Trespassing at Port-Royal

Tuesday, June 24, 2014. A hot day in Paris and Norman was feeling under the weather. He’d finally drifted off to sleep and I decided to go for a walk – not far, just to get some air.

The bedroom window of the apartment we had rented from friends faced the east wall of Port-Royal, and its imposing entrance with blue doors (never opened now) at the corner.


I knew about the former convent, now a maternity hospital, and wondered if I could get a glimpse of the central cloister. I went out to reconnoitre.

There was a security guard in a booth overlooking the parking lot on the Boulevard Port-Royal, but on the rue du Faubourg St-Jacques is a back gate. It was about 1 p.m. and the driveway was full of people coming and going. I joined the throng and walked in. First I did a circuit of the central building and its tree-shaded garden inside the wall.


Some of the outbuildings seemed informal and cottage-like.


It struck me as a comforting environment for childbirth, if somewhat shabby in places.

The doors had notices excluding the unauthorized, but I thought, hey, it’s a maternity hospital and friends and family members of new mothers visit maternity hospitals all the time. I spotted some gardeners going through a side door and followed them in. I even held the door for the man with the wheelbarrow.

They were, of course, heading for the garden in the middle of the cloister. While they attended to their duties, I sat down on a stone bench and took in the view. When nobody was looking, I got out my camera and took a few shots. The gardens were beautifully tended, framed by simple, dignified facades. The chapel had a small bell on the roof, visible in this photograph.


I sat there for quite a while, enjoying the sunshine and the peace. People who went by smiled at me, probably assuming me to be a visitor waiting to see a new baby.

Emboldened, I headed inside. The interior was as simple and uncluttered as the exterior. I found the chapel, but the door was locked. However, I did find a large room that might once have been a refectory. An efficient young woman was showing some people around; perhaps they were planning an event there. In the hall outside the room were plans, photographs, and historical information about Port-Royal, and I spotted a familiar face.


Mère Angélique.

And I realized that I was not the first to trespass at Port Royal.

I had read about Mère Angélique (and seen her picture) in a book called The Travails of Conscience by Alexander Sedgwick.* The author himself had given me the book, and inscribed it. In it, he tells the story of the Arnauld family, and their association with the convent of Port Royal.

Mère Angélique was born Jacqueline Arnauld in  1591, one of twenty children of her parents, Antoine and Catherine Arnauld. With that many children, you need a strategy, and the family decided that while the eldest daughter would be married off, the next three would enter convents. As Sedgwick puts it, “The small dowries required by convents – a fraction of the amount needed to arrange a socially advantageous marriage – made the monastic option attractive to ambitious families with superfluous daughters.”

But it was a prominent family and the girls were not to be ordinary nuns: two were to be abbesses. The idea appealed to young Jacqueline Arnauld, who had a bossy streak. After complicated negotiations, in which her influential grandfather gave her age as 17 (she was 10), and time spent in other convents learning the ropes, Jacqueline (renamed Angélique) went to the 13th-century abbey of Port-Royal in a rural area to the southwest of Paris (now part of the department of Yvelines) where the aging abbess had just died.

The convent was “unreformed,” which meant that rules were lax and the nuns led a comfortable life, not unduly restricted by religious observances. Like Angélique, many were there, not because they had a religious vocation, but because they were “superfluous daughters” from well-to-do families. It was not the life of simplicity and devotion one generally associates with convents.


Angélique had a governess, and the affairs of the convent were efficiently managed by her parents and a prioress. Angélique read what she liked, went for long walks, visited her family quite often, and played with other nuns (presumably some were close to her age). She felt restless and bored, until suddenly when she was 17, she experienced a change of heart and began to take religion seriously. She sought advice from a visiting monk, and he suggested that not just she, but the whole convent, needed to reform. Her parents, and some of the nuns, disagreed. Things were just fine as they were; reform meant difficulties and discipline.

And it meant “clôture.” That is, closing the abbey to family and other visitors, and according nuns more privacy and security. Sedgwick notes, “Unreformed convents were vulnerable to unhealthy influences of one sort or another, and almost anyone who wanted to do so was able to gain access to these communities of unprotected women.” In particular, Angélique’s parents were used to entering the precincts whenever they chose; after all, they had run the place for years.


It all came to a head on September 25, 1609. The Arnaulds arrived at the convent, only to be refused admittance by their daughter, who spoke to them through a small opening in the big front door. Her father was furious and her mother and brother pleaded with her, but Angélique stood her ground. The standoff lasted for several hours until finally the Arnaulds drove away, muttering darkly about never speaking to their daughter again (they later relented). The episode marked the beginning of Angélique’s reputation as a reformer, leading nuns in a life of devotion, prayer, and humility, and turning them away from worldly affairs (including love affairs, which had been quite common up to that point).

By 1625, the old convent of Port-Royal was overcrowded. The convent was near a swamp and several nuns had died of malaria in the unhealthy environment. Angélique moved the community to Paris, to a large house with a garden on the rue du Faubourg St-Jacques. But the building needed more dormitories and a chapel. Angélique had to act as fundraiser. She longed to retreat and focus on her own spirituality, but she was forced to do what would now be called “networking” – hobnobbing with the nobility to get donations and new recruits (with their dowries). It was a constant source of tension in her life.

Nevertheless, her gifts as a reformer and her adherence to Jansenism (an austere theology that focused on human sinfulness) influenced many around her. Others felt threatened by her ideas. If you reject worldly influences, what does that mean for your loyalty to the king? The established order? In a time of absolute monarchy, these were not trivial questions.

Shortly after her death in 1661, Louis XIV and his advisers decided to require all clergy and nuns to sign a document called a formulary, rejecting the theology of Jansenism. Port-Royal had become a centre of Jansenism, and a dozen nuns there refused to sign.


