Tag Archives: Pottery

Decorative Directions

Samuel Emery (1787-1882) made compasses and other nautical and mathematical instruments here in Salem for more than half a century–both during and after the city’s great age of sail. His work can still be seen today, at auctions and in museums, but most often in museum shops. Recently I stumbled across one, and then another and another, reproduced and transformed into pendants and pins. What made Emery’s compasses so decorative? It’s not the fleur-de-lis marking north–that is traditional from the fourteenth century when French makers used a fancy “T”, resembling a flower, to mark the north wind or Tramontana. The two surveyors’ compasses below are nearly identical and were both made by Salem craftsman: the one on the left by John Jayne and the smaller one on the right by Emery, both sold at Skinner auctions.

Emery label Harvard-001

PicMonkey Collage

Samuel Emery Box Label, Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University.

I’m sure Emery’s instruments were well-made or he wouldn’t have been in business for as long as he was, but his designs look pretty conventional for their time. I suspect that the reason Emery’s compasses are still for sale is the original copper plate in the possession of the Peabody Essex Museum, enabling fresh and adapted impressions and models to be made, as well as the traditional appeal of the compass rose (first in maritime communities, then more broadly), which has emblazoned textiles, pottery, and other decorative accessories for centuries, so why not jewelry–among other things–now?

Compass Rose Brooch PEMCompass Rosette Brooch Morgan

Compass Quilt NE Auctions

Compass Bowl Sunderland V and A

Compass Fabric Better than Jam

Compass Rose brooches from the PEM and Morgan shops (just click on the picture and you’ll get there); Early Connecticut pieced quilt with Mariner’s Compass, Northeast Auctions; Sunderland Pink Lustre bowl, c. 1820-1830, Victoria & Albert Museum; Better than Jam fabric.


Double Faux

For some time I’ve been captivated by a covered cup and saucer in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: the pieces were made by the Niderviller Manufactory in France just before the Revolution but somehow the combination of two illusory design motifs–faux bois and trompe l’oeil–make them seem very modern to me. I love everything about them and want to learn more and see more.

Faux Bois MFA

It was relatively easy to find more faience from the Niderviller Manufactory: below are a plate dated 1774 in a French private collection and another at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, along with a tray and teapot dated the very same year in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Look at the little nail on the teapot, “tacking” the print to its surface–amazing! The Niderviller Factory was a rare pre-revolutionary aristocratic-owned operation situated in the Duchy of Lorraine where it was exempt from French laws protecting the royal monopoly of the Sèvres porcelain factory. Production at Niderviller commenced by 1750, but I seem to like the more whimsical creations of the 1773-93 period when the factory was owned by the Count de Custine. The Minneapolis plate below is signed by “J. Deutsch” which is a rather imprecise name–I wonder if this almost-anonymous artist was responsible for the other trompe l’oeil pieces? The signatures look similar on the Victoria & Albert tray and teapot. Despite the Count de Custine’s sympathy for both the American and French Revolutions, he was guillotined in 1793, but the Niderville Factory survived both the Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars and continues to operate today. Trompe l’oeil decoration was wildly popular in the eighteenth century, but the combination of “wood” and “paper” and ceramics is a little more unusual–though I did find a few more examples beyond Niderviller: an early nineteenth-century plate produced at the Imperial Vienna Porcelain Factory and a very rare “solitaire” set, also made in Vienna. I’m not as taken with these Vienna pieces: they lack the whimsy and detail (folded edges) of the Niderviller pieces.

faience-de-nidervillerDSC08907_medium

Faux Bois Minneapolis 1774

Faux Bois Tray V and A

Faux Bois Teapot V and A

Faux Bois Teapot V and A focus

Faux Bois Vienna Plate c. 1810 Victoria and Albert Museum

Faux Bois Trompe

This faux bois/faux papier decoration doesn’t have to be confined to ceramics, of course: we can and should go back–and forward. Both the faux bois and trompe l’oeil techniques seem to have been perfected in the seventeenth-century paintings of still-life artists like Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (c. 1630-after 1683) and Edwaert Colyer (or Collier, 1642-1708), which must have influenced the ceramic artists of the next century. The “wooden” background and affixed objects certainly seem very real in the former’s Trompe l’Oeil with Riding Whip and Letter Bag (1872), one of many “paneled” and “cabinet” paintings at the National Gallery of Denmark, and Colyer’s letter racks and “portraits” often have faux bois backgrounds (and folded corners).

