Get thee to a library

On our last two trips to Paris, much of our time was spent in library research. Here is a picture that our friend Mireille took of us in the library of the Association Valentin Haüy.

It consists of one large room with books and documents on three sides in tall glass-fronted cabinets with wooden cupboards underneath, also filled with boxes of documents. The fourth wall is all windows, which open on to a quiet side street. Even in June’s heat, it was reasonably cool there.

As you can see, we are using a variety of printed and archival materials. These are not available digitally. You have to go there and look at them yourself. It is a unique collection, focused on the education of the blind, including a range of associated subjects, from linguistics to technology to fiction. We met two other researchers during our visit. One was studying the autobiographies of blind people, and the other researching the history of sounds.

We enjoyed our weekday routine of library work in the morning, lunch in the canteen, more reading, transcribing, and photographing in the afternoon, and home again with plenty of time to pick up some fresh food for dinner. We would recommend the place to you, but we cannot. The library, along with the associated museum, closed when the conservatrice responsible for both retired at the end of June. The Association is looking into ways to offer continued access to researchers, but the future of the museum and library is by no means certain.

In an earlier blog, we talked about the gradual loss of Paris bookshops. What about libraries? The much-anticipated reopening of the Labrouste reading room in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France Richelieu complex suggests that libraries are prized. But although they may seem stable, specialized libraries and archives can close quite suddenly. For example, we were told that the archives of the Quinze-Vingts (the refuge for indigent blind people founded in the 13th century, now an eye hospital) is no longer maintained or accessible.

Given the fragility of so much documentation, we were delighted at one point to find a tiny survivor of what was once a network of Parisian lending libraries.

Norman was hunting for a book that he needed for his research, and Mireille suggested we try the library of Les Amis de l’Instruction on the rue de Turenne in the 3rd arrondissement. It was open on Saturday afternoons only. Wisely, she added that even if they didn’t have the book, it would be well worth the journey there. She was right.

We nearly missed the place, with its modest sign.

Notice the words “prêt à domicile.” This was a lending library – Paris’s first.

When we found the right door, we walked through and straight into the 19th century. Two friendly volunteers ushered us into the main room, with its central table and book-lined walls.

One volunteer checked the card catalogue for the book we wanted. It wasn’t there, but at this point, we didn’t mind a bit.

They showed us around the warren of small rooms on two levels lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

The library occupies part of a much older building, which dates from the 1650s, known as the hotel de Gourges for Armand Jacques de Gourges, marquis de Vayres. He bought it in 1707, but lost the building (and his own head) during the Revolution, at which point, the house became public property. It is still owned by the City of Paris.

The library’s founder was a lithographer called Jean-Baptiste Girard, who had spent time in prison for the crime of belonging to a labour union and taking part in a demonstration. In 1861, he and a group of like-minded workers created a new type of institution: a private lending library open to all – women included.

Library users paid a membership fee (about 50 centimes a month) that gave them the right to participate in the running of the place. The library maintained a list of requests, to allow members to suggest acquisitions. Although this seems a benign sort of venture, in the 1860s, it was quite subversive. At a time when labour unions were suppressed, self-organization of this sort was frowned upon by the authorities, who would have preferred literate members of the working classes to read only materials approved by the ruling classes.

The original register of members from the time of its founding shows that its adherents included not just workers, but architects and lawyers, artists and students, and people from other parts of the city, such as Auguste Rodin. Clearly there was a demand for this kind of open access to books.

And the idea spread. At one point there were 14 of these libraries spread across the city, and one in the suburb of Asnières, offering books, lectures, and even excursions.

The books we saw all date from before 1940, when the network of lending libraries started a slow decline. Gradually, all except this one closed down. Many of the libraries that closed offered their books to the remaining library in the rue de Turenne, which accepted as many non-duplicates as possible, cramming them into every available space.

Yet quaint and anachronistic as it may sound, the library is not a time capsule. At one point, we rounded a corner to find a desk with a computer on it.

Les Amis de l’Instruction also maintain an extensive website, which includes access to taped versions of monthly talks held in the downstairs room, many of which are on the history of the city (if you are around in September 2017, there will be one on the lost river of the Bièvre). You can view old catalogues, listing books in various branches of the sciences, as well as history, geography, literature, and commerce. There are even links to free online copies of some of the 19th-century books in the collection.

Before we left, one of the volunteers took Norman’s e-mail address and offered to follow up with a friend who might know the whereabouts of the book we sought. The place is well named: its members really are the friends of instruction and knowledge. We wandered back out into the rue de Turenne, marvelling that such a fragile entity had survived for more than 150 years, hoping it would be there again on our next visit.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie; opening photograph by Mireille Duhen.

La Bibliothèque des Amis de l’Instruction is at 54 rue de Turenne, 3rd arrondissement, Métro Chemin Vert or Saint-Paul. It is open Saturdays from 3 to 6 p.m. or by appointment. Telephone or e-mail


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Coming to terms with the heat in Paris

We weren’t expecting Paris to be sizzling in early June. We’d emerged from a cold, wet Toronto spring, armed with suitcases full of cardigans and long-sleeved shirts, only to plunge into high summer. Isn’t Paris supposed to be intolerably hot only in August? We once endured a steamy August in Paris and had sworn never to repeat the experience.

