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Imaginary portraits, p.6

Imaginary Portraits, page 6


Imaginary Portraits

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  [47] Almost every people, as we know, has had its legend of a "goldenage" and of its return--legends which will hardly be forgotten, howeverprosaic the world may become, while man himself remains the aspiring,never quite contented being he is. And yet in truth, since we are nolonger children, we might well question the advantage of the return tous of a condition of life in which, by the nature of the case, thevalues of things would, so to speak, lie wholly on their surfaces,unless we could regain also the childish consciousness, or ratherunconsciousness, in ourselves, to take all that adroitly and with theappropriate lightness of heart. The dream, however, has been left forthe most part in the usual vagueness of dreams: in their waking hourspeople have been too busy to furnish it forth with details. Whatfollows is a quaint legend, with detail enough, of such a return of agolden or poetically-gilded age (a denizen of old Greece itselfactually finding his way back again among men) as it happened in anancient town of medieval France.

  [48] Of the French town, properly so called, in which the products ofsuccessive ages, not without lively touches of the present, are blendedtogether harmoniously, with a beauty specific--a beauty cisalpine andnorthern, yet at the same time quite distinct from the massive Germanpicturesque of Ulm, or Freiburg, or Augsburg, and of which Turner hasfound the ideal in certain of his studies of the rivers of France, aperfectly happy conjunction of river and town being of the essence ofits physiognomy--the town of Auxerre is perhaps the most completerealisation to be found by the actual wanderer. Certainly, forpicturesque expression it is the most memorable of a distinguishedgroup of three in these parts,--Auxerre, Sens, Troyes,--each gathered,as if with deliberate aim at such effect, about the central mass of ahuge grey cathedral.

  Around Troyes the natural picturesque is to be sought only in the rich,almost coarse, summer colouring of the Champagne country, of which thevery tiles, the plaster and brick-work of its tiny villages and great,straggling, village-like farms have caught the warmth. The cathedral,visible far and wide over the fields seemingly of loose wild-flowers,itself a rich mixture of all the varieties of the Pointed style down tothe latest Flamboyant, may be noticed among the greater French churchesfor breadth of proportions internally, and is famous [49] for itsalmost unrivalled treasure of stained glass, chiefly of a florid,elaborate, later type, with much highly conscious artistic contrivancein design as well as in colour. In one of the richest of its windows,for instance, certain lines of pearly white run hither and thither,with delightful distant effect, upon ruby and dark blue. Approachingnearer you find it to be a Travellers' window, and those odd lines ofwhite the long walking-staves in the hands of Abraham, Raphael, theMagi, and the other saintly patrons of journeys. The appropriateprovincial character of the bourgeoisie of Champagne is still to beseen, it would appear, among the citizens of Troyes. Its streets, forthe most part in timber and pargeting, present more than one unalteredspecimen of the ancient hotel or town-house, with forecourt and gardenin the rear; and its more devout citizens would seem even in theirchurch-building to have sought chiefly to please the eyes of thoseoccupied with mundane affairs and out of doors, for they have finished,with abundant outlay, only the vast, useless portals of their parishchurches, of surprising height and lightness, in a kind of wildlyelegant Gothic-on-stilts, giving to the streets of Troyes a peculiarair of the grotesque, as if in some quaint nightmare of the Middle Age.

