The Faïence Violin
OUR writers are not in search of an original passion of the human breast to introduce to the public for the first time. All that was done so long since that the precise date is not a matter of consequence. If a newish style of treatment or an unhackneyed situation is attainable, an exemption from further responsibility is naturally looked for. Yet it was something like an original passion of the human breast, and nothing less, that M. Champfleury, not a very great writer of our own time, hit upon less than twenty years ago. His Faïence, or Crockery, Violin, instead of the love, jealousy, patriotism, filial affection, friendship, which constitute the usual motive powers of romances, is propelled by the passion for pottery, up to that time a novelty in literature. The subject had its library of catalogues, technical and statistical works, but it had hardly ever been treated in a literary manner. Lamb has a delightful essay upon the ostensible topic of Old Porcelain, but it is as full of irrelevant matters as Artemas Ward’s famous lecture on the Babes in the Wood. At any rate, Champfleury first gave it a tale. His little story, which was originally published in the ordinary guise of the French novel, has lately appeared in an edition de luxe1 worthy to stand by the side of the choicest volumes of reference upon the subject. Its heavy paper, extravagant margins, interleaved etchings, and designs in color from rare ceramic specimens give the text an air of preciousness as in an illuminated manuscript, and add to the interest of the story the attraction of a quaint and charming work of art.
So necessary, by long usage, has lovemaking become in the romance that this one, in which there is nothing more of it than a paragraphic announcement at the close that one of the principal characters has married his cousin, is laid down with a feeling of incompleteness. Could there have been a light and graceful affair of the kind interwoven with the rest of the attractive material, little would have been left to desire. The result, however, might have been less logically perfect. This sense of deficiency is a tribute to the severe completeness with which the author has confined himself to the exposition he had in view. Projecting a study of the state of mind of the irrepressible collector, he was unwilling to complicate it by the display of other distracting emotions.
In the particular of pottery, our own country afforded no material for the sustenance of this singular rage until the late Centennial Exhibition, of happy memory, which placed a Doulton ware pilgrim bottle upon every mantel, and largely diverted the female sex from their spatter-work and crochet to pasting silhouettes of kittens and nineteenthcentury school-children upon vases of pure Etruscan outline. But the collector’s passion has multifarious objects, books, old pictures, coins, musical instruments, arms, autographs and photographs, wigs, shoes, canes, snuff-boxes; postage-stamps, theatre tickets and programmes, and even buttons. Among them all, its phenomena must have become more or less familiar even here. The general disposition is to look upon the passion as harmless and amiable. M. Champfleury follows it out to its logical consequences, and shows at what extremes, if perverted, it may arrive. It is capable of becoming an enormous species of egotism and avarice, of betraying the warmest friendships, of reveling in falsehoods and perfidies, and of stopping short only of robbery and assassination.
“ There are innocent passions,” he says, “ which begin by clinging to the rugged trunk, and end by choking the life out of it.” “ No passions! Gardilanne had them all; he was a collector. Lightning might have struck beside him in the street without withdrawing his attention from a shop window in which he was interested.”
M. Champfleury. is indicated by his record as a person of peculiar qualifications for the task proposed in his little story. His histories of ancient, mediæval, and modern caricature, of the potteries of the Revolution, and of the brothers Le Nain, — obscure painters of the time of Louis XIII. whom he endeavored to install in their rightful place in the popular esteem, — all show his natural bent towards the rare and curious. He has the additional title to speak with authority of being himself a devotee of the fantastic passion he so entertainingly describes. He does not hesitate to confess, according to La Rousse, that the three passions of his existence are music, faïence, and cats. His taste for what is out of the common fashions marks even the habits of his private life. He is said to have proposed to his wife, by whose appearance when a young lady in society he had been attracted at an evening party, by sending her a laconic message that if she agreed with him that the unmarried are like one half of a pair of scissors, of no use without the other, he was at her service to make a joint endeavor to cut out the fabric of life agreeably. She replied still more laconically by sending him a pair of scissors.