Air-conditioning is gradually becoming more common in shops, restaurants, and hotels in Paris (look for the signs saying climatisé), but it is still quite rare in private apartments. We had rented a flat from an acquaintance and we asked her if the place contained an electric fan. She sounded baffled and explained that it was simply a matter of airing the place out in the morning, then closing the windows and curtains during the day, and reopening them at night.

We complied, but the first night was still too sweaty, so the next day we bought a fan at a local droguerie. For the next three weeks, it cooled (or at least moved) the air in the bedroom at night, and we slept more comfortably. (Norman loves the word droguerie, which to him means where you go to buy things for home drudgery. On various visits we have bought a boy-scout-style can opener, shoelaces, lightbulbs, a fly swatter, cleaning products, and a collapsible clothes-drying stand.)

We soon realized that coping with the heat was going to require a strategy, and a fairly old-fashioned one. Walk slowly, on the shady side of the street. Wear 100% cotton or linen (we bought linen shirts at Alain Figaret and the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville). Drink lots of cool liquids (Badoit, Orangina, Sancerre).

Seek out green spaces and benches. Take frequent cool baths (the bathtub in the flat is huge, deep, and surrounded by dark varnished parquet for reasons that escape us, but we appreciated it enormously).

We feasted on cold food – salads made with frilly lettuce from the nearby street market, gazpacho sold in small containers at Carrefour, goat’s cheese on baguette, and lots of fruit (notably cherries and apricots).

We discovered the ice creams and sorbets at the nearby Picard frozen food emporium: réglisse became Norman’s favourite and raspberry with litchi was Philippa’s. In fact, Norman has decided that gazpacho and licorice ice cream are possibly his two favourite foods in the world.

Despite our efforts, we still had to endure some stifling bus rides and humid Metro journeys, but on the whole, we managed. Paris is a city of windows that open and thick walls that help regulate interior temperatures. We lingered in museums with gardens: the Musée de la Vie Romantique and the Musée de Montmartre both offer green retreats with cool refreshments.

We also became more aware of other people’s efforts to keep cool. We loved the Star Wars effect of this outdoor fan at a sidewalk café; the obverse of the heaters café owners use in cold weather that sometimes make dining outside actually too hot in winter.

We gained a new appreciation of shutters and awnings (about which we have already written). And we have decided that we need to rethink how we deal with heat in our home in Toronto. Ask us in six months what has changed.

Given our new obsession with ventilation, we suddenly became aware of a feature of many Paris buildings that is so common that nobody notices it: the grilles underneath the windows at street level.

In an earlier blog, we mentioned these panels, most of which provide ventilation to the sous-sols (basements), although a few once provided air for cupboards built into the space below the windows that kept foodstuffs fresh in the years before refrigeration.

As always happens, once you become aware of something that was previously an unremarked bit of the scenery, you begin to spot the many variations on a theme (this also happened when we first became aware of chasse-roues/boute-roues).

We began to photograph these ventilation panels. Warning: do not try this yourself unless you do not mind getting stared at. Passersby look at you, then look at what your camera is pointing at, and then look back at you with an odd expression on their faces. Why are you interested in that? Here are a few examples from what became a large collection.

Some are ornate or fanciful. Some are mundane and functional. Some date from the 19th century; others are more recent. The older ones may have been around at the time of the Paris flood of 1910 and contributed to the flooding of basements and subterranean spaces.

In a few cases, we were able to peer in. Mostly the immediate interior was full of rubbish. Sometimes the spaces behind seemed to drop down to infinite depths.

What lurks down there? Whatever it is, it is cool and wet and does not fear the heat. And, having survived a Paris heatwave, neither do we.

Text and photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie

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Borders, boundaries, and snails

Toronto has recently completed a Ward Boundary Review, its first since, oh, 2000. City councillors were concerned that some wards had far more voters than others. Population was growing downtown and declining in the inner suburbs. After 17 years, Something Had to Be Done.

How about 157 years? That’s how long Paris’s arrondissements have been in place. Population is declining in the centre and growing around the edges. The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, also feels that Something Needs to be Done.

But before considering what that might be, let’s look at the previous arrangements of the city, working our way back in time.

The current shape and configuration of Paris dates from January 1, 1860, when the City annexed a series of surrounding villages and established 20 arrondissements. The numbering started in the centre and spiralled out from there. Previously, the city had been smaller and had had only 12 arrondissements.

Why the spiral arrangement? The story goes that the well-to-do inhabitants of the villages to the west, Passy and Auteuil, which were to be incorporated into the new city, found out the plan for numbering would put them in a new 13th arrondissement. This was simply not acceptable. Not for reasons associated with “unlucky 13,” but because of a common expression: “se marier à la mairie du 13e” (getting married in the 13th). When there were only 12 arrondissements, this reference to a non-existent arrondissement meant living together without marriage. Horreur! The mayor of Passy suggested the spiral (escargot) arrangement, and the idea prevailed. The number 13 was safely transferred to the less-well-off southeast sector.

The pre-1860 arrangement of 12 arrondissements in the smaller city is visible on this map from 1809. You can follow the link and zoom in to see remarkable detail.

A simplified version from French Wikipedia shows the component quartiers.