Faux Bois Gijsbrechts Riding Whip 1872

Trompe l'Oeil Portrait of a Lady (oil on canvas)

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil with Riding Whip and Letter Barg, National Gallery of Denmark; Edwaert Colyer, Trompe l’Oeil Portrait of a Lady, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery.

Both faux bois and trompe l’oeil techniques continue to be expressed and adapted up to the present day, with varying degrees of detail and in various mediums–but combinations are a bit more rare. In the realm of ceramics, I have yet to see anything as appealing as the Niderviller pieces, but I’m always looking. ….so far the closest I’ve come–not too close at all, really—are plates in the “Texquite” pattern from Bongenre, made in that most modern of materials: melanine.

The One Key to It All

Faux Bois Texquite

Otis Kaye (1885-1974), The One Key to It All, 20th Century, Private Collection, photo © Christie’s Images / The Bridgeman Art Library; Melanine plate in the “Texquite” pattern, Bongenre.


Hearts in Hand

For this St. Valentine’s Day I thought I would explore the heart in hand motif, which is probably familiar to most: there are countless items out there with this emblem, produced for or by the Shakers, the Order of the Odd Fellows, heartfelt lovers and/or mourners in the nineteenth century and a whole host of artisans and entrepreneurs more recently. It’s a captivating image, easily accessible and “read”, and highly decorative, but how did it emerge and evolve?

Hearts in Hand Am Folk Art Museum

Love Token, c. 1840-60, anonymous American artist, possibly from Connecticut, American Folk Art Museum.

Before the love token, declaring that hand and heart shall never part, or the fraternal staff, denoting “cheerful giving”, there was of course the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the object of intense veneration in medieval Europe. While the spiritual origins of today’s generic and secular symbol seem pretty clear to me, the road between past and present is not precisely a straight path. The image of the Sacred Heart is quite standardized in illuminated medieval manuscripts from the thirteenth century on: a heart, often flaming and always pierced, with attendant Crown of Thorns and the Five Wounds of Christ, wounds which were of course on his hands and feet. But there are evolving variations: the late medieval images below have already made the transition to a more worldly message, encompassing pity, love and charity.

Heart in Hand First

Heart in Hand Second

Princeton University Library MS Taylor 17, c. 1500.

Several of the most important medieval saints, including Augustine, Catherine of Siena and Bernardino of Siena, literally hold hearts in their hands as ever-attendant attributes: Augustine’s restless heart is guided by the Lord, and Catherine actually exchanges hearts with Christ. It seems to me that representations of these two saints humanize the heart somewhat, and late medieval romances contribute to that trend. You begin to see quite average people (well maybe not average, but certainly not saints) with hearts in hand. I suppose that the medieval-clothed Caesar is giving his heart to Rome.

Heart of Augustine

heart-catherine MET

Heart in Hand 3

Heart in Hand Via

St. Augustine with heart in hand, Nationale Bibliotheek van Nederland MS KB 76 F 2; Giovanni di Paolo, Saint Catherine of Siena Exchanging her Heart with Christ, after 1460, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Arras Tapestry, Offering of a Heart, c. 1400-1410, Louvre Museum; Master of the Vitae Imperatorum, Illumination from Suetonius, Life of Caesar, 1433, Princeton University Library MS Kane 44.

