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

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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?

Who’s in your shed?

It’s my own space and entry is by invitation only

Last New Years Eve, in torrential rain, three of us took the van, and we emptied and dismantled my beloved green shed from my ex-allotment plot

The grass beneath us had become mud, so the wheels pun and spun, until we improvised with boards borrowed from a neighbouring plot and brought the shed pieces back to the house, where we dumped them on the lawn, all of us exhausted and achingshed allotment.jpg

These pieces lay there until July (for various reasons, not all entirely connected with idleness – we’ve had a lot to do this year) when it was assigned a new colour and identity, not as a storage area but as a smart and defined, if small, workspace for me

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When we first assembled it some years back we were shed virgins so we closely followed the instructions, and it took a whole day. This time around the instructions were long since discarded, and Baz and I free-styled it in no time before heading to the pub to celebrate our success

We had cleaned the mud off the interior and I painted the inside with various bits of leftover paint so that it doesn’t feel like a sauna. I re-used my faded curtains and splashed out on a funky floor paint (‘Primrose Hill’ by Mylands) which will keep it cheerful through the winter. Oh, and I might just squirrel a bottle of my sloe gin somewhere…

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Since it arrived the space feels bigger, as if the whole garden has been waiting for this shed to turn up. The new colour sets off the lavenders and the gorgeous old nameless pink rose, which often flowers vigorously into DecemberIMG_0018

It’s not a big shed, but I’ve installed a solar light, shelves and hanging space. There’s even a shed alarm, although only a fellow lunatic with a fetish for steel wool would ever break in here (yes, you know who you are) and I am already enjoying the space

Entrance is strictly by invitation only, and my first visitors apart from the bugs (of which there are already many) are two of the set of six 1930s oak chairs I bought on Ebay. These two were wonky and needed repairs and have been glued and clamped. The whole set needs a good clean too, having been used for many years. It can be hard to see progress, so I took a picture of before and after to remind me of how worthwhile this process is and how much detail it reveals

The other visitor at the moment is the plucky little heater, ‘Stumpy’, which came to me with a limp. More of that in another post …

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I’m still moving in really, and there is plenty more that needs doing to the shed itself before the weather really kicks in, but I’m getting a feel for what the space allows and for which tools and basic supplies I actually need to keep in here in order to work properly

So that’s what/who is in my shed right now. What do you use your shed for? I’d love to hear

 

 

 

 

 

Shades of Brown

check your Farrow and Ball colour chart

I am steadily ridding the world of horrid shades of brown. It’s not that I don’t like brown, but I dislike some of its manifestations, which could be named:

Glastonbury 16             Slug            Dysentery           Other end            Disgust

Most of which were in both our UK and French houses in abundance

Our UK home is on an island along with thirty-plus other houses. At the moment the small Victorian iron bridge – the only access to our homes – is being closed at night for repairs and a neighbour asked us all on the facebook page to vote on the colour/s it will be re-painted

The first person said ‘rust colour’!!

But, rust aside, the two colour schemes favoured are dark and light grey, and blue with white/cream. No-one has discussed the actual shades yet but the population seems split firmly down the middle on this, and I fear another ‘Brexit’ type situation – ‘Bridg-it’ perhaps?

The thing is, people in the UK tend to form a very strong opinion (as we have recently seen) and are polarised in their points of view. I do hope that families on the Island will not be torn asunder by such an important matter!

Personally I don’t think it matters which colour scheme suggestion they go with in name (if indeed we even get to voice an opinion) because surely it’s not whether it’s blue or grey, but whether it’s the right blue or grey, etc that matters

And oh please, anything but rust!

 

 

 

Revealing Beauty

So this is what it’s supposed to look like!

I know I’m a bad partner/ mother at times, but we all need a bit of me-time. This week I snuck off to practise the dark art of French polishingIMG_9794.JPG

Some people are naturally good teachers. Roy is one such person. He is also a real craftsman – an expert French polisher – so he and I worked on my beautiful but abused late Regency Ebay table, which had seen better days. Lots of better days, in fact

Before starting on such a huge project we talked about the materials, the techniques, the approach. We discussed how the table functions as a piece – there are two separate consoles, one with a simple drop-leaf to easily combine the two into a dining table. Roy really wanted me to make the right choices for the piece.

