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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Wily coyotes and walking birds

The myth of Sisyphus is a particularly grim and haunting one. As a punishment for his repeated deceit, the gods condemned him to roll a boulder up a hill, only for him to see it roll back down and to have to repeat this action, with its reversal, for all eternity. They didn’t mess around, these gods, and there is a malign genius behind the chastisement which makes it almost beautiful were it not for the appalling infliction of frustration and repetition. It is difficult to know what constitutes the worst aspect of this sentence: the fact that it is repeated day in and day out; the exertion expended in rolling up the immense boulder; or the aimlessness of it all. I suspect it is the latter; this task is entirely void of any purpose or goal other than to impose perpetual suffering. Not content with this case, classical mythology provides us with four other examples of similar incessant torture with Tityos (whose liver was slowly pecked out and devoured by two vultures during the day and which grew back during the night), Prometheus (whose liver was extracted by an eagle, perhaps a touch more merciful than two vultures, during the day then nocturnally regenerated – the focus on the liver has nothing to do with alcohol for the Greeks believed it was the nucleus of human emotions), Tantalus (who was condemned to stand in a pool of water underneath a fruit tree with low-hanging branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp and the water always receding before he could take a drink), and Ixion (whose fate was to be attached a winged fiery wheel which span without cease, giving a whole new meaning to coming full circle). Little wonder that these populations were to embrace Christianity so wholeheartedly as its central message of forgiveness is completely and starkly alien to the vengeful and vindictive nature of the pagan deities.

ImageI have always liked Titian’s version of the Sisyphus story, above, completed in 1549. Many artists choose not to show Sisyphus’s face, which creates the sense that the individual is overshadowed by his fate and overwhelmed by the boulder. Titian, on the other hand, does show a glimpse of his face and the blank, expressionless eyes of the subject adds a much more bleak undercurrent to this scene. The light, glimpsed in the distance, evokes the possibility of salvation, but it is one which will come with Christianity picking up on the symbolism of Christ being the rising Sun in the east. Above all, the contortions of the protagonist suggest an inverted question mark. A question mark would imply an answer but there is no solution or resolution impossible with this scenario nor the ideology which has created it and the inversion underscores the perverse and aimless nature of what we see. In short, the painting apparently shows a mythological theme yet is a work of orthodox Christianity. The year it was painted should also give us a clue, since Europe was in the midst of violent religious upheaval resulting from the establishment of Protestant sects. Truth and punishment were therefore burning topics.

The myth of Sisyphus was the title and subject of a brilliant 1942 essay by Albert Camus, who begins the work by stating that the only truly serious philosophical question is suicide. The book uses the figure as a study in despair and absurdity, asking the question of whether the apparent futility of existence justifies suicide as an exit strategy. The one aspect which has always struck me in this work is that Camus is most interested in Sisyphus’s thoughts as he walks down the hill to begin anew. It is during this time that he becomes truly tormented and, ultimately, truly tragic. Camus does not embrace faith as an option, though is very far from being dismissive of it and has more sympathy towards religious belief than Sarte and de Beauvoir. The work, which opened with a startling assertion, ends with an equally surprising invitation: we must imagine Sisyphus happy. Critics, inevitably, are divided about this last word but to me it’s always meant that the power of the human imagination can defeat anything no matter how dark. This is the mental revolt of which the philosopher speaks.

ImageI’m afraid that my first exposure to this Sisyphean archetype was not through reading about the myth or even via a cinematic version of it such as Groundhog Day (1993), but rather through my favorite childhood cartoon, the Looney Tunes-produced Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner shorts. The Coyote tries again and again to outwit and capture the Road Runner, but never succeeds. It is an eternal situation for he is quite impervious to death, suffering mishaps which should have him shake off his mortal coil (falling off cliffs, being pulverized by rocks, being blown up, or having his head imploded by an anvil) yet he rises, Lazarus-like, to begin anew. The cartoon is hopelessly formulaic, more than most cartoons, yet the constant ingenuity of the Coyote and his endless frustration provide a degree of pleasure. I secretly rooted for the Coyote and wanted him to succeed, one day. What I didn’t realize is that this guilty longing is, in fact, the premise of the entire concept. Our sympathies are not with the rather annoying, less intelligent bird but with the cunning yet hapless lupine foe. Many of us only become aware of this when having drunken conversations in our adulthood with friends who shared the same covert and naughty desire.

Seth MacFarlane did what we all wanted to do: he had the Coyote finally triumph over his nemesis in a 2’09-long short entitled “Die, Sweet Roadrunner, Die”, available here. After enjoying the roasted bird with his friend, he is asked what he will then do with his life, and the poor animal, obsessed with the chase for two decades does not know. He ends up on the brink of suicide then finds religion. MacFarlane roundly demonstrates why the Coyote must never kill his prey; it is his essence, his very life’s mission to pursue, and it is not without purpose since it gives him his central purpose. In fact, Chuck Jones’s original series did entertain the concept a couple of time, here. In the first, he finally catches the Road Runner only to see the bird has grown to gigantesque proportions (without explanation, but who needs explanations in an absurd world?). Breaking the fourth wall, the unfortunate dog holds up a sign to the view displaying “Okay, wise guys, you always wanted me to catch him. Now what do I do?” The episode ends with this surreal outcome. The second occasion on which the bird is defeated occurs towards the end of a regular episode and also breaks the fourth wall. The scene pans out into a television screen and then we see two boys seated in front of it, with one remarking “Sometimes I feel very sorry for the coyote. Sometimes I wish he’d catch him”. Thereupon we return to the action and the Coyote kills the bird, roasts him, and we see him feasting on the roasted carcass. We return to the two boys visibly upset at the fulfillment of their secret desire.

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Like the fairy tales and fables from which cartoons spring, the cartoon acts as a rich metaphor. There are two principal features of the western desert location in which all the shorts take place: there are no humans (and this is consistently the case; sometimes post trucks deliver packages but the driver is never visible) and there is no sound other than the music, the beep beep of the bird (which sounds like “meep meep”), and later on the very occasional whimper a dog in pain, which served to increase our sympathy towards the predator. The latter fact, together with the slapstick hyperbole, give the shorts the air of silent films. Wanting the audience to identify with someone who is evil is nothing new; we rather like Frank Underwood in House of Cards and tolerate Dexter’s dark side in the series of the same name, despite the inescapable depiction of their wrong-doing.  Hitchcock often played on this. In Psycho (1960), immediately after the murder of the first victim, we see Norman Bates pushing her car into a swamp. As it is slowly being enveloped into the swamp, it stops a couple of feet from its end. Even though we have just witnessed the savage murder of the young woman in the shower, the audience wants the car to sink fully into the swamp at that moment. It does after a brief pause, as if through the energy of the audience’s collective wish for it to do so.

In a thought-provoking article (Douglas R. Bruce, “Notes toward a Rhetoric of Animation: “The Road Runner” as Cultural Critique,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 18 (2001), 229-45), the author suggests that the cartoon “is, above all, an anti-technological use of technology” (232). Rather than rely on his own innate and natural talents, the Coyote has recourse to the faceless Acme Corporation (a rather delightful list of Acme products is available here). The indefatigable coyote is also often depicted with a knife and fork in his hand and a napkin wrapped around his neck, a visual portrayal of his reliance on non-natural tools for he is a beast and has usurped the implements of humanity, in particular those of civilized society. The ultimate message, one which would resonate with the audiences of the 1950s and 1950s living through the Cold War and the potential of nuclear weapons is: “As these technologies distance us from the natural world, they also may alienate us from each other and even from ourselves, as our lives revolve increasingly around using and maintaining technological gadgets” (234). Like fairy tales which have rich layers of meaning which often escape a juvenile readership, this cartoon is immensely subversive in its anti-establishment message. Many Native American traditions believe that the coyote accompanied the first humans in the birth of the world, a reason for which it was never killed by some tribes. The location of the cartoons certainly hints at the “wild west” and a clash of two opposing ideologies. Little wonder that the animated Coyote did not succeed in his quest.

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As to the real road runner, I assumed it was a fictional bird, growing up in the rural north of England. In fact, I’ve now seen it; not in Arizona or New Mexico (it being the state emblem of the latter) but rather in southern Kansas. It is a very curious bird, for the greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus, a member of the cuckoo family) chooses to move around by running, even though it can fly, and has a particular penchant for roads. Just as some domestic pets imagine they’re human, so too this bird seems to be under the impression that highways are its playground. Even though its call does not, disappointingly, resemble a “beep, beep”, it does have speed in common with its animated counterpart, for it can reach speeds 26 miles an hour. It has a slightly comical gait while running and seeing it in action rather makes one think of Ronald Reagan: impressive but also somewhat ridiculous at once.

ImageToday’s cufflinks depict this wonderful bird, a quirky and beautiful pair with an impressive size, being 1 3/4″ in length. They’re made out of pewter and have much detail, crafted by Ray Graves with his characteristic “Gŕā-Wun” maker’s mark. Graves is an important figure in the modernist jewelry movement and his store operated in Scottsdale, Arizona, from 1959 to 2001, when he retired at the age of 80 years old. This pair looks like it dates from the late 1950s or early 1960s (also the period during which the cartoon was appearing). His creations often depict the west (cacti, desert scenes, wildlife) but he was particularly fond of the indomitable road runner. I think his affection may be seen in this gently executed pair. The road runner, in opting for its strong legs (and using a dark skin patch on its rear as an effective solar panel to raise its body temperature by 9 degrees before running) over its wings, is surely a symbol of stubbornness. Perhaps, then, it’s not so surprising that the Coyote was never victorious over this little headstrong avian marvel.

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.