Parisian Fairs - Part 2
( Originally Published 1938 )
There is n't! I, who write this to you, speak the truth, for I have been to the Foire four times, and I wish now that I had spent the whole week there. If anything, it is more fascinating than the Marché aux Puces, at least there is greater variety, though that has the advantage of being a permanent institution, while the Ham Fair, like Christmas, comes but once a year. Some savants trace its beginnings back to the days of Charles the Bald, which is the time of the Strasbourg Oath, which took place in 842. (I am learning history, you see.) And while it is spoken of usually as La Foire aux Jambons, a much more important part, to a collector, is the adjoining Foire aux Ferrailles (Junk Fair). When you go, wear your oldest clothes and your most comfortable shoes, for you will have to walk and walk; the Fairs stretch from the Place de la Bastille down to the Boulevard Faubourg-du-Temple.
If you have only a little time to spend, go straight to the Métro station Richard Lenoir, although it is a most interesting study in human nature to begin at the Bastille, to pass by stands where you can purchase paper or lace or aprons or bright pink spun-sugar; to behold romantic, turreted backgrounds against which you may have your photograph taken riding on a stuffed donkey, — the Parisian equivalent of a Coney Island automobile,— or buy a ginger-bread pig with your name written upon it in tiny colored confetti. It 's a standing joke in Paris to remark that even hams may be found at the Foire aux Jambons. I dare say there used to be more; however, plenty of placarded stalls greet you with, "A la renommee des saucissons d'Auvergne," "A la renommee des rillettes de Touraine"; then, quite at the end, a last little stand with the sign: "Ici pas de renommee — mais goutez-moi ca!" (No renown here, but just taste that, will you?)
Indeed, I 'm not sure but that I 'd like to do my marketing at the Fair, for the vegetables too are quite wonderful. The cauliflowers are huge white solid heads, often only a franc apiece. And I am very sure that if I were a beginning housekeeper I should go to the Foire aux Ferrailles for my furniture. Never again do I expect to have a Louis Seize mahogany card-table offered to me for sixty-five francs. Fancy! Even with the franc at its normal value, that is only thirteen dollars. Or an early-nineteenth-century vaisselier for a hundred and twenty-five. That would have looked charming ranged with old Strasbourg or Nevers ware, for I always think that walnut, in the gentle brown-gold color so common to France, has infinitely more soul than mahogany. Strange to say, I did n't buy any more candlesticks; they were there by battalions, but I had such a lot already, and then they were rather higher than at the Marche aux Puces. But I did get two very desirable pairs of sconces, rather like those I have on either side of the little Constitution mirror which hangs above my Hepplewhite tip-table. The first — a large double pair — I picked up at a flat-on-the-ground booth where there were old locks and keys and hinges and bolts, and a very jolly patron. All around him was a babel of bargaining, and he kept imploring his customers to allow him at least another sou for a cup of coffee. I did n't try to cheapen my purchase at all; four francs seemed so pathetically little, anyhow. The second pair came from another junk-heap, and those are single and smaller and cost just half as much.
But don't think that everything is inexpensive at the Foire aux Ferrailles : I saw a pair of vases change hands for several hundred francs, and as for the silhouettes, why, I could n't hope to touch them. Even if I had wanted to, which I did n't, for they were clumsily cut profiles, such as no self-respecting collector would ever hang upon her walls. French dealers as yet do not understand this delicate shadow-art; you 're quite apt to have an enormous bargain, some charmingly painted shade, offered you at the same price asked for a wretched scissorgraph that you 'd scorn to own.
There were many, many paintings too at the Fair, and these I scrutinized with attention — not that I am in any way a connoisseur, but because a most thrilling tale is told of a "find" at this very place. Years and years ago, when the classical school of David represented the consummation of taste, and Watteau was forgotten, — or, worse still, unfashionable, — his wonderful Gilles, which to-day so much delights us at the Louvre, was offered for sale at the Foire. For a long time it went a-begging, and at last the brocanteur, in desperation, chalked a couplet of a popular song upon the picture itself
Que Pierrot serait heureux S'il
And then along came the predestined, discerning collector, and bought it for twenty dollars! That 's why I examined so meticulously a sixteenth-century lady whose portrait had been painted upon a small panel of wood, a panel no larger than five by seven inches, and intended, without doubt, to fit into the carved magnificence of some chateau wall. Still, she did n't fit into the simplicity of my little eighteenth-century cottage, and so I passed her by reluctantly. But do you suppose I was ignorantly refusing the portrait of a court lady, ordered by Francis the First from one of his Italian painters?
Never mind; I had a most compensating piece of good fortune. You, too. Let me tell you about it. You know the smaller dealers of Paris have a way of closing their shops for the week and bringing their wares to the Fair; it is an excellent advertisement for them, and it helps to get rid of reluctant antiquities as well. It was at the stall of a marchande from Batignolles that I saw my first really good piece of lustre, a sugar-box with delicate silver resist-bands against a creamy surface. I have no idea what price was asked for it at the beginning of the Fair, but on Thursday I bought it for ten francs. The dealer told me that she had refused thirty-five for it at Batignolles, and whether it is a superstition or not I don't know, but all these people seem to have a horror of taking anything back with them; collectors tell me that on the last afternoon things are absolutely given away. When it was put into my hands I gloated over it, for it really is very pretty and plumply en-gaging, six inches in height and almost as wide, but the more I looked at it, the more I saw it on the shelves of your Empire secretary, conversing amicably with its cousin, your great-grandmother's pitcher. I felt that it belonged to you.
I was going straight home with it to put it in my armoire until it could be securely packed, but Orde met us and hurried us off to the Place Voltaire to see Sarah Bernhardt's magnificent funeral cortege. The throng had already begun to gather when we arrived, and we were fortunate to find a place anywhere near the edge of the curbstone; I really felt grateful for being so tall. And there we stood for nearly two hours, I all the time clasping your cherished sugar-box to my breast with sheltering arms, for I was bound that no ill chance should befall it. But I was n't bored for one moment. I enjoyed the people so thoroughly. And yet it was just an everyday crowd from an everyday arrondissement: persistent old ladies who wanted to cross the street and insistent sergents de ville who would n't let them; men from the near-by cafes; a baker's boy with his arm round the waist of a pretty little midinette; street urchins; schoolboys; a little scuffling, a little argumentative, very good-humored and full of jokes. But as the stately retinue of the great woman who had given the world so much happiness came into sight, so swiftly reverent. "Ah, que des fleurs! Toutes, toutes blanches!" And all the hats were lifted instantly. Gavroche had thrown Bernhardt his last bouquet!
As we were whirled away in our taxi, I looked back at that long line of flowers marching, marching, and the misty green trees of Pere-Lachaise massed against a springtime sky. Ah, if one had to die, it was such a beautiful day to be buried — the whole earth so soft and warm. I shall never forget it.
Since then, every second has been occupied. I have been so very busy that I have n't had the right kind of time to take your little lustre bit to a proper emballeur. And as we leave Easter Monday for Touraine, I again shall bear it with me, but this time in my handbag. I hope to send it on from there, and when it does reach you, you must imagine it to be filled to the brim with the admiring good wishes of
Friend in Collecting, ALICE