Thursday 16 July 2020

The Mystery Of The Oaken Armchair

Photo of antique oak captains chair with sheepskin throw and cushions
A Cosy Corner
To Linger Longer In

It's that time of year again, Dear Reader, when the oaken armchair gets its winter coat. The central heating is on*, and this comfortable piece of Victorian furniture is a very cosy place to stop right now. If you merely glanced at the photo of this little nook, you may have thought momentarily that the Pipistrellos have gone truly Mad and splashed out some serious dollars on a piece of Statement Furniture. For each winter season, this chair becomes a mock Mouton de Laine, our tribute to François-Xavier Lalanne, one half of a pair of French artists with an eye to the whimsical and surreal.

Photo from Sotheby's of Marc Jacobs in his apartment with the Lalanne "Mouton de Laine"
Behold! Marc's Mouton
... And his Boots (not for sale)
The Deluxe Version of our Chair

What's in a name, you may ask? If it happens to be Pipistrello and you are merely tossing a sheepskin across a piece of rustic brown furniture, then about 25 cents. But if it happens to be Marc Jacobs, then his Mouton came with the eye-watering price tag of US$680,000** when it went under the hammer some months back. And, frankly, I know which of the two wooly chairs I'd rather linger longer on.

Photo of Crococurule Stool by Claude Lalanne, 2011
So Typically Lalanne &
A Biting Pun Alert: Crococurule Stool
A Snip at 175,000 Euros

But hold onto your hat now when I tell you that if your name happens to be Lalanne, Claude or François-Xavier (or both in this instance), some bunny*** coughed up US$882,000 around the same time when their version of the Mouton from their private collection went to auction!**** That's about $1.3M in Australian money. Still, whatever kind of peso you think in, I'd wager you might have a heart attack if you suddenly found yourself inadvertently holding the winning paddle.

Portrait of James Staats Forbes by William Orpen, 1900 held in Manchester Art Gallery
William Orpen's 1900 Portait of
James Staats Forbes
Relaxing in an Oaken Chair

But what happens when your name happens to be William Orpen? This is a name completely unknown to me until quite recently. Mr. P and I were watching a show on the telly about Victorian ingenuity, when up pops this portrait (above) of one James Staats Forbes, engineer, railway baron and inveterate art collector and described as "witty, urbane, relaxed and charming", and hullo!, he seemed to be sitting in our chair! 

Le Chef adding some Panache
To a Modern Kitchen in Melbourne
Already on my Radar

A little bit of a rummage around the interwebs and I discover that this portrait is by Sir William Orpen RA. A new name in this household but my interest was further piqued when I did recognise one of his many portraits immediately as a fetchingly styled reproduction of it (above) has been lurking in one of my Pinterest boards for many a year now, Le Chef de l'Hôtel Chatham, Paris, circa 1921. 

Portrait in oil of Baron Leverhulme, Mayor of Bolton, 1921 by William Orpen, held in Bolton Town Hall, UK
Baron Leverhulme, Mayor of Bolton, 1921
Scuttles my Provenance Hopes
With a Glimpse of a Turned Foot

More rummaging and lo!, William Orpen did not only paint JS Forbes sitting in this armchair but a whole galaxy of British luminaries from academe to industry to politics throughout his career, including David Lloyd George in 1927 and Neville Chamberlain in 1929. His phenomenal success as a society portraitist saw him earning vast sums when other artists struggled. His biggest year, 1929, saw him earning around £53,000 - or £3.4M in today's money! But ... a closer inspection reveals that a couple of paintings do show that the turn of leg is wrong and suggestive of cabriole ... So no banana. 

