POLLY DEVLIN’s remembrance of people and times past is triggered by her collection of treasured antiques and the backstories of their acquisition …
For new readers and seasoned ones … This is the sixth episode in the loose concoction called The Remembering Rope – a series of memories describing the fruits of my travels and my addiction to collecting – an addiction which skewed my life as all addictions do. As I move through my house past the pictures and objects I also see my past life in geographical detail and in memorable panorama. I try not to be like a priestess guarding a shrine but there’s an element of that in it. So I also try to cull – and it’s difficult. I still slightly mourn the ones that get away.
I’m sitting here, looking up at three objects on a mantelshelf. Not the only three, I add, but three with deep meaning for me. When I think of the time I’ve spent, (I nearly wrote wasted) – travelling all over, looking for the ultimate object which would fill the void, I feel I was insane, and that’s partly because I was as mad as a snake and mostly because I was predicated to believe that if you loved doing something, then it was not valuable, and I loved doing it though I neglected far more important things.
Eavan Boland’s wonderful poem “The Necessity for Irony” breaks my heart. In it she tells how on Sundays, when the rain held off, she would go with her beautiful flame-haired twelve-year-old daughter to browse in junk shops and antique fairs. Looking back, now that her daughter has grown up and left home, she feels such pain remembering that when she was in those rooms searching for beautiful things she had her back turned to the most beautiful of all – her child. She says it all, profoundly, as she always did with her wonderful command of language … (which she called “a fabulous beast”.) Ireland lost two great poets lately – Eavan and Derek Mahon.
One of the objects on the mantelpiece was given to me – I swear to God – by Frederico Fellini. A white bisque vase, a sentimental Victorian looking thing – two long-fingered feminine hands clasp a small amphora trimmed with nasty gold paint. It’s got the last rose of summer in it now. Does everyone – anyone? – remember who Fellini was? An Italian film director whose most celebrated movie – but not his best – was La Dolce Vita – which became a huge succès de scandale all over the world, because of its revelation of the decadence of Roman society in the 1960s – the impact of the new flashy world of celebrity and the media – known as Il Boom – on the city’s hidebound grand society and also because of the alarming size of Anita Ekberg’s tits shown to much wet advantage in the Trevi foundation with that heartthrob of heartthrobs, Marcello Mastroianni. I always thought he looked so wet too that you could shoot snipe off his back.
Fellini said “a pearl is the oyster’s autobiography” and I wish I’d said it. My pearl – pearls – have been the beautiful and strange things I have collected over the years; but of course pearls are made out of fretful grit and must cause the oyster a certain amount of pain. I interviewed Fellini in Rome over a long lunch and he gave me this. I think he nicked it from the restaurant – anyway, I love it and it sits incongruously between a pair of exquisite – actually the word is gorgeous – glass objects. (Incidentally, a piece of social history here, which you won’t hear anywhere else: Fellini said he was a happy man. No one had ever said that before in my years of interviewing. This is what he said: “I make what I want and I do as I wish. With all my limitations, with my laziness, my lack of money, my lack of time I do what I want exactly. I am a very lucky man and a very happy man.”)
The Fellini vase is between two extraordinary obelisks made of old dark mirrored glass studded with antique Venetian glass and stones and jewellery. They are real objects of desire made in the 1930s and I first saw them in a tiny shop on the Left Bank. Closed. Of course. Such tantalising shops invariably are.
Now, just park that Paris sentence for a moment and come drive with me down the road on my deviant routes to Dublin from Tyrone, to Clones and through Cavan, past the romantically named Clover Hill where we will stamp on the brakes. A huge yard is open to the road filled with odd bits and pieces of furniture and who knows what. I’m going to find out. When I leap out of the car to look at the yard with its treasures half buried in grass – there’s a tinkered blue jug, here a concrete bird bath, there a rusty coulter – I see an old shop at an angle to the road and what I can see through the cobwebbed windows makes my mouth water.