It has patina in bucket loads so we discussed how much we should retain. Pretty much all of it was the consensus. If I’d wanted an immaculate table I could have bought repro

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It’s clear that this table stood as two separate side tables for almost all its life. Roy gave me an insight into the forgotten reality of making such a piece of furniture entirely by hand, showing me the plane marks visible underneath the table top

He had me working on practice boards, fine-tuning the sanding, sealing and de-nibbing etc. Then we hit the table, so to speak

First the prep: there were nearly 200 years worth of grime and old polish to remove. As we stripped it back the beauty of the Cuban mahogany revealed itself and the beautifully-crafted details started to jump out, such as the double row of inlay, probably ebony, on the lower edgeIMG_9795

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Before and after stripping: I had barely noticed the inlay when we startedIMG_9797

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Top, before and after strippingIMG_9810

The colour and depth increased as we worked. It was reassuring to know that if I did anything REALLY stupid Roy would show me how to fix it. Bringing something so beautifully handcrafted back to life after years of abuse is exciting and rewarding, though there is much left to do

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(I still need to do the rest of it!)IMG_9924

The Big Debate – Porridge v Peelaway

Porridge – keep out of the reach of children

Following on from Porridgey Looks and Paint Removal

As I was paying for the cute (and kitsch) framed picture above, I noticed a dear little nicely foxed mirror that was filthy and absolutely lavished with paint – the ideal candidate for the porridge test? As it was too cheap to leave behind it seemed worth a punt (in the interests of science, of course)IMG_9125

It took me a while to spot the Quaker Oats packet in the supermarket. It was on the top shelf – for adults only, I guess. I didn’t have anything to mix it in, so I cut a San Pellegrino bottle in half, inadvertently creating the simple ‘coffee maker’ that I have failed to find in the shops so far. Handy, as going out for coffee breaks up the day and requires me to wear something much less indoors-y

Once it had reached the consistency I thought it should be, I applied it generously and covered it in cut up pieces of bin bag. This was lunchtime. It was only at six in the evening that I absent-mindedly noticed the part-can of Peelaway 7 in the hall, so I spread that on the rest of the frame and wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before. This made it feel like a properly scientific trial

No matter how much there is to do, it’s very hard to keep your hands off something when you have put paint stripper (or porridge) on it, so I had to try to keep busy. Even so, at ten o’clock that same evening I was peeling back the bin bags to see how both were performing and I couldn’t help picking away a bit on the Peelaway side with my available toolset, a plastic picnic knife. I was surprised to see how much paint had come off, but I realised that I had no neutraliser for it. Vinegar would work, but I didn’t have any and the shops were long-closed. I tried some brine from the olive jar, but (unsurprisingly) it didn’t work so I went scouting around, found some alcohol upstairs and poured some into a plastic cup (I know what you’re thinking but this wasn’t gin, it was proper murderous cleaning stuff that even I wouldn’t drink) and dipped the wire wool. It seemed to do the trick, and the paint came off quite cleanly, which was lucky as Baz’s toothbrush was the next implement I had in mind to use

When you start commandeering your husband’s current toothbrush for things like this it’s probably time for bed

I woke, well rested, at 6.50. Perhaps it was the fact that I now had coffee available, or perhaps I just couldn’t wait to get started, but I removed the rest of the Peelaway, which showed a vast improvement from the part I had messed with the night before. I still had no vinegar and even if the shops were open I was not prepared to go in search for it at that time of day, so I continued with the alcohol. It smells much nicer anyway and it evaporates really quickly. Then I removed part of the porridge as well, cleaning it afterwards with wet wire wool, then also with alcohol, for the sake of being equal. I have to say that the inner and most fiddly detailed edge came up just as well with porridge, but the bobbly beading was not really very good, as the porridge had been stopped in its tracks by a thick-ish layer of gloss paint, way too much to ask of the porridge mix. So, once I’d wiped down, I applied a small amount of Peelaway to just that area and covered it up again. Having plans for the day meant that the mirror would be safe from my meddling until the evening

