Friday, August 26, 2022

From Hôtel des Sacqs de la Hérissandière, Hôtel de la Cloche Perce... to... Hôtel de La Salle.

One of the older historic buildings here in Reims - the Hôtel de La Salle - dates back to the 16th century. Listed as monument historique one hundred years ago, it is in fact miraculous that it actually made it through the hostilities of 1914-1918 which led to the destruction of most of the rest of the city. Today the Renaissance façade, inset with the benevolent figure of Jean-Baptiste de La Salle tending to one of his charges, stands elegant and proud, with little to indicate the past perils in almost 500 years of existence.
Its survival is not unlike that of the nearby Musée-hôtel Le Vergeur - set on Place du Forum in the heart of the city and in view of the cathdral, itself symbol of Reims ‘ville martyre’ during WWI. Indeed, both hôtels were saved from total obliteration in the aftermath of the war thanks to the intervention of individuals committed to the preservation of the cultural and historical heritage of Reims.
Hugues Krafft, co-founder of the Société des Amis du Vieux Reims in 1909, undertook the restoration of Hôtel Le Vergeur that he had purchased in 1910. Likewise, the biscuit manufacturers, Maison Fossier, of ‘biscuit rose’ fame, owners and occupants of the premises of what we now call Hôtel de La Salle, successfully brought the building up from the ashes during this same post-war period.
Again, both sites had once housed elements of significant architectural value and beauty and as such their preservation was deemed important to le patrimoine rémois. The hôtel de La Salle still possesses its ornately decorated escalier à vis, an external winding staircase in stone that turns clockwise on ascent, overlooking the court yard with an elegant architectural style reminiscent of the Château de Blois in the Loire Valley.
Constructed on the orders of affluent nobles and merchants of the city, both hôtels attest to the wealth and status of those who had originally commissioned them centuries ago. Although Jean-Baptiste de La Salle was born into an illustrious household in Reims to a father who was a king’s counselor and a mother from the Moët champagne family, the hôtel was not built on their behest nor on their behalf.
Initially known as Hôtel des Sacqs de la Hérissandière, it was in fact constructed in 1545 for an affluent cloth trader, Henri Choilly. And although the statue of Jean-Baptiste de La Salle looks down on us today from the façade of his birthplace - as if it had always been there - this is a relatively recent addition from the 1950s, taking position in an empty niche presumably once occupied by the figure of the Virgin Mary (but not the one below).
The hôtel only entered into the possession of the de La Salle family from 1609. Jean-Baptiste was born there in 1651, the eldest of eleven children. Despite being educated for a life in the legal profession, Jean-Baptiste followed a religious vocation and went on to become the patron of Christian teachers.
Lasallian schools are to be found on the five continents today and indeed a community of Brothers now occupy the Hôtel de La Salle, bought by the lnstitut des Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes in 1956. One of the Brothers kindly showed me around on a ferociously hot afternoon !
Although few of the original artifacts have survived to the present day, the rooms have been set out to reflect aspects of its past and displays show Jean-Baptiste de La Salle's life, work and legacy.
The façade of the building is decorated in the Renaissance style, with pillars, ionic capitals and a frieze running along its length, all bearing symbols of the cloth trade. The oddly-slanted carriage doorway is flanked by two allegorical caryatids, referred to as Adam and Eve. The male figure seems to be somewhat cramped in this tight corner with the wall of the adjacent building encroaching on his space at a rather strange angle.
This can be explained by the fact that the street that we see today only came into existence during the restoration period of Reims in 1921 when the Hôtel de la Cloche Perce, as it was then known, was still in such a sorry state that it might even have needed propping up. And so, as always, I wonder what this city – and others past and present - would be like today without such war devastation and have to be grateful for what remains to us now.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Jewelled Butterflies, Beetles, Bees and Dragonflies...