A set of big wash jugs in primary colours – from a convent boarding school I should think – dormitory pieces and those lovely tin caddies for tea and flour and sugar that had once stood in every grocer’s shop, their contents written in fairground script and you ladled the amount you wanted from a scoop into a paper bag; I could see small old green faux-Chinese tea caddies painted with bucolic scenes and oh! A lovely creel and a spongeware bowl. I thought I would just lie on the doorstep until Victor Mee, the name painted on the door, came by.
I came back and back and back often down that road but I could never find anyone to even ask about the shop. I would tramp the road up and down like Meg Merrilies (do you remember her? Now Meg she was a gypsy and she lived upon the moor … she was brave as Margaret Queen, and tall as Amazon … and a chip hat had she on … so much the same as me as when I walked that stretch of the Cavan road looking for the elusive Victor. Then one day I saw him disappearing and kidnapped him and he reluctantly let me into the shop and even more reluctantly, let me buy. He was a collector himself and hated to sell anything and we would tussle over coveted objects.
Victor has a successful auction business now and I don’t take that road any more but some of my most-loved Irish pieces came from Clover Hill.
So: back again to the Paris street where I’m hovering, a bit smarter this time than Meg, and I am encountering exactly the same problem – the name over the shop is Serge Hubert but he is nowhere to be found and the neighbouring shopkeepers are not sanguine about my success in tracking him down. Gallic shrugs all round. Then one miraculous Parisian day I found the door slightly ajar. He was naturally indignant at my crossing the threshold. I welcome this reaction. I know they are guarding their treasures like mad Cerberi but I have snappy teeth too. He let me look closely at the obelisks, a remarkable example of the neo-Baroque style of the 1930s in France, a synthesis of romanticism, classicism and surrealism. I thought they must be the work of a genius called Serge Roche. He wouldn’t confirm this. More shrugs and mutterings. He knew full well.
I could write a book about Serge Roche (and someone has) and the eclectic neoBaroque movement in Paris which killed Art Deco, Functionalism and Modernism as fashionable movements, stone dead. Roche’s father had been a famous dealer – Picasso, Renoir, Pissarro were among his clients and friends and Roche – who had planned to become an engineer – followed his father instead. Much more fun.
He became fascinated by the look of fine old dark Venetian glass with its mysterious haunted depths and bloom and began to explore and refine rococo decoration, glass cabinets and objects from Venice to Wurtzburg and the earlier master mirror-makers’ techniques.
The results were wonderful erudite objects made from old glass and semiprecious stones – mirrors, frames, lamps and obelisks, each one unique, studded and ornamented as they are with antique Venetian beads and tiny coloured glass granules – a lot of turquoise which I love. The elite and fashionable of Paris, including Coco Chanel and Charles de Beistegui, flocked to his showroom. Roche began to use plaster to make elaborate consoles and side tables and full-height palm-tree standard lamps which are now tremendously sought after. The number of these lamps I saw when I was writing a book about New York apartments was astonishing. (BTW, beware of “in the style of Serge Roche” or “attributed to” if you look out for one.)
So I became sort of friends with this Serge and he finally let me have these obelisks. He knew I loved them. They cost a fortune. It transpired that of course they were by Serge Roche, he had worked with him for years. They were cheap at the price because I had the same reaction of awe that overcame Robert Browning when a man casually told him he had once met the poet Shelley and actually spoken to him.
And did you once see Shelley plain, And did he stop and speak to you?
(The man mocked and laughed at him for his reaction.)
Hardly anyone notices these two objects, yet for me they are two of the most delectable pieces in the room, full of memories, full of glamour, full of Paris. And when someone does fall on them with yearning cries, I know I have met a soulmate.
But they have only to raise their eyes and look up to see two fat seductive winged mermaids with Anita Ekberg breasts, looking down at them. Sconces. Next time.
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