The 12 arrondissements were numbered west to east, 1 to 8 on the right bank, 9 in the middle, and 10 to 12 on the left bank. The configurations are downright peculiar. Arrondissements 3 and 5 consist of two discontiguous chunks (there’s a story there, no doubt, and the word “gerrymandering” comes to mind). No. 6 is in a sort of dogleg shape. Nos. 1, 8, and 10 are huge. All around the edge were the walls and the “barrières.” These were pre-Revolutionary customs houses where officials collected tax on goods entering Paris.

This configuration dates from the Revolution, when the Republican authorities were remaking everything from the city to the calendars: the law creating the new organization was passed on 19 vendémiaire in Year 4 (11 October 1795), but the organization of the city into 48 sections was originally done in 1790. The new sections were given traditional names at first:

But as the Revolution wore on, many were renamed to remove all traces of royalty and the church. Who in the 1790s wanted to live in a section named for Place Louis XIV? It became, first, the Section du Mail in 1792 and then the Section Guillaume-Tell in 1793 (chosen because William Tell had a reputation for opposing tyrants). The Faubourg St-Denis became the Faubourg-du-Nord and the section Ile-St-Louis became the Section de la Fraternité. And in a what-were-we-thinking moment, the Section Mauconseil became the Section Bon Conseil (meaning “good advice”). There were so many name changes (a few districts went through three or four names in the early 1790s) that one wonders how anybody found their way around town.

To add to the confusion, houses were numbered. Earlier attempts to do this had foundered when aristocrats refused to assign anything so banal as a house number to their mansions. But in 1790, the revolutionary government was in a position to insist and the aristocrats were, ahem, otherwise engaged. However, the task was assigned to leaders in each of the 48 sections, and not surprisingly, each one went about it differently. The mess was not sorted out until 1805, when a law established a numbering system to be used uniformly throughout the city.

(By that time, most of the Revolutionary names were gone and many of the historic names had been re-established, as the French Wikipedia map indicated.)

Going farther back in time, what preceded the revolutionary sections were the quartiers of the Ancien Régime. Interestingly enough, there were 20 of them in the 18th century, although spread over a much smaller area than today. This 1705 map from Gallica shows them all. (Again, best to follow the link so you can zoom in and look around – the detail is amazing.)

A list in the bottom left-hand corner helpfully indicates the origin of the 20 quartiers. Four date from time immemorial (“dont le temps est incertain”), another four were added when Philippe Auguste expanded the city in 1211, eight more were added by Charles VI in 1383, one was added in 1642, and finally three more in 1702.

Those four original central quartiers – Quartier de la Cité, Quartier de St-Jacques de la Boucherie, Quartier St-Avoye, et Quartier de la Grève – lie underneath the many overlays of other systems. The Ile de la Cité is now divided into two (one part in the 1st arrondissement; the other in the 4th), the Tour St-Jacques is all that remains of the former church of St-Jacques de la Boucherie, the Quartier St-Avoye has kept its name and is part of the 3rd arrondissement, and the Quartier de la Grève is the area around the Hotel de Ville and St-Gervais.

And now the mayor thinks it’s time for change. In 2015, she opened up the possibility of completely redrawing the map to reflect the ever-decreasing populations in the small arrondissements in the centre, and the much bigger populations of the large outer arrondissements, which were still partly rural and sparsely populated in 1860 and have now filled in. It was a controversial idea, to say the least.

A complete redrawing seems to have been ruled out – so far. On 16 February 2017, the Assemblée Nationale passed a bill consolidating the first four arrondissements (the oldest part of the city) into one electoral district of more than 100,000 inhabitants; this is less than half the population of the 15th arrondissement, for example, but more than twice that of the 6th or the 8th. So much for electoral parity. The four will remain as separate postal districts (whew, no need to reprint the letterhead), but many municipal services will be consolidated. There will be one arrondissement mayor for the consolidated area, to be elected in 2020.

I wonder – in which mairie will the new mayor take up office? And what will happen to the other three mairies? (The Hotel de Ville insists that other civic uses will be found for them all.) The oldest is that of the second arrondissement, on the rue de la Banque, which dates from 1848 (it began life as the mairie of the former third arrondissement). The other three opened in the 1860s and have always served in their current functions. My vote would go either for the 1st, which has a lovely rose window…

…or the 3rd, which has a handsome courtyard and faces a park.

Between now and the municipal election in 2020, there are many decisions to be made. The mayor has planned for consultations (conférences citoyennes) with the inhabitants of the four arrondissements. Some unhappy legislators who did not approve of the change are vowing to continue the fight, depending on the outcome of upcoming legislative elections. On to the future or back to the past? Parisians will decide.

Text by Philippa Campsie, images from Gallica and Wikipedia.

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Footsteps and Sidetracks

I sometimes think that if I had it all to do over again, I would become a biographer. I’ve no interest in writing fiction when real life is so fascinating. Even in my day-job as a researcher, I love tracking down evidence and documents. Admittedly, my current work requires me to trace the path of water through a geographical region, which is a little less glamorous than documenting the path of an individual through time. But still.

I have written some biographical sketches, a few of which have ended up on Wikipedia. I completed a 100-page draft on a 20th-century American writer (the biography of a biographer, in fact). I have written biographies of my grandfather and great-great grandmother. Years ago, I wrote an undergraduate thesis in the form of a biography of an obscure botanist whose life revealed quite a bit about science education in 19th-century Nova Scotia.

But the book that sold me on the biographer’s life was Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes, published in 1985. I found it in a second-hand shop years ago and have read and re-read it many times since. When he published Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer in 2000, I bought it brand-new, in hardcover, and started reading it on the streetcar on the way home.