  At Sens, thirty miles away to the west, a place of far graver aspect,the name of Jean [50] Cousin denotes a more chastened temper, even inthese sumptuous decorations. Here all is cool and composed, with analmost English austerity. The first growth of the Pointed style inEngland-the hard "early English" of Canterbury--is indeed the creationof William, a master reared in the architectural school of Sens; andthe severity of his taste might seem to have acted as a restrainingpower on all the subsequent changes of manner in this place--changes inthemselves for the most part towards luxuriance. In harmony with theatmosphere of its great church is the cleanly quiet of the town, keptfresh by little channels of clear water circulating through itsstreets, derivatives of the rapid Vanne which falls just below into theYonne. The Yonne, bending gracefully, link after link, through anever-ending rustle of poplar trees, beneath lowly vine-clad hills,with relics of delicate woodland here and there, sometimes close athand, sometimes leaving an interval of broad meadow, has all thelightsome characteristics of French river-side scenery on a smallerscale than usual, and might pass for the child's fancy of a river, likethe rivers of the old miniature-painters, blue, and full to a fairgreen margin. One notices along its course a greater proportion thanelsewhere of still untouched old seignorial residences, larger orsmaller. The range of old gibbous towns along its banks, expandingtheir gay quays upon the water-side, [51] have a commoncharacter--Joigny, Villeneuve, Saint Julien-du-Sault--yet tempt us totarry at each and examine its relics, old glass and the like, of theRenaissance or the Middle Age, for the acquisition of real though minorlessons on the various arts which have left themselves a centralmonument at Auxerre.--Auxerre! A slight ascent in the winding road!and you have before you the prettiest town in France--the broadframework of vineyard sloping upwards gently to the horizon, withdistant white cottages inviting one to walk: the quiet curve of riverbelow, with all the river-side details: the three great purple-tiledmasses of Saint Germain, Saint Pierre, and the cathedral of SaintEtienne, rising out of the crowded houses with more than the usualabruptness and irregularity of French building. Here, that rareartist, the susceptible painter of architecture, if he understands thevalue alike of line and mass of broad masses and delicate lines, has "asubject made to his hand."

  A veritable country of the vine, it presents nevertheless an expressionpeaceful rather than radiant. Perfect type of that happy mean betweennorthern earnestness and the luxury of the south, for which we prizemidland France, its physiognomy is not quite happy--attractive in partfor its melancholy. Its most characteristic atmosphere is to be seenwhen the tide of light and distant cloud is travelling quickly [52]over it, when rain is not far off, and every touch of art or of time onits old building is defined in clear grey. A fine summer ripens itsgrapes into a valuable wine; but in spite of that it seems alwayslonging for a larger and more continuous allowance of the sunshinewhich is so much to its taste. You might fancy something querulous orplaintive in that rustling movement of the vine-leaves, as blue-frockedJacques Bonhomme finishes his day's labour among them.

  To beguile one such afternoon when the rain set in early and walkingwas impossible, I found my way to the shop of an old dealer inbric-a-brac. It was not a monotonous display, after the manner of theParisian dealer, of a stock-in-trade the like of which one has seenmany times over, but a discriminate collection of real curiosities. Oneseemed to recognise a provincial school of taste in various relics ofthe housekeeping of the last century, with many a gem of earlier timesfrom the old churches and religious houses of the neighbourhood. Amongthem was a large and brilliant fragment of stained glass which mighthave come from the cathedral itself. Of the very finest quality incolour and design, it presented a figure not exactly conformable to anyrecognised ecclesiastical type; and it was clearly part of a series.On my eager inquiry for the remainder, the old man replied that no moreof it was [53] known, but added that the priest of a neighbouringvillage was the possessor of an entire set of tapestries, apparentlyintended for suspension in church, and designed to portray the wholesubject of which the figure in the stained glass was a portion.

  Next afternoon accordingly I repaired to the priest's house, in realitya little Gothic building, part perhaps of an ancient manor-house, closeto the village church. In the front garden, flower-garden and potagerin one, the bees were busy among the autumn growths--many-colouredasters, bignonias, scarlet-beans, and the old-fashioned parsonageflowers. The courteous owner readily showed me his tapestries, some ofwhich hung on the walls of his parlour and staircase by way of abackground for the display of the other curiosities of whi
ch he was acollector. Certainly, those tapestries and the stained glass dealtwith the same theme. In both were the same musical instruments--pipes,cymbals, long reed-like trumpets. The story, indeed, included thebuilding of an organ, just such an instrument, only on a larger scale,as was standing in the old priest's library, though almost soundlessnow, whereas in certain of the woven pictures the hearers appear as iftransported, some of them shouting rapturously to the organ music. Asort of mad vehemence prevails, indeed, throughout the delicatebewilderments of the whole series--[54] giddy dances, wild animalsleaping, above all perpetual wreathings of the vine, connecting, likesome mazy arabesque, the various presentations of one oft-repeatedfigure, translated here out of the clear-coloured glass into thesadder, somewhat opaque and earthen hues of the silken threads. Thefigure was that of the organ-builder himself, a flaxen and flowerycreature, sometimes wellnigh naked among the
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