The Remarkable ‘Time Capsule’ Apartment of Madame de Florian.

Aside

The Remarkable ‘Time Capsule’ Apartment of Madame de Florian.

Every once in an increasingly great while you chance upon a circumstance which puts a smile on your face and warms your very cockles. My day was certainly brightened when this story broke in 2010 about a forgotten pre-war apartment discovered untouched in Paris.

The apartment of Madame Marthe de Florian in the 9th Arondissement of Paris

The apartment of Madame Marthe de Florian in the 9th Arondissement of Paris

Imagine an affluent lady, an actress and demimondaine, living in a Grand Boulevard apartment near the old Opera House in Paris during the early years of the last century. A child of La belle Epoch, her home is a treasure trove, busy with fine furniture, artwork and

The eclectic taste of Madame de Florian: 18th Century furniture, 19th Century taxidermy, 20th Century art, and a pre-war Mickey.

The eclectic taste of Madame de Florian: 18th Century furniture, 19th Century taxidermy, 20th Century art, and a pre-war Mickey.

decorative furnishings. Her many admirers have been generous. She has an eye for quality and the wherewithal to indulge her taste. She lives with exquisite antiques spanning ages of French history, as well as select works informed by the latest artistic movements. Her apartment reflects the full and hectic life of an actress and a socialite during a golden age.

Abruptly, her life was interrupted as France, Europe, the whole world was torn by the madness of World War II. As the Nazi occupation engulfed Paris, Madame de Florian fled to the relative safety of the South of France. She left her apartment as it was, en dishabille, with even a collection of love letters neatly bundled with a blue ribbon. She simply turned the key in her apartment door and escaped to the distant countryside. But unlike all of her peers, when the war ended and the menace was gone, she did not return. Perhaps her sensitive artistic soul could not bear to revisit the scene of earlier horrors. Perhaps she dreaded the ruin and change wrought in her beloved Paris. Whatever her reason, she remained in the South and never returned to her apartment. But she continued to pay the rent for the rest of her life, and so none else ever returned to her apartment either… for over 70 years!

Portrait of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1898.

Portrait of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1898; previously unknown, found in the apartment and subsequently solds for $3.4 million.

When she passed away at the age of 91, her heirs discovered that she owned this lease in Paris.  Can you imagine setting foot in a home where no one has trod for a lifetime? Think of the thrill to experience what has been untouched and undisturbed for generations? The first person to enter after all those years described a ‘smell of old dust’… and then started to notice the treasures. They said they felt as if they had slipped into the private chambers of Sleeping Beauty. Madame de Florian’s home, with the exception of one painting, remains undusted and untouched to this day.

An amazing situation, but not unique. Many people have enjoyed, or at least know of family summer homes that have changed little over the years. I was lucky as a child to spend time in the summers at an Adirondack period cottage on a lake in Maine, still pristine with hand-pumped water from the well, outdoor privy in the woodshed, and minimal electricity just encroaching on the oil lamps. The craftsman’s architectural style was beautiful and comforting, with clean wainscoting, built-in corner cabinets, semi-open staircase, and exposed beams. My grandfather’s room had a pine wash stand with pitcher of water and basin, and the chamber pot in the cubby below. I still love all those kitchen gadgets and ware: the wire baskets, racks and skewers for cooking on wood fires, stoneware, and lovingly dinged enameled tinware. The built-in cabinets held a mystery of toys and games from a much earlier time. We ate, worked and relaxed on the wide screened porch with wicker and rockers, plank tables and benches.

Antique lakefront cottage in Maine.

Antique lakefront cottage in Maine.

I have been very lucky on Nantucket to have been welcomed over the years into many homes that were truly time capsules, barely touched by the passing of time. I am still moved by an historic home in the center of town, where the clock stopped at the turn of the century. The furniture remains in their exact spots, the art original, the knickknacks and personal mementos are those of the former owner, the very books on the bedside shelf are those chosen and placed there nearly a hundred years ago! The house is a home, yet also a shrine. In a different house, with different people and a different history, this could verge on the creepy. In this case however, it is more akin to a brilliant installation, a tableau vivant.

Along upper Main Street on Nantucket: one never knows what waits behind those walls.

Along upper Main Street on Nantucket: one never knows what waits behind those walls.

