Monday, 22 July 2013

Victor Hugo’s Home Improvements

Writers’ houses make good holiday destinations. The Brontë Parsonage, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Jane Austen’s home at Chawton, Henry James at Lamb House, Rye: been there, done that. Best of all are those places where I think I get a sense of how the writer liked to work. Small rooms usually: Dylan Thomas’s writing shed at Laugharne, for instance, or the little bedroom added on to Monk’s House in Sussex for Virginia Woolf.

Now, though, I have visited the most extraordinary writer’s house I have ever seen. In Guernsey last week I was lucky enough to be one of a small party given a private tour of Victor Hugo’s home, Hauteville House. Our guide was Odile Blanchette, custodian and curator, keeper of the Hugo flame, fund-raiser for urgently-needed conservation work to the property and (in case all this was not enough) French Consul in St. Peter Port.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) went into exile in 1852. Already the leading French Romantic writer of his time, he had protested against the coup d’état staged by Louis-Napoleon, and after taking to the barricades ‘in defence of liberalism and democracy’*, had fled first to Belgium and then, for three years, to Jersey. “But he didn’t stay long on Jersey,” explained Trev, the Yorkshire-born Tantivy coach driver who took us around that island in May. “ ’E wor a bit gobby, so we kicked ’im out.” Well, that was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory, but just about accurate enough to explain how Hugo came to find himself on Guernsey. He loved the island; for him it became ‘ce rocher d'hospitalité et de liberté’. And here in 1856 he bought 38, Hauteville Street, a substantial house with a good garden and a distant view of the St. Peter Port harbour and Castle Cornet.

The house today stands almost exactly as he left it. It’s in part a shrine to himself:  the initials VH crop up everywhere – even in the trellis work on the white wall of the conservatory. In part, though, it’s also a shrine to his extraordinary imagination, an imagination constantly reworking history. Apart from the family room on the ground floor, with traditional family portraits, carom billiards table and divans around the walls, every other room is eccentrically or exotically furnished - or both. The furniture, the wall hangings, the assemblages of Delft tiles everywhere you look, compose a kind of grand bricolage: old chests, ancient linen-fold panelling, church woodwork, and then more domestic objects, flat-iron trivets, chair backs – all of this dismantled, recycled and reassembled into a wonderfully bizarre yet imposing décor.

But that’s only the ground floor. The reception rooms upstairs – the Red Room and the Blue Room – are sumptuously furnished with silks, damask hangings, chinoiserie and genuine Chinese artwork.  ‘Rococo’ hardly does them justice. And then, to the floor above: Hugo’s library is housed in glass-fronted bookcases on the landing – located there rather than in his study, we were told, so that his servants could also read and enjoy the books. They certainly look to have been well thumbed.

And thence into the strangest room of all, sometimes known as the Garibaldi Room. It’s a magnificent bedchamber, but one to die in, not to die for. Really, it’s two rooms in one: a bedroom with a formidable bed that looks out apparently onto a thicket of carved wooden columns and candelabra. The other half of this chamber unnervingly resembles a courtroom.  Behind a large table three high-backed chairs confront the bed and any unfortunate occupant, alive or dead. Hugo, so Odile tells us, may have designed this room for his own death, but evidently only passed one night in it. I’m not surprised.

What did surprise me was what came next. From the library landing, a small and almost hidden staircase leads up to Hugo’s ‘lookout’. This is a once-tiny attic room (no doubt originally servants’ quarters) he had extended by creating a conservatory built into the roof, a loft conversion avant la lettre, with wonderful views out to sea. Here, in this sparsely furnished eyrie, Hugo wrote. He did not sit at a desk, but had a writing surface fixed up against the sea-facing windows, and at this he stood to write, finishing his longest, finest book of all, Les Misérables. The story of the reformed convict, Jean Valjean, and of his nemesis, Javert, was completed at this table, from which its author could look out on a clear day and just discern the French coast. Here’s his own description of the view:

Et cependant, pensif, j’écris à ma fenêtre,
Je regarde le flot naître, expirer, renaître,
                                    Et les goëlands fendre l’air.
Les navires au vent ouvrent leurs envergures,
Et ressemblent au loin à de grandes figures
                                    Qui se promènent sur la mer.

And still, deep in thought, I write at my window,
I watch the tide come in, go out, come in again.
                                    And the gulls slice though the air.
Ships unfurl their sails before the wind:
Seen far off they remind me of giants
                                    Who stroll up and down on the sea.

But even now, just when we think we have seen everything, we have not done: there is yet more. Out through French windows, the pantiles and decorated chimneys of St Peter Port suddenly at eye level, we climb a last few steps to the topmost balcony, the highest point of Hauteville, and stand literally on the rooftop. It’s almost dusk, and the harbour lights are shining. We can’t quite believe we are where we are. It is surely something to have shared this spectacular view with one of the most famous writers Europe ever produced, a viewpoint he himself fashioned, the final, simplest room of the house: Victor Hugo’s belvedere.

As sunset gives way to twilight, we descend. I remember that over the doorway of the ground-floor dining room, one of the first rooms Odile showed us, Hugo had carved the words EXILIUM VITA EST. When I’d first read this I assumed he had meant, ‘Life is exile’. But now, after standing where Hugo stood, first by his writing surface in the look-out and then with my hand on the same rooftop railing he used to hold, I think his motto meant something much more positive: ‘Exile is life’.

Adrian Barlow

* This phrase comes from Gregory Stevens Cox’s excellent book, Victor Hugo aux Iles de la Manche (Guernsey: Toucan Press 2010) which contains some remarkable contemporary photographs of the rooms in Hauteville House as decorated by Victor Hugo. By coincidence, coming home from Guernsey having just written this blog, I read in the TLS a review of a new book, Photojournalism and the Origins of the French Writer House Museum (London: Ashgate 2012) in which the author, Elizabeth Emery, explains how the rise of psychology in the late 19th century turned the writer's home into "an agent of the unconscious, a privileged window into the working of the fallible literary mind". This sums up perfectly my experience of visiting Hauteville House.