Holmes believes in tracking his subjects in space as well as time. He wants to stand where they stood and to see, as much as possible, what they saw. Some of his travels have been associated with major works of biography (Shelley, Coleridge), others with essays (Mary Wollstonecraft, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald) or biographical fragments (Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage).

I have tried this technique too when I can, and my efforts have led to explorations in places I might not otherwise have seen, not to mention new friendships and a few adventures. Such as the day that a companion and I set out in search of Mary Callery, the 20th-century American sculptor and art collector, visiting the places she had lived in Paris.

I had stumbled across Mary Callery in the course of research on the Villa d’Alésia, and written about her in October 2011. She owned a studio there, which she had lent to Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger.

The blog attracted quite a few comments: two writers also researching female artists, others who knew a bit about Mary, and best of all, an English writer called Lucie Brownlee, who had seen Mary Callery’s grave in Spain and wanted to create a fictionalized biography of her for a Ph.D. in creative writing. We corresponded for months and eventually met on a grey day in December 2012 for a trip through Paris in Mary’s footsteps.

We began with three addresses: 33 Quai Voltaire, the Villa d’Alésia, and a street in Boulogne-Billancourt. We had no idea what to expect, but we thought it was worth a try.

The Quai Voltaire address was an elegant building facing the Seine. Mary Callery was wealthy, after all. She did not create sculptures in unheated garrets. We wondered which floor she had lived on.

We spoke to a woman who was leaving the building. She mentioned Picasso, whose daughter Maya still lived there. We knew that Mary had been associated with Picasso, mainly as a collector of his works, but possibly also as a lover. The connection cheered us. We were on the right track.

At the Villa d’Alésia, we did not have a street number, so we began our search by asking for advice in the shop at the entrance to the street, which was run by an artists’ collective. The woman behind the counter suggested that we try the pottery studio, which we did. Someone there said that they thought the house next door might be the right one.

We rang the doorbell. A tall, grey-haired man opened the door. We said we were trying to find the studio once owned by Mary Callery. He looked at us thoughtfully for a moment. “You’d better come in.” As he turned to show us down the hall, Lucie and I looked at each other in excitement. Could it be…?

It was. The high-ceilinged studio at the back of the building was largely unchanged from Mary’s day. The walls were covered with pictures and there were striking pieces of stained glass on display.

The current residents were kind and gracious. They showed us around and let us take photographs. We saw the courtyard at the back and even a big space in the basement used for storage and as a play space for the couple’s grandchildren.

Madame explained that her father had bought the building directly from Mary Callery in 1956. They even showed us the documents of sale. We saw another address there and made a note of it.

As we looked around, I felt that the stained glass looked very familiar. Where had I seen something similar before? Madame told us that her father had been Gabriel Loire, a stained-glass artist based in Chartres. Then I realized that every Sunday in Paris, I saw his distinctive work at St. George’s Church on the rue Auguste-Vacquerie. The coincidence pleased me, and suggested a potential sidetrack to follow one day.

We spent about an hour talking to the couple, who were delighted by our interest in the studio. Madame asked if I would like to read a book about Gabriel Loire and his work, and I bought a copy from her. We left in a state of euphoria.

After lunch nearby, we were still so excited that we got on the wrong bus, heading away from Boulogne-Billancourt. We caught our mistake, got off and turned around, and headed southwest, into the suburbs.

Again, we had no street number and this time, there was no-one to ask. It was raining and we tramped back and forth on the rue du Belvédère, speculating on which house might have been hers in the 1930s.

It appeared that this was another artists’ enclave. Signs here and there identified French artists who had lived and worked on the street (no mention of any American women artists). I spotted one about architect André Lurçat, brother of Jean Lurçat, the tapestry artist whose works I had seen in Angers…another potential sidetrack?

It was getting cold and we returned to central Paris, to the address we had been given by Gabriel Loire’s daughter: 29, place du Marché St-Honoré. Mary had lived on the 7th floor at the back. It was dusk and we hovered outside. A woman opened the courtyard door to leave the building. I held it for her and when she turned the corner, we scooted inside. We took a few photos in the courtyard, and decided there was really nothing more to see. As we were about to leave, a man was entering, and we asked him about Mary Callery.

Well! He exploded. We didn’t follow every detail of the tirade, in which the word “putain” figured prominently, but we gathered that by error or omission, she had caused a flood that had damaged other flats in the same building. This must have been in the 1960s, but to this man, it might as well have been last week. When his yelling had dwindled to muttering, we reeled out and headed back to our flat to tell Norman what we had found.

Lucie has now completed her book, and I look forward to reading it when it is published. She has followed Mary’s footsteps in Spain and the United States, met some of Mary Callery’s relatives, read Mary’s correspondence with Picasso and others. But for me, knowing that a studio Mary Callery once owned is largely intact and that her life crossed those of other artists who interest me gave me a sense of coming closer to her. Richard Holmes is right. You need to follow the footsteps and explore the sidetracks.

Here is a last picture of Mary (right) with her friend Georgia O’Keeffe (left). As it happens, we are going with friends to an exhibit of O’Keeffe’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario. More connections, more footsteps.

Text and street photographs by Philippa Campsie. Photograph of St. Georges interior from the church website. Photographs of Mary Callery from various sources.


