Remembering the Great Paris Flood of 1910

This blog is dedicated to my son Alex, his wife Dawn, and their two children who, on September 12, 2013, were evacuated from a home to which they can not return to escape the ravages of the Colorado flood.

With the Seine in Paris currently rising to uncomfortable levels, one sincerely hopes 2013-2014 will not see another catastrophic flood. The Seine has dealt Paris many a harsh blow, but perhaps none so serious as the Great Flood of January 1910.


There are countless images of the flood, but perhaps none speaks so eloquently of the disruption as the interior of the Gare d’Orsay. It looks like an over-the-top swimming pool. This photo, as with all of the images in this blog, is from the Paris en Images website, one of my favourite Paris places.


In addition to destruction, floods turn the familiar into the unfamiliar. Perhaps the most disconcerting element of this photo of the Gare d’Orsay, now a museum with a stunning collection of impressionist art, is the stairway descending into the water. It seems surreal, something that Jules Verne might have given to Captain Nemo, had the submarine Nautilus been big enough to have a swimming pool.


The Gare d’Orsay had been built as part of the preparations for the International Exposition of 1900. The world famous Paris Métro was also inaugurated to celebrate the Exposition of 1900. And it, too, succumbed to the flood.


Familiar stately streets such as the Boulevard St. Germain took on an eery unfamiliarity. How can one imagine this being one of the places to take a stroll, to shop, to see and be seen and above all to linger? Much of the city had been transformed.


One hardly expects to find a boat in a Parisian doorway. But boats became one of the main ways to get about the flooded city.


People still had to move about the flooded city. Here we see men poling a boat through an unidentified street in Paris. We are not sure about the bits of wood floating in the water. They seem too thin and in too many different sizes to be wooden pavers. If anyone reading this has a theory, let us know.


The rue de Montaigne is an area where one should be properly dressed. However, during a flood? Well, one must arrive at work looking as if one belonged there and the passengers seemed to have maintained a proper dress code.


As one reads about the flood, one is appalled by the extent of the damage, loss, human suffering, and heartache. However, one also stands in admiration of those who carried on as best they could. The boats were helpful, but the greatest transit aid in flooded areas were the numerous elevated walkways supported on everything from trestles to wheelbarrows. Here we see an orderly progression on rue du Bac in the 7th.


As in any flood, inhabitants tried to hold back the water. The workmen putting sandbags in position on rue Gros in the 15th had a different dress code and tasks from those taking the boat on rue de Montaigne.


One could also try to block the path of the rising water by making higher walls and filling in window openings. As we see in the opening photos, these efforts at the Gare d’Orsay failed.


The city of Paris has a voracious appetite and flood or no flood, residents needed massive amounts of food every day. In this photo taken near the Austerlitz viaduct, the sacks are filled with flour, not sand.


In the image below, we might wonder if we are witnessing an exercise in extreme optimism. We are told the men in the boat are delivering meat to a butcher’s shop on rue Surcouf in the 7th. They seem to be heading towards the hairdresser (Coiffeur). But if one looks to the top left of the photo, there is the unmistakable symbol of a butcher who sells horsemeat.


Many people’s homes were uninhabitable and those who could not find refuge with friends or elsewhere ended up in shelters. The refuge in the Lambert gymnasium was not elaborate, but it was shelter.


Where possible, additional equipment would be brought in to help make the shelters more comfortable. The mattresses shown here were for flood victims who had sought shelter in the Saint Sulpice Seminary in the 7th.


And as with so many disasters, the Red Cross played a prominent role. Here a Red Cross station advertises “Secours aux Inondés” (Aid or help for flooded-out residents).


One wonders how long these Red Cross ladies’ uniforms would keep their crisp looks in the shelter at the hospital on rue Michel-Ange.


But even when the water receded, there was much to do. Portable pumping units spread through the flooded areas to pump out cellars. Workmen helping to restore the city posed as the water poured from a hose and ran down the street.


Some of the pumping equipment was on a much larger scale. Here are two massive steam engines driving huge water pumps. One can see the cascade of water disgorging from the pipe between the two engines and draining away down the street.


Many people lost most, or all, of their possessions, some irreplaceable. But for some things such as basic furnishings, the Red Cross was there to help as people returned home.


As the immediate ravages of the flood disappeared, there would be a seemingly endless number of memories. And some would talk of their heroes and the unforgettable incidents. Perhaps it would be of the kitchen in the café on rue Félicien David in the 16th that stayed open throughout the flood. Undoubtedly the cook would have long memories of that difficult time.


And perhaps no drink from a corner café ever tasted better than those consumed during the flood while everyone was balanced precariously on the planks that kept them out of the water. Perhaps no zinc bar was a more welcome sight than this, also on rue Félicien David.


Perhaps others had a special place in their hearts for those who unloaded and delivered the coal so desperately needed for heating and cooking.


Others would remember that even after the water receded, there was still a lot of cleaning that had to be done, inside and out.


And undoubtedly many remembered the many solid workmen who just worked, then worked some more, and never found themselves enjoying the limelight. Identified only as a “Seine Flood Rescuer,” this photo represents the numerous workmen who helped bring Paris back from the brink.

b0b78d66005cb5a9103b755e431c355aText by Norman Ball, images from Paris en Images.

More images of the flood can be found on the Historic Cities website.

Posted in Paris history, Paris metro, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

A little mystery solved

Curiosity, plus an interest in Paris, has led us to many surprising finds and some unusual encounters. A recent purchase at the Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair is a case in point.