The literal and the spiritual depictions of hearts in hand continue right through the Renaissance into the Reformation, eras of intense lay piety and scholarship. Nothing represents this better than the amazing painting by an anonymous Flemish master of a young man holding a heart-shaped book–he may or may not have been a member of a confraternity devoted to St. Augustine– but this focus on the word anticipates the Reformation, when John Calvin adopted the emblem of a flaming heart resting in a hand outstretched to God for his personal seal. So the Sacred Heart would survive the Reformation, in a way. The influences of classicism and realism affected the motif as well–so we also see hearts in real hands, and in that of Cupid, of course.

Heart Shaped Book

Heart Sincerity

Heart burning cupid ceiling

Master of the View of Sante Gudule, Young Man Holding a Book, c. 1485, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Carlo Dolci, Study for the figure of “Sincerity”, mid 17th century, British Museum; Francesco Mergolo, Design for a painted ceiling, 1770s, Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum.

And then we’re off: it’s a straight line from the delftware plate below, commemorating a marriage, to the sentimental tokens of today. The heart in hand motif loses its specific Christian meaning and comes to signify charity, friendship, love, benevolence, sentiment–much more general concepts. The Odd Fellows emblem appears not only on signs and banners, but on a myriad of more mundane items, including tools and flyswatters. Valentine’s Day become a holiday–with all that entails.

Heart in Hand Plate 1798 Delft Northeast

Heart Odd Fellows

Heart in Hand Folk Art

Heart in Hand Bonnie Cashin Gloves

Heart Warhol

Dutch Delftware marriage plate, 1798, Northeast Auctions; Heart in Hand, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, c. 1890 Museum Victoria; 19th century paper love token, Peggy McClard Antiques; “Heart in Your Hand” Gloves by Bonnie Cashin, 1974, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Heart in Hand by Andy Warhol, 1954, Christies “Love” Auction.


In the Bleak Midwinter

Its title does not really conjure up Christmas cheer, but In the Bleak Midwinter is one of my favorite carols. I heard its melody repeatedly over the holidays and made a mental note to look into it a bit. And now that we are in the post-Christmas bleak not-quite-midwinter it seems like an appropriate time to do that. Surprisingly it is a creation of the Victorian era and after: I thought it was much older. Two early nineteenth-century composers set Christina Rossetti’s 1872 poem (first published in Scribner’s magazine) to music, creating an almost-instant classic: In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, In the bleak midwinter, long ago. 

While the rest of Rossetti’s poem is Christocentric, this opening stanza, setting the scene, is universal. Combined with the melodies of Gustav Holst and Harold Darke, the song seems ageless, which is why I thought it was older than it actually is. Darke’s version (a nice version of which is here) won “best Christmas Carol” in a poll of the world’s leading choirmasters in 2008. Besides the beautiful melodies assigned to Rossetti’s words, I’m interested in the use of the word “bleak” here: usually this term connotes a definite pessimism, despair, even hopelessness; but I think the combination of words and music creates a feeling of comfort and hopefulness, to get everyone through the bleak midwinter. My own understanding of bleakness comes more from images than sounds, and I think midwinter can be beautiful, both as a barren landscape and as a setting for all the little details within.

Midwinter Pickering House 1900

Midwinter Boston Common 1904

Midwinter A Wolf Had Not Been Seen at Salem for Thirty Years Pyle

Midwinter Museums Karolik Collection MFA

Midwinter Tile Kate Greenaway

Favorite midwinter images, not so “bleak”:  the Pickering House, Salem, c. 1900 from a private family collection; Boston Common, c. 1904, E. Chickering & Co., Library of Congress, Howard Pyle, “A Wolf Had not Been Seen in Salem for Thirty Years”, illustration for his 1909 Harper’s Monthly story, “The Salem Wolf”, Delaware Art Museum; Anonymous American painting, 19th century, Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Kate Greenaway wall tile for Burslem, c. 1881-1885, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


A Clean Bill of Health

There are several things that interest me about this 1787 “Bill of Health” issued by Massachusetts Naval Officer/customs official Joseph Hiller for the (first) Salem ship Grand Turk, an item that comes up for auction next week (in a lot that includes a personal dinner invitation to the ship’s captain, the son and namesake of America’s first millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby, from the Marquis de Lafayette). The first thing that caught my attention is the seal, which is quite faint in this scan so I doctored it a bit (and you can click on the document to examine it in more detail):

