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Saturday, 12 April 2014

Gently Does It

Dear readers,

Since my previous post I've had to give up any foolish hopes of holding on to early spring.  It's full steam ahead from now on: purple-tinged irises, an abundance of trailing wisteria covering honey-coloured high walls and filling the air with their sweet scent, lily of the valley, lilac, poppies, roses tumbling open against barely unfurled greenery.  All are jostling for attention against a delightful backdrop of carnival-hued tulips with silky petals.  "Look at me, look at us!" they clamour silently.  The primroses are still gracing us with their demure presence.  We must, sadly, bid farewell to the daffodils, narcissi, and wild violets for yet another year.  We are no longer at the awakening of spring but reaching the heady heights of a green countryside punctuated with the brilliance of flowers.  It calls to mind Botticelli's Primavera which depicts Zephyrus hot in pursuit of sparsely clad Chloris, the virginal Greek personification of Spring, and her subsequent transformation into Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, crowned with blossom, her robe embroidered with pinks and roses, her arms filled with flowers.

Fortunately, I can hold on to those early spring flowers thanks to Silke Leffler's charming illustrations in the children's book below.  Her visual personification of plants always delight me.
Spring so far has brought its fair share of challenges.  Will this be the year we finally sell our fisherman's cottage by the sea after six years of legal struggles?  When will we finally be able to purchase our own home here near Tours? We've also been endeavouring to nuture Héloïse during this Baccalauréat year both physically and emotionally.  She is hoping to leave France in September to take up her offer at Durham University which is thrilling, of course.  However, the complexity of the paperwork involved is challenging my desire to remain serene! Although the pros of living between two countries clearly outweigh the cons the journey is rarely straightforward at the outset.

But that is life, as I am sure you will agree, and there are so many treasure around to enjoy.  Our first visit to the gardens of Villandry this year with its complex boxtree parterres playing shadow games on the fine gravel with sunlight and birdsong everywhere.  The persistant call of the cuckoo.  A harp recital held in the Tours Fine Arts Museum one evening listening to Domenico Scarlatti's music surrounded by eighteenth-century paintings with an enthralled Tristan squeezing my arm.  Actually, there have been a number of concerts this season; each different and all wonderful.  It's good to watch a four-year old Angélique as absorbed by the music as her siblings.
There are two cherry trees in our garden: one is covered with thick pink puffiness the colour of my mother's homemade strawberry ice-cream and frilled with yellow nascent leaves.  The other, fully clothed in pure white, provides us with gentle drifts of petals.  "Look, it's snowing!' cry the children in delight.  But even as I write today the latter has shed its beauty, and the pink wonder is dropping flurries of petals too.  It's all too ephemeral but the lunches beneath the cherry-tree branches this week have been committed to family memory.
And together with the cherry trees and spring comes a surge of inspiration.  Tell me, is this happening to you too?  I am determined to hold on to this natural beauty and the colours by slowly and surely weaving them into my creative projects.  However as I painstakingly stitched Fleur de Cerisier, my cherry blossom doll, with a vintage cotton sheet hand-dyed in Easter tea (such a delicious smell), I realised that my dollmaking skills need to be worked on.  I really need to make more refined facial features!  My initial frustration and disappointment with my completed doll were, fortunately, replaced by the desire to improve my abilities with the next one; to create a completely new pattern.  It is a thrilling thing this creative journey which involves paradoxical feelings of 'this is going to be amazing' to 'oh no, it's really bad' and then back full circle to 'it's pretty good, actually'.
When your creative skills fail you, you can always bake a simple cake with crystallised spring flowers (brushed with egg white and gently coated in white sugar) and eat it under the flowering cherry tree.  
Food for the soul!

So tell me, do you lose confidence in your creative abilities sometimes?  If so, how do you deal with it?

Warmest wishes to you all for a beautiful spring in full flower.

I aim to return soon.

Stephanie

ps I am in two minds about selling Fleur de Cerisier.  If you would like to give her a home just leave me a comment or e-mail me.  Thank you so much.