And squinting at an old photo of his London studio does suggest the sitter's chair on the dais which looks the closest to the object in question isn't the same one in our own living room. Oh, well ...*****

Interior B&W photo of William Orpen's London studio
A variety of Chairs in a corner of Orpen's studio
But none belong to me

But what about the Pipistrello armchair which so resembles the Orpen? It was purchased from an antique shoppe in London during my years there, described simply as "oak", and apart from liking its sturdy and comfortable proportions, it never caused me much reason to think more about it for there was a time when I was rather incurious about such things so never asked whence it came. Victorian****** likely, and of the joined Captains/Smoking variety, but definitely comfy enough to sit in whilst having your portrait painted. But Provenance is something I am more interested in now that there is sport to be had from digging through the digital dross. 

So who else might have had a studio armchair that could have ended up in a shoppe to be eventually brought home a century later by the likes of me as a chair for, ahem, sitting in? On I rummage, when what should I espy but this studio portrait by John Singer Sargent, dated 1890. And Lizzie sits in an Oaken Armchair, no less! JSS was indeed in London by this time and he even promoted WO's work, so perhaps they shared props, or perhaps this chair is a better fit with mine ... Hmmm ... If I could only get a closer look at the legs ... Meanwhile, the Mystery of the Oaken Armchair remains unsolved.

John Singer Sargent
Lizzie B. Dewey, 1890
Fa! Another Oaken Chair Sighting

* Each year we bless Emil Sodersten, our building's celebrated architect, for recognising that Winter is a Thing here in Sydney and obliging us with European-style radiators!

** Plus-plus-plus! a hefty buyer's premium, some tax and a bit of postage and handling. Although you could save yourself a few pesetas by tucking your Mouton under your arm and lugging him/her home on the bus.

*** Well, two bunnies actually, as there was also a Black Sheep that went for the same price. 

**** Sotheby's Sale Total for Les Lalanne's 274 lots was over 91M EUR!!

***** I have discovered some very Interesting Things about this once famous artist, his fall from grace and subsequent resurrection, which I shall refashion into a future post as this one is in danger of going seriously off piste if I don't rein it in.

****** The vasiform splats and square Marlborough legs do suggest Georgian, and it is very similar to C18th corner chairs, but the saddle seat and three-sided box stretcher throws me, so I'm just guessing. And it may even be elm after all but Elmish Armchair doesn't have the same ring.

Image Credits: 1, 7, 9: Flying With Hands; 2, 3: Sotheby's; 4: Manchester Art Gallery; 5: via Pinterest; 6: Bolton Town Hall; 8:; 10: Worcester Art Museum

Thursday 2 July 2020

Running Away With Petr Král

In Search of the Essence of Place, by Petr Král.

"In Search of the Essence of Place", Petr Král, Pushkin Press, 2012
The Afterword by the 2012 translator from the French, Christopher Moncrieff, says this book is "like walking a tightrope: we have to keep our eyes fixed firmly ahead, on the future, while remaining conscious that the past is breathing down our neck, that the slightest slip will send us tumbling into the abyss of the East or the West which lie on either side."

Books don't tend to come in for a traditional review about these pages, in spite of the promise to furnish the virtual handbag with Something to Read, and indeed their infrequency would suggest I've forgotten my creed. Not true, Dear Reader! It's just a matter of time before some words and pictures will come your way to indicate I've been been busy in that department and today's the day for picking over the tailings of a book I read some goodly while ago.

Lungfish at the Sydney Aquarium
"Isn't the viaduct just a bridge that should have been a Hôtel Continental,
while the essence of the bowling alley lies,
not within itself, but in the first gas tank he saw?"

In spite of my rather catholic taste in reading, any work by the Czech Surrealist poet Petr Král is not what I would traditionally reach for, but I've been mulling over this book for ages, and as I've discovered that he died only a couple of weeks ago, and there is an utter dearth of material about him on the interwebs, I have to set down some basic detail. (Nota bene: This assemblage of words and pictures are mostly random and incongruous, in small tribute to him. Proceed with caution.)