On August 26, 1664, the archbishop of Paris arrived with a group of archers – another trespass – to expel the twelve rebellious nuns and place them in captivity in other convents. Nuns who had signed the formulary were allowed to stay. The captive nuns were later released, sent to the old convent of Port-Royal near the swamp, and left in relative peace until that convent was forcibly closed in 1709 and most of its buildings demolished. The convent in Paris survived until the Revolution, when religious establishments of all kinds were closed. It was briefly used as a prison, and became a maternity hospital in 1795.

The last and most lethal trespasser was a German shell that fell on the maternity hospital on April 11, 1918, killing 20 people in the Salle Baudelocque (a part of the hospital named for a prominent 18th-century obstetrician).


I left the building after a last look at the cloister. I had trespassed long enough. Mothers – from Mère Angélique to the women in the maternity ward – need their privacy.

Entrée principale de la maternité de l'hôpital de Port-Royal, boulevard de Port-Royal (XIVème arr.), vers 1915.

Entrée principale de la maternité de l’hôpital de Port-Royal, boulevard de Port-Royal (XIVème arr.), vers 1915.

Text and contemporary photographs by Philippa Campsie; historic engraving from Gallica; historic photograph from Paris en Images.

*Subtitled The Arnauld Family and the Ancien Régime, Harvard University Press, 1998.






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Voutch and the evolution of a cartoon style

You know how it is: you notice something properly for the first time, and for the next while, you see it everywhere. So it was with us and the cartoons of Voutch (real name: Olivier Chapougnot).

We had wandered along the Boulevard Port-Royal and decided to take the stairs leading down to one of the sunken streets that cross underneath, rue Broca. This led us to the Librairie Les Traversées at the bottom of the rue Mouffetard. We cannot resist a bookshop (alas – we struggle at the end of each visit with bags that are too heavy), so we went in to explore.

First, we noticed the postcards.


No kidding! You entered “in the port” not “at the port.”

Given our struggles with French prepositions, the caption appealed to us. So did the vultures with their laptop.

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First you type “Serengeti,”press Enter, then “Satellite View,” Enter, then “Find,” click on “Gnu,” and in the menu, select “Recent deaths.”

Not far from the postcards were collections of the cartoons in books. An hour later, we emerged with – among other finds we couldn’t resist – two Voutch collections, several Voutch postcards to send to family and friends, and an album called Petit Traité de Voutchologie à l’Usage des Fans et Autres Voutchophiles Eventuels [Short Treatise on Voutchology for the Use of Fans and Future Voutchophiles] (Editions Cherche-Midi, 2015).

From then on, it seemed that everywhere we went, we began to notice Voutch cartoons. In magazines. On children’s books (some by him, some by other people).

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And everywhere, the postcards, instantly recognizable.

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I want to learn humility. I want to be the No. 1 World Champion in humility!

Clearly, a one-man industrial cartoon complex.

Two things struck us about the cartoons.  First, the richly detailed landscapes and interiors in the background. And second, the peculiar habit of depicting people as modified cylinders with enormous noses.

The Petit Traité de Voutchologie provided some background on how Voutch developed this style. The book is in the form of a dialogue between Voutch and someone who may or may not be the author listed on the front; the story emerges in bits and pieces.

Voutch worked in the advertising industry for 15 years. In 1995, he’d had enough and decided to change direction. His first choice: marketing plastic boomerangs. (As the interviewer says in the book: “Non?…Sérieusement?” Voutch answers: “Sérieusement.”) Not surprisingly, this business did not, ahem, take off. So after some soul-searching, Voutch decided to try cartoons.

One problem: he needed a distinctive style. His early efforts at black-and-white New-Yorker-style cartoons were competent, but visually unmemorable.

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Mr. Superman is on sick leave. I’m his replacement, Mr. Gonzales.

He tried adding some colour to these images with watercolour wash, but it made little difference. Then one day, a friend was looking at some of his artworks and noted that Voutch had a talent for gouache, which he had been using to paint landscapes.

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A light bulb went on. Gouache is a type of water-based paint that creates opaque, rich colours. Voutch was comfortable with the medium, and it added greater depth to the images. At first he used it as colouring to fill in elements outlined in black.

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Trust me: this time, it’s the right one.

Eventually, he got rid of the black outlines. Meanwhile, as he was developing his technique with gouache and adding texture and detail to the settings, his depiction of people was becoming more and more stylized: the noses kept getting bigger and the bodies kept getting more and more minimal. And yet each caricature had a distinctive personality.


You go out to buy bread, you disappear without the least explanation for 14 and a half years, and all you can find to say when you return is: the bakery was closed?

Gouache is not a medium for the impatient. It takes time to build up the layers. When Voutch has a sketch of a cartoon in pencil, he does a small colour mock-up of the illustration to block out the placement of the figures and the background. Sometimes, he does more than one before settling on the preferred arrangement. Then he builds up the illustration, one layer at a time. Each layer can take a full day of work.

By 1997, Voutch had amassed enough work to produce an album of his cartoons: the first in a series now totalling nine (the latest was published by Cherche Midi in 2013). He has also produced a handful of children’s books of his own, as well as creating art for books by other writers. He creates cartoons for magazines, including Madame Figaro and Psychologies (which says something for his ability to express the anxieties of modern life), and illustrations for advertisements, including a series for Credit du Nord.

Mind you, he didn’t completely leave the boomerangs behind; one never can, I suppose. He participates in French boomerang competitions (yes, such things exist), markets his own line of boomerangs, and produces publicity for these competitions. (In the boomerang world, he goes by the name of Olivier Vouktchevitch.) A labour of love.

Another labour of love was a set of playing cards, created in his distinctive style. He was not commissioned to do this work; he simply liked the idea of creating cards. The king, queen, and jack offered the opportunity to have two subtly different versions in the two directions, and the two versions tell a little story, as you can see below (consider it a game of spot the difference).

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There is a link here to the images of Épinal, which show different details according to which way up you hold them. Indeed, according to French Wikipedia, Voutch lived in Épinal when he was young.

Even the number cards have distinctive features.

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In search of this deck of cards, we went to the Galerie Dominique, rue Guersant, in the 17th. We made an appointment with the owner, Dominque Fertil, who welcomed us and showed us a range of Voutch originals, including large-scale versions of the playing cards.


Out of our price range, alas, but delightful. We were particularly taken with the original of this cartoon of a typical French brocante:

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It’s no doubt my destiny: minimalist with a tendency towards hypercontrariety.

We would recommend Voutch for anyone learning French – although occasionally, a word in a caption might not be acceptable in polite society. And if you don’t read French, a collection, This is as Bad as it Gets, is available in English.  (Click on “Look inside” to see several of the cartoons with English captions.)

You can also see his latest venture: a cartoon blog sponsored by Le Monde, which has allowed him to produce series that involve dialogues instead of single images with one-liners. Interestingly, all the cartoons in this series (so far) have non-human protagonists. There is even a Voutch Club, which you can join through his own website.

Or you can just Google his name: hundreds of his cartoons are on line in various forms.

By the way, we don’t know the meaning or origin of his nom de plume. There is probably a story there.

And the postcards we bought? We kept them. We never did send them to our nearest and dearest as we had intended. One day, perhaps.

Text by Philippa Campsie, illustrations by Voutch.






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Rescued from oblivion

On the morning of April 12, 2016, three of us set out from this courtyard on an astounding walk through the Marais. But the story starts much earlier.


In 1980, a sharp-eyed passerby spotted some photographs in a Paris dumpster and scooped them up. He or she took them to a knowledgeable collector. One can imagine the collector’s jaw dropping at the sight. Dozens and dozens of black-and-white images of Paris, taken in the early 1940s – that is, during the German occupation of the city.

In 2005, the collector showed them to Patrice Roy, architect and graphic artist, who selected about a hundred, 58 of which had been taken in the third and fourth arrondissements, the Marais. Roy lived in the Marais, and recognized many of the buildings. He researched the images, and discovered that the photos had been commissioned by the city administration to document îlots insalubres – “slum blocks” slated for clearance and redevelopment.

The images were the work of two commercial photographers – A. Cayeux and F. Nobécourt. Little is known about them, but they were following in the tradition of earlier photographers such as Eugene Atget and Charles Marville, who captured parts of the city that were destined to vanish.

Things turned out differently in this case.

At the time they were photographed, the Marais buildings were dilapidated. Former mansions of the nobility had become cheap lodgings and workshops for artisans and immigrants. The administration condemned the buildings and attempted to evict the tenants. Many did leave, but housing was scarce, and the city did not have the resources to tear down existing buildings and build new ones. So life went on in these old buildings.

As Patrice Roy looked at the haunting photos from the 1940s, he spoke of  “testimony to a stoic melancholy” and buildings that looked “unreal, deserted, as if swept of inhabitants by the war.”* They had indeed been very dark times.

Scan from book 28 rue Charlot

Attitudes changed after the war. In the early 1960s, the Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, mused on how “Paris noir était une ville triste” (the blackened Paris was a sad city). But the solution was not to demolish sorry-looking remnants of the past; rather, they could be saved as a fertile resource for city dwellers of the present. In his vision, “l’avenir ne s’oppose pas au passé, il le ressuscite” (the future does not oppose the past, it resuscitates it). This spirit and vision led to the Malraux law of 1962 that rescued so many old buildings from oblivion.

In 2015, Patrice Roy published the 58 photographs of the Marais from the 1940s with detailed descriptions of each image, as well as background information about the city’s plans for the area and the eventual fate of the buildings. The descriptions are thoughtful and reflective, making the reader slow down and gaze into the photographs. The result is Paris Marais 43: Arrondissements 4 & 3 photographiés durant l’Occupation par Cayeux et Nobécourt (Creaphis Editions).

We met Patrice in April of this year; he inscribed our copy of the book. When we told him we planned to search out some of the buildings in the photographs, he offered to give us a tour. We were delighted and honoured.

Patrice created a map for our walk. We more or less followed the route shown, with some detours. But it gives you a sense of the quartier we explored together, and some of the buildings we saw.


Our first destination was the Marché des Enfants Rouges. The market dates to the 1600s and is the oldest covered market in Paris. The name, which means Market of the Red Children, refers to the children from a nearby orphanage who wore red uniforms.


As we walked, we were astounded by Patrice’s intimate knowledge of the area. He had helped restore many of the buildings we saw and had anecdotes galore about such things as the sub-basement where crayfish were raised in tanks for a restaurant, or about disagreements within a dysfunctional committee of co-propriétaires that had led to blows. He led us through narrow lanes (ruelles) straight out of the Middle Ages and into hidden (but public) gardens along the way.

A few minutes into our tour, Patrice led us along a narrow laneway (ruelle) where numerous chasses roues stood as mute evidence of the days when delivery carts bumped along its length. The trickle of water down the sunken centre had been an open drain; we didn’t even try to imagine how it must once have smelled.

3 Ruelle Sourdis

Today, most visitors, and perhaps Parisians, see the Marais as a destination of boutiques, galleries, restaurants and watering holes., However, as Patrice pointed to signs and opened doors, we could see many other types of businesses. But nothing we glimpsed prepared us for the wonders behind this sign.

4a Janvier

Inside, people were packing and filling orders, but all was quiet. As our eyes adjusted to the subdued light, shiny objects demanded our attention.

Janvier 1

Alas, we left without souvenirs: the shop full of stamped metal decorations carried out wholesale transactions in bulk only.

4 Janvier 17 rue Pastourelle

Another courtyard allowed Patrice to help us read more into what we saw. Why was one stone so much larger that the other cobblestones? It was a special workplace, he explained. Here a heavy section of a tree trunk would serve as the base for splitting firewood.


It reminded Norman of the section of tree trunk he uses to split wood for our fireplace in Toronto.


We have often seen pulleys suspended a storey or two above ground level to hoist goods up to a window or door. But we had never noticed anything like the curved metal wall hook to which Patrice drew our attention.

8 #28 rue Charlot

Getting wine barrels into the cellar safely would be a tricky job. If one raised the red door, one end of a rope could hold a barrel fast; the other end would go through the hook. The wine could be lowered safely by easing up on the rope, as one would do more elaborately with a capstan.

In the same courtyard it looked as if a basement window was missing. Not so. The unobstructed opening is an important part of a centuries-old ventilation system. Such openings allowed a free flow of air into  and through the cellars.

Basement opening

When closed up, the air in the cellar often becomes musty and unpleasant. (On another walk, our friend Mireille had pointed out blocked-up ventilation spaces at ground level and speculated on the problems they caused.)

As Patrice guided us through areas he knew well, other buildings, other doors revealed continuing wonders. Here was a restoration in progress.

Restoration work

What is the story behind this mural? Will it survive the next restoration?

14 rue du Parc Royal

Despite the wealth that now characterizes much of the Marais, not all residents are wealthy. One of Norman’s favourite buildings included social housing. We passed street-level office windows as we entered a quiet cobblestoned courtyard with modern metal benches.


It was a peaceful scene with an unusual modern take on traditional privacy/security shutters at one end.

25 #25 rue Michel le Comte

Patrice filled us in on the details. The original building dated from the 17th century, with additions in all the centuries since. In the latest renovation (2015), a restored 17th-century passageway reopened the block. In the end, 25 Rue Michel le Comte had more housing than before and the apartments were more comfortable than earlier ones. Nevertheless, mixed use had been preserved with space occupied by a variety of tenants, including an architect and an independent film producer.

However, food for the mind must also be supplemented by food for the body. And here, again, Patrice guided us very well.

28 Restaurant le Pas Sage

Lunch at Le Pas Sage was delightful (boudin noir burgers, highly recommended). We were ready to give our feet a rest while continuing the conversation.

Patrice left us with many memories, more than we can relate here, but we particularly enjoyed his demonstration of how one would use this step at 23 rue Michel le Comte to mount one’s horse. It is the only remaining mounting block in Paris.


We hope that the book will soon be translated, so English readers can explore the Marais as we did. Here is the photo we took of the 1940s photograph shown above. Cleaned and restored, the present building has resuscitated the past.

6 #28 rue Charlot

Text and photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie.

* In a fascinating coda to his book, Patrice has collected and enlarged the faint traces of people in the photographs – a woman looking down from a window, men working in the street, a nun in a garden, children playing. The long exposures made some of them appear as transparent ghosts, but the buildings were clearly tenanted and used. Only the photographs are still.
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Make do and mend

I took my umbrella to Paris in March. It was not that I needed it to keep off the rain. It was so that I could do something with it in Paris I could not do in Canada: get it repaired.


I bought the umbrella some years ago in Montreal, and about the third time I used it, a gust of wind turned it inside out and snapped one of the struts. I couldn’t find anyone to repair it in Toronto (or indeed, anywhere in Canada), but I kept it because I liked the fabric and the colours. I hated the idea of simply throwing it away because a strut was broken. And then I realized that in Paris, one can have such things repaired.

My online searching yielded two addresses for repair shops: one in the 3rd and one in the 12th. The day after our arrival, I headed for Pep’s in the 3rd. I had read about it online, and as usual there were crabby comments about someone having arrived to find the place closed. I wasn’t sure my plan would work.

Pep’s is in the Passage de l’Ancre Royale, just off the rue de Turbigo. It’s a different world in there, and one can forget the 21st century outside.


A sign indicated to ring the bell. There is only one employee, and he works upstairs. (Perhaps the crabby person who commented online had not seen the sign?)

The repairman responded promptly and opened the door. I handed him my umbrella. He took a look, asked for 22 euros in advance, and told me to come back the following week. When I came back to pick it up, I could not even determine which strut had been repaired. Can you?

Umbrella struts

The repairman’s name was Thierry Millet. He told us he has worked in the shop for 14 years, but the shop itself has been there for more than 40 years. The card he gave us indicates that it is an “Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant,” which means that umbrella creation (Thierry makes umbrellas as well) and repair is considered part of France’s living national heritage. I find that reassuring.


Our second recourse to a Paris artisan during our holiday came after a visit to a brocante (antiques fair). We love brocantes. If you Google “brocante paris” plus the date (such as “avril 2016”), you can find out when and where these events will be held.

The website directed us to the rue Cler in the 7th on a Sunday afternoon. It was the usual hodgepodge of genuine antiques, secondhand bric-a-brac, and garage-sale rejects that offers the promise of something unexpected if you just take the time to hunt a bit. And there is always a still life worth photographing, if only for the interesting reflections.


After a while I spotted four plates, each of which was decorated with a rebus (a motto or saying spelled out with pictures and letters). Five euros each. And for 20 euros, the stall owner threw in a rather nice ceramic tile Norman found.

I particularly liked one plate, perhaps because I was able to make sense of its rebus more easily than those on the other three. The stall owner wrapped the four in bubble wrap and I put the package in one of those folding nylon bags that I keep in my purse. But a little while later, as I was fumbling for my Navigo card, I dropped the bag on the sidewalk.

I went to the nearest stall to open the bag and check the damage. And yes, my favourite plate had broken into six pieces. The nearby stall owner came over to take a look. “We call that the devil taking his part,” she said, sympathetically.

I was dreadfully disappointed and out of sorts. I felt just the way I had when my umbrella broke so soon after I had acquired it. What to do? My first reaction was to photograph the rebus and throw the pieces away. But then I realized that this is Paris. I could have it repaired. Norman even offered to try repairing it himself. That settled the matter. I would get a professional on the job.

Back at our apartment, I went on line and searched for “Paris réparation céramique.” I identified two potential china repair shops. One was open on Mondays, so I called there first. Sophie Jehan of Atelier Cerami’K told me to come by on Tuesday. Her workshop was in the 11th, just off the rue de Charonne.


Sophie took a close look at the pieces and asked me if I wanted it to be repaired so the breakage was completely invisible, or if I just wanted it put back together again. I chose the second option. Okay, 30 euros, come back on Friday. Perhaps an excessive investment in an elderly piece of china, but I was getting into the spirit of Make Do and Mend, and I agreed.

Rebus 1A

Here is the plate after the repair. You can see the cracks, but it is neatly mended. I wasn’t planning to eat off the plate or put it in a dishwasher. It will likely hang on the wall.

(If you would like to see the other plates – from an original set of at least 12 – scroll down and try your luck at interpreting the rebuses. The solution to the one above is also at the bottom of the blog.)

All in all, I was very happy to have the plate restored to me in one piece.

Our third exposure to the ethic of Make Do and Mend (albeit on a completely different scale) came at the Musée du Compagnonnage, which a good friend of ours had recommended. It’s a tiny two-room museum near the Place St-Sulpice (there is a much larger museum devoted to the same subject in Tours).


The word compagnonnage can mean either a guild or an apprenticeship. France’s surviving guilds are all related to the trades of construction and repair of buildings, although the country once had guilds for artisans making everything from sabots (wooden shoes) to carriages.

The museum displays scale models of a range of building elements. Each apprentice must produce a masterwork to demonstrate his skills and these are some of the results. The quality of work and the detail is astonishing.


The man who showed us around, Yves Lapellegerie, was a retired carpenter in his eighties, and one of his own constructions was on display. Yves had created the wooden ribbing for a four-sided series of roofs, each one a different shape: straight, Empire, domed, and Mansard, surmounted by spires and knobs. He did it when he was 20, he said, and working at a full-time job, so it was all done in evenings and on weekends. It took him years.


Yves told us that some people keep offering to buy these masterworks, and it is understandable. But they are without price.

The compagnonnage system still supports young people who want to develop skills in a trade, and makes arrangements for them to work in different parts of France to experience the range of regional cultures and traditions. Yves described this process as allowing for “l’ouverture de l’esprit” – a lovely expression.

All kinds of building trades are included, such as serrurerie – the creation or repair of metal locks, grills, enclosures, or awnings (marquises) – or the art of making and repairing roofs – slate, pantile, zinc, copper – on new and heritage buildings.


As we walk through Paris, it is rare for us not to pass a workshop in which someone is carrying out repairs – to watches, jewellery, musical instruments, furniture, metalwork, shoes, or clothing. To be sure, the garbage cans still overflow with broken umbrellas and cracked china, but in Paris, at least one has the choice whether or not to throw things away or repair them for a longer life.

Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball.

1.The rebus for the repaired plate shown above reads: Que la pudeur soit ta seule parure. Solving the puzzle involves assembling the words for each image and saying them aloud. In this case: QUEUE LA (musical note) pu d’HEURE s’OIE t’AS seule PARURE. (Let modesty be your only finery.) It’s a bit like Fractured French.

Rebus 2A

2. The plate above represents: Les méchants sont méprisés de tous. (Nasty people are despised by all.) I found this one hard to figure out, and would appreciate readers’ thoughts on the interpretation.

Rebus 3A

3. This one spells out: On voit par fois battre en retraite sans tambour ni trompette. (Sometimes one sees a retreat without fanfare.)

Rebus 4

4. This one means: Un service reçu ne doit pas s’oublier. (A favour received should not be forgotten.) What is the last image showing? Any ideas?

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Getting married in the City of Light

Many people dream of getting married in Paris. How romantic. How fashionable. Like this 1998 image of a Christian Dior wedding gown on a beautiful model, a Paris wedding seems like a dream too good to be true.


The fantasy element appears in many photographs of Paris weddings. You might think that “themed” weddings are a recent fad, but consider this image from 1952. For some, the perfect wedding mirrors a sport or hobby of choice. Here the bride and groom are fencers who walk arm-in-arm beneath a bower of fencing foils. Perhaps they met over crossed swords.


Even in hard times, Parisians maintain their sense of style. During the Occupation, gasoline and many others things were in short supply and bicycle taxis were the norm. One wonders about the bride and groom shown here in December 1941 at the Place de la Madeleine. They are elegantly attired and the bicycle is beautifully decorated. She looks radiant; the groom seems a little tense. One hopes they survived and that many years later looked back nostalgically at that important day. Perhaps they marvelled together at how much life had improved since those days.


And then there are the wedding parties after the ceremony. This one, during “La Fête de l’eau” festival in 1939 at the Piscine Molitor looks like quite the bash. Is that the bride in the kayak?


But not all of the wedding images reside in photographs. One day in the Saint-Mandé paper market, Philippa and I purchased a bound volume of the weekly illustrated supplements of Le Petit Journal for 1909.

Le Petit Journal presented an often sensational picture of Paris, France, and the world. It revelled in accidents, crime, assassinations, fierce animals (particularly those intent on eating someone), war, and general gore and misfortune. Le Petit Journal also covered weddings, but there had to be a sensational element. It seemed that 1909 was a good year for unusual weddings, because we found several illustrations on this theme. In fact, these images are what prompted this blog.

The illustrations are all anonymous. Apparently, from 1904 to 1914, very few of Le Petit Journal covers were signed. The paper relied on a roster of illustrators,* and perhaps a trained eye could discern who did what. However, the paper duly credited its printers (C. Marty at 61, rue Lafayette), the type of printing press used (Marinoni), and even the ink maker (Lorilleux).

Here is an example from May of that year. Try as one might for a quiet outdoor reception, there was always the possibility that unexpected guests might descend upon the wedding party from their balloon. It is important after all to make a grand entrance, as did the two members of the Aéro-Club who dropped in, joined in the festivities, wished all well, and then returned to Paris.


By 1909, safety bicycles had replaced the older and more hazardous high wheelers. So why not put bicycles front and centre on your wedding day?


An article inside the supplement informed readers that this was a wedding in Nice. Mr. Francois M., an employee of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, and his bride-to-be, Miss Apollonie G., decided that they and their entire wedding party would all ride bicycles to the civil ceremony at the office of the mayor. The party of about 30 bicyclists, described as “les sportsmen and sportswomen” were cheered and caused quite a sensation at the city hall. The ceremony apparently went off smoothly and then bride, groom and their entire party remounted “les machines”  and headed off to a restaurant for a fine meal.

Sometimes one has to wonder what the bride and groom were thinking about. Roller skates for the entire bridal party?


A few relatives had to be propped up by strapping fellows, but the entire wedding party arrived at city hall after a seemingly frantic race. Next stop, a church (many European marriages involved both a civil ceremony and a religious ceremony; only the first was obligatory) and then on they rolled “à la brasserie, ou on vida quelques tonneaux be bière pour étancher un soif que justifiait ce fatigant exercice.” Wait a minute…beer at a French wedding? Ah no, this was a German wedding (Le Petit Journal had an international outlook).

Continuing their international wedding coverage, Le Petit Journal portrayed an English wedding in Bildeston in the county of Suffolk. The groom, a local fireman, and his bride were pulled by his colleagues to the church on a decorated fire pump. After the ceremony the same apparatus transported them to their hotel for their wedding dinner.


Not everyone could draw on the appropriate professional paraphernalia to spruce up a wedding. One wonders if this lieutenant in the Montmartre fire brigade lamented the absence of pumps, pikes, and other bits of equipment for his 1920 wedding. However, he did get to wear his helmet. The bride looks ridiculously young. Is that her father with the huge pipe?


However, for youthful brides, it would be hard to beat this 1947 photo of a children’s fancy dress procession.


Everybody loves a wedding, and in Paris, nobody is too young to participate.

Text by Norman Ball; photographs from Paris en Images.

*The illustrators at various times included Henry Meyer, Osvaldo Tofani, Georges Carrey, Eugène Damblans, Henri Rudaux, J. Belfon, Lionel Royer, Frédéric Régamey, and Frédéric Lix.

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Carnival of the Animals

Norman likes to say that Paris is like Alice’s Restaurant: you can get anything you want there. Whatever you can think of, there is always a Paris connection. Let’s take camels and elephants.

Gallica camel

In 1881 camels carrying advertising kiosks appeared on the Grands Boulevards of Paris from the Madeleine to the Bastille, attracting a crowd of 250. The prefect of police responded by not only prohibiting the practice, reasoning that “the number of camels existing in Paris is increasing daily,” but also banned the sale and reproduction of camels throughout France.

Thus begins the book Scenes of Paris Modernity: Culture and Consumption in the Nineteenth Century by H. Hazel Hahn.* Alas, the book contains no images of this fantastic scene, nor anything about the fate of the poor camels that fell afoul of the prefect’s prohibition. The book simply cites the event as an example of the lengths to which businesses would go to advertise their wares in a city already filled with advertising.

A search of Gallica produced a more detailed description of the camels from the Annuaire de la presse francaise, January 11, 1882, with a useful piece of vocabulary (“chameaux-réclames” or publicity-camels).

Un arrêté du préfet de police interdit la circulation sur la voie publique des chameaux-réclames qui, conduits en laisse par un nègre, portaient sur leur dos un petit kiosque couvert d’annonces multicolores.

(A police decree prohibited publicity-camels from circulating on public thoroughfares; the camels were led on leashes by black attendants and carried on their backs small kiosks covered with multicoloured posters.)

Another Gallica search turned up the name of the prefect in question: Jean Camescasse. The ideal name for a man who outlawed camels, offering journalists lots of opportunities to ridicule his decisions by calling him Camescasse-tête (a casse-tête is something befuddling or headache-inducing). A reporter writing in Le Radical in 1884 suggested that Camescasse was just flexing his power as a new prefect of police by banning the harmless beasts. (Clearly drunk with his newfound powers, Camescasse went on to outlaw beekeeping in Paris and then sandwich-men – those impoverished  fellows who earned a few sous by walking the streets wearing advertising sandwich boards.)

Camescasse insisted that the chameaux-réclames were frightening horses in the street. One journalist noted drily that nothing frightened Parisian horses in the street. The prefect nonetheless announced that camels found on the boulevards “serait conduit en fourrière,” that is, they would be impounded. But what then? Were they sent to the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes?

Paris-en-Images camelOr were the poor creatures sent to the abbatoir? I don’t know, and I cannot find out. But I was encouraged to find a short article in Le Petit Parisien from October 1881 to the effect that the accommodations for camels and elephants in the Jardin des Plantes were being renovated to the tune of “DEUX CENT MILLE FRANCS” (the report noted in shocked uppercase letters – TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND FRANCS). The implication was that there were better ways to spend the money. But perhaps there was some room there for a few impounded camels?

The story reminded me that I had once photographed a camel in Paris. Not a real one. A stone camel. A hunt through my photos turned up the following not-very-good image from May 2011:

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The camel graces the facade of the former Société Financière Française et Coloniale at the corner of the rues Pasquier and Mathurin. The building, which dates from 1929, is now the home of an English advertising agency. The bas-relief of the camel is just above and to the left of the front door. It has a saddle, but no kiosk on its back. Ceci n’est pas un chameau-réclame.

On the other side of the door is an elephant.

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Which got me thinking about elephants, who shared the enclosure with camels at the Jardin des Plantes. Elephants have a long history in France, ever since the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad sent an elephant called Abul-Abbas as a gift to Charlemagne in 801.**

In the 18th century, elephants were popular in royal menageries. Some were gifts from foreign rulers or wealthy merchants who hoped to curry favour with the king; others were acquisitions designed to impress visitors to court with royal power and possessions. In 1772, an Indian elephant, accompanied by a mahout, arrived in France and walked the distance from the port at Lorient to Versailles to take up residence in Louis XV’s menagerie. Unfortunately, his successor, Louis XVI, failed to maintain the menagerie’s buildings; in 1782 the elephant broke out of its enclosure, fell into a canal, and died.***

Gallica elephantAll in all, it seems, elephants have not had a very good time of it in Paris. Consider the sad fate of Castor and Pollux, the elephants in the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes, who were killed and eaten during the Prussian blockade of Paris in 1870 (along with camels and other zoo animals). This Christmas menu from the Café Voisin shows that the elephants contributed to the consommé while the camels were roasted. At the time, Parisians could not afford to be sentimental, and they could not afford to feed the zoo animals.

Paris-en-images menu

One elephant did, however, escape Castor and Pollux’s fate. Five years before the siege, the Jardin des Plantes sent an elephant to the London Zoo in exchange for a rhinoceros (I daresay the hapless rhino was another victim of the siege). The elephant’s name was Jumbo. Yes, that Jumbo. Apparently Castor and Pollux were so popular that a third elephant at the Jardin des Plantes was de trop. Jumbo went on to be a star attraction in London and then in Barnum and Bailey’s touring circus in the United States. He died in 1885 in a train accident in St. Thomas, Ontario. The townspeople erected a statue of him beside the tracks.

By 1881, new elephants and camels were again in residence at the Jardin des Plantes. Perhaps the sprucing up of their quarters that year was an attempt to atone for the deaths of Castor and Pollux.

Paris also has its own elephant statues, including one that is currently on display outside the Musée d’Orsay. The statue of the young elephant by Emmanuel Frémiet, once part of the 1878 Exposition, originally stood near the Trocadéro Palace, and later at the Porte St-Cloud (shown below). The elephant was one of a set of large animal statues representing the continents. But for some reason, it is not shown roaming freely; its leg is caught in a trap. Is this a metaphor for colonial domination?

Paris-en-images Fremiet statueThere was also the ill-fated attempt to create a huge hollow elephant statue on the Place de la Bastille that we wrote about in an earlier blog.

But perhaps one compliment the French have paid to an elephant was the fifth movement of Saint-Saens’s The Carnival of the Animals. A double bass plays a delicate waltz as the elephants dance. Saint-Saens was embarrassed by the whole piece, an extended musical joke written for his friends, and refused to let it be published in his lifetime. But after his death in 1922 the elephant dance became a staple of the double-bass repertoire.

If one were to create a bestiary of Paris, camels and elephants would just be the start. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my, not to mention crocodiles in the sewers, aardvarks on the Metro, cheetahs on stage, lobsters and turtles on leashes, and unicorns on tapestries. It’s a jungle out there.


Text and original photographs by Philippa Campsie, other images from Gallica and Paris en Images. The final image of camels in the Place de la Concorde dates from 1948.

*Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

** I am indebted to Footnoting History for this information, and its delightful online audio documentary on “Medieval Gift Elephants.”

***Louise E. Robbins, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century France, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

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Vespasiennes: Does a Roman Emperor Deserve This?

Our home offices are in two adjacent rooms. While exploring one of my favourite Paris websites, Paris en Images, I called to Philippa, “What’s a Vespasienne?” and was instantly told, “A public urinal.” There had to be a blog in that.


Once there were over 1,200 Vespasiennes in Paris, but this is the last one standing, a forlorn structure on the Boulevard Arago by the wall of the Santé Prison. Will it one day be thrown onto a scrap heap or will it find a home in the Musée Carnavalet? Will there be protest marches – “Sauvegardez la Vespasienne!” – to block the crew sent to dismantle it? Time will tell.

Admittedly, this is not the handsomest example of historic street furniture. But the nicer versions, such as this lovely gingerbread structure on the Place de la Madeleine from 1875 are no longer with us. It was called a chalet du nécessité.


We have devoted other blogs to efforts to keep the city clean. It is a neverending struggle for all big cities. Part of the problem is the need to satisfy the call of nature (satisfaire aux besoins naturels) in a city where life is lived very much on the street. An early royal edict forbade urinating on the streets of Paris, but it was widely ignored. And measures to discourage men from relieving themselves in corners (informally known as empêche-pipi, and the subject of an entire book by Jacky Legge, a Belgian author), were not always successful.

Things started to change when Antoine Raymond Jean Gualbert Gabriel de Sartine was appointed Lieutenant of Police of Paris on November 21, 1759, a position he held until 1774. His wide-ranging powers started with public order (and he had a formidable secret service to help with this task), but ran also to cleaning, maintaining, and lighting the streets, as well as food supply, public health, and hygiene.* This early creator of modern Paris restored fourteen public fountains to give greater access to drinking water. Around 1770 he had casks or barrels (barils d’aisance) placed at street corners into which one might “ease oneself.” Privacy seems not to have been a particular concern and clearly these were only for men and boys. I have not found any illustrations of this innovation nor do I know how long they were kept in service.

Public urinals made a short-lived appearance in Paris in spring 1830. During the July Revolution, the urinals proved even more useful as material for street barricades. The revolutionaries overthrew the French bourbon monarch King Charles X and replaced him with his cousin Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans. But Paris was still dirty, smelly and wracked periodically by epidemics such as the deadly cholera outbreak of 1832 that in six months left 19,000 dead.

In 1833 another of the great city of Paris reformers took his post as Prefect of the Seine. A career administrator born in 1781, Claude Philibert Berthelot Comte de Rambuteau set out to create a cleaner city. He did far more than is generally recognized to make Paris the city it is today. In Transforming Paris: The Life and Labors of Baron Haussmann, historian David P. Jordan writes, “Rambuteau put in place all the instruments for urban transformation that Haussmann would later appropriate.”

There was much to be done. If one was to have a less disease-ridden and more enjoyable city one had to tackle the problem of human waste in public spaces. Imagine going to a theatre or concert hall and finding no convenient facilities marked “Gentlemen” and “Ladies.” You have just imagined Paris before Rambuteau. He demanded that theatres and public entertainments provide urinals, whether fixed or mobile.

An even bigger sanitary problem was on the streets. Rambuteau attacked the problem by integrating his urinals into columns used for notices and advertisements. His initial installation of over 450 urinals made for a more agreeable Paris, but there was an unintended result.


This photo from about 1865, taken on the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, is clearly meant for one person; paradoxically, it features a prominent ad for perfume. It is also identified as a “colonne Rambuteau.” How would you like your name forever associated with urinals? The Prefect of the Seine was not amused.

He dealt with the issue by giving them a new name: Vespasiennes. It was a somewhat back-handed compliment to the work of Roman emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus who ruled Rome for 10 years beginning in 69 A.D. Vespasian, too, had been a city improver who had worked hard to restore law and order to a civil war–ravaged city. Rome’s Colosseum is part of his legacy.

Vespasian loved money. He instituted public urinals in Rome to earn money. There are various versions of the story. One is that he introduced a tax to cover the costs of these public conveniences. Another is that he levied a tax upon businesses that would benefit from such public facilities, such as fullers and tanners, who use urine in processing wool and leather. Perhaps he did both. When criticized by his son, the future emperor Titus, for stooping so low as to make money from urine, Vespasian is said to have thrust some coins under his son’s nose and asked if the money smelled badly. Vespasian then reputedly said, “Yet it comes from urine.” (This little anecdote comes from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by C. Suetonius Tranquillus; one of my ancient history professors at McMaster University warned us, “Suetonius was an unreliable gossip.” Other versions report that Vespasian actually said, “Money has no smell.”)

So with a little knowledge of ancient history, Rambuteau was able to deflect the naming problem. And yes, there was money to be made. Advertising space was not free, nor was admission into the finer examples of this genre of street furniture.

The urinal in front of the Batignolles public gardens clearly shows the combination of public convenience and advertising space. A metal surround provided privacy from the calves up while the piercings provided a modicum of ventilation.

1b485a5ba1c70e335e9269b35d7b3536What is described as a “new model of urinal, chaussée de la Muette” in the 16th arrondissement certainly provided greater possibilities for ventilation; the waist-high barrier was common to many urinals. It has certain architectural pretensions, with the advertising cupola surmounted by a gas lamp. Many Vespasiennes were surmounted by lamps, to make them easy to find at night.


This more compact model in front of 44, rue de Rennes, 7th arrondissement, provides even more privacy while taking up less space on the pavement.


As urinals gained in popularity and greater numbers appeared, the manufacturers increased the number of users. In the photo below taken about 1870, the “urinal with 6 boxes” at the Place de la Bourse in the 2nd arrondissement combines capacity, privacy, and architectural features at the top.


The same number of occupants could be served by this six-sided kiosk urinal at the place du Théatre Francais in the 1st arrondissement. The top bears a striking resemblance to a Morris column.


The image below, taken in 1876 on rue Rambuteau at the corner of rue Baltard, reveals several efforts to make a more sanitary, cleaner, and pleasanter Paris. The twig brooms leaning against the tree speak of the clean streets so much a part of modern Paris. The gas lamp standard was part of the quest for a brighter, safer city, and the urinal with six slate boxes is part of greater sanitary convenience. (Slate was regarded as a cleaner material than cast iron.) The building in the background of cast-iron construction is part of Les Halles, the central markets, and the Vespasienne does rather resemble stalls for animals.


The photo below wonderfully captures a Paris moment, something Charles Marville excelled at as he set about documenting Paris before Haussmann.


For a single-box urinal, surely this cast-iron and brick version on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin must have set new standards in elegance. The advertising appeared inside.


This eight-box urinal with two gas lamps is rather unusual. Rather than the customary metal privacy band, bushes provide privacy. Of course, it was in the Champs-Elysées garden.

8a6d7797c5ac2fe809454af50c32aa73This installation on avenue Victoria outside the Café Estaminet proudly advertised Gaz and sported a gas lamp on top. The sunshine reveals the patterned piercing that provided some ventilation.

47d12268dc5510bbcc1923fb4e21c9cdAs with any technology, Vespasiennes changed over time. Their capacity was increased, and different materials were used in the construction, but perhaps the biggest change came in the late 1860s, when the roles of public toilet and advertising post were separated. Vespasiennes remained as public conveniences and Morris columns became signposts and storage facilities.

This photo was taken in the 1860s in front of the Théâtre de l’Ambigu on Boulevard Saint-Martin. The photographer Marville identifies it as an example of street furniture (mobilier urbain) using the Jennings system (a British manufacturer of sanitary plumbing). Note the separate Morris column in the background.


Today, Paris has “sanisettes” – functional, bland, unisex, with nothing more in the way of decoration that a street map on the side. But free (if they are not “Hors de service”). Vespasian would consider them a waste of an opportunity to profit.

Gone are the days when one might have wondered what this building was for. A mausoleum? A ticket office for an electric street railway system? Architectural folly? It is difficult to make out the writing in this 1870s photo, but above the door one can make out the word “Toilette” and on the side what looks like “Cabinets d’Aisance.” It is identified as a Cabinet water-closet by Dorion, a concessionaire who had the right to provide such facilities in Paris. (He also owned the lovely Gothic style facility shown in the second image of this blog and on which one can make out the words “Water Closet” and “Cabinet de Toilette,” along with the prices.) And the location of the grand edifice above that is long gone? The Avenue Champs-Elysées. Where else?

Text and contemporary photograph by Norman Ball; historic photographs from Paris en Images.


*The Lieutenant of Police who commissioned the Halle au blé now known as the Bourse du Commerce also instituted an education program for the poor. In part it aimed at keeping them from a life of crime, along with supplying artisans for the luxury goods trades which were becoming so essential to French prosperity.

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