The Verdict:

Porridge given enough time was very good at removing water-based paint. I would certainly do this again.  Plus, it’s easy to work with, environmentally friendly and cheap. It won’t damage anything and doesn’t need neutraliser

Peelaway 7 lifted all the paint, including the gloss, but don’t believe the videos of it coming off cleanly with all the paint securely attached. It is a very messy substance and not a joy to use at all. You absolutely have to neutralise it with something (they supply a bottle of the neutraliser, but never enough – it ran out ages ago) and there’s a lot of cleaning up to do afterwards

Just as a comparison I also tried the wire wool with alcohol on a separate patch, and it had little effect on the paint

So if the paint is water-based I would recommend the porridge method. It needs to be really gloopy and thick, but kept nice and wet for as long as possible to allow it to work

Thanks to Witch House for the tip. Ultimately I will be repainting the mirror frame, but I wanted to strip the details back first, instead of just disguising them even more

One-Trick Pony

If you only have a very small talent, use it as much as possible

I only really have one real answer to a problem: WD40

I’m not brand-specific, but when a screw doesn’t budge I squirt it, if a lock or hinge doesn’t work I drench it, if I need to polish something I cover cloth or wire wool with something WD40-ish. I guess there’s just a lot of rust in my life

But birds are true artists of make do and mend. The swans have nested on the bonfire pile that I never quite got around to burning or moving from the river bank in the autumn. Three eggs so far, they have created home from our negligence. They have tidied and trimmed the weeds around it and they have bizarrely trashed our neighbours’ (Spanish) bluebells, and left them strewn on the bank

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Yesterday’s main project for me was the shed door, rotten from the bottom up, having withstood two floods in the time we’ve been here (seventeen years last Thursday – I hold this anniversary as dear as any other). Baz was busy adding fox-proofing around the garden to give the chickens a bigger run, so I helped Baz lay wire under the grass

Normally when we use electric tools I’m the lowly facilitator, finding things, suggesting things, holding things firm while Baz performs the nobler and more responsible task of cutting. I got help from him for trimming the new wood for the bottom of the door, as much out of habit as anything. I salvaged most of the original door (even the old hinges – thanks to WD40) and now it’s primed and ready for a coat of ‘Garden’ to match the window we rebuilt in the autumn, (I just looked at that post and saw our beloved – and sadly now departed – Percy)

Baz and I have worked together professionally for over twenty years now, as well as living together. We have differences of opinion – sometimes very loud differences – but winning arguments has never really been on the agenda and that’s obviously part of what makes us a successful team: we’re not scared of each other’s point of view

The swans also work as a team. The male chose this nesting spot and persuaded his partner that this was the place, and since that time they have worked together to create their abode, both taking time on the eggs. Just after I snapped this the male came at me and I had to leg it, but I don’t know which of them has bluebell issues

And the renewed shed door? I’ve added 10 % new wood and maybe 5% WD40

 

 

 

 

 

Gerty’s Gorgeous Green Gifts

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After a five month sabbatical, Gertrude has decided to lay again. This is a real joy as her eggs are not only very delicious, but very beautiful too. They have a colour which defies green and a texture that makes eggshell sound way too ordinary. An egg from Gerty is something to touch and to hold, a photo waiting to be taken

The closest colour I can find is Farrow and Ball’s French Gray. Though they are slightly paler, they have exactly the same balance of colours

Once, due to the girls taking meds we were not allowed to eat her eggs for 28 days. At that time she was laying every day so I stockpiled the eggs. They looked amazing as a group, but eventually I threw them out for fear of someone dropping the bowl!

They make a lovely half dozen, don’t they?

