Woody’s worries special
unravels the yarn of the shutter dog shepherdess
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.
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.”
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
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