The Sum And Its Parts

enjoying the bigger history of small pieces

I’ve often seen these (unmistakably French) ‘Comtoise Morbier’ clock face surrounds or headpieces. They’re usually still attached to clocks, so these two really spoke to me, in the way that displaced and orphaned things so often do!

The problem was that I just couldn’t choose between them:

one features various birds – obviously a favourite subject of mine

the other one illustrates a family at a graveside. There’s something so very French about that. I mean, we Brits would never show a mourning scene on a household object

I took them both and asked the guy to combine the postage costs (he didn’t)

I was very excited about them arriving. Unfortunately when they came they looked very rough, and I felt like I’d been ‘had’. I didn’t want to show Baz, so I left them in their meagre packing

But yesterday the rain scuppered my paint-stripping plans and instead I spent a happy hour with gloves and various pliers, gently teasing the thin brass repousse, which is very malleable but also easily torn. I then scrubbed them with a toothbrush and they came up a treat, as you can see

These relatively low-cost clocks were made in villages in the region of Franche-Compte, near the Swiss border, from around the year 1600. Various families in each village would be involved in making the different elements of the clocks, before final assembly by a finisher. At that stage the clock faces with their headpieces and workings were portable enough to be carried in groups of four on backpacks, along with their pendulums stored separately below, to be taken for sale further afield

clockmuseum
photo courtesy of Comtoise Uhren Museum

The final purchaser could simply hang the clock with the pendulum exposed, or they could pay their local casket maker to make a long case for it

The earliest clocks had cast brass headpieces, but these were replaced by brass repousse – like mine – in the early 1800s. Production declined after the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871 permitted the tax-free import of German clocks to France, and then apparently ceased after the First World War

It appeals to me that so many people had a hand in this industry, that the clocks were readily available, and that the wonderfully decorative designs were often based on simple everyday scenes from provincial life

And so these two inexpensive pieces, bought for reincarnation as mirror frames, have a long pedigree of practicality as well as beauty

Could there be anything more French?

Maturity and Lost Youth

Am I jealous of youth? Of course I am

The sign on the road ahead said Cats Eyes Removed. I bet someone sniggered when they put that one up

C and I had travelled to Cornwall by train, where we had enjoyed dinner, cocktails and people-watching together before having to share a small double bed. So when she turned to me at the bus garage the next day and said ‘I really don’t want to go. I don’t like it here, I know I don’t want to live here and so it’s a waste of time going to the university’ I explained in no uncertain terms that life is not always about what you want, but about what you have said you will do

She still looked glum, but I had taken two days off work to make this happen and I was done with it

‘Oh, just grow a pair, babe’

(No-one ever asks me for parenting tips. I can’t imagine why)

So we took our bus and we arrived to register for her taster day at the university. The nice and very confident young ‘ambassador’ dressed in yellow put a hand on my shoulder

‘Did you have a difficult trip down?’ she asked

I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to say ‘I’m fifty one. I always look like this. It will happen to you one day’

I declined her offer of the group tour of the campus with the other parents, in case I said something inappropriate, and I bounded back to the bus stop. I felt a bit lost, rather like on C’s first day at pre-school when I had to leave her behind in the hope that she’d stop crying. I was back in Cornwall and there was no way I was going to hang around all day

Sitting upstairs on the front seat of the bus as it pulled out of the campus, I heard a girl somewhere behind me advising a male friend with a hangover. She had a strong Cornish accent and sounded very officious, as though she might have some medical training:

‘Big bottle of water. Make sure you drink it.

‘Paracetamol.

‘Bacon sandwich’

The last was delivered in a ‘job done’ kind of way

In my day, of course, it was Ribena and Hula Hoops, but they’ve now taken most of the sugar and salt out, rendering them useless. Still, it was good to hear that she had a formula, and I felt very motherly towards them. So I was shocked when we reached Falmouth and I saw that the pair getting off were not the young students I had taken them to be, but a man in his late forties wearing a suit and a woman perhaps slightly younger than that. The hangover cure suddenly seemed way too basic for their age group (I choose spicy tomato-based concoctions laced with chill, cumin and coriander. That’s what age – and a lot of drinking – has taught me)

After a couple of hours scouting out Falmouth in the grizzle, I made sure to visit their art gallery and see the oil study by John William Waterhouse  of ‘the Lady of Shalott’ taken from Tennyson’s epic poem of a life bravely and briefly seized, which I so loved as a child:

‘She left the web, she left the room, She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott’

The trip had not been for nothing, I kept telling myself. The fact that C is now actually considering going to university – and so far from home – is a brand new development and this is all good experience for her. Apparently she’s even the first of her friends to visit a university and there is time to visit others. She eventually joined me back at the university canteen mid-afternoon

‘Well, that was interesting’ she said. ‘I absolutely love the campus, the course sounds amazing and I think I really want to come here’

Apparently the facilities are excellent. So good, in fact, that she even tried to persuade me to apply as a mature student (I explained that I can’t think of anything worse than to have your mum at the same uni as you, and that I have so many other things to do with the rest of my life)

I’m not very mature anyway