It was a one-of-a-kind object: a handmade, illustrated, unbound book dated 1934, titled La Mode Féminine, dedicated to the School Sisters of Notre Dame by one Stewart Monaghan. Here is the description from the vendor, the Kelmscott Bookshop of Baltimore:

This unique item is a compilation of sixteen handwritten poems written in the 18th century about women, each illustrated by a pretty hand-colored original drawing of a woman in the attire of the period…. A charming item, although Mr. Monaghan’s reasons for creating and dedicating it to the School Sisters is unknown.

The handmade book was held together by boards covered in mauve cloth, edged with black lace, with pink ribbon closings. Not the sort of thing that one would expect to be dedicated to an order of nuns by a man. There had to be a story there.


When I got home, I entered the name “Stewart Monaghan” into, the genealogical website. The name appeared in a record from the 1930 census of the United States. Stewart Monaghan was listed as the grandson of one Cora Stewart of Baltimore, living on Guilford Street.


That made sense: the bookshop was in Baltimore, and the book itself was preserved in a cardboard box labelled Hutzler Brothers Co., a department store in Baltimore that was a fixture from 1858 to its closure in 1990.

The Stewart Monaghan in the 1930 census was about 12, so he would have been about 16 or so in 1934, when the book was created.


I Googled the head of the family, Cora Stewart, on Guilford Street in Baltimore. Her name appeared in a number of articles in the Baltimore Sun written by the columnist Jacques Kelly, who was clearly a descendant of Cora’s. I sent him an e-mail.

Bingo! Jacques Kelly responded within a few hours and explained why Stewart Monaghan had created a book dedicated to an order of Catholic teaching nuns:

Let me clear up the mystery of Stewart Monaghan. Her full name, as christened, was Margery (it sometimes appeared as Marjorie) Stewart Monaghan, my mother. She hated Margery or Marjorie and NEVER used it. Stewart was her mother’s maiden name. She was an adored child and an adored adult. Her married name was Kelly and as “Stew” Kelly she was known by the cardinal-archbishop, governor and mayor.

She was born Sept. 23, 1917, and spent 16 years, first grade through college graduation in 1939, with the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore, now called Notre Dame of Maryland University. … How such a document escaped her clutches is a miracle as she saved everything, down to homework assignments of all her six children.

There is a lesson in there about the trustworthiness of census results. And about gender roles. It is hard to imagine a young man in the 1930s creating such a book and dedicating it to a group of nuns; but quite easy to imagine a teenaged girl doing the same thing.


My next question was about the inspiration for the book. The fashion plates were stylish, and it seemed improbable that a 17-year-old girl would have the knowledge and artistic gifts to create such drawings from scratch.

In fact, they were copies or tracings. La Mode Féminine was a series of historic fashion plates, printed in Paris using the labour-intensive pochoir process (also favoured by George Barbier), and published in 1929. The creator was Henri Rouit, art director of the fashionable revue Art-Goût-Beauté.* Sets of his little books are still available on eBay and used-book websites; indeed, the complete set was sold at auction on November 12, 2013 (the starting price was 400 Euros). I, ahem, did not bid.


I wonder how Stewart came across the French fashion plates. They had been published only five years before she created her own book; in those days that was quite a rapid transfer from France to the United States. Did her family own a set? Did the convent library contain images of women in fetching hats and décolleté gowns? Did she see only the 18th-century plates, or did she have access to the full set (which ranges from the 15th to the 20th century) and choose these images specifically? I will never know.


The poetry ranges from courtly poems to romantic ballads to lover’s complaints. It is interesting to imagine this convent-schooled young woman choosing these 18th-century lyrics to go with her French fashion plates. The first one is an excerpt from The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan. The one shown below, by Oliver Goldsmith, has an unexpected ending. I’m beginning to think that the School Sisters of Notre Dame were not your average teaching nuns.


Thanks to Jacques Kelly, I know how the story turns out. Stewart went on to university, graduating with a master’s degree, became a social worker, and in 1949, married newspaper writer Joseph B. Kelly and had six children: four girls, two boys. She lived all her life in the house on Guilford Street in which she grew up. She sounds somewhat larger than life and full of energy and interests. In a 2009 column, Kelly wrote:

She was made to order for Baltimore because of her lack of pretense and her love of people, whom she cultivated by the hundreds. She was a great worker of the telephone – her calling hour began about 9:30 at night and was accompanied by clouds of Lucky Strike cigarette smoke. Using a clipboard, she was a letter and note writer and could say much in few words. She wrote quickly and kept the impressions coming. Alongside her telephone-tobacco chair was a pile of murder mysteries, many from the Pratt Library.

She sounds like someone I would have enjoyed meeting. She died in 1993, aged 75, never having visited France.


Chances are, she forgot all about the little book she made for her teachers at the convent. It probably sat in a drawer or bookcase until someone did a clear-out and sent it, probably with other books, to the Kelmscott Bookshop, whose owners brought it to Toronto. Now it is part of my library, complete with provenance, “unknown” no more.


Text by Philippa Campsie, illustrations by M. Stewart Monaghan after Henri Rouit.