Derby Bill of Health

Derby Bill of Health seal

I still can’t really make it out, but it’s clearly not the official Massachusetts or US seals, both of which had been adopted by this time. The Commonwealth seal was a Nathan Cushing-designed, Paul Revere-engraved version of the older Massachusetts Bay Colony seal, with a Native American at its center but the unfortunate wording “come over and help us” left out. Instead, what I can barely see here is the faint outline of a pine tree, a symbol which was adopted by the Massachusetts navy after the Battle of Bunker Hill, and later incorporated into the new state’s naval and maritime flags. For naval-officer Hiller, this was obviously the ultimate seal of authority, the seal of his office, rather than his commonwealth or country.

Massachusetts Seal

Mass Flag

Library of Congress.

The other thing that intrigues me about this document is its dating, or more precisely, the wording of its dating: the sixth day of December in the twelfth year of American Independence, and in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eighty-Seven. It is double-dated, in standardized format, with reference not only to conventional western dating but also to the American Revolution. Very interesting: I knew that the French Revolutionaries recognized the importance of the calendar as a nationalistic medium, but I had no idea that the Americans did–I wonder how many other official documents utilized this wording, and for how long?

I haven’t even addressed the content of this document: clearly Derby could not sail his ship to to the Isle de France (Mauritius) until it had received a clean bill of health from the authorities. The Grand Turk, the first of several Salem ships bearing that name, was at this time perhaps the most famous ship in New England, if not the new nation, having returned from a voyage to China and the East Indies earlier in 1787. Mauritius was becoming the gateway to this potentially lucrative trade, and its French governors were clearly aware of its emerging importance. I know of no global plague pandemic at this time (the last one was in the port of Marseilles in 1721) but the document uses the phrase Pestilence or contagious Distemper which is not plague-specific. Smallpox was rampant in New England at this time so that was probably the primary concern.

Mauritius Lodge 1781 BPL

John Lodge, A Correct Map of the African Islands of Bouron and Mauritius or the Isle of France, The Political Magazine, London, 1781; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Having received his clean bill of health from Naval Officer Hiller, Derby embarked for the east. Shortly after the Grand Turk arrived in port on the Isle de France, its fame (and size) attracted an offer that apparently could not be refused, and the ship was sold to a French merchant. More Salem ships would follow in its pioneering path, and more Grand Turks would be launched, but the exploits of the first one would be remembered not only because of surviving documents like this form, but also through its starring role as the original Old Spice ship.

PicMonkey Collage

Hull Pottery Old Spice Shaving Mug, 1930s, and lots of other examples of “Old Spiceiana”, available here.


New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day is generally and literally about dismantling for me: taking down the elaborate holiday displays I assembled only weeks before on my eight fireplace mantels and all of the other decorations around the house. The tree is relatively easy compared to everything else, frankly, and as I write it’s out on the sidewalk awaiting its transport to Dead Horse Beach for the annual Christmas Tree bonfire this weekend. I’m an habitual seasonal decorator but now I’m wondering if I should reign in this instinct a bit….that’s certainly an attainable New Year’s resolution! In between bouts of dismantling I wasted copious amounts of time browsing the web for the perfect 2014 datebook because the one I bought at Target the other day is so devoid of any aesthetic whimsy that I fear I will not use it, and I need to: this is another area where my life has changed since becoming chair of my department–I now need to keep track of everyone’s dates and not just my own. As usual, I had Turner Classic Movies on in the background, and several movies distracted me from my dismantling mission as well, most notably the original (1968) Thomas Crown Affair. I had to figure out exactly where Steve McQueen lived on Beacon Hill in Boston (85 Mount Vernon Street–the 2nd Harrison Gray Otis house!!!) and examine each one of Faye Dunaway’s amazing outfits. And then, of course, I had to keep checking the weather reports as we have a big snowstorm bearing down on us: it looks like I will have several days inside to come up with some new displays for my mantels.