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A ghost at the Paris Salon

On a recent visit to the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Norman and I wandered into a room that was hung with paintings in the old-fashioned way, covering the walls, much as paintings were once hung at the Paris Salon, although less crowded and in a smaller space.

The painting facing the door caught my eye – as it was meant to do. A hunter struggling in the snow and a ghostly figure, its back turned to the fallen man, walking away. What was going on here?

Actually, there are several answers to that question. But first, I should explain the connection to Paris. You might think (as I did at first) that a painting by a Canadian artist on a Canadian subject, found in a Canadian museum, had spent its life in Canada. In fact, it was painted in France for a French audience.

The painter’s name was William Blair Bruce and he was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1859. After a few false starts in his career (he studied law, and worked as a draughtsman), his parents let him try his artistic ambitions abroad. In 1881, at the age of 22, he travelled to Paris.

We can follow his life there through his letters home, some of which were published in 1982. William was close to his family. His parents lived apart, so he wrote to them separately, and to a younger sister, Bell, of whom he was fond. His mother and grandmother supported him as best they could, and he tried hard to justify their investment and sacrifices.

His letters describe the costs of being an artist in Paris. Paying for canvas, for paints, for models, for framing. But there were creative revelations too:

I have discarded almost altogether that former bane of my existence, BLACK PAINT, and I now live in a dreamy dreamy world of colour to which I have always shut my eyes in trying to get the force of light and shade…but now I have joined the hopeful band who detest darkness and earnestly turn their thoughts and actions towards the light…

After a year of study at the Académie Julian, William moved to Barbizon, where he enthusiastically took up painting “en plein air.” In April 1882, he wrote, “I have almost forgotten how to paint inside of a house, it is such a long time since I have done so.”

He was determined to succeed in the Paris art world, which to him meant the Salon. He followed his own intuition and interests and spent some time obsessed with the challenges of painting scenes by moonlight. But he also wanted to understand what the Salon judges were looking for.

A painting called Une lisière de la forêt – matin was accepted by the Salon in 1882 (the current whereabouts of this painting are unknown and no photos seem to exist). For someone so newly arrived in Paris, this was quite a coup.

My picture was received at the Salon all right and very well placed, I am just about wild with delight, for so many of the boys were “bowled out,” that I had given up all hopes for myself and had become quite resigned to take a back seat, when I received the notice. Golly I am just about the proudest hairpin you ever beheld.

The first hurdle was getting accepted. The jury would look at hundreds of paintings a day, raising canes or umbrellas to indicate their acceptance of a particular artwork, as shown in the image below. An attendant wrote “A” on the back of paintings for “admis” and “R” for “refusé.” The accepted works were then ranked. A number one got you “on the line” – that is, roughly at eye-level. Number two meant just above and number three above that. If your painting was not numbered, it was “skyed” – hung high up where it would be hard to see and impossible to get close to.

When William went to see his own painting in the Salon, he was already full of plans for his next effort. He was also selling some small landscapes, since, as he pointed out,

It don’t pay to sell pictures with figures in them at such low prices for it costs so much for models. For my next Salon pictures (they will be two six-footers) I will have to bring a model or two in and that means quite an out[lay] of cash, but when a fellow goes medal hunting, he must lay out the coin, for it is bound to pay a very large interest in the end.

He had learned two things that impressed Salon judges: size (“two six-footers”) and human interest – that is, stories and sentiment.

William began a study of a peasant woman and a young child. As Lois Fink has written, “Neither artists nor viewers seemed to tire of the drudgery or pleasures of French peasantry. Convenient, accessible, accustomed to having artists track through their fields and even their homes, French peasants of the nineteenth century became the most popular of all subjects for French and American Salon painters.”*

He worked in a garden belonging to an old woman in Chailly, just north of Barbizon. He paid her 1½ francs a day as his model, and 75 centimes to the young girl. He expected to take two months to finish the painting and was economizing. “I smoke but two cigarettes a day now, and wear a shirt for three weeks in order to put everything into my picture, and very likely I will drop the cigarettes before long.”

Three months later, he was still hard at it and had changed the composition to show a group of children in the background. He called it Temps passé. In April 1884, he wrote home: “My picture is accepted, numbered, and favourably mentioned. I know no more.”

Once again, the painting was exhibited “just above the line,” and in a good light. But William feared having the painting seized, since he could not pay his debts. Exhibiting at the Salon was an honour, but unless the paintings found a buyer, they did not bring in money.

Over the course of 1884, his letters reveal a growing sense of despondency. “I am pretty well paralyzed. I have had to exist on promises during the last four or five months…I have everything ready to commence my work and I am also penniless and distracted by debts, can’t sell a scrap, simply shored.” He considered giving up painting altogether.

In 1885, he decided to return to Canada. He sailed home in the fall, but suffered a further setback shortly thereafter: the steamer Brooklyn, which was carrying dozens of paintings he planned to exhibit in Toronto, was wrecked off Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in November 1885, and its cargo was lost. William suffered a nervous breakdown and spent a year recuperating at home.

He was back in Barbizon by late 1886, and in 1887 he moved to Giverny. (Did he meet Monet? If so, he never mentioned the fact.) That is where he began work on the Phantom Hunter. In October 1887, he asked his father to “hunt up an old snow shoeing costume and a pair of turned-up-toed snowshoes.” He spent Christmas 1887 in Sweden with the family of the woman he would later marry, Caroline Benedicks, a fellow artist. He was able to paint snow scenes in Sweden, but was still waiting for the snowshoes when he returned to Giverny in January 1888. He had six weeks before the Salon deadline.

