MAY 2021


THIS MONTH - Charity Auction News - Montmartre - Lightbulb Moments - The Grand Tour - The First Photograph - Members News - The most valuable thing by weight - and more

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1870 - 1914   La Belle Époque – Montmartre through paintings and photos of the time

MIKE COLES writes:-

Throughout history, at particular times, certain places have become significant in the history of art. Think Florence at the time of the Renaissance or New York in the 1960’s. But one place that has been just as significant is Paris, and in particular the district of Montmartre, in the time of the Belle Epoque from around the mid 1870's till the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Belle Epoque is a retrospective label representing a period of great prosperity and urban development in France, and in Paris in particular, although at the time the vibe was more the Fin du Siècle – the anticipation of the end of the century, which embodied some of the future looking excitement we had in London in the 1990’s leading up to the millennium. But why Montmartre – how did it become a hotbed of a revolution in art?
The first thing we have to do is forget our perceptions of the Paris as we know it today. In the early 1800’s Montmartre was a rural village to the north of Paris and not part of the city at all. It was located on the slopes of a hill – ‘The Mount of Martyrs’ – the highest point in the area. Windmills were built on to top of the hill to take advantage of the wind and the slopes featured vineyards. It was a picturesque location that had already attracted painters, but by the middle of the 19th century, the landscape of Montmartre began to change. Industrialisation had side-lined the windmills and slow urbanisation encroached on the vineyards.
The owners of one of the windmills would eventually open a restaurant, known as the Moulin de la Galette, after the mill’s famous brand of bread, which soon became one of the main places where artists began to meet in order to hold high-minded conversations, enjoy wine and good food in the company of like-minded free spirits - Vincent Van Gogh painted it, and later Renoir too (Bal de la Moulin de la Galette.)

Writer Emile Zola noted that Montmartre was simply a place to enjoy the country air and be free of political and other ‘serious’ talk. Not being part of Paris meant that alcohol here was not subject to Parisian taxes - which helped. Unsurprisingly, the alcohol industry boomed and even the local nuns made wine.

In 1851 a coup in France brought in Napoleon III as Emperor. Paris at that time was still largely an unreconstructed medieval city with a large poverty-stricken, underclass. Napoleon set about modernising and brought in Georges-Eugène Haussmann to spearhead it. He was made Prefect of the Seine and the Emperor gave him the mission of making the city healthier, less congested and grander - medieval neighbourhoods had frequently become sites of popular discontent. 

For the next 17 years Paris was a building site – it was the largest urban redevelopment of a working city ever. During this period the city changed its urban structure, rebuilding the centre, knocking down its fortification and expanding the city limits - Montmartre was incorporated into Paris in 1860, however because of its hilly geography it was not suitable for Haussmann style development and retained its village character.

The loss of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 spelled the end of Napoleon III. Despite a new French government, a radical local movement known as the Paris Commune, identified largely with Montmartre, objected to the peace treaty signed with Germany and took over Paris. They were ousted after two months but this further reinforced Montmartre as a radical free-thinking district.
Meanwhile, the aftermath of the Paris Commune was seen by the Catholic Church as a prime opportunity to construct a huge Basilica, the Sacre Coeur, right on top of the hill in one of the strongholds of the red, revolutionary Parisians who supported it, and flagged it as an attempt at national reconciliation and atonement, and no doubt, despite government approval, to reassert the influence of the Church. Building began in 1875 but was not completed until 1914.
As the wealthy new Paris was developed the poorer residents were forced out of the centre to other areas and Montmartre was a popular option. Bars, cafés and cabarets sprang up and creative types were drawn to the lively pace of the village on top of the hill. In Montmartre artists found the sort of place where they could, not only afford, but thrive and have a good time. Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were just a few of those who soon made their home on the hill.

It replaced the re-developed Latin Quarter as the focus of the city’s intellectual and artistic community and hosted a thriving alternative culture that was driven by its critique of decadent society. Its raucous café-concerts and cabarets featured satires and crude, often subversive, performances that mocked the Third Republic’s bourgeois morality, conservatism and increasingly corrupt politics.
In 1881 Rodolph Salis opened the Chat Noir, a cabaret/bar that soon became the hub of the art community, which also included writers, political idealists and poets. Their presence set the bohemian tone of the establishment.
Bars opened serving alcohol both day and night. Cabarets and nightclubs offered lively and raunchy entertainment. To complete the decadence, brothels became widespread. The area attracted both the rich and poor from all over Paris.