A day in the life: outside my bedroom window, the calm before the storm; a Christmas mantel before its dismantling; I love these little fabric trees from Quietude Quilts so I’m going to keep them up for a while; great Christmas presents: Wanderlust plates made in Rhode Island; Jessica Hische pocket planner; 85 Mount Vernon Street, Boston.

New Year 038

New Year 066

New Year 031

New Year 032

New Year 054

today-is-the-day-pocket-planner-570

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


What I want for Christmas

Well, it’s a bit too late to put in this request, but if I had been able to make a Christmas list of wants rather than chores and things to buy at the grocery store, these amazing “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious would be on the top. I’ve never really appreciated either holiday china or twentieth-century china, but these dishes are just so striking, as are most of the pieces made by Ravilious in his short life (1903-1942). My favorite is the first plate with what looks like a flaming (steaming) Christmas pudding, which was accentuated by the Victoria & Albert Museum in the form of a Christmas card. I was looking for a traditional Christmas pudding recipe when I found this plate, and then my search was over–I put in an order with our new bakery because I was so distracted by these decidedly cooler (in more ways than one) versions. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Christmas Pudding Plate

Christmas Pudding Plate Card

Christmas Pudding Plate 2

Christmas Pudding Sauce

Christmas pudding Bowl

Wedgwood “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious, 1938, collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Fox and Geese

The pictures from my last post on the Coolidge Reservation do not convey one of its major features:  what remains of  the many geese that obviously enjoy the Ocean Lawn as much as other visitors. I remarked upon this to the ranger who was stationed there, and he laughed and told us that they brought in a fox to keep the geese away, but after a while he gave up and left……the geese won. The parable of the fox and the geese and their adversarial relationship is an old one, even older than the fox in the hen-house I think, and it has inspired centuries of illustrations, decorative objects, and games, all featuring the hunter and the hunted or the geese somehow outfoxing the fox; in either case, the two parties are inevitably intertwined, in one way or another.

Fox and Geese Harley BL

Fox and geese

British Library MS Harley 4751, English Bestiary, 1230-40; Fox and Geese in the Tudor Pattern Book, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1504, 1520-30.

It looks like the fox is winning in these two pre-modern images, and he definitely has the upper hand in most representations of the relationship, at least until the creation of a succession of satirical views from the later eighteenth century onwards.

Fox Goose and Gander

Fox and Geese BM

Johann Heinrich Tischbein, A Goose and a Gander Honking in Alarm as Foxes Approach, mid-18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Goose Lost (a caricature of British politician Charles James Fox), published by J. Barrow, 1784, British Museum.

Porcelain and pottery with fox-and-goose motifs were also produced around this time, including rather elaborate pieces for extensive table services and the popular ABC and proverbial plates for children. Talk about intertwined: look at the gravy (sauce) boat below!

AMICO_CLARK_1039413730

Fox and Goose Gravy Boat

Fox Plate V and A

Fox and Goose plate Cooper Hewitt

Fox and Goose plate detail

Meissen Porcelain Cup and Saucer, c. 1760, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute; AMAZING Staffordshire Fox and Goose Sauce Boat, c. 1780-1790, and Transferware Plate, 1790, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Creamware Fox and Goose ABC Plate by Elsmore & Son, England, late nineteenth century.

Children’s books published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether fables, nursery rhymes, or bedtime stories, feature a variety of illustrations of foxes and geese, generally on friendlier, or at least less predatory, terms. And then there were the fox-and-goose games of strategic pursuit, played on a board, in the parlor or even outside, which date back to the seventeenth century at the very least. Textile designs in the past and present  feature fox and geese continuously, in abstracted patterns for quilting and knitting, and more literal prints for fabrics and wallpapers.

Fox and Geese Game 1883

FoxGeesePieces

Fox Fabric

Fox and Geese board game, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1993, Smithsonian Institution, and pieces from a modern version of the game; Westfalenstoffe fox and geese fabric.

My favorite images of these two natural enemies are a bit more basic and elemental, in line with the medieval and Tudor images above. The realistic, rather than romantic relationship was captured completely by John James Audubon in the nineteenth century and The National Geographic more recently: these are elemental and eternal images.

audubon

04-feisty-fox-drives-snow-goose-670

John James Audubon, Fox and Goose, c. 1835, Butler Art; An arctic fox and a snow goose face off in Sergy Gorshkov’s photograph for National Geographic,


Patriotic Patterns

Given my armchair observance of Patriots’ Day, and then everything that happened on that sad day (and is still happening), I thought I’d retreat into a safe material world and examine some of the patriotic products that were produced in the decades after the American Revolution, some in the new country and some for the new country. It seems appropriate to continue exploring expressions of patriotism; after all, the real anniversary of Lexington and Concord is today. Right after the Revolution (literally) home furnishings which reflected the revolutionary spirit were produced both in this country and oddly enough, in Britain. Maybe it’s not odd:  Britain was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution which was initiated by what I’ve always considered a uniquely pragmatic entrepreneurial attitude. I wish I could see the imagery more clearly in this first woodblock-printed wallpaper, but obviously it has deteriorated with time. Here is the catalog description from the Cooper Hewitt Museum: perhaps it will help you make out the Lexington Minuteman and his associates: Beside an Indian maiden, representing America, a patriot tramples British laws underfoot and extends the declarations of July 4, 1776, to Britannia, who weeps over a pedestal containing an urn, or a tomb. The whole is contained within a curtained arch. Printed in black, white and gray on a light colorless ground.

Patriotic pattern Minuteman

This paper was produced in America in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the same time as the textiles below, which are obviously in much better condition: The Apotheosis of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington  is a copperplate-printed toile fabric produced in several colorways in Britain between 1785-1800, right after the first big defeat of the British Empire. I love George Washington’s leopard-driven carriage!

Patriotic pattern Apotheosis Winterthur 2

Patriotic Pattern Apotheosis

Patriotic Pattern Apotheosis Bed Valence Dumbarton

Apotheosis of  Benjamin Franklin and George Washington fabrics in black and red colorways, collections of the Winterthur Museum and the Society of the Cincinnati; bed valence at Dumbarton House/National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.

British pottery manufacturers were also quick to take advantage of the newly-independent emerging American market. Even if you’re just a casual picker, I’m sure that you have run into some of the blue-and-white transferware of the Clews Brothers, James and Ralph, decorated with American scenes and symbols at their factory in Cobridge, England in the 1820s and 1830s. You see it everywhere, in all sorts of forms.

Patriotic Patterns  Clews at Skinner Auctions

Patriotic Patterns Clews Platter Skinner

“American” transferware, including a “States Design” platter below,  made by James and Ralph Clews in England,c. 1819-36, Skinner Auctioneers Archives.

And how many gilt mirrors emblazoned with eagles were produced in the Federal era (or reproduced afterwards)? So many, and again, produced in all shapes and sizes in both America and England. Below is a particularly nice eglomise (reverse-painted) example featuring the USS Constitution made in Providence by Peter Grinnell & Son right after the War of 1812. And from the next decade, a beautiful “patriotic overmantle painting” from a Rockport, Massachusetts home. It is tempera on plaster (I’m wondering how they took it off the wall???), and sold for $61,ooo at a Christie’s auction in 2008.

Federal Mirror Eglomise Providence

Patriotic Overmantle painting Rockport MA

This last painting does not really qualify as a commercially-produced product or a pattern, but it is so beautiful I wanted to include it. My last item–a handmade woven wool and linen coverlet with patriotic themes and symbols–dates from the mid-nineteenth century (1851 to be precise), just before patriotism becomes divided and divisive with the coming of the Civil War. Actually, even before 1850 the Abolitionist and Temperance movements produced their own patriotic/promotional objects. This lovely coverlet expresses a more personal patriotism, but also one in keeping with the functions of these other objects:  Americans wanted the symbols and imagery of their new nation on their walls, on their tables, and on their beds.

Patriotic Woven Wool and Linen Coverlet 1851 Skinnersp

Addendum:  Last night on Salem Common: thousands walking, running, praying in support of Boston.

Salem News David Le Staff Photo

Salem News:  David Le/Staff Photo.


Reynard the Fox

That fox pulling the papal tiara off Celestine V’s head in my last post reminded me of Reynard the Fox, a very popular medieval fable which developed in the later twelfth and thirteen centuries in France and Germany, from where it spread throughout western Europe:  the many “branches” of Reynard verse are generally grouped together as the Roman de Renart cycle. Reynard is an anthropomorphic fox who is always up to no good, a cunning trickster whose escapades are both entertaining and illuminating. He is the animal representative of the medieval outlaw, far less benevolent than Robin Hood, and utilized by medieval scribes (who were of course, monks) as a form of satirical and whimsical criticism.  But Reynard is also a fox, and like all sly foxes, quite capable of feigning vulnerability (and piety) in order to elude capture and capture his next meal. One of the most common images in medieval manuscripts is of Reynard preaching, to an audience of birds whom he intends to eat.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.49v

Fox Preaching Stowe

British Library MS  Royal 10 E IV, late 13th/early 14th century, and MS Stowe 17, “The Maastricht Hours”, early 14th century.

In every Reynard tale, the fox is summoned before a court of his animal peers, headed by a lion, of course, and called to task for his bad behavior. He always manages to outfox his judges by his cunning. He feigns remorse, confesses his sins, and sets off on a holy pilgrimage of atonement, only to get into more trouble. A death sentence leads to more displays of cunning, exploits and opportunities, and consequently he becomes the sympathetic “hero”, the one for whom we root.

Reynard the Fox Bod MS Douce 360

Reynard Bod Ms Douce Reynard Dead

Reynard as a “pious” pilgrim and on the cart of a fishmonger who has presumed him dead–meanwhile, the fox is working his way through the stock of fish:  Bodleian MS Douce 360, “The Romance of Reynard and Isengrin”, 1339.

I definitely think Reynard’s popularity increased in the late medieval era along with anticlericalism and lay piety, and he makes it into print relatively early. In England, William Caxton published his own translation in 1481, and the “history” was reprinted regularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There followed all sorts of literary adaptations, as Reynard, like any outlaw, is readily adaptable. The most famous modern adaptation is Reneike Fuchs, an epic poem produced by Johann Wolfgang von Geothe in 1794, supposedly influenced by the events of the French Revolution. The editions of this text issued from the mid-nineteenth century, illustrated by Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Joseph Wolfe, must have been extremely popular as they were constantly in print. There were also a succession of children’s versions of the fable issued in the nineteenth century, and really beautiful artistic editions published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1892 (a reprint of Caxton) and the Insel Verlag Press in 1913.

V0023068EL A fox in a monk's habit is apparently deeply engrossed in pr

Reynard the Pilgrim

Reynard Kelmscott Press 1892

Reinke Voss 1913

Reynard posing as a monk in order to access the chicken coop of a monastery, and as a pilgrim being blessed by a ram-priest, Wolfe and von Klaubach illustrations from 1853 & 1846; first page of the Kelmscott Press Caxton edition, 1892; Cover of first edition of Reinke Voss, 1913.

Reynard lives on in a variety of forms and formats in the twentieth century, and today can be found on everything from pillows to china to chess sets. He seems to have shed a lot of the satirical and moralistic messages of his medieval origins, but he was never that moral a character to begin with so I guess it doesn’t matter!

Reynard the Fox Coffee Service

Reynard the Fox Etsy

Two Reynards that I covet:  a Royal Doulton coffee service from 1935, and pencil illustration of Reynard the Fox Detective.


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