisingly large – but all generally presented in a seated position, with the front leg(s) occasionally separately moulded from the body. For the most part, the dogs bear a gold chain and locket for a regal touch, and patches of gold luster on the body too. Details of fur in the moulding and paintwork vary somewhat, depending on the quality of the pieces. The craze for such dogs meant that they were churned out in ever-greater numbers to meet demand and so delicate brushstrokes would be replaced by daubs of paint. Regardless of their quality, all models nevertheless maintained a quaint air that in no way sought to achieve a slavish realism of the animal in question. The dogs’ expression tends to be rather quizzical – with arched eyebrows and eyes that tend to gaze ahead. Whilst my dogs have simple painted yellow irises, many models had glass eyes that must have caught the light around the fireplace in their original settings. It is said that the factory workers’ children were employed to hand paint the whiskers and other fine details. Certainly, in the early models no two dogs were identical which added to their charm all the more. The colour of the dogs varied too. Often russet brown or black features were common on a typically white body, highlighted with the touches of gold. Whatever the colourings, the back of the models remained largely undecorated since this was not visible from the dogs’ vantage point upon the mantelpiece ! Some figures were placed on the window sill and rumour has it that the position of the dogs would indicate to an illicit lover when the coast was clear and an unwitting spouse was away… The sending of a text message today certainly has none of the cachet of the past !
Given that early Staffordshire ware tended not to be marked, it is difficult to know the age of many specimens. This is further compounded by the fact that the market today is awash with reproductions, many of which date back to the 1920s and 1930s when the dogs underwent a resurgence of popularity. The signs of the production methods employed are generally the best way to date a piece. A coin-sized hole in the base of a dog indicates that the slip-cast process was used in order to mass produce in the late 19th century. My dogs have the small holes in their backs that are indicative of the press-mould production of the earlier models and they also look remarkably like another pair of dogs that date back to the 1860s. However, with their hit-and-miss reassembly, and glue scar-tissue, my maimed Staffordshire spaniels could no longer command any sizeable sale price on the market but they are worth more than mere money. I do wish antiques could talk - to tell us their story and those of the people who have accompanied them over the decades…