After several months' delay, the butterfly mobile is finally performing its fluttery dance in the draughts of air, beads glinting in the sunlight as the papery wings turn in the breeze. Hanging suspended from my ceiling, the butterflies surely feel disoriented as they spin, as yet lacking antennae, but weighed down by their crystal beads just like an entomologist's mounted specimens, captured in a dizzying eternal flight.
Making this latest version of the mobile led me to reorganise the first one (above) that I made around ten years ago, its paper napkin base surprisingly resilient after all this time. As I still have a number of butterflies left over, I will certainly make another mobile, yet again giving into my weakness for all insect forms.
As a child, I remember seeing antique insect jewellery that so mesmerised me that over the years I went on to build up my own collection in the form of brooches, necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Although dragonflies are the main specimens in my hoard, butterflies, beetles, bugs and bees came along too, sometimes worn or otherwise laid out as curiosity cabinet treasures.
My first dragonflies were simple tin Chinese pinbrooches that I loved - and I was recently delighted to discover that they are still in production some fifty years on! Whilst my first childhood pin dragonflies came from England, my last one came from Marseille, no less. I couldn't resist buying another as it gave me such a strange time-warp experience.
Others, meanwhile, are a little more elaborate and seem to have art nouveau inspiration. Above is a beautiful necklace that I was surprised to find in a UK high street store at a very cheap price... I didn't hesitate to snatch it up, suffice it to say.
The dragonfly bracelet was made by a jeweller here in France who produced such delicate pieces for sale on the art and culture fairs prior to her retirement... I was lucky to catch this specimen and have fond memories of wandering around les Fêtes Johanniques were I ensnared it!
The copper cricket was a distant present from my father, made by a friend of the family, and has been a faithful companion to many an item of clothing since then.
My bees all have special memories attached - from time spent at home in Cornwall when my children were young; a magical trip to Amsterdam last year with my son and then a special visit to Spitalfields where the tiny bee pendant stood out from an array of goods on a market stand on a cold autumn day when the magic of Dennis Sever's House was still buzzing in all my senses.
The ladybird and beetle pinbrooches were more odd high-street specimens, sold for a few centimes, as were my insect earrings that have been my jewellery staple for the past 15 years and have accompanied me through some chequered moments in time but we have got through to the present day, albeit a bit tarnished and worn!
All that glitters is not gold, but who cares? These rather ostentatious creatures all came from a lovely little shop in one of my favourite passages in Paris that sadly closed in the aftermath to Covid. Their showy bodies hold precious memories of Parisian day trips.
And finally my butterflies; the first being a present for my 17th birthday from a friend who is coming to visit me here in Reims this coming weekend and might be a little taken aback to see the enamel brooch still in my possession, even if the pin needs repairing.
This tiny bewelled butterfly brooch was brought back to me from Colombia a few years ago and its delicate enamelled wings are intricately decorated with tiny marcassite stones.
My rhinestone butterfly is a prized possession but its sparkling abdomen reminds me of a large tear drop and indeed the brooch comes from a tearful time that I have now thankfully left far behind me so that its pretty form is now set out amongst other magpie stashes...

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Changing Seasons...

Almost in blatant defiance of the relentless heat and glaring sunshine that have defined these summer months, the first signs of a change in season are making themselves visible. The bright green horsechestnuts that have grown imperceptibly over this period now boldly demand to be acknowledged, with their sizeable spiny hides soon ready to burst open on impact with city pavements or the head of a hapless passer-by...
Tree leaves that have been prematurely scorched and wizened by the summer heat, stand out against the intense blue skies and summer foliage with their brittle, brown forms.
And for those of us who care to look far above when wandering the city streets, these distinct forms are also to be found, beautifully replicated, in the often quirky mouldings and sculptures that grace the façades of many of the old art nouveau and art deco buildings.
Within flourishes of sculpted leaves, seeds, berries and fruit are concealed nesting birds, hoarding squirrels and strange greenmen which almost go unnoticed by our untrained modern-day eye that hardly expects to find such treasures residing in window alcoves and doorways. And yet here they are - a little touch of beauty, humour and hope dating back one hundred years to the interwar years, seasoned by time and the ever-changing seasons themselves...