There is another house, a Main Street dowager, where the furnishings have remained intact through generations of the same family for over 200 years. One sits in the same chair, at the same table on the same hand knotted carpet as did the Captain when he returned from whaling voyages before America won its independence. One looks about at the paintings and porcelains chosen and cherished by the first generation. The closets and attic hold all the family correspondence, hand written copies of letters sent, bills and invoices, complete and intact dating back from the first settlers. A nod to modern change and progress: the cabled bells to summon a particular servant from their attic quarters.

The beauty and thrill of these ‘time capsules’ is not just the great collections of period antiques. It is not just a matter of being amazed at the rare circumstance. It is more the breathless wonder of stepping physically into the past. You are not a spectator viewing antiques in a museum. You are a privileged guest, alive and well in the distant past, able this once to see and feel how life was lived. This rare trick of fate brings you into the reality of the past, rather than just imagining history as one tries through books, films and museums. It is the beauty and magic of antiques.

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The photographs of the de Forian apartment have been published widely on the web: sources include Drouot Auctions, Urban Archeology, Home and Garden, Inspirationsdeco, and the Huffington Post.

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Visit www.nantucketchronicle.com/ , your free online resource for everything Nantucket. By Nantucketers, for Nantucketers.

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Please excuse any annoying advertisements that may appear below this. The intrusion is on the part of the hosting site, and is in no way endorsed by the Antiques Depot.

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Christmas in Ireland: The Christmas Panto!

Christmas in Ireland: The Christmas Panto.

I admit it: I look forward to the annual Christmas Pantomime every year. I had heard about them in old Christmas books, but of course had never been to one. We just don’t have these in the States. When I first came over to Ireland for Christmas , I was thrilled to hear that there were not one, but two different pantomimes held in Cork during December and January. Brilliant! At last!  I was psyched to go, but then was told “No way! The Pantos are for children. An adult can’t go… everyone would think you were a nutter!”  I was crushed.

"Alice in Wonderland" at the Cork Opera House last year.

“Alice in Wonderland” at the Cork Opera House last year.

Determined to see this Christmas tradition, it didn’t take me long to figure out I could invite my young niece and nephew. I could get to see my panto by using little Jack and Orla as camouflage! Twenty years later I still go to the panto every year. We pretend we’re taking the young ones, our Christmas present to our nieces and nephew (now four of them), but we all know they’re really chaperoning me.

The annual Christmas Pantomime is a hugely popular, eagerly attended part of the Christmas season throughout Ireland and the UK.  The Panto is a deliberately campy, over-the-top  stageshow that incorporates ham acting, singing and dancing, corny humor, men in drag, audience participation, topical references, and double entendres…  all aimed for children… but not-so-secretely loved by adults.  Picture a children’s theatre, crossed with a vaudeville music hall, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, MTV, and a touch of Jim Henson. A slice of old fashioned entertainment!

Traditional Harlequin and Columbine.

Traditional Harlequin and Columbine.

What are pantos? How did they begin? The Pantomime (which today  luckily has Nothing to do with Mime) is descended from the Harlequin and Columbina plays of the Commedia dell’arte dating back as far as the 16th Century. Simple sketch plays featuring stock characters depicting typical types of people, with bawdy humor, improvisation, and props: kind of a Punch & Judy Show with live actors.

London theatres in the 18th Century carried on this tradition, first as silent performances with only dancing and gestures (thus “pantomime”). Following nicely in the footsteps laid by the Medieval Mummer’s Plays associated especially with Twelfth Night, the Pantomimes quickly became a popular entertainment during the Christmas season. By the mid 19th Century the shows became more elaborate, with witty and topical dialogue, slapstick, and often spectacular and elaborate theatrical effects. The plots evolved from simple skits to a small repertoire based on nursery rhymes and folk tales. We’re talking twisted fairy tales here, with little resemblance and very little regard for the original tales.

Antique poster for a Christmas Pantomime.

Antique poster for a Christmas Pantomime.

There is usually little or no reference to Christmas; the basic subject is adopted from a children’s story such as from Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack & the Bean Stalk, Snow White or other such chestnut, and freely borrows characters and features from other tales, or invents wholly new bits you’ve never heard of nor dreamt. It is assumed that the audience is so familiar with the original story that there is little effort to develop the plot which is instead adapted for comic or satirical effect.*

Hurry! The curtain rises in five minutes! Cork opera House 2013.

Hurry! The curtain rises in five minutes! Cork opera House 2013.

The curtain rises. Enter the hero: “Hello boys and girls! I said HELLO BOYS AND GIRLS!!!”  and repeated yet again until the audience responds loud enough.

The mad performance follows a stereotyped routine with a love triangle that includes the hero and heroine, a comic lead played by a man in drag (the Panto Dame), an evil menace, a friendly godmother sort, and a lowly servant or other character who befriends the audience, is menaced by the villain and is besotted with the heroine. Every production includes a scary scene of dark menace, and a slapstick grand chase. And then there’s the famous banter with the audience. The Dame “recognizes” people in the audience:

“Is that Mary? Mary dear, you’re looking wonderful! In this light ye can’t tell you had Botox at all!”

And the audience does indeed participate, with the enthusiasm you would expect of children at Christmas. Not just booing and hissing the villain, or sympathizing “Ahhhhh” with the lowly friend. The cast will prompt the audience, but It’s just a formality… everyone knows the score.  The packed theatre will warn the hero (“Look behind you!”), and argue with the villain (“Oh no they don’t!” “Oh yes they do!” Oh no they don’t!”) You get the idea.

The brilliant cast of this year's panto at the Cork Opera House.

The brilliant cast of this year’s panto at the Cork Opera House.

I suspect most of the audience is there for the song and dance (including the dreaded audience participation bit at the end). The best of the panto for me is the topical humor. Beyond the winks and nods at pop culture, hit songs and celebrities, there are plenty of razor barbs aimed at politics and current events, and naughty double entendres galore. Clever and witty, these bits are played for the adults in the house, but still enjoyed by the children on their own level.

After all these years I’d hate to think of celebrating Christmas without this tradition. The first niece we took, Orla, is now an adult close to setting off for college; nephew Jack… well he’s as tall as the beanstalk, and little Amy and Rachel are growing as fast as they can. They all grow up too fast, and soon I fear will probably be too old for this tradition. On the other hand, so far even Orla still loves going to the Panto with us, and we’ve just gained a new nephew less than a year old… I think my Christmas celebrations are safe for years to come!

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A Festival of Christmas Trees.

A Festival of Christmas Trees.

Christmas! That most wonderful time of year! The holidays start early here on Nantucket Island, with our annual Christmas stroll celebrated on the first weekend of December. To get us all in the mood, and start the season off with the right festive bang, we have the Nantucket Historical Association’s magical Festival of Trees. Now in its 20th year, the Festival presents over 90 Christmas trees designed and decorated by a wide variety of people and organizations from our community, nestled and overflowing throughout our historic Whaling Museum. Holiday magic indeed!

The Antiques Depot's "Magic of Christmas", NHA Festival of Trees 2009.

The Antiques Depot’s “Magic of Christmas”, NHA Festival of Trees 2009.

I am completely crazy about Christmas Trees (it’s a German thing), so of course I am a huge fan of this festival … in fact my wife and I Chaired the event for the last two years and remain on the committee. The Antiques Depot has been putting up a tree in the museum for about ten years now, each one telling a specific tale. Of course Christmas trees weren’t always this expansive… not even in my family where we used to put up seven different trees… and more decorated outside!

Christmas trees began rather simply, as far as we can tell, long before Christmas itself. No one appreciates nature and greenery like the pagans: the ancient Romans used evergreen boughs to decorate their temples during the feast of Saturnalia; the druids worshiped under oak trees and favored mistletoe; and the Germanic tribes and Scandinavians brought pine and fir branches and trees into their homes for a little life during the winter solstice.

The Antiques Depot at Christmas Time.

The Antiques Depot at Christmas Time.

During the Middle Ages clergymen, and later traveling bands of minstrels, performed Mystery or Miracle Plays to illustrate simple tales from the Bible: those telling about Adam and Eve, their fall from grace, and the promise of a coming savior became associated with Advent. In Germany and France these plays often employed a Paradise Tree decorated with apples, and perhaps holy wafers. In fact the first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations was around 1510 in the far northern Germanic territory around Riga or Tallinn. This was most likely a Paradise Tree rather than a proper Christmas Tree, and after a ceremony it was burnt (like a forerunner of a Yule Log). By the end of the century Germans were parading a festive tree through the streets, often followed by a man on horseback dressed a bishop… good old St. Nicholas we presume.

Steel engraving of Martin Luther's Christmas Tree, from Sartain's Magazine, circa 1860

Steel engraving of Martin Luther’s Christmas Tree, from Sartain’s Magazine, circa 1860

The first proper Christmas Tree, where a fir was brought inside a house and lit with candles, we attribute to Martin Luther in the mid 16th Century, who was said to have likened the tree to the heavenly sky from whence the Christ Child came down to earth on Christmas Eve. Germans love a party, and Luther’s simple tree soon came to be decorated with gold covered apples, sugared plums, cherries and pears, nuts, dates, pretzels, paper flowers, gingerbread figures and dough fashioned into the likeness of various animals. Atop the early trees were at first a Christ Child, and in time the angel which brought forth good tidings, or the star which led the Wise men. And once the glass makers got involved, we were well and truly off and running!

Woodblock Engraving of "The Christmas Tree" by Winslow Homer, from Harper's Weekly, 1858

Woodblock Engraving of “The Christmas Tree” by Winslow Homer, from Harper’s Weekly, 1858.

Christmas trees (even Christmas in general) had a rough time taking route in America. The Protestant establishment throughout the colonies had a grim view of Christmas, and the Puritans banned the holiday outright in New England. Hessian soldiers are believed to have celebrated with Christmas trees during the American Revolutionary War, and certainly German immigrants brought the custom with them to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and wherever else they settled. But the custom spread slowly. Even by the mid 19th Century America still wasn’t in the Christmas spirit: schools stayed open on Christmas Day, and ministers wouldn’t allow any such “pagan” trappings within their churches.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's Christmas Tree

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas Tree.

The Christmas Tree didn’t become popular in Great Britain until Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert decorated a Christmas Tree in Windsor Castle.A drawing of the event published in the Illustrated London News in 1848, and republished in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850 (with the Queen’s crown and the Prince’s mustache removed to appear more “American”) went a long way in popularizing Christmas Trees in both the UK and the US. When a generous dash of Dickens was added to the punch… well, Christmas was here to stay.

Christmas Trees are now every-where, even in households that don’t celebrate Christmas.  Artificial trees have come to rival natural trees in popularity and over the last century their ornamentation has continued to evolve, reflecting the times in which they live. And there is perhaps no better place to see this in all its wonder and glory, than in the Festival of Trees on Nantucket.

The Night After Christmas (Festival of Trees 2010)

The Night After Christmas (Festival of Trees 2010)

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Antiques on Film: A Visit to Downton Abbey.

A period drama is a right proper feast of antiques. The proper choice, use and display of period antiques are as important to the production as the dialogue, costuming and historical accuracy. When the research is done right, the period set of a film is a work of art in its own right. The set can also be quite educational, showing antiquated objects as they were used or appreciated during their original period.

The famously successful Downton Abbey provides a beautiful illustration of using antiques correctly… of getting it spot on. Sure the choices are correct, the assemblages make sense, and every room we see has been furnished entirely appropriate to the time period. But decorating the set is the easy part.

More subtle and more important is how the antiques are used, how they feature in the daily life of the characters. Close attention eventually shows how the antiques actually go a long way to molding the characters themselves. They are part and parcel to the fundamental lifestyle we are observing, including their manners and morals, their work and leisure, the very fabric of their daily lives. The plot itself, upon reflection, could not develop independent of the antiques. In other words, there’s no mistaking which character belongs where: Lord Grantham lives in the Gothic Revival manor house, Mr Taylor resides in the room over the carriage house, and someone squatting in an East End dosshouse just wouldn’t be allowed on the property at all.

Look at life below stairs: how most of the long day’s hours are spent in the use and maintenance of the antiques. Never an idle moment for Daisy Mason, the house maids and footmen! There is at hand an implement or device for nearly every activity or want in the period life, and nearly each piece calls for an endless cycle of cleaning and oiling, buffing and polishing, waxing and mending… you can understand vividly now the sweat and tears that went into that deep patina so prized today!

Life above stairs is likewise intimately tied to a never-ending series of actions, almost rituals, which form the daily routine, all dependent upon the physical culture (in other words the antiques). Just the basic maintenance of life, the needs of room and board and attire, is so time-consuming and one expects exhausting for the toffs, let alone the poor valet and lady’s maid. One wonders whose time is more consumed by all this: the master’s or the servants. It’s a wonder anything ever got done in business or empire, aside from dressing and eating!

19th C. Rosewood Gentleman's Traveling Toiletry Case, with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay and fitted interior.

19th C. Rosewood Gentleman’s Traveling Toiletry Case, with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay and fitted interior.

Think back on all those scenes with the family arising and preparing for their day: all the fuss and bother with an elaborate morning toilet and attire. Remember the bachelor chests and linen presses? The layers upon layers of clothing whose names we can’t even remember? The detachable cuffs and collars, and the special fitted boxes to hold them? The sad irons and goffering irons, skirt lifters (we actually have one at the shop patented by the Duchess of Windsor!), pins and brushes beyond description, and all those other clever little gadgets and devices we no longer recognize… the fundamentals of daily life just a few generations past.  Never mind  all the bits and bobs a lady uses for her cosmetic needs, think about just how many different sized and styled brushes a gentleman required to become presentable!

The same bustle of activity (pardon the pun) is repeated for the afternoon, evening, every special engagement, and of course retiring. The sheer volume and variety of clothing, dressing implements and accessories is boggling, let alone the specialized furniture to enclose them all, the caddies and etui to organize them, the tools and devices to care for them, mend them and keep them serviceable and pristine. The very lifestyle not only utilizes, but is in fact dependent upon and in many cases the result of the antique accoutrements.  It would be hard for us today to even imagine such a routine of daily life, were it not for the surviving antiques which quite literally provide a first-hand glimpse into our history.  It’s hard enough for us today to just learn the vocabulary that was required… one would never make it to the ball on time if you kept stumbling along with “I say Jeeves, have you seen that thing-a-ma-jig for straightening the whats-it on my do-hickey?”

And then there’s the dining! No wonder such a large staff was needed to prepare, serve and clean-up after the daily series of breakfast, tea, dinner, tea, supper, brandy and port, tea, and whiskey (the nightcap of course).  Remember that even a humble lower middle class or artisan’s home would keep at least a cook, a maid and perhaps a manservant.  I’ll leave this discussion of dining for another blog (or series of blogs), and just mention one example here: something simple and self-contained, a matter of just one course and minimal cooking… how about tea for instance.

Gorgeous George III Sterling Teapot by Peter & William Bateman, London, 1813.

Gorgeous George III Sterling Teapot by Peter & William Bateman, London, 1813.

Right then: the cook has to boil up the kettle and the second kettle; the butler has to unlock the tea caddy or poi, select and blend the tea leaves requested or appropriate for the time of day and the nature of the guests; the cook or trusted assistant (no doubt having served at least ten years in intense understudy of the tea process) now must spoon precisely the correct amount of loose leaves into the tea pot and fill with water near but not quite boiling; the butler or senior maid gathers the tea pot, hot water kettle on hinged stand, covered sugar bowl (filled with the precious sugar just nipped off the sugar cone kept in its locked caddy), milk pitcher (most likely warmed to just above body temperature), and slop bowl (to receive the spills of cold tea prior to refilling a cup), plus various utensils including a tea strainer and under-plate, sugar tongs, and stirring spoon, arrange neatly on a matching tray and deliver to the morning room (or dining room or study or library or madam’s sitting room or master’s sitting room or the conservatory or the solarium or… you get the idea); since we all realize it would be simply barbaric to take tea without at least a digestive, there must also be a second tray with biscuits, scones, cakes or sandwiches (depending upon the time of day and the inclination of the host) arranged on appropriate plates, with the necessary serving slice, knife, fork and tongs; meanwhile a junior maid has laid the tea table with the necessary tea cups and saucers, cup plates, tea cake dishes, dessert knives and  forks, demi-tasse or tea spoons, serviettes… have I forgotten anything? No doubt. The actual pouring and serving, refilling of the pot, spilling and refilling of cups, will be done by a junior maid, senior maid, valet, housekeeper, butler, or even the hostess herself, depending upon the social status of any guests; then the whole caboodle need be taken away to the kitchen, cleaned, dried and polished bright in ready for the next call for tea. This might be in just five minutes time. No wonder the Japanese evolved their ever so simple tea ceremony.

As we examine and appreciate period antiques, and contemplate their place in period lives, it becomes clear that such a standard of living could not be kept up. In fact at Downton Abbey we are witnessing the last gasp of this Victorian excess, as the Edwardian period fades and the world hurtles into the modern era. The new demands of modern life require efficiency and speed. Convenience and haste come to rule over style and elegance.  Some would call it progress…