Montmartre was the perfect environment for the young artist; It was cheap, full of energy and a geographically compact area. In the circus, dance halls and cabarets the entertainers were mostly from humble origins, whilst the spectators, consumers and clients from the growing Parisian and international bourgeoisie.
The 1889 Paris World’s Fair, saw the city at a new peak. The main attraction was the new Eiffel Tower but rivalled, for the more adventurous, by the opening of the Moulin Rouge cabaret, where the gentry and tourists mingled in search of sensations. Pimps, gangsters and prostitutes graciously welcomed visitors fascinated by the underground life: a new economy was born on the hill.
Yet, for a while, it still had a warm community atmosphere away from the expanding metropolis. Painters like Monet, Van Gogh or Renoir found in Montmartre an environment where it was possible (and affordable) to develop their art.
No other artist is identified with Montmartre than the aforementioned Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

He became synonymous with the area. He was not just an artist impersonally depicting what he saw in the neighbourhood’s brothels and cabarets - he loved his subjects, lived amongst them, with them, and painted them without judgement and with a genuine affection which was reflected in his work. In the cabarets and bars he revelled in painting the gentlemen in their top hats ‘slumming it’ in the audience.

He was one of the first artists to design posters and later turned to lithographs, but had a tragically short life. As a child, illness had stunted his growth and he was only four foot eight inches tall (1.42 metres). Despite his success and aristocratic background, he became addicted to alcohol, particularly absinth. He also contracted syphilis, reportedly from a prostitute named Rosa La Rouge, who was also the subject of several of his paintings.

He died in September 1901 aged 36.
Above - The Bateau-Lavoir

It was about this time that Picasso visited Montmartre for the first time. After several further visits he moved into the Bateau-Lavoir apartments in 1904. The building was a run-down, flimsy and very cheap block of small apartments. It was a place where many artists lived and rented studios. It was also a meeting place for impoverished painters, writers, actors and art dealers to share ideas.

Picasso stayed there until 1910. In 1907 he painted the proto-cubist “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", now one of the world’s most valuable paintings. Andre Derain, Modigliani, Juan Gris and Max Jacob also lived and worked there. Gauguin, Rousseau, Braque, Matisse, Apollinaire and Cocteau were frequent visitors.

The list of painters who lived at some time in Montmartre is long. It includes most important Impressionist and Post-Impressionists. 
By the time of the next Paris World’s Fair, held in 1900, Montmartre was developing more and more into a commercial entertainment industry, with over forty venues comprised of cabarets, café-concerts, dance halls, music halls, theatres, and circuses. By 1910 it was the Las Vegas of its day and the area’s underground bohemian culture had become a part of the mainstream. As a result, many of the avant-garde lost interest in the area and sought their inspiration elsewhere. What had begun as a critique of decadent society had become a symbol of decadence itself.
Today, around 300 artists are officially licensed to work in the streets of Montmartre and there’s a 10-year waiting list. The artists are assigned just one square metre to set up their easel. They often share the plot with others, working shifts to make maximum use of the precious space they’ve been allotted.
Top basket maker and willow wizard Mary Poulter has been asking EFOA members if there was a lightbulb moment in their life that set them off on their artistic journey. This month we have internationally renowned painter Laura Fishman and multi-talented artist Myra Lawson. More next month

Laura Fishman

"I remember the lightbulb moment when I knew I wanted to be an artist. I was about 4 years old, sitting around the table, drawing with my sisters. I was looking in the encyclopaedia and came across an image of Rembrandt's self-portrait. I started to draw expressive faces and thought: If this can be someone's job then it will be mine! I never changed my mind".
"I remember the portrait and, visually in my head, the drawings I made at that exact moment. Crazy how we artists remember things. Then much later I had a moment of serendipity when I was handling a large paint skin and it accidentally folded onto itself and stuck together.  That’s when I started sculpting paint!"
Myra Lawson

"I retired from my work in the Probation Service a few years before I needed.   I had, over many years, attended local evening classes in painting, drawing and later sculpture. When I retired in April of that year, I  discussed with my sculpture tutor the possibility of doing a part time  course at the Mary Ward Centre,  He  responded somewhat negatively implying that I needed to "up my game" if I planned to do this".
"Undeterred, I decided to apply for the Foundation Course anyway, and was asked to bring with a portfolio of my work.  I had very little to show and felt very inadequate when
I went for interview .  The interviewer, who some years later became its Principle, advised me that  if I wanted to do a Foundation Course, the natural follow on from this would be an application to college to do a degree course.  I had never thought beyond going to a few classes to keep myself occupied in retirement".

"This was my light bulb moment.  I started the Foundation Course combined with an A level in Art".
"I applied to Herts. University  and was accepted for a a four year part time BA in Fine Art followed by a  Research  MA .  It was a transforming experience".
From around the middle of the 19th century until the outbreak of World War Two, if you were of a certain class with the right sensibilities (and your parents were well off), it was seen as essential to round off your education by travelling around the great cultural locations of the world.

Mixing with the native populations was tiring enough, so the best accommodation was sought along the way. In response, extravagant ‘Grand Hotels‘ sprang up in all the great locations to serve this well heeled international clientele with all the comforts of home. You could take a travelling companion and even a servant or two.