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Watching and Waiting/ the French Fear

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Watching and saluting

There’s something about the front bedroom on our second floor, known for good reason as the bedroom with the head in a bag. I have noticed that people are inevitably drawn to throw open the right-hand window and shutter when they go in there, even though this room is every bit as derelict as the rest of the house.  Actually, I realise as I write this, it’s probably because there is no electricity in there and so no light. Aha! Now it all makes sense …

Except the head, which wasn’t a head at all in the end, but was and is still in a paper bag

Despite the impressive three-storey leak indoor water feature over our stairway we keep the house as secure and weatherproof as possible. So, when a friend texted me in December that this window was left open and the curtain was billowing – the builders had been in to measure up – another friend kindly went to the rescue and closed it for me

In the loft there are the signs and smells of a vast previous pigeon infestation. When I originally viewed the house I only saw one pigeon up there, but there were eggs too, and so I assumed the worst. I love birds but we could not co-habit. Yet when I returned in August the same eggs were still there and there was something resembling a very dead bird, sort of squished on the floor. The problem was thereby unintentionally solved, and we remain to date a pigeon-free zone

When the builder came to meet me he predictably threw open the window and shutter in question (again), and the sound of pigeons was immediately audible. There were three, lined up on the window ledge directly opposite and peering intently at us, just waiting for someone to make a mistake and provide access to their well-appointed former abode

Some days later as I waited outside for my lift to the airport, I looked up and three of them were again lurking and watching from the loft windowsill, in a pigeon two-fingered salute

There is a fear called ‘Anatidaephobia’, described by M. Google as ‘a pervasive, irrational fear that one is being watched by a duck’ . Disappointingly I now understand that this is an invented condition, though C still claims she has it. It is completely separate from ‘Ornithophobia’, a fear of birds in general, which no-one in our household – not even Mlle C – suffers from (it would make chicken-keeping a challenge)

There is no shortage of pigeons or of semi-derelict properties, particularly in France. Perhaps it’s just me, but I feel there must be a recognised fear of pigeons waiting for you to screw up and leave a window open so that they can get back into your house

 

New and Improved (Exactly the Same)

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Tuesday. The lock of the front door seized up with the key stuck firmly in it. After repeated attempts to remove it I settled for leaving the key in the lock overnight and bolting the door from the inside. Faced with having to break the key off and replace the whole thing, we levered the key with a screwdriver and it gave way and came out, slightly bent but still usable. We removed the lock, doused it (I don’t think that is too strong a word) in WD40 and I wrapped it carefully in a towel in my handbag, like a puppy. Today, in LeClerc in Limoux, they cleaned the lock and cut 2 new keys for 21 euros and it is working again. Not only is this cheaper than buying a new lock, I was able to easily re-fit it myself without damage to the door, and we can keep the beautiful original lock. Not to mention that my handbag is much lighter!

The meeting with the builder was a real mix of good and bad news. Yes, the roof will be very expensive (though hopefully less than he originally quoted) but also yes, the house is actually pretty much structurally sound. The ‘sound’ bit was the last thing I had expected. He reasoned that the 400 year old beams are still supporting the weight of all the original floor tiles, so they are strong and we shouldn’t worry about a bit of movement. There’s logic to it, and he demonstrated his point by jumping up and down on the spot several times where I want to put one of the extremely heavy and apparently very humorous ‘baignoires anglaises’

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Buoyed by this news I started removing the hideous 70s-patterned fabric from the walls of the Club Room (see remnant hanging right of photo – this awful material was covering every wall, right up to the ceiling). There are 3 or 4 layers of paper underneath before I reach the plaster, but it is encouraging so far. It would be lovely to be able to get one room looking presentable fairly soon, so that we could use it as a kitchen-diner, somewhere to have a cuppa and a sit-down, or even a glass of wine. Yes, that would be wonderful

I think I’ll have to settle for painting over the wainscotting. It is going to take forever to strip back this ‘brown stuff’, and then I’d probably paint it again anyway. But under the fabric wall covering was a fascinating glimpse into the thought process of the evil genius who decorated this one room, back in 1970-something:

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Yuck. They went to great trouble to select just the right shade of … whatever it is

‘Normandy Grey’ by Little Green would look a treat with the floor tiles and fireplace. It would certainly be more restful than this, but I am letting my imagination get ahead of things. Back to reality, I have to meet the electrician and the plumber tomorrow so that they can also scare the bejesus out of me, but tonight I am shacked up with a baguette and a very nice cheap bottle of red wine. Outside il pleut, in our house il pleut aussi, but in this apartment il fait tres chaud..

(smiley face, smiley face!)