[illustrations: (i) sunset view from the Belvedere, Hauteville House, Guernsey (photo copyright Ed Barlow) (ii) Statue of Victor Hugo in Candie Gardens, Guernsey (photo copyright Adrian Barlow)

I have blogged before about the Channel Islands:

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Reading Stained Glass (i): Rouen

Were medieval men and women, especially those who did not have to trouble themselves with reading and writing,  particularly long sighted? They would have found it useful when looking at stained glass. We are used to being told these days that the great windows of European cathedrals, depicting scriptural and historical narratives, were the ‘bible of the poor’. This analogy only works, though, if the poor could actually see and make sense of the images in windows that might be fifty feet or more above their heads.

But even assuming they could make out images we struggle to see without a telephoto lens, how might they have ‘read’ and enjoyed what they saw?

I pondered this last week in Rouen Cathedral. The windows in the déambulatoire behind the High
Altar rise from well above head-height almost to the vault, and because the passage is relatively narrow, it’s hard to stand far enough back to take in the detail of the any but the lower glass. Of course, the initial impact is exhilaratingly abstract, and I’ve no doubt that stained glass artists in the past century (think of Coventry Cathedral, or the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche in Berlin) have modelled their designs on such abstraction. Nevertheless, the individual scenes are written with the immediacy of a graphic novel, and actually with a good deal more animation.

Look, for instance, at the Rouen stained glass 'medallion' I’ve chosen, an early scene from a sequence of pictures telling the story of the Passion. Here is Jesus, kneeling, with a golden (but presumably brass) bowl beside him. He’s washing the feet of his disciples, and has reached Peter, whom we can identify by the keys he holds in his hand – the keys of the Kingdom, with which Jesus will later entrust him. Another disciple, unidentified this time, sits beside Peter.

The image is radically simplified: although this event occurs at the start of the Last Supper, there is no attempt to suggest the Upper Room or the table set for thirteen people. The focus is entirely on the action taking place.  The footwashing image itself, the feet and the hands painted onto a single piece of glass, is framed within a border of lead, just below the centre of the not-quite-circular medallion. Peter’s ankle rests in the left hand of Jesus; the other hand washes his toes. Peter himself seems tired: his cheek rests on his palm, and he appears to have his eyes closed, as if in anticipation of his falling asleep later that evening in the Garden of Gethsemene (‘Could ye not watch with me one hour?’ Jesus will ask him reproachfully). The other disciple glances sideways to check how he is reacting. Jesus has his eyes wide open, but he looks not at the others but into some future only he can see. It is as if the story takes place simultaneously in time and out of it, and this idea is emphasized by the way the medallion functions almost like a celestial body floating in space: it is, after all, surrounded by stars.

The composition, too, demands our attention. There is an imbalance in the picture: Jesus, a larger figure, occupies one half of the circle with only the blue background (heavenly blue?) behind him; the disciples crowd into the other, their haloes and robes breaking into the border that encircles the medallion . This red border, too, is important: it is echoed in miniature by the halo around Jesus’ head. Those flecks of pale blue glass in the halo (placed as it were at nine o’clock and twelve) are not just to break up the pattern: symbolically they indicate the four points of the cross, the other two of course obscured behind the head. I count at least fifty individual pieces of glass making up that red and white border; no two pieces are exactly the same, certainly not in shape, rarely in colour. In the medallion as a whole, there are over two hundred. Each has had to be chosen, cut to an already pre-drawn pattern, painted if there is outline detail or decoration on it, fired (sometimes more than once) then assembled, fitted together into the lead ‘cames’ – H-sectioned strips of lead into which each piece of glass is sealed using gum or beeswax – and secured within a larger panel which will be held in place by being attached to the two iron saddlebars you can see crossing the image horizontally. Hard to imagine the difficulty (and danger) of installing such a fragile thing within a larger sequence of images and patterns; ensuring that the whole window is fixed securely enough to withstand the stresses of the building and the extremes of the weather. There are few, if any, other forms of visual art that involve so many different skills and so much artistry and craftsmanship – cinema, perhaps, the only other art dependent upon light passing through a transparent medium.

The guidebook tells me that the golden stars surrounding the medallion were restored in 1462 by Guillaume Barbe, the master glazier responsible for much of the spectacular 15th century glass on the north side of the cathedral. We need guidebooks for information such as this, though in this age of apps and podcasts guidebooks are starting to look a little, well, quaint. Ironically, though, as we return to the era of the spoken word, and as we walk around listening to a voice in our ear, our experience is not so different from that of our medieval forebears. No doubt the voices in their ears belonged to the monks who, for a small fee, would tell them approximately what was what in which window.

Of course, not even the monks could have seen – as we can - the whites of the disciples’ eyes. Here technology truly helps. Now we can virtually see with our own eyes why stained glass really is one of the crowning achievements of medieval art.

Adrian Barlow

Click here for an invaluable glossary of stained glass terms and techniques.

In the second of this mini-series, Reading Stained Glass (ii), I shall focus on a window in a church in the Isle of Oxney in Kent, a window that can be read close-up, and at ground level. Meanwhile, I have previously written about stained glass in
and about Rouen Cathedral in

[Illustrations: (i) Rouen Cathedral: 13th century medallion; (ii) the ambulatory at the E. end of Rouen Cathedral; (iii) window in the N. aisle, showing in the lower portion,  Crucifixion scenes by Guillaume Barbe (NB how the 15th century work actually intrudes into the 13th century glass above it). Photographs © the author