Where a person visited, how they got there, where they stayed, when they began their traveling life, even how wealthy they were, was chronicled on their leather suitcases and trunks by colourful labels. The image of these, smattered with scenes of Venice, Cairo and "the Orient" sitting next to a waiting car, airplane or ocean liner, was the very symbol of adventure and romance.

In the mid 1800s, Grand Hotels would have engravings made depicting their architecture for printing on their stationery. Eventually, guests began cutting these illustrations out, and, taking a cue from the already widespread rail and ocean liner stickers, pasting them on their luggage as mementos of their journey and testaments to their social status and exceptional taste. Hoteliers quickly recognized the advertising potential of such labels, and around 1870 began arranging with printing houses, which employed their own artists, to make them. Often, these labels were oval or round (no corners to catch and tear) and usually printed in just one or two colours. They featured the name of the hotel and its location, as well as perhaps an illustration of the hotel or its coat of arms. In these early days, porters brushed the backs of the labels with gum and stuck them on to the luggage. There was even a suspicion that the positioning of the label related to the sizes of the tips they were getting.

Corresponding with the Golden Age of travel, from about 1900 to 1939, the great travel poster illustrators on the Continent, who were also creating hotel labels, moved away from simple depictions of the hotel buildings into idyllic scenes in vivid colours that often didn't include a picture of the hotel at all, but instead evoked some romanticized aspect of the locale.

Newsletter readers are a pretty superior lot, so for a moment, lets go back to those days and take an imaginary Grand Tour to the Far East, taking in some of the great sites and cities on the way. Paris, Monte-Carlo, The Lakes, Italy, Greece and on through the Middle East to China. We'll get a luxury liner back from Singapore. On the way we'll encounter lumiere electrique, Jennings sanitary arrangements, great monuments, ancient civilisations, exotic markets and new perspectives on life!
Have you ever wondered what the first photograph looked like?

The camera obscura had been in common use since the second half of the 16th century, although references to something similar go back as far as 1000 years B.C. Basically it was a darkened room, large box or tent with a pinhole which acted as a lens, (but later with an actual lens), which threw an image of the outside onto the inner wall of the room. Artists used them as an aid in their work.
However there was no method of recording the image permanently - accepting that a photograph, by definition, is a permanent record.

Some light sensitive materials that could capture images had been developed early in the 19th century but they quickly faded and no way had been found to fix them permanently. In 1826 Frenchman Nicephore Niepce was the first to fix an image that was captured with a camera, by now a small lightproof box with a lens which focussed an image like a camera obscura onto a sensitised plate on the back of the inside. Unfortunately exposures of at least eight hours or even several days were required on sensitised copper plates and the earliest results were very crude. Niépce's associate Louis Daguerre went on to develop the much better daguerreotype, the first publicly announced and commercially viable photographic process. The daguerreotype required only minutes of exposure in the camera, and produced clear, finely detailed results which could be fixed. The details were introduced to the world in 1839, a date generally accepted as the birth year of practical photography.
Above - Niepce's original 'photograph' of 1826. Below by 1837 daguerreotypes were looking more like photographs as we know them today

LONDON POTTERS was formed in 1986 to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and experiences of all those involved with or interested in ceramics. They are the only London-based society offering membership to both professional and non-professional ceramicists. All  members are united by the appreciation of ceramic art and a desire to further their knowledge and communicate with fellow ceramic artists and collectors. 

And now it's time for their Spring Showcase and renowned EFOA ceramicist Jo Pethybridge is in contention to win the 'Colour' section - Jo writes:-

"I have been selected as one of 3 in the London potters spring showcase category competition for colour on Instagram. The person with the most votes wins so please support me -  each 'like' is a vote."

Please go to and follow the links

At some point in everyone's life they will want to know what the most valuable thing in the world is by weight. If that's you at this moment then the answer is a postage stamp - a British Guiana One-Cent Magenta. This tiny, flimsy piece of paper - so light it virtually has no weight was sold in London in 2014 for £6,810,000. It's coming up for auction again in June. Watch this space!

A little bit of explanation:-

"The scrap of paper is the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, which was created in 1856 and is the most famous and valuable stamp in the world. “It is the Mona Lisa of philately,” said David Beech, a philatelic expert. “It is the one stamp that every philatelist and every collector would have heard about and seen an illustration of.” 

The stamp was created in British Guiana, now Guyana, when a shortage of stamps usually imported from England threatened to disrupt the colony’s postal service. The one cent stamp was mainly used for delivering newspapers, and most of those would have been thrown away. Beech said the surprise was less “why does only one exist today?” and more “it is a miracle that one stamp has survived”.

It was discovered in 1873 by a budding 12-year-old philatelist called Vernon Vaughan, a Scottish boy living in British Guiana. He found it in his uncle’s papers, thought it looked valuable and sold it for six shillings."

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