*The journal had several names throughout its life. First (1920-21), it was called Les Succès d’Art. Goût. Bon Ton. Briefly, it was Art. Goût. Bon Ton. Finally, from 1921 to 1930, it was called Art. Goût. Beauté. Throughout these changes, the initials (AGB) matched those of the publisher – who was actually a silk merchant: Albert Godde, Bedin and Company. For more information on this publication, I recommend an article by Patricia Morris in the California State Library Foundation Bulletin.  Otherwise, not much is known about Henri Rouit. I may have to investigate.
Posted in Paris art | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

An artist finds life among the tombs

When I look at Pamela Williams’s photographs of sculptures, I feel I am seeing real people.


This photo, which she calls “Glance,” was taken in 2010 in Passy Cemetery. It is so realistic, one almost does a double-take.

The once-lustrous marble has weathered so that it looks like skin with pores. Over the years, dust and pollution have added highlights and emphasis to parts of the face such as the nose and lips. Alas, since this photo was taken, the statue has been cleaned. The last time Pamela saw it, some of the magic had departed with the dirt.

The Toronto-based photographer has spent the last few years capturing the poses, expressions, and emotions of sculptures in cemeteries in Paris, Rome, Milan, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Havana, and Buenos Aires.

Why cemetery sculpture? Years ago, a friend gave Pamela a copy of the book Permanent Parisians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of Paris.* Pamela, who had studied fine arts at York University in Toronto, suddenly saw sculpture in a new light. Instead of being captured inside a museum under controlled light and climate, the works of art were outdoors, exposed to weather and pollution. They changed over time.

She had already been drawn to realistic sculpture. As she explains, “I am able to photograph the work from angles so that I can make it appear human.” She photographs using natural light, without reflectors or flashes and uses traditional film to create portraits of people who just happen to be in stone or bronze, rather than flesh.


The weathered bronze she calls “Repose” is in Montmartre Cemetery and dates from about 1880. The elongated figure was hard to photograph. It was hard to find the right angle, and Pamela had to wait some time for the right light to “make it appear human.”

“Repose” graces a family tomb and is intended to be decorative rather than a portrait of either the deceased or the bereaved. It might signify beauty, grief, or the grace of a dancer at rest. Or all three.

When Pamela returned years later to see how time had altered it, the area was closed off so that the authorities could spray for weeds. Such are the hazards of pursuing outdoor sculpture.


“Lament” is a poignant bronze sculpture, also in Montmartre Cemetery. It expresses the grief of a mother who in 1910 lost her 20-year-old son, Robert Didsbury. Exposed to the elements, the bronze has oxidized to a variegated green and the white splotches and tracks from water add to the dramatic sense of suffering and loss. The sculptor was Robert’s mother. Her anguish is real and time has only added to it.


With digital cameras, we see an image immediately. Traditional film photographers are often surprised when they develop the film and print their contact sheets. Pamela found this sculpture in a partially protected alcove in Père Lachaise; it ends below the shoulder and at first seemed rather ordinary. It was only when she took a closer look at the print that she found it increasingly interesting. She calls it “Cameo.”

Pamela Williams’s photos have appeared in many publications. In 1998 McClelland and Stewart reissued The Stone Angel by the late Canadian writer Margaret Laurence, first published in 1964. In search of a suitable cover illustration, the art department contacted Pamela and asked her to bring in all of her angel photos. None were used. The reason? Editorial insisted that an angel would be far too literal. In the end, the cover featured “Cameo.”

In a short essay in a collection of Pamela’s photographs called Death Divine: Photographs of Cemetery Sculpture from Paris, Milan, Rome, Randall Robertson writes, “Sensational monuments from the late nineteenth century fill Parisian cemeteries. The dead may be invisible, but their memorials definitely are not. For those with money, memorial sculpture was the most accepted, even the most expected, way to commemorate the family—to proclaim the private in a public cultural space…. Wealthy families hired the best sculptors…[and] in virtuosic depictions of hair and skin, these artists created faces and figures so lifelike that one comes to believe in their existence.”


Although many funerary sculptures were unique pieces, there were exceptions. Some forms were used more than once by the sculptor and some were copied. The image that Pamela calls “Cherub with Broken Foot” is a marble sculpture in Père Lachaise. She has seen copies in other cemeteries, including one in bronze.

A few years ago, Pamela was contacted by a widower who wanted photos of a particularly beautiful angel. To honour his late wife, he wanted to commission a sculptor to create a copy. Pamela sold him some of her photographs. She later found out that the widower had hired a sculptor to go to the European cemetery to study the original and make a copy one and a half times the size of the original sculpture. Pamela said the original sculpture was so popular in its day that she could have directed the widower and the sculptor to good copies in American cemeteries.

Pamela returns to Paris from time to time to continue her photography of sculpture. Recently she has taken small groups of private students. Yes, they visit cemeteries, but also galleries and museums. And she has rediscovered the joys of photographing sculptures inside museums and galleries. She calls the image below simply “Paris Statue.”


I have seen other other shots of the same statue, but in hers I could see what she had told me earlier about searching for the angle and the light to make it look human. The one shown here is bathed in light from a skylight and captured by an artist so that it looks like a real person.

One might say the same about the image below, a painted wooden sculpture in the Petit Palais.


We own one of Pamela’s prints, called “Herald.” It shows a stone angel from a Vienna cemetery, taken at an angle that emphasizes the powerful wings and the back of the angel’s head. Although it is not from Paris, it makes us think of our strolls in Paris’s cemeteries and the amazing sculptures that continue to inspire visitors and artists like Pamela Williams.

Text by Norman Ball, photographs by Pamela Williams. Many thanks to Pamela Williams for her artistry, patience, and co-operation.

To see more photos click here. For more information on Pamela’s three books (Death Divine, Last Kiss, and In the Midst of Angels), click here.

*Judi Culbertson, Tom Randall, Permanent Parisians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of Paris, Walker and Company, 1996.

For another view of Paris cemeteries, go to “Stained Glass Less Seen.”

Posted in Paris art, Paris cemeteries | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Paris in the First World War

It’s that time of year again. The poppy-sellers are out on the streets of Toronto, and soon, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we will stop what we are doing for a minute or two and think about those who have died in wars both recent and remote.

Sufferings and betrayals in Paris under the German Occupation in the Second World War have been recorded in many memoirs, novels, and movies, but the literature on the city in the First World War is more sparse. I decided to look through our collection of postcards and books to learn more.


I have two postcards showing Zeppelin damage. Compared with what was to come later, the destruction was fairly limited. The first postcard shows a damaged shopfront (it had sold secondhand goods) and some scattered cobblestones. On either side, children line up to get into the frame of the picture. “Crimes odieux des pirates boches,” says the caption. Clearly the point of the postcard is to stir up anti-German feeling.

The shop was on the rue Ménilmontant in the 20th arrondissement. Look at the number 91 in the top right-hand corner. Amazingly, the building exists to this day – you can still see the distinctive heart-shaped wrought-iron decorations in the windows on Google Street View.


The second shows more damage, a house cut in half. Someone has written in a location (rue de l’Elisée), but this is wrong. A press photograph of the same site on Gallica (the website of France’s National Library) provides additional information: the raid took place on January 29, 1916, at 34, rue du Borrégo, also in the 20th (which seems to have sustained most of the Zeppelin damage). The owner, one sous-brigadier Bidault, was killed.

FirstWorldWar0002In all, the Zeppelin dropped 19 bombs that time, killing 54 people. A special funeral was held for them at Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix.


Much greater destruction took place towards the end of the war, when Germans used huge long-range cannons to shell the city from Picardy, 120 km (75 miles) away. Although the nickname “Big Bertha” was given to these cannons, in fact, there were two types. Big Berthas were howitzers, but the enormous “Paris Gun” was much larger and heavier with a longer range. This was the gun that fired a shell that fell came through one of the windows of St-Gervais during the Good Friday service of 29 March 1918, killing 88 people.


Even so, compared to cities in northern France, Paris emerged from the war relatively unscathed, at least in terms of its streets and buildings. Much more damage had been done in 1870-71, during the Siege and the Commune. Nor did Paris suffer under German occupation in the First World War, the fate of cities such as Lille.

Rather, citizens suffered from shortages and privations, from bereavements as sons and husbands were killed in trench warfare, from the unrelenting pressure of uncertainty as the war dragged on year after year. The city was filled with war wounded and refugees. Life went on in the cafés and shops, and the black market offered luxuries to those who could afford them, but for most people, it was a bleak period of survival and waiting. News was scarce.


I have two postcards from the Front. The first one was not sent to or from Paris, but it is typical of army correspondence on preprinted cards at that time. H. Vincent, réserviste, writes at some length, with atrocious spelling, to say he has no news. He was serving with the C.O.A. (Commis et Ouvriers militaires d’Administration) – the administrative corps that supported the army. If I’m reading his writing correctly, he was in the 5th  Section of the COA, attached to the 55th Division de Réserve. He writes to Eugène Bailly, also in the C.O.A., 11th Section, stationed in Nantes. Nantes was a huge military centre during the war, with barracks and hospitals for both French and (later) American soldiers.


H. Vincent ends his message with “enfin patience et courage, bien à toi.” The postmark is obscured, but I know that it reads “Tresor et Postes,” the French military mark. It is impossible to make out the year. However, by comparing my card with images of similar cards online, I believe it was sent early in the war, because the printed part resembles that of other cards sent in 1914.


The second was sent in August 1918, as the war was finally turning in favour of the Allies. Gone are the flags and coloured printing – the card has been stripped down to the essentials. A soldier (last name Roche) informs Madame Roche (his wife? his mother?) that he was well (alive and not wounded). She lived at 8, rue Mathurin Régnier, in the 15th, in a house that is still there.


There is nothing more on the card (nothing further was allowed), but probably to his wife or mother, that news was enough and she was glad to receive it.

My last view of First World War Paris comes from the 2001 book by Margaret Macmillan on the Paris Peace Conferences (titled Peacemakers in the U.K. and Paris 1919 in Canada and the U.S.). She describes the city as it appeared to the delegations in January 1919:

Signs of the Great War that had just ended were everywhere: the refugees from the devastated regions in the north; the captured German cannon in the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysées; the piles of rubble and boarded-up windows where German bombs had fallen. A gaping crater marked the Tuileries rose garden. Along the Grand Boulevards the ranks of chestnuts had gaps where trees had been cut for firewood. The great windows in the cathedral of Notre-Dame were missing their stained glass, stored for safety; in their place, pale yellow panes washed the interior with a tepid light. There were severe shortages of coal, milk, and bread. French society bore scars too. While the flags of victory fluttered from the lampposts and windows, limbless men and demobilized soldiers in worn army uniforms begged for change on street corners and almost every other woman wore mourning.

The city would not remain sad for long – the hectic gaiety of the 1920s was just around the corner – but for the exhausted populace, peace had not come too soon.

Text by Philippa Campsie.

Posted in Paris churches, Paris history, Paris postcards, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

George Barbier and the dream of Paris

Every year, millions of people come to Paris dreaming of beauty, elegance, high fashion, personal freedom, decadent leisure, titillating knowledge, romantic affairs, sexual dalliances, and secret places. What they may not realize is that some of their dreams are built on the artistic foundations of Art Deco artist George Barbier (1882–1932) and his contemporaries.


Years ago, Arthur Smith, librarian at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, fell under the spell of Barbier’s artworks and the technical brilliance with which many were printed. His curiosity and diligence in learning more has led to a stunning exhibition at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

Today, most overseas visitors fly to Paris crammed into crowded airplanes, arriving hot, sweaty and grubby at an unfashionable hour of the day. But Barbier lets us dream that we made the crossing first-class on a transatlantic liner, where we would lounge about, sipping cocktails with glamorous international travellers. This was the world of 1927 he created for an S.S. Île de France menu.


And when we arrived in Paris, there would be parties at which everyone would be dressed in the height of fashion, ready to dance and flirt, as in L’Amour est aveugle (Love is blind).


Perhaps the dance would lead to a quiet tête-à-tête with an intriguing stranger in an exquisite garden. And of course one would be the very picture of elegance.

Have those who dream of elegance today been overpowered by fads and ephemeral fashion? Who today would dare proclaim, as did the Journal des dames et des modes did in 1912, that

Elegance resides in the perfect harmony of thoughts, words, acts, gestures, attitudes and costume. It is through costume that elegance expresses itself most quickly. The elegant person should not wear anything conspicuous or extreme. He refrains from colours that are too crude, clothes of eccentric cut, perfumes that are too heavy, jewellery that is too rich, excessive gestures, vocal outbursts, and words that are too strong. The elegant person is the one who makes himself noticed by means of discretion.*


Ah, discretion. So important. As it is for this lady garbed in an afternoon dress from the House of Paquin. Barbier’s caption, N’en dites rien (Tell no one about this) suggests a mysterious secret.


Who was this artist who drew captivating worlds of wealth and refinement? He was part of a group of talented French artists, most of whom had graduated from the École des Beaux-arts in Paris, “nicknamed by Vogue the Chevaliers du bracelet (knights of the bracelet) for their dandyish attire, flamboyant mannerisms, dapper appearance, and common practice of sporting a bracelet.” Barbier was described as “un élégant jeune homme blond, tranquille et réservé.” He was as privileged as those he portrayed.

As Arthur Smith writes in the exhibit catalogue:

He was the son of a well-to-do Nantes businessman who left Barbier a ritzy apartment building in Paris and the means to maintain a comfortable Paris lifestyle. Barbier enjoyed a luxurious residence, a substantial income to finance his theatrical pursuits, and the resources to acquire an extensive personal library, valuable antiques, and works of art. He also possessed an automobile to facilitate his escapes into the French countryside.

Clearly the stuff of Paris dreams.

In her wonderful book The World of Department Stores, Jan Whitaker describes Paris’s contribution to  the history of the modern department store. The first ones were as far from the modern serve-yourself bargain emporium as it is possible to imagine. Well-dressed staff waited for you and waited on you, as we see in this 1913 image from the cover of an artist’s sketchbook Barbier drew for the department store À Pygmalion.


Arthur Smith describes À Pygmalion as

an imposing multi-storey building located on rue Saint Denis. It was known as a novelties shop that marketed the latest fashions, jewellery, and fabrics to a well-to-do female clientele. This volume illustrated by Barbier featured table linens and elaborately trimmed undergarments, with vignettes of ladies engaged in such activities as playing tennis, boating, skiing, riding, golfing and dining.

When the woman had finished her shopping, she would travel to her next rendezvous by a chauffeur-driven motor car, to emerge impeccably outfitted, where she would be greeted by an improbably slender, tall, and perfectly tailored man.


Did his lips alight upon her outstretched hand or linger close to her cheek while both thought of what the evening might bring?

The title “Envie” (Envy) suggests a slightly sinister undercurrent. Drawn for a collection illustrating the seven deadly sins, the maid holding the hat box is presumably the envious one. But such warnings rarely intrude on Barbier’s world. His world is more properly represented by the yachting costume from Costumes Parisiens.

This picture shown below was circulated with an issue of Journal des dames et des modes. Can you imagine something so extravagant as a magazine published three times a month, limited to 1,250 copies per issue? It first appeared on 1 June 1912, and 79 issues later, on 1 August 1914, it ceased publication.


In addition to “literary articles, poems, society columns and fashion reports,” the exclusive circle of subscribers “received colourful unbound fashion plates entitled Costumes Parisiens, which were engraved on copper and coloured au pochoir. The plates were contributed by leading fashion illustrators of the day including Barbier” and a host of other luminaries. Costumes Parisiens illustrations such as Barbier’s Costume de Yacht shown above occasionally appear in antique shops and print galleries, where they are much sought after and priced accordingly.

The labour-intensive pochoir technique involved making and printing from many zinc or copper stencils to colour the print, which had first been made from an engraving or woodblock print of the original.**

As fashion historian Alison Matthews David writes in her introduction to Arthur M. Smith’s exhibition catalogue ‘Chevalier du Bracelet’: George Barbier and his illustrated works,

Barbier captured the modern but rarified world of haute couture fashions, illustrating the chic hats and the changing silhouettes of the best French [fashion] houses, including Worth, Paquin and Poiret. His colourful, sophisticated tableaux commissioned by the elite fashion publications of his era show young, elegant Dianas skiing at St. Moritz or being twirled in arms of Tango dancers, but also indolent femmes fatales reclining on pillows while smoking in their Asian-inspired silk evening pyjamas.

La Paresse (idleness, indolence) is a stunning evocation of the studied indolence so inseparable from many dreams of glamorous Paris. Here we see perfectly what Albert Flament meant when he said of his friend George Barbier, “When our times are lost…some of his water-colours and drawings will be all that is necessary to resurrect the taste and spirit of the years in which we lived.”


And sometimes an introduction to Barbier adds to our appreciation of what we already know and admire. In my case, the Cartier panther. Philippa and I spent Christmas 2012 in Paris. On more than one evening we stopped to admire this view on the Champs-Elysées.


Only later would I learn from Arthur Smith that Barbier created the “iconic piece…the design of the panther that remains emblematic of the House of Cartier to the present day. The image of a classical figure, attired in a Poiret dress, and accessorized by the presence of a black panther, was used on an invitation card designed by Barbier for L’exposition d’une collection unique de perles et de bijoux de decadence antique hosted at La Maison Cartier from 27 May to 6 June 1914. The illustration bore the caption La femme avec une panthère noire, which was reproduced in a 1920s French magazine advertisement for Cartier.”


Yet for all the glamour of the era, there was also a dark side.


The attractive evening dress is from Worth, generally regarded as the first French fashion house, paradoxically started by an Englishman. However, beauty notwithstanding, there is something sinister, or threatening in this image. One senses the need for caution, for this is the “Merciless beautiful lady.” Here is a woman of power, not to be treated lightly or incautiously. Undoubtedly inspired by the John Keats poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” we find there someone who “met a lady” and quite unexpectedly later found himself “Alone and palely loitering.” Too late—

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

Perhaps La Belle Dame sans Merci is the city of Paris itself; sometimes hard to please, but impossible to forget. Far away, one feels alone and palely loitering. Barbier captured and created a particular Paris, a Paris that haunts and holds many of us in her thrall.

Text by Norman Ball. Many thanks to Arthur Smith, Anne Dondertman, John Shoesmith, and all who brought Barbier back to life in this stunning exhibit and fine catalogue.

All Barbier images courtesy Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

*All quotations from ‘Chevalier du Bracelet’: George Barbier and His Illustrated Works, Exhibition & Catalogue by Arthur M. Smith, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, 30 September – 20 December 2013, Catalogue printed by Coach House Press. Foreword by Anne Dondertman, Introduction by Alison Matthews David. Available for $20 Canadian. Click here.

**For more on the pochoir technique, you can find an explanation and some examples on the website of the University of California library.

Posted in Paris art, Paris nostalgia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The once and future Paris transport museum

The huge Maison de la RATP on the quai de la Rapée has a sweeping view of the Seine and an impressive central atrium in which are positioned a few examples of historic trams and omnibuses. What it does not have, surprisingly, is a proper museum or even a small gift shop.


Norman and I wandered in on a summer’s day earlier this year. We’d seen the building from across the river as we were lunching on the roof of the Cité du Design et de la Mode, and we were curious about the interior. We asked about the non-existent museum and shop at the reception desk and were directed to the tiny hard-to-find gift shop in the bowels of Les Halles (shown below). We had been there before (we offer directions on our Visitors’ Guide to Paris for the truly determined) and found it wanting. The receptionist was sympathetic. She’d seen the same disappointment in tourists’ faces before.


We also went in search of toilettes. The building had several, but they were accessible only to those who knew the digicode. Eventually a woman at a desk in a side area where conferences and seminars were being held took pity on us and allowed us to use the ones there.

Before we left the building, we took some pictures. But the experience was unsatisfying. For a city with such a rich array of specialized museums (such as the one we mentioned in the last blog), the lack of a transport museum is distinctly odd.


Later, in a book called Metro Insolite by Clive Lamming, I found an interesting comment in a photo caption. Below a picture of the lush foliage in the modern Gare de Lyon station, I read: “Ambiance tropicale à la station Gare de Lyon ; cet espace était destiné à accueillir un accès au musée des Transports, hélas non réalisé.” [Tropical ambiance in the Gare de Lyon station; this space was intended to house the access to the Museum of Transport, alas, never realized.] That was all. Clive had nothing further to say on the subject beyond that telling “hélas.” So I went looking for clues.

In fact, there is (or was) a museum, outside Paris, operated by the Association pour le Musée des Transports Urbains, Interurbains, et Ruraux (AMTUIR), showcasing rolling stock from cities throughout France, including Paris. It was created in 1957 at the time that most French cities were tearing out tramlines and tossing out tramcars (which are now being carefully put back in many cities, at considerable expense).

The Association, composed mainly of enthusiastic amateurs and some retired transport employees, saved what trams it could, and put them on display, first in a former tram depot in Malakoff, and then, in 1972, in an old bus depot in Saint-Mandé. Later it added omnibuses, trains, and other rolling stock from various European cities. The photo below is of the Saint-Mandé museum.

AMTUIR(You can also see some 1970 pictures of the Malakoff museum at this Flickr site. The depot sheds are still there in Malakoff, near the intersection of boulevard Gabriel Péri and avenue du 12 février 1934, but have been put to new uses.)

RATP has had a cordial relationship with the Association, offering spaces in its unused depots for the collection, and lending out old vehicles for display. But in 1998, when the new RATP headquarters was built on the quai de la Rapée, the Saint-Mandé depot was sold. The Association, with the help of the RATP, went looking for a new home. A former airplane factory in Colombes seemed suitable, the RATP bought part of the site, and the collection was moved there in 2001. Studies were done on how to fix up the place to make it into a proper museum.

Then, following a municipal election in 2002, the administration of Colombes changed. The incoming mayor and councillors declared themselves adamantly (and inexplicably) opposed to hosting the museum. Planning came to an abrupt halt. Stalemate. Several years passed.

In 2006, another suburban municipality, Chelles, expressed interest in hosting the museum and an agreement was reached. AMTUIR moved some of its vehicles there. But the space was much smaller, and could not accommodate the 170 or so trams, buses, and trains AMTUIR had collected. The remainder were put in storage in a northern Paris suburb. Since then, the project seems to have stalled, and it appears that the museum has never officially opened.


All of which, you will have noticed, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Gare de Lyon near the Maison de la RATP. What was planned for that site? After all, the AMTUIR museum seems to have been a museum of rolling stock, but a Museum of Transport, like the ever-popular one in London’s Covent Garden, can tell a much wider story – about the stations, the routes, the design, the passengers, the people who worked for the company. Transport is not just about vehicles; it’s also about people and their stories.

The question, and the comparison with London, got me thinking. The Paris Métro and its associated buses and trams are very different from their London counterparts. The London Underground is much older (the first line opened in 1863). It has a strong visual identity, from red double-deckers to the circle-and-bar logo to the widely imitated map by Harry Beck. It has its emotional wartime history, when it provided shelter to so many people during the Blitz. It has a legacy of attractive and often witty advertising posters. Its lines have memorable names, and are consistently associated with certain colours (Bakerloo is always brown, Picadilly is always blue).


Now think about the Paris Metro. Built in 1900, it was a relative latecomer in municipal railway-based transit compared with London and New York. Its visual identity is idiosyncratic and incoherent – from writhing Hector Guimard entrances to modern signs (a yellow M in a circle) to the current, quite lovely RATP logo to one-off signs like the one shown above. Its stations range from our favourite, the imaginative Arts-et-Metiers station that evokes Jules Verne, to old-fashioned open-air platforms (shown below) to bleakly functional underground stops to unsuccessful makeovers, like the one at Franklin Roosevelt on the No. 1 line, which reminds me of the interior of a 1980s disco.


The buses today are unremarkable, now that the green ones with the open-air platforms at the back are gone (ah, fond memories!). There are many versions of the map, using a variety of designs and colours (the one below is from our copy of Paris Arrondissements, and the colours of the various lines do not necessarily correspond to those you will find on official maps). The Métro did provide shelter in a few stations on a few occasions during the war, but Paris did not suffer through a Blitz. It has few advertising posters and those are unmemorable.

Metro map (2)

All of which is not to say that the RATP doesn’t deserve a museum. It may have lost control of its visual identity, but it is still an institution with a long and distinctive history. You have only to look at a book published in 2011 called Les archives inédites de la RATP, 1850–1950  [The Unpublished Archives of the RATP, 1850–1950] by François Siegel. This huge coffee-table tome is filled with never-before-seen photographs of everything from the other flood (did you know there was one in 1924 as well as the big one in 1910?) to the camps created for Les Enfants du Métro (the children of Métro employees) to the lonely plight of the poinçonneurs and poinçonneuses (the men and women who once sat in station booths to punch passengers’ tickets).

PoinconneuseA whole social history is there. Paired with some of the actual artefacts, it would make for a riveting museum. One day.

And think of the merchandising opportunities in a proper shop! Metro maps on everything from mousepads to mugs, not to mention model trains, Hector-Guimard-style trinkets, and perhaps even a series of children’s books about the further adventures of the familiar pink rabbit in yellow pyjamas – le Lapin du Métro.


But for now, the RATP is not very welcoming. According to the RATP website, its archives are open to the public – by appointment only. You can’t just wander in.

The website also notes: “Since 1992, RATP has embarked upon a vast process of restoring its historic rolling stock. When a series of rolling stock is discontinued, one example is taken away to be preserved for future generations. A number of vehicles and objects from this collection are exhibited permanently in the reception hall of the Maison de la RATP (RATP’s headquarters near Gare de Lyon). The others are preserved and stored, with a view to being exhibited at the new Musée national des transports urbains.”

One day. One day.

P1120500Text by Philippa Campsie; original photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball. Image of poinçonneuse from Paris en Images. Image of museum at Saint-Mandé from Direction générale des patrimoines de France.

Posted in Paris metro, Paris museums | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Le Musée Valentin Haüy: A different vision of history

This is no ordinary terrestrial globe. And you’ll find it in a museum that is anything but ordinary.


When we move in closer, we find that it is labelled in Braille.

Copy of P1120079And the map shown below is not your average stuff-it-in-the-bag tourist map of Paris. But, for the blind, it gave a good introduction to the layout of Paris. Take a good look. I am sure you can locate the Seine and the Ile de la Cité. It was designed to be read by the blind who read by touch.


Welcome to the Museum Valentin Haüy (his unusual last name is pronounced Ah-oo-ee), which honours the founder of Europe’s first school for the blind. More than that, it is an excellent guide to how life has changed for the blind.

