The Accidental Prop Shop

The world’s smallest brocante – and nothing is for sale

All my current favourite rooms in the house seem to be the ones that had been in complete darkness for over forty years, with the shutters and doors firmly closed. Perhaps they scream the loudest and so they get the my attention?

This room is effectively just the end of a corridor next to the ‘Damask Room’ and had been used by the elderly lady as a cooking and laundry area until the mid-1970s. Note the clothes pegs and hangers – I’m not really a detective

Poshbird's prop shop
as we found it August 2015

I spent a day last week stripping this tiny room bare of paper. The Dissoucol worked a dream and I learned the (mercifully brief) wallpaper history of this space

Poshbird's prop shop

Under the very brown patterned wallpaper with the horribly mismatched border there was a cobalt blue and white lace-patterned paper which must have been very elegant in its day. This in turn had its own border, deep blue and graphite with silver grapes on it, though I only found small traces of this

Poshbird's prop shop

Poshbird's prop shop

The ceiling paper was extraordinary only in the fact that it would never have worked with either wallpaper. I was fascinated by how the pattern has chemically degraded

Removing the old coat rack (I have kept it for future use) revealed a patch where the colour had remained, showing an unexpected and much cheerier sky blue background

Poshbird's prop shop

I found various scribbles on receipts covering up to 1975 in the coke box. I gathered all the evidence – which will need a good iron – and stuck it into a vide grenier frame for safe-keeping

Poshbird's prop shop

Also in among the coke was a cannonball, about two and a half inches in diameter. No doubt at least one of these has hit the house during its history, judging by the cracks. This house just keeps giving

Poshbird's prop shop
in spring 2017 we ‘lost’ the cooker or whatever it was
Poshbird's prop shop
some epic gravity-defying cobwebs

The little room is earmarked for a loo and washbasin and we’ve had plumbing installed in readiness, but I was SO enjoying unpacking all sorts of smaller gems after two years in their wrappings that I decided to actually ‘put’ them somewhere to enjoy them. I’ve never had them in one place together before so it’s been hard to gauge scale etc. Plus, I wanted to check for breakages – so far, so good…

Poshbird's prop shop
Exterior doors (right one partially cleaned)

The original paintwork on the doors showed fabulous colours under the filth, so rather than remove the lead-based paint (and who knows what else is in it?) I will keep it. It rivals any posh paint colours of today and has a genuinely fabulous patina. I’m sure some people would squirm at the idea, but I don’t care. I can use wax to seal it

Poshbird's prop shop
Starting to unpack (interior door to hallway)

And so, here we have the world’s smallest brocante, the beginnings of my own personal prop shop from which I can pick and choose items. Don’t you just love it?

Poshbird's prop shop

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?