Photo of Pupils at Rachel Reynolds Kindergarten, South Dunedin, about 1919

For that is what I can only provide. This book is classified by me as a Hard Read. Every dozen pages or so, there is a glimmer of understanding to be had from his writing. The language is simple, yet the meaning is elusive and opaque, and mostly reads like gibberish. Unlike the similar density of, say, Patrick Leigh Fermor, where each page requires a dictionary consultation, this book should be an easy read, but when it's the work of a poet, and a Surrealist at that, it becomes rather a labour.

Photo of Pupils at Rachel Reynolds Kindergarten, South Dunedin, about 1919

And yet I persist, as not only did I buy this for an apparently forgotten reason, from an independent publisher I admire, but from time to time some shape emerges in the corner of my mind and I nearly feel like I know what's going on and what he's trying to say. But mostly I'm thinking, what in the heck is going on here? Conclusion: you'll be getting none from me.

Photograph of 1930s powerpoint and yellow Art Deco kitchen tiles

What do I know? Our protagonist, "the explorer", walks the streets of Prague and Pilsen and Paris, and brushes up with America, although I never quite figure out if he is supposed to have gone there. He's a flâneur, looking to find the potential in places, the untapped energy. He walks mostly alone but later with an accomplice who is searching for coincidences. 

Photograph of a street sign in Prague with a door and a decorative Medusa
"So he decides that the only thing to do is to keep this gesture for himself; instead of reproaching the world for its lack of substance, he should just return this lack of substance to it by stuttering politely with it, helping it dig itself deeper into the morass of its shortcomings so he can rub its nose in them. "Once she had fallen asleep I called it Cézanne," he boldly exclaims. Rarely had he known his words be so conclusive."

Coca-Cola neon sign in Sydney's Kings Cross
"It is the impenetrability of things, the fact we can never quite understand them, which forces us to discuss them. Faced with their suffocating self-importance we too are left speechless; the barriers that things erect to stop us talking about them, from illustrating our descriptions with an example or an image - even an amusing one - reduce what we say to a stream of impressions and emotions, pointless gestures or peals of wild laughter. Lacking the space to make itself heard, language only sends signals, and any long-term prospects it might have had collapse like a house of cards."

Dreams and a "kingdom of thistles"; characterless buildings and cheerless rooms; dusty shopfronts and a tailor's dummy feature quite large. It's far from glamorous, despite the locations. If the book was a film, I read, it would've been directed by Wim Wenders. This is all I know. The rest just confounded me.

Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues still life painting, "A Thistle and a Caterpillar", circa mid C16th
"In impenetrable wasteland lies a kingdom of thistles
caves of old feelings now left speechless
like the sparkle of your snakeskin
Light years languishing in the lava of the sun
endlessly decanted hardening day by day
like old dry tables withering
or ink-stained slops f
rom washtubs tossed among
the nettles"

But a memory of a sort of recurring dream I had as a child magics into my conscience half-way through the book. A waking dream, to set off to sleep to, where Teddy, (whom you've met before around these pages) and I would set out at night from our reed-hidden and rustic little cabin on an island in the middle of the Lake in Our Nation's Capital in a little rowboat, à la Ratty & Mole on the River, and with a magic brick in our possession which conferred both the necessary invisibility and the ability to, ahem, procure supplies from the shoppes. (Without going into the detail of this dream of wanton vandalism, which doesn't sit comfortably with me at this long remove, I do need to reassure the Reader that I was not a delinquent!) It is evident, though, that not wanting to leave the shelter of my beloved family but subconsciously understanding that Adventures only ever happen in children's books when the protagonists are orphaned, this little dream of escape could be the chicken's way of running away from home with trusty Teddy but being safely back in my own bed, come morning. Petr Král may yet still have approved..

Image from "The Wind in the Willows", Kenneth Grahame
"And you really live by the river? What a jolly life!"
Mole dreams long waking dreams.

Petr Král, Prague, 1941-2020

Image credits: 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9: Flying With Hands; 3, 4: Toitū Otago Settlers Museum; 7: Sotheby's
Quotations: 1-5: "In Search of the Essence of Place'; 6: "The Wind in the Willows"

Bats In The Belfry