Many a seduction starts by looking through a window. The allure of chimneypots started to seduce me as I gazed through the generous windows of a rented flat on rue Charlemagne in the Marais.
Okay, I liked les mitres de cheminée, but I could keep it under control. There was nothing wrong with one last look before going to bed. If I woke during the night, why not part the curtains for another look in the moonlight? And early in the day, morning coffee could wait for a few moments. Let’s be practical, the look of the sky held up by Paris chimneypots helped me see the weather for the coming day.
Soon I began to see the drama of the sky and weather simply as projections on and backdrops for chimneypots. I didn’t tell a lot of people about this; it was a private passion and pleasure, I guess.
Slowly, well actually rapidly, I began to question my interest in chimneypots. After all here I was Paris in all its glory, and I was thinking about chimneypots—well, lots of other things as well, such as in cars, motorcycles, galleries, old photographs, shops and museums—but chimneypots were right up there. So yes, I was normal, maybe a bit fringe, but still in the normal range.
So what would a normal visitor do on a fine November day? Go shopping. But shopping can be hard work, so we took time for lunch on the rooftop of Printemps. And what would be more normal than to take a few photos of the view? After all, this is Paris.
But look. There they were. I had tried to stop looking for them. Now they were looking for me. Was I being stalked by chimneypots? Maybe I just had my eyes open, and slowly I was discovering one of the ubiquitous, albeit hidden-in-plain-sight wonders of Paris: a glorious profusion of chimneypots. Suddenly I had a whole new view of Paris. And I could look more carefully.
[Philippa wants me to add for those who are interested in other things that appear on rooftops that the backwards sign in the distance advertises Les Pages Jaunes (Yellow Pages); it sits atop a building on the Place Gabriel Péri near the Gare St-Lazare.]
I had long been intrigued by the geometric purity and visual strength of some of the firewalls separating parts of the buildings of Paris. Now, with new eyes, I saw that as the sun moved across Paris, the firewalls of buildings became screens for chimneypot shadow plays.
The chance discovery of a postcard showing the now-defunct department store Dufayel eventually led three of us to scramble about Montmartre trying to get the matching shot. We succeeded and wrote about our explorations in an earlier blog. But I also found something else. There patiently waiting for me was another wonderful collection of chimneypots.
As you might imagine, there are no Paris days for me without chimneypots. I don’t search them out, we just find each other. As we walked through the 6th arrondissement to visit our friend Karen in what turned out to be the most glamorous Paris apartment I have ever been in, they were lined up with military precision and dressed to impress an admirer.
On closer examination, they looked sculptural, like an art installation or a Paris version of those clay funerary soldiers I once saw in China.
Karen, a delightful host, knew the view from the balcony was wonderful, but probably little suspected the fascination her neighbouring chimneypots would hold for one guest.
In the next shot, we can see a wonderful bit of bricolage or making-do. I love how the chimney has been reinforced with two metal bands. The clay chimneypot on the right has been given a covering to keep water and snow out. And what do we have on the left and the centre? Flexible stainless steel liners, which probably indicate that below lurk new higher-efficiency appliances of some sort. Above all, it is about how one keeps things going in a historic city as time passes. This is one of the things I find so intriguing about Paris.
Another view from Karen’s balcony gives the same message.
And as we bid adieu to Karen and walked down the stairs to the street, we were more floating than walking: a considerable quantity of bubbly and an equal amount of good company. And the chimneypots on the way to and then from Karen’s balcony helped me realize that I could keep on finding bits of my Paris in all kinds of unsuspected places.
About a week later, I thought of the view from Karen’s balcony and the modernizations of an older chimney system. I had looked skyward about seven storeys and with a strong telephoto lens snapped something that might have been from a B horror movie about an outer-space invader that ate chimneypots. Actually, it’s just a very imaginative exhaust system for a restaurant. Not glamorous, but interesting.
Yes, chimneypots are part of my Paris. How could one fall in love with the city without falling in love with skyline? I have taken many photos where I have tried to capture reflections. Chimneypots are often there.
I think of the soft Parisian stone that turns into the warmest yellow in sunlight. How many see the chimneypots that belong with the glorious carvings?
I also think of a lovely afternoon near the Place des Vosges and the raven that would not stay still. Finally it did. Only later did I wonder if this should be called “Raven on lamp standard” or “Chimneypots with raven in foreground.”
Several times we have stayed in a flat in the 14th. I loved to peer through the tiny spaces into a minuscule courtyard. Surely this view existed solely to pay homage to the chimneypots of Paris. Near that apartment we saw signs advertising “ramonage.” We had to look that one up. But of course! It meant chimneysweeping.
In a future blog, I will write about another aspect of chimneys in Paris.
Text and photographs by Norman Ball
We’ve been asked by our friend Laurie at the Paris Blog to announce the opening of an exhibit of photography by Raul Vega. If you are in Paris, have a look and let us know what you think. We wish we could be there ourselves.