Woody’s wor­ries spe­cial

un­rav­els the yarn of the shutter dog shep­herdess

French Property News - - Contents -

Ruth the sleuth re­ports back on the case of the shutter dog shep­herdess

Death in Par­adise is one of the few de­tec­tive dra­mas I can stand these days. If I must watch a mur­der mys­tery, at least let it be a fluffy, fun mur­der on a trop­i­cal island where the po­lice turn up wear­ing flip flops.

Bet­ter still, can’t we drop death and have more de­tec­tive sto­ries about life, about where things come from, how they be­gan?

If you read last month’s Woody’s Wor­ries you may re­mem­ber the Case of the Shutter Dog Shep­herdess. I’ve been try­ing to find out the ori­gins of the beau­ti­ful iron fig­urines that hold the wooden shut­ters open on many tra­di­tional houses in France. These ar­rêts de vo­lets (lit­er­ally shutter stops in French but known as shutter dogs in English) sit in the wall and hold the shutter open, pre­vent­ing it from flap­ping about in the wind.

French shutter dogs come in many dif­fer­ent de­signs, but in north­ern France, there is one mo­tif that pops up ev­ery­where – la tête de bergère, the shep­herdess’ head. Of­ten de­picted with a floppy hat at an an­gle and a square-necked dress with a rose at the bo­som, she’s an el­e­gant lady, de­spite the many decades of chipped paint that tend to smother her features. But who is she? Where does she come from? And why is she so pop­u­lar?

I con­tacted var­i­ous her­itage as­so­ci­a­tions and ar­chi­tects to try to get the an­swers, but all my en­quiries were fruit­less.

Iron heart­land

Then one day, af­ter talk­ing to a Paris-based en­thu­si­ast called Wil­liam Diem, I found an on­line ex­tract from an 1893 iron­mon­ger’s cat­a­logue list­ing têtes de bergères. The man­u­fac­turer was a foundry called Camion Frères in the Ar­dennes, a re­gion of north­east­ern France named af­ter a moun­tain range rich in iron. It turned out that the Ar­dennes is the heart­land of France’s iron­work in­dus­try and full of foundries ( fondeurs). Camion Frères no longer ex­ists in its orig­i­nal in­car­na­tion so I con­tacted the as­so­ci­a­tion of Fondeurs who put me in touch with the Musée de la Mé­tal­lurgie Ar­den­naise who put me in touch with a re­tired civil ser­vant who lives 500 miles south of the Ar­dennes in Provence.

Bingo! Marc Stampfler is a shutter dog col­lec­tor and a gold­mine of in­for­ma­tion. In fact his book on the sub­ject will be pub­lished next year by Ter­res Ar­dennes.

“My in­ter­est be­gan with a fool­ish quest to track down the shutter dog from my great grand­fa­ther’s house,” said Marc. “I now have nearly 500 of them in wrought and cast iron.

“Peo­ple don’t see the shutter dogs as they walk through the streets. They are no­ticed even less than doors and knock­ers, and are for­got­ten un­der lay­ers of paint.”

Rock ‘n slide

The slide-and-rocker type of shutter dog typ­i­fied by the tête de bergère was in­vented in 1868 by a man called A Cleuet, ex­plained Marc. He was a sales rep at Camion Frères, which was back then one of the big­gest foundries in the Ar­dennes. The head is on a pivot and can be lifted up, then dropped down into a slot that holds it in po­si­tion.

The fig­urine on the orig­i­nal patent was not in fact a shep­herdess but a chimera, the fire-breath­ing mon­ster of Greek mythol­ogy. How­ever, when Camion Frères be­gan to mass pro­duce ar­rêts de vo­lets in var­i­ous de­signs, it was the shep­herdess mo­tif that proved a run­away suc­cess.

Other foundries jumped on the band­wagon and started mass-pro­duc­ing their own lit­tle char­ac­ters in wrought or cast iron. Soon they were pop­ping up all over France, but par­tic­u­larly north of the Loire. And al­ways the shep­herdess was the favoured mo­tif, so much so in fact that, to this day, they are of­ten sim­ply called bergères even if they ac­tu­ally de­pict sailors or other char­ac­ters.

So why was the shep­herdess such a hit? Marc thinks it may have some­thing to do with Marie

An­toinette, the last queen of France be­fore the Rev­o­lu­tion.

“I think the shep­herdess was, in the 18th and 19th cen­tury, a per­son very much rep­re­sented in French paint­ing,” he said. “Marie An­toinette was rep­re­sented as a shep­herdess and there was a fa­mous song in 1780 called It’s rain­ing, shep­herdess.

“We also find the shep­herdess in Toile de Jouy (the iconic print pop­u­lar in uphol­stery of the day). And then there is the fact that the shep­herdess is a guardian. In this case, she keeps the shut­ters open and, by ex­ten­sion, she keeps the house safe.”

Dress­ing up

Af­ter­wards, I did a bit of googling and gasped at how well Marc’s jig­saw piece fit­ted into the puz­zle. Marie An­toinette and her aris­to­cratic friends cer­tainly did seem to have a pen­chant for all things pas­toral, some­thing re­flected in or in­spired by the Ro­coco art move­ment of the pe­riod.

Marie An­toinette and Louis XV’S mis­tress, the Mar­quise de Pom­padour, were both im­mor­talised in oil paint­ings as bergères, com­plete with floppy hats, flow­ers and rib­bons. The queen had a con­tro­ver­sial rus­tic retreat in the grounds of Ver­sailles where, ru­mour had it, she and her high-born friends liked to play at peas­ants, com­plete with lambs trussed up in rib­bons – though this story is more idle gossip than fact, ac­cord­ing to the Ver­sailles web­site.

Well, with that, I sup­pose I should say “case closed”. But un­til I’ve read Marc’s book next year I might just leave this one open, and I’ll leave the last word to him.

“I un­der­stand that the Bri­tish like to ren­o­vate the build­ings they buy in France with au­then­tic pieces. With pa­tience and cu­rios­ity, they will find some beau­ti­ful shutter dogs in flea mar­ket and auc­tion sites. I hope this story will en­cour­age them.”

Of­ten de­picted with a floppy hat at an an­gle and a square-necked dress with a rose at the bo­som, she’s an el­e­gant lady, de­spite the chipped paint. But who is she? Where does she come from? And why is she so pop­u­lar?

Did this paint­ing of Marie An­toinette by Elis­a­beth Louise Vigée Le­brun in­spire shutter dog mak­ers 100 years later?

A typ­i­cal shep­herdess shutter dog (tête de bergère) spot­ted in Rochefort-en-terre, Brit­tany

The first shutter dogs were chimeras a bit like this one in Au­vergne

Left: You can recog­nise a Camion Frères shutter dog by the en­graved ini­tials CF; an an­chor was added in 1878; this is a post-1900 bergère

s ill M d ar h ic R ©

The sailor with his stripy top is a com­mon mo­tif

Maggie Thatcher per­haps? This Iron Lady is not for turn­ing!

Keep your eyes peeled for the ‘san­glier’ or wild boar shutter dog as its quite rare!

An­other un­usual de­sign to look out for is the ‘loup’ or wolf

A rare King Louis-phillippe shutter dog spot­ted in Hérault

Char­ac­ter shutter dogs are less com­mon in the south of France

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