Friday 17 May 2013

La Belle Epoque

Dear readers,
I am kicking up my feet this week and basking in the glow of being invited, for the second year running, to Anita's glorious French party at Castles, Crowns & Cottages!
This nineteenth-century bonbonnière is a treasure of mine.  It came into my possession after my French grandmother passed away in September 1996.  My grandmother was born in 1906 which made her a child of La Belle Epoque.  Having spent a large part of her adult life in a suburb of Paris, a stone's throw away from Versailles, she returned as an elderly lady to her original corner of rural France where her father many decades before, the local doctor, had been loved by one and all.  As a young girl I would spend every summer in her home surrounded by a hoard of relatives.  One of my fondest memories was of sitting by her side perched on an antique armchair and poring over sepia photographs of her family.  How I would stare into the serious eyes of every man and woman she revealed to me.  I would scrutinize their posture and garnments searching for a way in to learn more about their lives and, no doubt, firing a multitude of questions at my mostly patient grandmother. 
Thirty years on I have the same insatiable curiosity. 
On my last visit to Paris in April I visited the Delamain bookshop, situated opposite the Palais Royal and the Comédie Française theatre, a favourite haunt during my early married life in Paris.  By some beautiful coincidence I discovered it had opened for business in 1906: the year of my grandmother's birth.  As my greedy eye flitted across the ceiling-high oak shelves looking for the book to take home with me I found this.

It was love at first sight.
Those who know me are more than aware of my fascination with gardens.  Parisian parks and gardens offer the ideal real-life theatre setting to play a part of be a spectator. The three Séeberger brothers - born in 1872, 1874, and 1876 respectively - shared a common obssession; to photograph every corner of Paris in particularly its gardens.  They understood that these gardens were masquerading too: a polluted city dressed up in green, gold, or even death, depending on the season. Their quest, aside from turning their pictures into fashionable postcards, was to reveal the theatrical side of life; not the reality.  To our present-day eye it is clear that they captured the aesthetics of early twentieth-century bourgeoisie to perfection.
I have learned from this beautiful book that the noun 'photograph' dates back to 1839 and the verb 'to photograph' from 1860. I have also understood that Jules, Louis, and Henri Séeberger, all three trained artists, turned photography into an art form rivalled by some of the greatest painters - Jean-Baptiste Corot springs to mind - of their time.  They understood, also, that fashionable Parisians loved to be seen in both parks and gardens.  During the first decade of the twentieth century the Séebergers made a name for themselves in the world of fashion at a time when the most reputable magazines turned their noses up at photographs chosing engravings instead.  Madame Broutelles, the director of La Mode pratique, commissioned pictures of Parisian elite gatherings in gardens such as the two photographs below depicting La Fête des Fleurs in the Bois de Boulogne in 1907.

Despite their interest in fashion, nannies and provincial maids populate these photographs too alongside gaggles of well-dressed children as seen in the pictures below taken in the Luxembourg gardens.
This book is simply beautiful.  One hundred and sixty pages of sensational, touching photographs which reveal so many details of Parisian life a century ago.  If you are interested you may find it here, I believe.

From this grandiose book was born this modest creature; Rose. 
A shawl and an apron, inspired by the photographs above, married with embroidered roses, 1900 lace (on the apron) and 1890 polka-dot tulle pantaloons trimmed with handmade ivory lace. All of Rose's clothes are made with French fabrics.  I am so grateful to my friend, Isabelle, whose little shop in our village is a cornucopia of vintage lace, ribbons, and fabrics.  She always manages to pull out another handdecorated box of treasures to show me.  One day she may well run out of 1890 silk ribbons and embroidered tulle but in the meantime it is a privilege to work with her and learn precious tidbits of information about the textiles she hoards.
 Should you wish to take a closer look at Rose (At The Parisian Flower Festival) you will find her here.  She may be the last of my four Parisian mice for a while.

I have been working and thinking hard these past days so I will be returning soon to share some ideas with you.  May is a disconcerting month in France: very busy and peppered with numerous holidays which sometimes stretch out to five days weekends.  Our normal routine flies out of the window and leaves us wondering whether we are coming or going. 

Thank you so much Anita for hosting this wonderful French party!

A très bientôt,

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