On March 24, 1888, he wrote to his mother that his painting on a Canadian subject had been accepted by the Salon, and mentions that his inspiration had been a poem called “The Walker of the Snow” (see below for the poem). The hunter’s face is probably his own and the painting likely represents his own struggles and feelings of disorientation and despair.

That year seems to have been a turning point. The painting was a success and he married Caroline, whom he adored. She provided both emotional support and financial help (she came from a well-to-do family), and William gave up his all-consuming focus on the Salon. Eventually they moved to Sweden and settled in a house on the island of Gotland called Brucebo, where he painted marine landscapes and portraits (many of his wife), among other subjects.

William Blair Bruce died suddenly in 1906 in Stockholm, at the age of 47. His widow donated a group of his paintings to the City of Hamilton, and this donation led to the establishment of the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

He is largely forgotten today – he experimented with so many styles that he never became known for any particular type of painting. And his name is regrettably unmemorable. But one of his seascapes is in the Musée d’Orsay. Other works are in Canadian galleries, including the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The Brucebo Foundation supports Canadian artists, and allows them to work in the house he loved, shown below.

Perhaps he should have been more careful about what he wished for. In his determination to succeed in the Salon, he painted pictures that were expensive to produce. And large crowd-pleasers are not necessarily what individual collectors choose to buy. How many others who were acclaimed at the Salon did the same and are also forgotten now?


Text by Philippa Campsie. Photograph of gallery room and Phantom Hunter from the Art Gallery of Hamilton; photographs of William Blair Bruce, Bruce and Caroline Benedicks, and Brucebo from Wikipedia; photograph of Temps passé from the art gallery of Mount Allison University; photograph of the Salon Jury from the Grand Palais website. The quotations are from Letters Home 1859–1906: The Letters of William Blair Bruce, edited by Joan Murray, Penumbra Press, 1982.

* Lois Marie Fink, American Art at the Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 204. This work is quoted in “ ‘I Have Arrived’: Canadian Painters Journey to the Paris Salons” by Tobi Bruce, published in The French Connection: Canadian Painters at the Paris Salons 1880–1900, Art Gallery of Hamilton, 2011. The essay also describes the system of selection at the Salon.


The Walker of the Snow

Charles Dawson Shanly (1811–75)

Speed on, speed on, good master!
The camp lies far away;
We must cross the haunted valley
Before the close of day.

How the snow-blight came upon me
I will tell you as we go,—
The blight of the Shadow-hunter,
Who walks the midnight snow.

To the cold December heaven
Came the pale moon and the stars,
As the yellow sun was sinking
Behind the purple bars.

The snow was deeply drifted
Upon the ridges drear,
That lay for miles around me
And the camp for which we steer.

’Twas silent on the hillside,
And by the solemn wood
No sound of life or motion
To break the solitude,

Save the wailing of the moose-bird
With a plaintive note and low,
And the skating of the red leaf
Upon the frozen snow.

And said I,—“Though dark is falling,
And far the camp must be,
Yet my heart it would be lightsome,
If I had but company.”

And then I sang and shouted,
Keeping measure, as I sped,
To the harp-twang of the snow-shoe
As it sprang beneath my tread;

Nor far into the valley
Had I dipped upon my way,
When a dusky figure joined me,
In a capuchon of gray,

Bending upon the snow-shoes,
With a long and limber stride;
And I hailed the dusky stranger,
As we travelled side by side.

But no token of communion
Gave he by word or look,
And the fear-chill fell upon me
At the crossing of the brook.

For I saw by the sickly moonlight,
As I followed, bending low,
That the walking of the stranger
Left no footmarks on the snow.

Then the fear-chill gathered o’er me,
Like a shroud around me cast,
As I sank upon the snow-drift
Where the Shadow-hunter passed.

And the otter-trappers found me,
Before the break of day,
With my dark hair blanched and whitened
As the snow in which I lay.

But they spoke not as they raised me;
For they knew that in the night
I had seen the Shadow-hunter,
And had withered in his blight.

Sancta Maria speed us!
The sun is falling low,—
Before us lies the valley
Of the Walker of the Snow!

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Get the “L” out of here

A recent Frantastique lesson contained a short animated cartoon called “Mort à l’Académie” (Death at the Academy). It opens with an ominous view of the venerable Académie Française, complete with thunder crackling overhead.


A bald man at a desk in a book-lined room presses the intercom and asks for the next word to be brought in. Seven letters enter the room: G-I-R-O-L-L-E. They shuffle about, looking nervous. The man apologizes briefly, “Sorry, but one of you has to go,” takes out a gun, and shoots one of the “Ls.”


At the end, the remaining letters are seen in a bar, drowning their sorrows and mourning the loss of the extra L. (The girolle/girole, by the way, is a type of mushroom.)


The video explains that the spelling reform carried out in 1990 by the Académie Française entered French textbooks in 2016. Ah, you double Ls, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Well, some of you, anyway.

Intrigued by this top-down approach to spelling, I had earlier bought a small book at a Paris newspaper stall titled Orthographe rectifiée : Le guide pour tout comprendre (Corrected Spelling : The guide to understanding it all), published in 2016 by the newspaper Le Monde. (I love the fact that I can buy this sort of thing at a stall on the street.)

Among other things, the book contains the text of a 1990 speech addressed to the Prime Minister of the day, Michel Rocard, by the perpetual secretary of the Académie and the chair of the orthographic task force, Maurice Druon.* Here is the second sentence:

Quand un premier ministre se penche sur l’état de la langue française, ce qui n’arrive pas tous les jours, il met ses pas, volens nolens, dans ceux de Richelieu.

When a prime minister takes an interest in the state of the French language – something that does not happen every day – he is following in the footsteps of Richelieu, whether he means to or not.

Note the elegant touch of Latin there: volens nolens. In English, we could translate it as “willy-nilly,” but that expression has nothing of the original gravity or sonority.

Druon goes on to state that Cardinal Richelieu had founded the Académie Française to give order and method to the language, to make it eloquent and pure, with the capacity to express ideas in both the arts and the sciences. Rocard had asked for adjustments to eliminate uncertainties and contradictions, particularly to help in formulating new words that were needed in science and technology.

It strikes me that there is a difference between Richelieu’s request for eloquence and purity and Rocard’s request for certainty and consistency, but let it pass.

The changes affect about 2,400 words. L’Office de la Langue française du Québec has published a helpful list of them, which it calls the “Banque de dépannage linguistique.” It’s a lovely way to describe a list, and immediately evokes the québécois institution of the dépanneur.

(For non-Canadians, a dépanneur is a Québec convenience store, open long hours, that sells food and other necessities such as wine and beer. Paris too has its convenience stores – indeed, we rely on them when we run out of something – but they do not use this name. Here is a classic dépanneur in Montréal.)


But I digress. The spelling new rules focus on:

  • the use (or not) of the hyphen (the new tendency is to eliminate it, creating compounds such as croquemonsieur, chauvesouris, and froufrou, but retain it for compounds such as chasse-roue or abat-jour; no doubt there is an obvious difference, but I forget what it is)
  • how to spell the plural version of compound words (basically, stick an “s” at the end)
  • the use (or not) of the circumflex and diaeresis: less is apparently more
  • various “anomalies” – girolle/girole was one such; it was compared to profiterole and bestiole and found wanting
  • words borrowed from other languages (globetrotteur? chichekébab?)
  • the silent “i” in words like oignon/ognon or joaillier/joailler.

I appreciate the desire to be consistent, although I note that the new rules themselves contain exceptions – the text includes several instances of sauf this and excepté that. I do wonder about the effect on Internet searches (I tried “ognon” on and got 788,000 hits, but with “oignon” the number was well over 9.5 million). Neither the Larousse Dictionary on my mobile phone nor the French spellchecker on my desktop computer is with the program, of course. But I daresay that if it took 26 years to get the new rules from the Academy into the classroom, we have time enough for people and technology to adjust.

I will rather miss the circumflex on voûte, because it looks like a voute (vault). But it apparently serves no useful purpose. And hey, we get to keep the circumflex in the passé simple (nous voulûmes) and the imperfect subjunctive (qu’il voulût), which just wouldn’t be the same otherwise. They are supposed to look exotic.

All in all, the changes will make dictée more interesting. I remember terrifying dictées at school and during my time in France. Since you lost marks for every error, it was entirely possible to end up with a score of less than zero. My French roommate once cheered me up by playing Dis oui au maître” by Michel Fugain  – a song in the form of a dictée. The YouTube video includes some wonderful black-and-white images of French schoolchildren doing dictée. But now maitre has lost its accent and the accent was part of the song lyrics. Oh dear.


Dictée is a French institution, and it doesn’t necessarily stop when you leave school. Some people actually do it for pleasure in national competitions called Championnats d’orthographe, which have been held since 1971. They are open to both students and adults. And throughout the country, people engage in local dictée battles.

In Canada, the dictée banner is carried by La Fondation Paul Gérin-Lajoie: as I write this, the regional finals of the Canadian national dictée are taking place. This year’s theme is the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. If you’d like to test your own dictée talents, go to the website and try “Dictée audio.” There are free tests at all levels to try.

Given the French obsession with spelling, our friends at Frantastique/Gymglish recently launched a new course aimed at French speakers who want to improve this skill. We were invited to the launch last year, but we weren’t in Paris at the right time. However, during our December visit, I dropped by the company’s offices in the 12th arrondissement. I don’t often see the interior of French workplaces, and this high-ceilinged loft, with its jungle of plants and coloured lights, was a revelation.


I chatted with a long-term employee, Adrien, about the company, which offers lessons in English and French as a second language, and now, French as a first language. I find that remarkable. Native English-speaking people seldom feel the need to brush up on their spelling and grammar – even though many people could stand to take a refresher course. Some extremely talented writers in English cannot spell – that is what editors are for (or used to be, when publishers still employed them). I worked as a book editor for years back in the day, and I was used to fixing up spelling and grammar for people who were otherwise in command of the language (and for many who were not). So the fact that there is a market for teaching French to the French is interesting. But with all those new rules to learn, I guess one needs to stay on top.


Text by Philippa Campsie, cartoon images by Frantastique, image of a dépanneur from Google Street View, heavily altered; picture of children doing dictée from YouTube, photo of Gymglish office by Philippa Campsie, portrait of Cardinal Richelieu from Wikipedia.

If you would like to try a month of Frantastique lessons for free, to see how you like it, click here.

*For the complete text, see

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Paris Elevators: A Tiny Story

I am sure many of our readers have stayed in those small hotels that are so typical of Paris. Over the years they have been reconfigured to add modern conveniences that were not in the original design. We remember one that had a triangular-shaped bathroom shoehorned into a corner, where, if one were so inclined, one could open the French windows, sit on the toilet, and enjoy the view of central Paris outside. The shower stall was so tiny that there was very little room to do any actual washing without getting bruised elbows. If you dropped the soap, you had to get out to pick it up.

These buildings were not designed for elevators, either. But as this became the expectation of most visitors, many were installed in the stairwells. There was not much room, but an elevator slightly larger than a dumbwaiter could do the job. But what was the job? In an earlier era, the porter would carry the bags upstairs while the guests squeezed into the elevator and enjoyed the stately ascent to their rooms.


Alas, porters have disappeared in these smaller places, so the elevators have gained another function. In that same hotel (not the one pictured above), we did what was presumably expected of us: we put the suitcases inside the elevator, pushed the button for the appropriate floor, let the doors close, and raced up the stairs to await the arrival of our baggage. Passenger elevators had become freight elevators. And with their open metal cages and often lovely woodwork, they were the finest freight elevators I had ever seen.

Elevators are now a feature of most Paris apartment buildings. And we got to know one small one quite…intimately, last December. One Friday night, we were going to have dinner with friends, who live in a charming old building in the Marais. We had been there before and knew the elevator was tiny. We succeeded in penetrating the building with its different entry codes for the street door and the interior lobby. At that point, we had to make a decision.

Philippa asked me, “Do we take the stairs or the coffin?” I opted for the latter. It had been a long day, and my feet were tired.


We inserted ourselves into the tiny space. With our winter coats, plus a potted Christmas rose for our hosts in a paper bag, we were squashed. Fortunately, we don’t mind being close together. We pushed the button and after some hesitation, the inner doors closed and the elevator started to move. We ascended slowly for a few seconds. Then the elevator stopped. The doors opened, but instead of seeing the landing in front of us, we faced a concrete wall.

We pushed the button for the third floor again. Nothing. We pushed the buttons for some other floors. Nothing. We pushed every single button on the panel. No luck. We tried a button with the image of a bell on it. A bell rang. We called out, not too loudly at first, but with more alarm as time went on. No answer.

There was an intercom/telephone contraption on the wall, so we tried that. We heard some ringing followed by static. Then we were put on hold. We hoped that this particular corporate function had not been farmed out to some offshore location where the operators who were standing by spoke neither French nor English.


Then everything happened at once. Our friends upstairs heard our cries and the bell, and realized that since we were due to arrive at that time, it was probably us making all that noise. As we heard their voices coming closer, the telephone came to life. I was shouting to let our friends know where we were, and Philippa was shouting into the telephone. The lady on the other end asked for the address of the building; we provided it. Then she seemed particularly anxious to know the number of the floor at which the elevator had stopped. We had no idea, because this was not one of those openwork elevators with a view of the surrounding staircase. The walls were solid.

The edgy sense of panic receded once we were back in contact with the world. Our host went upstairs to call the repair company and returned with the news that a repairman was in the neighbourhood and would be there in 30 to 60 minutes. His wife stayed nearby and kept us talking. She said she had once been stuck in the elevator with her children and had told them stories to keep them amused while they were waiting to be rescued.

When the conversation flagged a little, Philippa sang a few Christmas carols, just to keep panic at bay. When she ran out of ideas for carols, she sang “O Canada” in English and then in French. Time passed.

The repairman finally arrived. When the inner doors suddenly started to close, we yelped in surprise. The elevator sighed its way downwards, the doors opened and we stepped out into the ground-floor lobby again. We reckon we had been in there for about 35 minutes. Had we a bottle of wine, we would gladly have given it to the repairman. We didn’t think he would want the potted plant. Nonetheless I think he understood we were very grateful. We bid adieu to our kind angel of mechanical mercy and walked upstairs to our friends’ apartment. Our host thought we might need something a bit stiffer than wine to start with, and offered Cointreau on ice. We highly recommend this for anyone in a similar situation.

Over dinner, we mentioned that on the Air France flight a week earlier, we had seen a 1982 film that is often replayed at Christmastime: Le Père Noël est une ordure (Santa Claus is a bastard). It is a frantic comedy set in the offices of a crisis call centre on Christmas Eve. In the film, one of the office employees, burdened down with gifts and food for her family in Creteil, gets stuck in the elevator when she is leaving the building. She spends much of the film in the elevator (one of the open kind) eating the Christmas food and using the children’s toys to try to extricate herself. When the elevator repairman arrives… well, maybe we won’t tell you, in case you ever see the film. We wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.

Here she is, as played in the film by Josiane Balasko. Alas, we didn’t have a trumpet to summon help.


When it was time to depart, we put on our coats, took one look at the door of the coffin (our host later told us that the dimensions of the floor were 52 x 54 cm or about 20 x 21 inches) and without discussion, walked down the stairs and into the Paris night.


We took the stairs more often after that.

Text by Norman Ball, image of hotel elevator from TripAdvisor (Hotel Langlois), photographs of elevator door and interior by Patrice Roy, photograph of intercom by Philippa Campsie.

Posted in Paris architecture, Paris film, Paris hotels | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments