Listings

There is something reassuring and universal about collecting. Like some evolutionary throwback to hording food as provisions for the long winter months, we like to store things for a future date, particularly when buying a sizable quantity of items gains a discount. Then there is also collecting as a hobby, a pastime in which many people (perhaps us all, to some extent?) indulge. Whether it’s tickets to movies or concerts, editions of a favored author, or something less prosaic such as matchboxes or dolls, amateur collectors are united by a sense of being unfulfilled -for the moment a collection is complete also marks the end of the quest- and with the desire to learn more about their chosen object of desire, often acquiring knowledge which makes them specialists. The subject is of particular personal and professional interest to me. Personally, because I collect cufflinks though I only collect the entire works of two designers from the 1960s and 1970s in Quebec, Guy Vidal and Robert Larin, with 35 pairs by Vidal and 33 by Larin to date. Professionally the topic fascinates me because I am working on eccentrics and eccentricity and manic collecting, particularly of bizarre and curious objects, is often an indicator of a quirky personality; in other words, a hallmark of an eccentric.

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There is something deeply satisfying about making a list and ordering our thoughts onto paper (or, more than likely, a screen), a trait which is very much linked to collecting itself, a kind of tentative first step in the direction of possession. At the same time, lists are not only revealing of their creators, potentially looking deep into their psyches, but also can be incredibly funny. Molière certainly appreciated this. Le Malade imaginaire, his final play was performed in 1673 and concerns Argan, a flagrant hypochondriac who evokes mirth and also contempt because of his thwarted attempts to tyrannize his family, particularly his daughter whom he tries to marry off to an unlovable doctor in order to have free round-the-clock medical advice within his very household. The play opens with a soliloquy, a device which heightens the tragic element in a tragedy and the comic element in a comedy. Argan is filling a ledger and counting out his expenses relating to medical potions, cures, and enemas. He might think that he’s at death’s door and his body might have endured countless bleedings and anal purges, but Argan still takes care to settle his accounts. I’m teaching the play at the moment and this curious scene sets the scene for the central character’s utter risibility, seen on stage in the delightful 1676 engraving, above, by Jean Le Pautre.

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The play has also bequeathed one of the most queer pieces of theatrical relics in the world, the chair in which the playwright played the central role, a necessity as well as a prop since Molière was dying. On 17 February 1673, he would have an attack, most likely a stroke, on stage during a performance. He had made almost to the very end. French lore has it that he died on the stage itself, a factoid which surfaces quite regularly, but he made it home to die, with two priests refusing to come out to administer the Last Rites (because of his perceived hostility to the Church) and expiring before a more obliging third one arrived. Still, let it not be said that the Catholic Church is slow to forgive for, in 1922, on the tercentenary of the writer’s death, a public requiem Mass was finally allowed, some 248 years later, though the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Dubois, did not permit it to be celebrated in Notre-Dame on the spurious grounds that it wasn’t a convenient building and pleaded a prior engagement on the day itself, as set out by Henry Phillips, “Molière and Tartuffe: Recrimination and Reconciliation,” French Review 62 (1989), 749-63, available online here. Professor Phillips was the external examiner of my PhD dissertation in 2002. The chair is preserved as a precious secular relic and is located in the hallowed precincts of the Comédie-française theater, founded by the remnants of the artist’s original troupe and largely famous now for eviscerating his plays of any humor or energy. It’s kept in a glass case down an unprepossessing corridor on the first floor. In 2010, it was given an outing and exhibited outside the theater, above, in a welcome yet surreal decision. There is something deliciously French about the reverence paid to a battered, over-sized chair and what -and who- it represents.

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Today’s cufflinks are part of my collection by the Quebec designer, Guy Vidal, who was active in the 1960s and 1970s. They are made out of his special pewter-silver alloy and this pair features several components fused together. It is an audacious pair, boldly beautiful. As I continue to work my way through my list of his cufflink creations with around a dozen pairs needed to complete my set, the mania for this list is a reminder of the limited time we have allotted here and of the need to create a legacy, in whatever form it may be.

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Staircase wit

There are times when I am reminded about how utterly delicious French can be. There are many terms and expressions in this language that make English look positively impoverished (a prime example would be faire du lèche-vitrine; whereas English speakers merely, and politely, window shop, their French-speaking counterparts indulge in window licking, a description that captures being in the throes of materialistic desire). Words can be beautiful and powerful tools. The only time I’ve fainted in my life happened when I was around 7 years old. I was a hyperactive child and constantly craving attention and creating a maelstrom. One particular day I was running around the house and my mother, never one to refrain from apposite commentary, blurted out in exasperation: “Stop running around like some flibbertigibbet”. I am still not sure whether it was the expended energy or simply the hypnotic quality of this old English word denoting a spirit or fiend, but I was momentarily overcome. In some senses, my life has been punctuated with such moments where the strangeness, beauty, or cadence of words has forged out a pause in my time. One of my absolute Gallic favourite idioms is l’esprit de l’escalier, or staircase wit. This describes the moment when, after the fact, you think of what you should have said in response to someone’s put-down, joke, or unexpected interjection, that retort which would have been perfectly perfect. The idea is that you’re on the staircase on the way out (with reception rooms being traditionally on the upper level of a residence). While in English we have to resort to a long-winded comment such as “Oh I wish I’d thought of that at the time”, French possesses a succinct phrase that is so attractive that it could be taken out on a date.

ImageStairs are so much part of the very canvas of our daily lives that we take them without even realizing what we are doing for much of time. It’s interesting that we take stairs rather than use them (using only being employed when it’s an alternative to another route such as an elevator). They have been with us for at least three millennia and make life easier and much more practical, at least for able-bodied people. There are some magnificent staircases and stairwells in existence, such as the sixteenth-century double-helix stone staircase at the Château de Chambord, above, which was probably designed by Leonardo da Vinci. While there are countless examples of attractive, impressive, and large stairways, it is very rare that we would deem one to be ugly; at worst, they would only be practical. Often, otherwise interesting buildings can be let down by uncomplicated and unimaginative stairs but, happily, some designers see this integral item as a challenge, whether it be in the conceptualization, materials used, or simply the detail. I very much like the organic yet modernist design below, of Atmos Studio.

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The designer explained this bold design as follows, and I quote this since it is so poetic:

The stair is a continuation and intensification of the simple graphic skirting board lines that trace their way through the house. As they turn the corner into the stair void, they expand like a genie released from a lamp, curling and separating and bifurcating from the wall to form the delicate edge of the stair treads, lifting into the air to rise as the veil of the balustrade. This veil hangs gently from above as a series of thin paired threads, softly pulled back at the entry to allow movement past, gently splaying around the corner to meet and carry the arriving visitor onwards and upwards.

It seems to me that poets are rarely architects, though if there were more who were, we would undoubtedly be living in a more dangerous world. Given the ubiquity of stairs in our lives, they have long functioned as a metaphor. Freud somewhat inevitably held that dreaming about stairs had erotic connotations, explaining that the feat of climbing and descending stairs imitated the rhythm of making love, though this seems to ignore the fact that we are either going up or going down; rarely would we dream of doing both actions. Stairs have more tie-ins with the symbolism of going places, achieving things, since we take steps in our jobs and relationships, we climb the ladder of ambition, we social climb, and we take one step at a time. Conversely, we can make false steps and fall down the spiral. There is something quite startling as well as exhilarating about looking down from a tall staircase. It is certainly a reminder about the frailty of our mortal coils. Hitchcock used a staircase to great effect in Vertigo (1958), a masterpiece whose lead character, Scottie, played by the demure James Stewart, is a man inflicted with the psychological defects of obsession and stalking coupled with the physical one of acrophobia. There are two iconic stair sequences (here and here), both involving the same staircase and the director captures Scottie’s terror on his sweat-spotted face and a camera zoom that is now called the Vertigo Effect. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most disturbing, use of stairs in cinema is the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), depicting a massacre of innocent civilians, including the elderly and babies, by the Czar’s troops. The clip has been enormously influential in cinema and art, not to mention as a propaganda tool. The atrocity itself was an artistic liberty; no such outrage ever took place.

ImageStairs have long featured in spiritual symbolism to represent the path towards salvation and God, separation and sin being only a false step away. One of the most curious episodes in the Old Testament is Jacob’s Ladder, the dream that Jacob experiences of angels climbing and descending a ladder (Genesis 28:10-19). A ladder is, of course, nothing than a vertical, simple set of stairs. Jacob needs God to provide an interpretation of the dream the following day -not a Freudian one- and it concerns the foundation of the Promised Land. Despite the fact that stairs are used for the two-way process of going up and coming down, the English word derives from the proto-German word staigri meaning to climb, a sense also retained when we say a “flight of stairs”. Since it comes from the Barbarian tribes of Europe, it is obvious to see why they wanted to concentrate on reaching goals, rather than coming down. The same sense of overcoming and mastering the stairs is to be found in the Latin scala, from which we have acquired the term to scale something or the variations to be found in a musical scale.

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One more obvious stair symbol occurs at the beginning of the Mass. Before starting the Mass proper, the celebrant recites what are known as the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar before he takes the three steps up to the altar (the right foot must be the first to ascend). The image above was taken during a High Mass at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. During these prayers, contrition is expressed for being unworthy at being a participant in the sacred mysteries that are about to take place. The prayers themselves are mainly scriptural and are very beautiful, with a psalm and the Confiteor being said. The Confiteor is where the “mea culpa” is intoned thrice and the breast struck with the head bowed, a surprisingly haunting prayer and act. The whole section is a dialogue in which the cleric sets out how unworthy he is to stand at the altar of sacrifice; yet, go to it he must, since God overlooks transgressions and forgives. I like the sense of all of this; we do not dwell in Lent but head for Easter, though there are many religious people who are somewhat happy to remain steadfastly in Lenten rigour and set aside the splendour of beauty, truth, and grace. The symbolism of these prayers is overwhelmingly rich and the act of the priest preparing to climb the steps and the moment he does so become endowed with a higher purpose. The moment has its secular equivalents too; certain leaders and monarchs are often led to a raised dais or chair (or throne) on assuming their responsibilities. And who could forget the fairy-tale balls in which stairs play a crucial part? Cinderella’s descending the stairs into the ballroom denotes her social ascent out of the ashes of the kitchen. And we should rather hope for this than the endless frustration of Escher’s never-ending, and destination-less, stairways.

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Today’s cufflinks are by my very favourite designer, Guy Vidal, a Quebec pewtersmith who was active in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He used a pewter and silver mix of metal and injects great imagination into his work. I have 23 pairs by Vidal, representing half of the cufflinks he ever produced, though I’ve only blogged on one other pair before, here. They’re really rather lovely, with different sizes of square-shapes set at differing heights, embellished with a variety etched or plain tops. The faces suggest stepping stones to me, which mentally led me to stairs. These cerebral connections are actually not unlike stairs, taking us from one place to another, but leaving the opportunity of return, possibly with new knowledge and experiences, tantalizingly and eternally open to us.

Strigine symbolism

As an undergraduate I was fortunate enough to spend three years living in the same room in a university college with beautiful grounds (St Hild & St Bede, Durham) which was within a building on the edge of the countryside, not far from the remains of the Iron-Age fort of Maiden Castle. I used to find it consoling to hear the hoots of an owl that must have made its home in one of the trees a few yards from my top-floor window. There is something very special about this bird, something that makes it stand out from any other avian species. It is not only in its characteristic appearance -and each of the 200 odd varieties of owl are distinct, shown in the beautiful photographs below taken by Tim Flach- but also in the fact that it is nocturnal and has evolved to have silent flight enabling the fearsome predator to swoop down on its prey, catching it unawares.

ImageThe word we use for this bird of prey is also distinctive, for the owl belongs to a small category of animals whose call has onomatopoeically developed into its name. It is testimony to the bird’s singularity that this is the case in many languages, such as hibou in French. The Latin word, strix, does not cut the mustard and our current English term has many affinities with an older Indo-European word, being similar to Hebrew and Indian-language names. Somehow, owl-like is much more electrifying than strigine. For once, Latin, you come in second place.

It is not only in its name and physical attributes that the bird can claim a certain uniqueness, for its symbolism is equally unusual. Famously, the owl represents wisdom and was the emblem of the goddess Athena and of the city of Athens itself. This carries on today in the collective noun for the creature; a group of them is a parliament of owls. Rejecting this positive association, it was a portent of doom for the Romans; Julius Caesar and Augustus had their deaths indicated by daytime sightings of the animal. Christian strigine symbolism has inherited this mythological schizophrenia, for the bird has variously been held as an allegory of Christ, relentlessly seeking out lost souls in the darkness (of sin and error), or of Satan, being aligned with dark forces and cunning. In any case, it is not used often in Christian symbolism, though sometimes finds itself in Crucifixion scenes; it was more common in the Middle Ages as seen in 14th-century manuscript illumination below (Reims, MS 993, fol. 153r):

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In popular folklore and superstition, the bird conjures up largely negative imagery, such as in Grimms’ tale The Owl, which relates how an owl is trapped in a barn and a “brave” villager goes in to tackle it only to flee in terror when he hears it hoot. The story ends with the barn being burnt down and the unfortunate bird being roasted (though not, presumably, eaten since it is one of the long list of fowl prohibited in Leviticus, along with cuckoos, gulls, and ostriches). There are some notable exceptions; Madame d’Aulnoy’s La Belle aux cheveux d’or turns the unlucky diurnal appearance on its head, as the adventurer in the tale, Avenant, releases an owl trapped in a net who later helps him, and reflects on humans’ inhumanity towards the vulnerable. Edward Lear provides the redemptive tale of an owl marrying a cat with the aid of a ring taken from a pig’s snout in the whimsical and surreal The Owl and the Pussycat. I always stay at his house in London, located in Marble Arch and now a hotel. Lear is one of those rare breed of people who look as they should look, and the image below does rather depict a fellow who would pen a poem about the mixed marriage between a bird and a feline, though at the same time definitely not someone to whom you would entrust money, children, or pets.

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It has been suggested by some recent critics that the curious, alternate world he created in the self-styled nonsense verse expresses the feelings of alienation from Victorian society that he felt as a gay man, though the most powerful literary expression of similar sentiments has to be found in Hans Christian Andersen’s delightfully dark fairy tales, particularly The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling. For my part, I think it’s about time to reclaim the owl and to reject its sinister reputation. It is not always a morbid bird as seen in the magnificently named Owl Nebula (M97), below.

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The owl also featured consistently in designs produced during the Eames Era, in the mid-twentieth century, perhaps a trope for the movement mirroring the bird itself and finding something beautiful that was not universally accepted thus.

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Today’s cufflinks date from the late 1960s and their abstract and brutalist shape suggests an owl to me. They are crafted by Gilles “Guy” Vidal, a Quebec artist who saw himself foremost as a pewtersmith; they are made out of his own formula of a very pure tin-based pewter plated with silver and bear his maker’s mark of GV within a check mark. Vidal is my favourite designer. I love all of the designs of his 44 known cufflinks and possess 15 of them. I think that I can best describe the attraction of his work with reference to the owl itself. It may not possess the evident beauty of the eagle or the sweet song of the nightingale, yet its mysterious nature endows it with a very special kind of draw.

The inevitable slide into bloggery

After having resisted creating a blog, because of fears connected with my time, vanity, and privacy, I have decided to start one, primarily because I am testing my Facebook friends’ sartorial threshold with the number of cufflink pictures I post there. This blog will be principally to post pictures of and discuss pictures of cufflinks, neckties (I have around eighty cufflinks and one hundred and twenty silk ties), and general musings of my life in Kansas, Paris, and the UK. I was inspired particularly by my recent exchanges with Samantha Howard, a collector and dealer based in Toronto who loves what she does and inspires contagious enthusiasm and introspection (http://www.samanthahowardvintage.ca/). What we enjoy wearing does and should reveal things about ourselves and being more conscious of this is a positive trait.

My penchant for beautiful things is, I suspect, tied in with my Catholicism. I don’t claim to be the greatest Catholic, and I am always working on that, but I do accept it as true. I have not found any more rational or aesthetically cogent explanation of the divine. On that note, no comment I make on this blog represents the beliefs and teaching of the Holy Catholic Church of Rome, nor, for that matter, my employer: namely the University of Kansas. I have no intention of biting the hands that nourish my body and soul! Just me, a man from a small rural town in Cumbria in the north of England, in a place where my family has lived for at least three centuries (family lore also confirmed by tombstones and Ancestry.co.uk) and yet ended up living in Paris for three months a year and teaching in the USA.

I am currently in Calgary, Canada, where I am spending the semester on a fellowship. I am enjoying a year’s sabbatical to work on a book that includes chapters on cantankerous, eccentric priests and fairy tales & science fiction. I have loved collecting cufflinks for several years and I absolutely adore the brutal beauty of Scandinavian brutalism, as well as other styles such as art nouveau, in addition to Quebec modernist designers like Gilles “Guy” Vidal and Robert Larin. With my neckties, the majority of which have been acquired in France, I opt for silk and fetching patterns.

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I will kick off this blog with one of my favourite pairs of cufflinks. These are a sterling-silver pair by the Swedish silversmith Bengt Hallberg and bear his maker’s mark: BeH. The firm was set in up in 1947 and is still going strong. These links were made in 1969 but are unsold stock, so they were never purchased and were consequently broken in by myself. They feature the crumple-casting technique using a rough-cast mould that is best known as a Finnish method -some of the designers working for the iconic firm Lapponia spring to mind- but this pair brazenly demonstrates that other manufacturers also achieved beautiful effects with it.