Before the 18th century, the traditional lot of the blind included poverty, ridicule, little or no formal training or education, and life at the margins of society. At a street fair for Saint Ovide in 1771, a café owner put together an “orchestra” composed of people from a nearby residence for the blind. The crowd was there to laugh at the blind:

Tricked out in long red robes, and wearing pointed dunce caps and opaque glasses, the ensemble played horribly discordant “music.” Seated on a peacock throne, the “conductor,” wearing wooden clogs and a hat with ass’s ears, tried unsuccessfully to keep time. The crowd laughed uproariously at this bizarre performance, which was a great money maker for the owner of the café where it was staged.*

Not everyone was amused. The 26-year old Valentin Haüy, a well-educated interpreter, was so moved by the humiliation suffered by the blind that he dedicated his life to making life better for them. He decided to start with one of their strengths, namely their ability to distinguish shapes through touch. Through that they could learn to read. His belief that the blind were competent and capable was unheard of in his day.

Valentin was not rich, but he was committed to his cause, persuasive, and somewhat well-connected. He tried to make the writing system used by sighted people visible to the blind by creating raised, embossed letters that the blind could read by touch.

P1120078(For more examples of embossed type, see this online exhibit from Birkbeck University.)

Haüy had to make a living, but he found time and money to support a young blind beggar whom he taught to read his system. Then in 1786, Haüy rented space at 18 rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires for l’Institution des Enfants Aveugles (Institution for Blind Children), the first educational institution of its kind in Europe.

The school did not have it easy; there was always the need for money despite the efforts of a Philanthropic Society. When Haüy’s students impressed Louis XVI, the word Royal was added to the school name, which became the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (Royal Institution for Blind Youth), but the new name brought no extra funding and later Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were executed during the Revolution.

The school was nationalized by the revolutionaries in 1791. In the end neither they nor their successors proved any more supportive and understanding. Eventually Haüy was forced to retire in February 1807. His pension was less than half his former salary. Nonetheless, Haüy had shown that the blind could be taught to read by touch. Others built on this breakthrough.

One such pioneer was a retired French military officer, Nicholas Charles Barbier de la Serre (1767-1841). At a time when teaching the blind to read and write was based on imitating the standard forms of letters, he had a different approach.

Contrary to popular myth, Barbier did not develop his ideas on the suggestion of Napoleon, who wanted a way for soldiers to communicate messages in the dark. I confess to making this error in an earlier blog.

After his military career was over, Barbier dedicated his life to languages and communications. He wanted to create a written language that would be easy to learn. He felt that people had been “déshérités de l’instruction” (disinherited from, or robbed of, instruction) by the difficulties of writing.

His new system was phonetic, and did not require its users to know how to spell. All they had to do was to record the sounds of words. The French language consists of 36 distinct sounds. The 36 sounds can be listed in a table of six columns, each of six lines. In Barbier’s system, each sound was represented according to its coordinates on the table: one number for the column and one for the line. These coordinates were recorded by a system of raised or embossed dots.


One must credit Barbier with freeing the blind from the need to decipher stylized versions of the written alphabet, which were confusing (how to distinguish a cursive a from an o from a c?). And he was the first to propose that blind people use a stylus to make the indentations on the paper that, when turned over, became raised points the blind could read.


Unfortunately, the system was still too complicated, with 2 columns of 6 dots.

P1120106When the ten-year-old Louis Braille arrived at the school for the blind in February 1819, he was taught the method introduced by Haüy. Two years later,  Barbier introduced his system to the students at the school. Braille realized that if Barbier’s system could be simplified, it would be even better. He modified the system to a total of 6 dots in 2 parallel columns of 3. Moreover, because there were so many ways to pronounce words (depending on regional accents), he returned to representing letters instead of phonetic sounds.


His fellow blind students recognized the brilliance of Braille’s system far faster than their sighted educators and administrators. Alas, educational systems seem to be inherently conservative. It took a very long time for the Braille system to be accepted.

The standard Braille system of raised dots allowed the blind to write for the blind. But what about writing for the sighted who did not know Braille? Louis thought of that too. He realized that the roman alphabet could also be reduced to a system of points which he called decapoint. Here is a sample from the Louis Braille Museum in Coupvray.


It was, as one might imagine, very laborious to write such a letter. So Braille worked with another blind man, Pierre Foucault, to produce a mechanical system to write decapoint.


One simply pressed the appropriate plunger depending on which of ten possible positions one wanted.

A considerable number of the blind were also deaf, or deaf and mute. The museum also shows equipment developed to meet their needs. In the image below we have a device to communicate with someone both blind and deaf. The sender pressed the keys and the receiver could feel the appropriate pins rising and falling, spelling words in Braille.


And for a two-way conversation one could use this device.


The stories of devices, systems, ingenuity and perseverance that the Valentin Haüy Museum tells are astounding. We first visited the museum at the suggestion of a friend in Paris, Farouk, who shares my interest in the history of typewriters (the museum has an excellent collection of typewriters for the blind).

Since visiting the museum, where curator Madame Noëlle Roy graciously welcomed us and patiently answered our questions, I have changed my research interests. There is so much to learn about devices for the blind that I will leave the research on devices for the sighted to others.

The Valentin Haüy Museum is a unique resource filled with extraordinary objects. I can hardly wait to get back. I want to spend more time looking at this machine to write both Braille and inked writing at the same time on two separate sheets of paper.


And as a Canadian I would like to know the story behind this item. Does anyone have any suggestions?

P1120143Text by Norman Ball, photographs by Philippa Campsie. Thanks to Farouk Derdour, Madame Noëlle Roy, and Stéphane Mary for their kind assistance.

* C. Michael Mellor, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius (Boston: National Braille Press, 2006), p. 30.

Posted in Paris history, Paris museums | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments