The art of the gasometer

The major summer exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario is devoted to the work of Canadian artist Lawren Harris (1885–1970). I associate his name with bold, abstracted images of Canada’s Far North – mountains and glaciers and frozen seas. However, the exhibit included his early works, painted in Toronto, and one in particular caught my eye.


“The Gas Works” dates from 1912. I immediately had two questions. First, where were Toronto’s old gasometers? And second, hadn’t I seen something similar in a French painting of Paris?

Question 1 was easy enough. Toronto’s gas works were at Front and Parliament streets, an area that has been redeveloped almost beyond recognition. Question 2 led me to the post-Impressionist painter Paul Signac (1863–1935) and “Gasometers at Clichy”: a much less dismal scene than Harris’s.


Gasometers also appear, just on the horizon, in Signac’s painting of the bridge at Asnières.


These would of course be the same gasometers from a different angle, as the suburb of Clichy is just across the river from Asnières. Signac lived in Asnières at the time.


I also found works by Van Gogh (below) and Pissarro (not to mention many by British artists of British gasometers, some of which look much more ornate than the French ones).


So what, exactly, are we looking at? The word “gasometer” (gazomètre) is a little misleading, because it sounds like an instrument of measurement. These huge cylindrical constructions were simply storage tanks for artificial gas (usually coal gas); in English they are sometimes known as gas holders. In a previous blog, Norman described the process of making gas from coal or other raw materials by

destructive distillation (heating to high temperature in the absence of air)… The heat drove off gases which could be collected and stored in the gasometer… and distributed from there by gas lines. This was the artificial gas that powered, heated, and lit so many buildings and businesses in the 19th century.

In these huge gas holders, the level of gas in the storage tank rose and fell within a cylindrical metal cage called a guide frame.  When full, the top of the tank rose to the height of the frame and the whole thing appeared to be a solid cylinder; when depleted, the top moved downwards, leaving only the guide frame visible. This arrangement made it possible to maintain pressure in the gas lines.

A series of photographs of the now-demolished St-Denis gasometer on French Wikipedia, taken in 1981, shows the wheels that allowed the top of the storage vessel to rise and sink with the level of the gas.


Another photo from the same series shows the amazing view from the top of this tall structure: Sacré Coeur and the Eiffel Tower are easy to spot from here. This also means that the gasometer itself was visible from afar.


Gasometers started to appear in Paris in the first half of the 19th century. By 1860, Paris had 19 of them; by 1907 there were 61. But with the arrival of natural gas for heating and cooking and of electricity for lighting, the numbers dropped. In 1945 there were only 23; the rest were demolished over the ensuing decades.

By comparison, London still has some of its gasometers, a few of which have been converted to other uses. Vienna even has a series of brick-framed gasometers that were turned into apartment blocks.

Aided by Gallica and our friend Mireille, I was able to locate the vanished Parisian gasometers. A ring of suburban gas works once circled the city. A turn-of-the-century album from the Compagnie parisienne de l’éclairage et de chauffage par le gaz shows installations in La Villette, Ternes-Courcelles, Passy, Vaugirard, Ivry, Belleville, St-Mandé, St-Denis, Boulogne, Maisons Alfort/Alfortville, and, of course, Clichy.

Here is the one at Vaugirard. Note how the gasometer in the foreground is slightly more ornate than the others.

Compagnie_parisienne_d'éclairage_et_de_[...]Fernique_Albert_btv1b1200034x (3)

And here is a severely utilitarian version at Passy. “Epuration” means filtering or purification. The people in the picture give you a sense of the scale.

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Today, some people admire gasometers as evidence of industrial history and work to preserve them. Others are glad to see them demolished. When they were constructed, they were equally controversial (remember how many people disliked the Eiffel Tower at first). Many Parisians didn’t want to live within sight (or smell) of them.

Indeed, gas lighting in itself was controversial, as Jean-Baptiste Fressoz* has explained. For one thing, new technologies tend to put the purveyors of old technologies out of business – these would have been the makers and suppliers of alternative light sources such as oil lamps, and all the paraphernalia associated with them. Before the 19th century, oil for lighting in France came mainly from rapeseed (canola) oil, and this had been an important crop for farmers.

And there were concerns about the effects of the new technology. Fressoz explains:

As gas light penetrated theaters and operas,  arcades and boulevards,  reading rooms and cafés, the public debate on its dangers and inconveniences extended. Indeed, in all these spaces of sociability and discussion, gas brought about the insecurity of sudden darkness, the ugliness of an industrial light, the bad smells and insalubrity of chemical industries, and last but not least, the risk of explosion.

Gas was provided by commercial companies from their gasworks, which meant that individuals gave up control over the supply of fuel. The gas company might interrupt supply at its source, intentionally or unintentionally, plunging a building, a neighbourhood, even the whole City of Light into darkness…and who knows what could happen then? Crime, assassinations, chaos!

Despite the risks, France forged ahead, spurred on by competition with Great Britain, which had already adopted the technology. God forbid that the English should gain a technological advantage. French industrialists and politicians felt they had no choice.

Yet the possibility of explosions continued to unsettle Parisians. The catastrophic explosion of a gunpowder factory in Grenelle in 1794 was still part of living memory and there were two minor gas explosions in the early 1820s in Paris.

When in 1823 a huge new gasometer was proposed for the Poissonnière neighbourhood, one that was ten times larger than anything in London, French scientists studied the matter in their usual abstract, theoretical way, and assured the public that the risk was minimal. Bien sûr, the gasometer would not explode. Impossible.

On May 1, 1844, a gasometer at the Ternes-Courcelles gasworks was blown over in the wind and exploded, causing what La Presse described as “une immense gerbe de feu” (a huge blaze of fire). Firefighters and policemen were able to bring it under control, but six workers were injured.

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On September 27, 1849, a gasometer on rue Richer that supplied the Opera burst into “un immense jet de flamme” because of a gas leak, but an employee was able to prevent the spread of the fire to the storage areas where stage sets and props were stored.

Alarmed by these events, in 1852 the government ordered that all new gasometers were to be built outside the city. But the gas companies preferred to be close to their clients. And the city was gobbling up former suburbs so quickly that the order was largely meaningless. In 1860, the city expanded by annexing former suburbs, essentially bringing gazomètres into the city that had formerly been in the banlieue.

Meanwhile, the six different companies that provided gas had merged in 1855 to form the Compagnie parisienne de l’éclairage et de chauffage par le gaz.** 

Artificial gas reached its zenith before the First World War, when most of these photographs were taken, and after that, it declined as a source of power and light. Electricity largely took its place, with its own pros, cons, risks, and benefits.

But when artificial gas was king, one of the biggest installations was in La Villette. The usine à gaz had twelve gazomètres, as well as vast works for distilling and processing gas.

La Villette map

Compagnie_parisienne_d'éclairage_et_de_[...]Fernique_Albert_btv1b1200034xThis factory survived well into the 20th century. On the rue de l’Evangile in front of the gasworks was an ancient calvaire (a roadside crucifix, the only one in Paris), and the juxtaposition of the two seems to make an association between gasometers and Golgotha.


Today, the calvaire is still there, minus its grotto, but the gasometers are long gone. The last, the huge one in St-Denis, disappeared in 1982, and with it, a whole way of life ended.


Text by Philippa Campsie. Photographs from Gallica and Wikipedia. Maps from Gallica. Lawren Harris painting from, Signac paintings from National Gallery of Victoria and Wikiart, Van Gogh sketch from Wikiart.

*“The gas lighting controversy,” Journal of Urban History, vol 33, no. 5, July 2007.
** The city had previously been divided among the Compagnie Anglaise, Compagnie Française, Compagnie Parisienne, Compagnie de Belleville, Compagnie Lacarrière, and the Compagnie de l’Ouest, each with its own gasworks, territorial reach, and distribution network.
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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:

P1030854 (2)

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.

P1030858 (2)

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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