Monday, 24 March 2014

(Kitsch) Spring

Dear readers,
Often, as March draws to a close, I wish Mother Nature would slow down her dazzling spring parade here in my corner of the woods.  As I was driving along the Loire this morning, the placidly flowing river to my left and the graceful mansions on my right, I spotted blooming wisteria on a sundrenched wall. 'Too soon', I murmured to myself, 'not yet, please'.  It was only yesterday, or so it seems, that I was saying good-bye to the wild snowdrops in neighbouring coppices.

Wild spring flowers are my favourite, I think; more precious still because they are as ephemeral as the tantalizing March sunshine.  I take time every day to see their beauty, both fragile and yet hardy as they withstand the temperamental weather.  There is a little sloped garden, a few minutes stroll away from our home, which always delights me.  It calls to mind late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century millefleurs tapestries of flowery meads where spring grew eternal- green, green grass with a rich scattering of simple pale yellow primroses, a handful of tiny violets, blue-tinged periwinkles and dancing cowslips. Simple spring garden flowers, as familiar to us today as to our forebearers five centuries ago.  Is it any surprise that the six millefleurs tapestries in the Musée de Cluny in Paris known as the Lady and the Unicorn series celebrate the sensual delights of taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch?  I know my children, like many others, instinctively bend down to smell and caress these flowers as they walk by and many of them are edible too, of course.

This is the early spring I like to commit to memory for the warmer months ahead when Nature always seems two or three steps ahead of me.  A few moments of pleasurable nostalgia. For now Angélique and I will continue to wear violet perfume and to gaze admiringly at freshly sprung primroses.  There is nothing more exquisite and heartening.
Are any of you familiar with The Orlando Consort's fabulous recording of Medieval and early Renaissance songs and motets celebrating gardens in music?  The Rose, the Lily & the Whortleberry, which was released a few years ago, is a treasure and the selection of miniature paintings of Medieval gardens in the accompanying booklet a visual treat.

Flora Chick and Miss Blossom, my two latest hares (who will be celebrating Easter in Florida), were photographed just minutes before a downpour.  Fortunately the mossy ground was dry.  Please forgive my kitsch pictures, won't you?  I'm still in high spirits after my good news a few days ago and the kind-hearted, supportive comments you left me on my previous post.  How may I thank you all?


A bientôt,

Stephanie

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Living With Fear And Blue Skies


Dear readers,
It's hard to live with fear when the skies are blue but neither the headpounding dread nor the limpid skies showed signs of abating for the entire week.  I had to learn, therefore, the almost unbearable lesson of living with a birdsong filled world when my greatest wish was to sink into dark, undisturbed sleep for several days and nights.
 Last saturday night I discovered a lump in my left breast.  The impact on my stress levels was immediate.  Images of my youngest daughter, barely four and motherless, flitted through my mind and I moaned to myself whilst lying in bed 'Oh my God'.  Ironically, like many of you, I had recently read Kate's post which had left its mark on me.  If I am honest I would say that my (more or less) regular breast check was more thorough than usual this time thanks to Kate's well-written words.  Sunday was hard.  My usual swim with Tristan did little to raise my troubled thoughts and on Monday morning once all the children were at school I picked up the 'phone with trembling hands and dialed my local doctor's number.  Two hours later I sat in her surgery and watched her smile turn to a troubled frown as soon as I uttered the word 'breast lump'.  After examining me she urged her secretary to make an urgent appointment for a mammogram and scan.  Thursday afternoon at 3.15pm was fixed and as I said my goodbyes and smiled weakly at the secretary I descended the stairs out into the brilliant sunshine and wondered how on earth I would survive four days of waiting.
 And much as though I would like to share with you, dear readers, my advice on how to endure heightened stress levels I must confess that little helped soothe my stiff back and excuriating headaches.  Neither spring flowers nor sunshine lifted my spirits.  Knitting Tristan's springtime pullover kept me focused at times. Caring for my children with a serene face and gentle words kept me more or less together.  As often as I could I would allow myself to drift into light sleep; anxiety is exhausting as many of you must know.  Certainly I felt loved and grateful when friends called and texted me with kind offers and gestures.  But the stress levels rose as the week wore on.
 Thursday afternoon after an hour of thorough tests carried out by caring medical professionals I was given the all clear diagnosis I had hardly dared hope for.  And had I, for one second, whilst lying there under the dimmed lights in that clinic entertained the thoughts that all this anguish might have been for nothing the specialist's sad words cut through my fuzzy head: "You did well to come.  I see too many women in their forties with breast cancer."
 So, to echo Kate's simple message please, dear ladies, check you breasts some time soon.  This blog of mine is only small but if my heartfelt words may be heard by one person at least then I will be content.
This sweet musician of mine and his siblings are reason enough to be mindful of such health issues, don't you think?

Tristan wears his second High Water ready for spring.

The yarn is Madelinetosh Vintage in the beautiful colourways Bloomsbury Blue and Grasshopper.

My Ravelry notes are here.

My dear husband took the pictures on this beautiful spring sunday!  Do you see the wild periwinkle flowers in the last picture?
Finally I am joining in wth Laura's The Year In Books with my choice for the March.  Having enjoyed Kate Forsyth's enthralling novel, Bitter Greens  I could not wait to read this version of the Grimm brothers' lives and their neighbour in Kassel, Dortchen Wild.  I must confess I am more than halfway through it already! 

I am also joining in with Karen's Sunlit Sunday for the second time!

I wish you all a wonderful start to the week and I will return wth a much cheerier post soon.

A bientôt,

Stephanie

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Wild Violet Season

Happy March dear readers!

I am shyly joining in with Karen's Sunlit Sunday this weekend.
"I can see meadows, deep woods, which the first outburst of buds mists over wth an elusive green, cold streams and forgotten springs.  Easter primroses, daffodils with the saffron coloured heart, and violets, violets, violets...

I can see a silent little girl whom spring has already enchanted with a wild happiness, with a bittersweet and mysterious joy. A small girl imprisoned by day in a schoolhouse, and who exchanged toys and pictures for the first bouquets of violets from the woods, tied with a red cotton thread, brought by the little shepherdesses from the surrounding farms.

Oh, violets of my childhood!  You rise up before me, all of you, you lattice the milky April sky, and the quivering of your countless little faces intoxicates me." 

This is an extract from the French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette's kaleidescope of fragments dedicated to her childhood first published in 1908 under the title of Les Vrilles de la vigne.  Although there is no particular logic to be found in the sequence of these eighteen short stories, there is a poetic or musical beauty to be found in the construction of each together underscored with a strong feminine sensuality.  The above description of wild violets is from the short story Le Dernier Feu which has marked me particularly.  If you would like to read these stories in English you may find them in this book.
 If Colette writes in the final words of the above extract that wild violets belong to the month of April, I usually see their tiny faces appearing during the course of February along the shady banks and hedgerows of our local vinyards and in our garden.  Spring flower obsessions are shared by many as dear Elizabeth reveals in her recent and beautifully penned post on snowdrops which further endorses my opinion that she should really write a book on gardens.  I am fickle in nature.  Spring provides an intoxicating potion of vibrant colours and tantalising scents and I usually fall madly in love each year with each spring flower but, as loyal readers know, my passion lies with violets.  Greek myths tell us that violets first sprang where Orpheus laid his enchanted lute and that the goddess Persephone and her companion nymphs were gathering rose, crocus, violet, iris, lily and larkspur blooms in a springtime meadow when she was abducted by the god Hodes. This year I have succumbed to one of my favourite scents once more, Violettes de Toulouses, and, as you may see, to knitting a cardigan inspired by these brave, delicate and diminutive blooms hardly bigger than a fingernail.
I have observed with a little gratitude and much delight how the poetry of flowers has woven its magic on my dear Angélique since a very early age.  I wanted to create a cardigan for her which captured the elusive colour of violets.  The Old Maiden Aunt colourway, Bluebells, together with Madelinetosh's Olivia were a match made in Heaven.  

The pattern is Dani Sunshine's Bella.

My Ravelry link is here; do come and say hello!

The pretty wreath of violets was created by Amore Bride.

Please take a few seconds to look at the white dress Angélique is wearing.  It dates back to the late nineteenth-century and the collar, which you can see more clearly in the third picture from the top, is exquisitely embroidered entirely by hand. 

And before you leave PLEASE tell me which spring flower do you love the most?  I would love to know!

A bientôt,

Stephanie

ps  As my Facebook page, Madame Millefeuilles has very kindly reached over two thousand likes I would like to arrange a special giveaway, both here and on Facebook, once the flurry of pre-Easter orders has been dealt with!  

pps  I am also, tentatively, joining in for the first time with Jodi's The 52 Project.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

A Year In Books (And A Lace Maker)

Dear readers,
I am delighted to share with you my February choice for A Year In Books organised by Laura at Circle Of Pine Trees.
Caramel tea is my favourite this month .  You may find it here
The year is 1683 and Robert Merivel, the main actor of Rose Tremain's Restoration (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989), appears again, as melancholic and self-doubting as before.  The Puritan Revolution and Civil War have given way to the extravagance, gaity and desire for display which have revisted England with the return of Charles II from exile.  This is also a time of flux and uncertainty in every sphere; the perfect backdrop for Merivel's existence.  The son of a mere glovemaker, turned physician and natural scientist, and, more importantly, a close friend to King Charles II, who bestowed the imposing country estate of Bidnold in Norfolk upon him several years before.

Somewhat down in the dumps in the opening pages and surrounded by old, cranky and incompetent servants, Merivel is stung by Margaret, his beautiful daughter's, gentle reproach that he has become idle and that his life seems to lack purpose.  And so, in an attempt to seek glory, he decides to travel to London to his good friend Charles II with the aim of procuring from him a written introduction to The Sun King, Louis XIV, in Versailles.  Merivel's trip to France does not go as he had hoped but we, the readers, are treated to a  fabulous description of a palace under construction, the corridors of which are overspilling with malicious and desperate courtiers (many of which suffer the humiliation of sharing a "pisspot" and having little or no food) clutching at the hope of a moment's attention from a sneering and aloof king. 

A French château and a Swiss one, typhus, cancer, a duel, one miserable bear, lust, a father's love for his daughter, a profound friendship between a king and his physician, plenty of hot chocolate, and a smattering of gardens and, the most fabulous ingredient of all in my opinion; Merivel's touching self-deprecation which makes his excessive mood swings quite forgivable.  Rose Tremain's novel is as rich in material detail and it is in emotion.  I was quite simply enthralled and would strongly recommend it to you all.

I have gathered a lot of inspiration from reading Merivel and researching a little further the fashion of Charles II's court.  According to Aileen Ribeiro in her detailed book, Fashion And Fiction: Dress In Art And Literature In Stuart England, the king's preference was for 'subtle colours in his private costume, although the fabrics were rich and the linings often brightly coloured and pinked.'  In the painting below the king wears a plain coat and petticoat breeches of dark brown which brought to my mind the frequent cups of hot chocolate consumed by Merivel.
Hendrick Danckerts (attributed), Chalres II Presented with a Pineapple by the Royal Gardener John Rose, circa 1677.
Isaack Luttichys, Portrait Of Young Woman With Ostrich Feather In Her Hand, 1656
I wanted this latest hare of mine to wear the colours of the book - hot chocolate, starched laundry, arable earth and the browns of King Charles II's clothes .   She has also been greatly inspired by my friends who are passionate about lace making, both as collectors and creators.  I hope I've given her a timeless style.  Her pantaloons are stitched from my favourite 1900s hand embroidered polka dot tulle and trimmed with 1920s ivory lace.  The hem of her caramel-coloured dress is ornamented with a Breton friend's handmade lace.  As you can see she has a lace bobbin embroidered on one paw and on the other a lace thread spool.
I have named her Rosie Pierpoint after Merivel's favourite lover who runs a laundry by the Thames in London.  I must also confess that she is possible my favourite creation to date because of what she represents.  I love the art of lace making and I am very fond of the chocolate and caramel colours of her clothes too.  If you think you might like to give her a home you may find her here.
I leave you with a picture of our beloved eleventh-century parish church door where Rose Pierpoint was photographed today during a brief sunny spell.

May your week be filled with plenty of sunny spells too.

A bientôt,

Stephanie

Friday, 31 January 2014

The Spring Gatherer

Dear readers,
 
How may I thank all you kind souls who left sweet comments both here and on Ravelry concerning Tristan's winter pullover?  He was truly touched and most grateful and a little bit proud too which is a good thing as he can be quite self-effacing.  I read every word to him and watched him blush and glow.  A sight to behold.
Despite the unseasonally clement weather January has brought this year spring is not quite ready to limber up.  Timid bunches of naked green, which usually herald my favourite flower, the snowdrop, have not made their appearance yet.  However a couple of birds shared their demure song at dawn this morning and I felt most hopeful.  It was enough to fortify my heart after a mostly grey and damp week.  On Sunday I visited my favourite florist in the old part of Tours, after an enjoyable morning drinking coffee with new friends, and purchased a portly bunch of palest pink and white hyacinths to celebrate Angélique's fourth birthday on Monday.  It's a little tradition of ours.  Don't you think they set off this hat of mine well?  Rosewater is a delightful (and addictive) pattern which has been inspired by the famous Scottish architect and artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his rose designs.  Rosewater, stylised roses, Madelinetosh DK yarn in the Molly Ringwald colourway - think of the 1980s film Pretty In Pink - all comprise delightful ingredients in my book!  
 
My Ravelry notes may be found here.
I often turn fondly to the copperplate engraving above when I need a little springtime inspiration and a splash of delicate colour.  I first came across it in the rare manuscripts department of La Bibliothèque nationale in Paris during my research on Baroque gardens and parterre designs a few years ago.  It is the frontispiece from Crispijn van de Passe junior's masterpiece Hortus Floridus first published in 1614; a Florilegium conceived against the backdrop of the Tulipomania which raged first across Holland and then spread swiftly to Europe until it died a violent death in 1637 due to its self-inflicted economic crisis.  Bulbous and tuberous plants were highly fashionable and the first part of this book, The Spring Garden, contains an exquisite collection of spring flowers many of which had been introduced to Europe towards the close if the sixteenth and during the early years of the seventeenth century.  Tulips, hyacinths, auriculas and crown imperials were rarities and treasured as though they were jewels at the time.  Equally prized at the time was French garden design and a few detailed engravings mark the beginning of each season in the book.
 
Hortus Floridus had a very complex genesis.  Each publication was unique as the production of the book was a continuous process with newly discovered plants being introduced from time to time.  It appeared in four languages: Latin, French, English and Dutch.  And most surprisingly the pictures, such as the frontispiece above, were to be coloured in by the owner:

"Hereby added the way in which the flowers according to their own colours should be painted or illuminated to the service of all curious lovers of flowers."
 
There is, if you are interested, a beautiful reproduction of an early twentieth-century edition which is available for purchase at a very affordable price here.
And the pictures above?  Well, the long-limbed creature is a doe who goes by the name of The Spring Gatherer.  She was my first creation this January and heralds the first throws of spring together with my newly acquired passion for patchwork which you can also see in its rudimentary glory in the doll's quilt I stitched for Angélique's fourth birthday gift - proficient patchworkers please avert your gaze!  I had so much pleasure making it; it's a flowerbed of sorts with a tiny embroidered mouse with armfuls of blooms - can you see it?  I mixed vintage French fabrics with scraps of Liberty but the BEST thing about this quilt is the handful of pink tatted lace flowers I have sown (yes, 'sown' not 'sewn').  They are the work of a remarkable Australian lady, Robyn, who gifted me the most exquisite lace I have ever clapped eyes on.  I will be taking more pictures of these beauties very soon to share with you.  Can you see one on The Spring Gather's bag?  When I look at Robyn's tatting I am lost for words at the perfection of those flowers and butterflies.  Can you believe she made them on a train journey to Prague and then Paris?
The weather may have been overcast but the week has been full of treasures.
 
I wish you all many happy moments over the next few days.
A bientôt,
Stéphanie

ps Will anyone else be joining in Laura's The Year In Books project for the first time in Feburary?
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