His strongest claim to confidence is his realism; his critics say that the title of realist is inseparable from his name. Where Mürger, whose friend and intimate he was, sang Bohemian life, in the description of which both made their early successes, he studied it. His fidelity to actual types has secured him the singular compliment of a beating from an irate mountaineer who considered himself personally aimed at in a rural work called The Christmas Geese. An overflowing genial humor — not too common among his fellows — is one of the leading features of attraction in the story. He enjoys all the phenomena of this ardent dilettanteism, from the Chineurs, sent down to the country by dealers in quest of curiosities, who enter the houses with the audacity of our own book agents and lightning-rod men, are put out-of-doors by the ruffled housewives, but return through the windows and succeed in prosecuting their search from garret to cellar, to the learned Parisian club which despises porcelain, even the finest pâte tendre of Sèvres, in comparison with its adored faïence. His humor takes for the most part the form of a dry irony. Nothing, he says, in the collector’s cabinet is the result of chance; profound meditations determine whether a Chinese pipe is to be suspended above a dried Malabar frog or vice versa. But his leading situations are as dramatically amusing as some of those ingenious combinations of ludicrous misery often seen upon the boards of the French theatre.
The conceit of a faïence violin is not, as it might appear to the reader, in common with the honest citizens of Nevers, among whom it was sought, a mere conceit. To one aware of the excessive delicacy of the violin, its proportions and curvatures and f holes and sound-post, in the adjustment of any of which a difference of a thirty-second part of an inch would make a radical difference of character, the construction of the whole in pottery would seem a chimera. The amateur who was searching for it at Nevers felt greatly comforted and reassured when he encountered an old workman in the potteries who admitted that such a thing might he possible. “ He had at last met with a person who did not put the very existence of his coveted treasure in doubt.” It is recorded, however, as among the accomplishments of the skilled workmen of Delft, at the period of its greatest glory, that they even made violins in pottery. Such a chef d’œuvre is actually extant in the ceramic museum at Rouen, and the etchings of it with which the book is adorned show that the description of the imaginary one follows it exactly. Possibly the sight of it first suggested to M. Champfleury his idea.
The faïence violin “ had contours to make a Stradivarius jealous. Its enamel was of an incomparable purity. Its delicious blue recalled the azure skies of Spain. Not a crack, or a blemish even, on the fine curves of the neck. Never had the potter’s art reached so high an achievement. Angels playing upon viols in the clouds displayed a scroll with the motto, Musica et gloria in aer. Below, a group of figures in Louis Quatorze costumes surrounded a pretty woman seated at the harpsichord.”
The marvelous instrument is represented as of the pottery of Nevers, where it is discovered by chance among the rubbish of an old wardrobe. The wares of Nevers, distinguished by prevailing blue and orange colors, are in a decided state of decadence from the attainments of the Gonzagas, who established the industry there with imported Italian workmen, but still among the best of French manufacture. A quaint poem, published in the Mercure de France, in 1735 defies history to the extent of claiming for Nevers the first introduction of faïence to the country, and describes allegorically the processes there in vogue:—
Quel Art! dans l'Italie il reçut la naissanee,
Et vint, passant les nionts, s’établir dans Severs.
Ses ouvrages ebarmans Tout au de 14 des iners.”
It appears, according to this poet, that the origin of the art was in a quarrel between Plutus, the god of wealth, and Minerva. The former was inclined to despise taste and skill, placing his reliance solely upon the intrinsic value of the precious metals included in his province. “But I will show you, sir,” said the ruffled goddess, “that I can get along very well without your rich materials. I will let you see that in my bauds
I he commonest clay becomes precious.” She takes up a lump of earth and throws it upon the potter’s wheel, when lo! — can I believe my eyes? — forth start in an instant a hundred curious vases: —
Sortent dans tin instant cent vases curieux.”
Pursuing further her disparagement of his is valuable metals, she takes a little of the commonest tin, lead, salt, and sand and makes an enamel “ dazzling as the rays of the sun.” Then she paints upon her vases figures of shepherds, festoons, games with songs and dances, loves, grotesques, palaces, and temples. Plutus, not yet abandoning the contest, says, “ Yes, but all this is very flimsy.” “ No,” she replies, as the fact is, “ it will outlast your metals and marbles a thousand years.” “ And now, what do I see? ” continues the poet; “proud Paris and supercilious London — who would credit it ? — paying tribute to our little city.”
In the Faience Violin we are first introduced to a citizen of this favored locality, M. Dalègre. He is a jovial bachelor of thirty-live, of ample fortune, who hardly knows that there is such a thing as pottery. Making a casual visit to Paris, he falls in with Gardilanne, an old friend and school-mate, who is a confirmed collector. He passes for having the keenest scent in Paris. “ A diabolical astuteness” takes the place, with him, of capital. He is not rich, but has managed upon his income of a thousand francs as government clerk to get together a collection which is the envy of museums. He hardly eats or sleeps, and has scarcely dreamed of anything else for fifteen years. He encounters rain, wind, and hail in the pursuit; he goes to the length, if need be, of passing himself off as a rag-and-bottle man, to have an opportunity of examining stocks of old trumpery. In him the disease is fully seated, but in Dalègre we are shown its gradual rise and progress. He looks at the plates and ewers which his enthusiastic friend places in his hands with about the intelligence of a bat at fire - works. Living as he does in so promising a locality, it occurs to the Paris collector to turn him to account. He might pick up a few pieces, while he was around town, and send them up to him as well as not. Dalègre receives his directions as to what is desirable, and agrees to do so. It is faïence or fine stone-ware, in which there are many beautiful objects, and not pottery in general, which is Gardilanne’s particular hobby. “ I tell you,” said he, " porcelain has lorded it long enough. A revolution is at hand in ceramics like that of ’89. The bourgeois faïence is to have its rights, and aristocratic porcelain will fall. It will not be persecuted, it is true, but it will pass into contempt. That cold and heartless production will be sought only by parvenus. ”
Dalègre complies with his promise. Praises and profuse instructions are showered upon him by his friend. “ Make tours in the churches,” urges Gardilanne. “ Happily, the village priests know nothing of archæology; they will let you have things cheap. The hospitals, too, are a fruitful field. In their pharmacies there are beautiful old jars made to contain drugsManage to get a wound in hunting, or a sprained aukle; a mere scratch will do. The sisters of charity are very simple. If you find there is no faïence, your complaint will of course immediately disappear. If there is, it will become serious, and you must manage in the end to take, besides the medicine, the bottle that contains it.” This ardor by degrees inspires a slight interest in the breast of Dalègre himself.
It is increased by the indignation of some people who complain of his robbing his native town of its treasures, for the benefit of a cold and greedy Parisian. At last he finds himself bitten with the infection. He exhibits its symptoms in their utmost violence. He becomes a collector on his own account. An interior voice bids him sacrifice Gardilanne. There is a moral in the story of this whimsical passion, as in those selected for especial mention in the decalogue. Here, too, it is the first false step that involves a continually increasing train of evils, and at last overwhelms its author in ruin. Had he boldly avowed to Gardilanne that he had become a convert to the taste, and made no secret of his collection, all would have been well. But no; he entered upon a course of abandoned hypocrisy. He began to send his friend packages which he knew to be unmitigated rubbish, as an indication that Nevers was exhausted. The confiding Parisian wrote to him of the faïence violin which he had just heard of from M. du Sommerard, the founder of the Cluny Museum. It was believed to be extant at Nevers, and he was adjured to search for it. He entered vigorously upon the quest, but he muttered to himself, “ Oh, yes, I’ll play you a jig upon your faïence violin.” He had become more perfidious than Iago.
Thus matters ran on. He has not heard from Gardilanne — doubtless disgusted with the paltry stuff he had sent him— for a long time. His hard heart smites him a little, but he does not relent. One day, at supper, his servant hands him a letter, which has been received in tlie morning, during his absence. He toys with it, and does not break the seal till he has nearly finished eating. He gives a cry of dismay. It is a notice that Gardilanne is on the way to visit him. He is due in twenty minutes. The distracted master runs hither and thither, not knowing where to begin. The house, full of pottery, must be dismantled; Gardilanne must not discover his treason.
It is hurriedly determined to remove the specimens from one other room and the guest chamber, to which he can possildy be confined until, at night, the rest can be removed and secreted in the cellar. The manœuvre is barely accomplished when the redoubtable Parisian collector arrives. He has secured a vacation, and will commence to-morrow to beat a grand battue in the Nivernais. Dalègre’s heart sinks within him; for in this tour among the dealers his own occupation must inevitably come out. He determines to accompany his guest like his shadow wherever he moves, in order to find some means of turning aside indiscreet revelations. At bed-time the guest inquires what village the old servant Margaret is from, and announces his intention to talk to her. Most likely she will have recollections of seeing some pieces among her people which might be desirable. Dalègre feels that if such a talk is permitted the gossiping old woman will betray his secret. During the process of concealing the things in the cellar, therefore, he gives her the most alarming account of Gardilanne’s purposes in his visit. He instructs her, under the heaviest penalties, to appear to be deaf and dumb, and assures Gardilanne that she is. Sainte-Beuve, who criticised the story briefly in his Causeries de Lundi, upon its first appearance, speaks of this scene of the furtive stowing away of the crockery in the cellar, the fears entertained by Dalègre lest the guest should be awakened by the delicious clicking of the wares, or lest he himself should he precipitated headlong down the stairs with his basket in punishment of his perfidy, as one of the most excellent in a book which calls itself a description of a unique case in moral pathology.
The Nevers collector is exposed at too many points to escape not only harrowing annoyance, but ultimate discovery. Lies upon lies flow from his tongue. Once, by a blunder of Margaret, a lovely mustard pot was put upon the table. Gardilanne half closed his eyes, and clacked his tongue over it. Dalègre hastened to explain, in trepidation, that it was an heir-loom, from his grandfather, by which he set great store. Later on, a faïence writing-desk, left in the salon by oversight, was discovered.
“This also has been handed down” — began Dalègre.
“ From your grandmother,” interrupted Gardilanne, dryly.
“ Yes,” assented Dalègre, humbly. “ We provincials, you know, live in nothing so much as our family traditions.”
And still again, the old Margaret, forgetful of the admonition she had received, and tired of keeping her tongue so long idle, while waiting on the guest alone at breakfast, began to talk to him. “Monsieur has not much appetite,” said she.
He was abstracted, and carried on a conversation for some moments without thinking of its strangeness. But suddenly he exclaimed, “You are not deaf, then?”
Pressing her hands desperately over her ears, as if it were somehow possible to remedy the irreparable blunder, the old woman cried at the top of her voice, “ Oh,yes, I am! I am! I am deaf! I am deaf! ”
From this point to the crisis of the story, the discovery of the faïence violin, Dalègre and Gardilanne are as ill at ease in each other’s company as two galley-slaves dragging the same chain and meditating different methods of escape. They come, upon the last day of their rounds, to an old shed full of secondhand goods, on the quay. To Dalègre’s astonishment, Gardilanne, after a little inspection of the interior, appears to be impressed with a bulky wardrobe about which there is absolutely nothing of interest, and begins to drive a bargain for it.
“ It is worth a good fifty francs, if it is worth a sou,” said the proprietor.
“ Come, now, you are chaffing. I will give you forty,” said Gardilanne.
“Why, I can get you a car-load of them for half the money,” expostulated Dalègre aside.
After further jockeying, Gardilanne promises to think about it. They leave the shop. But no sooner are they again at Dalègre’s door than Gardilanne claps his hat desperately upon his head, turns about, and takes to his heels, leaving his amazed and rotund host completely in the lurch. Returning to the dealer, he renews the bargaining for the wardrobe. Amid the rubbish in the interior, the artful collector has discerned the marvelous violin. It sang to him like a rare bird from an ignoble thicket. Dissembling his ecstatic feelings, he affects to make light of it as a petty children’s toy.
“ Nothing of the kind,” said the dealer; “ that violin is worth six francs, I can tell you.”
Gardilanne thought he should be seized with vertigo. He was obliged to sit down. Six francs for a treasure worth six thousand at least! These are the shocks that shorten the collector’s existence. “I’ll tell you what I'll do,” he managed to say, with a tremulous effort at self-control. “ Throw in that crockery trifle, and I will give you forty francs for your wardrobe. I have a small nephew to whom I suppose I might make it a present.”
The dealer consented, with an appearance of grumbling. Gardilanne departed, with his treasure under his arm. “ But you have not told me where to send the wardrobe! ” called out the man, as he was disappearing.
“ To the bottom of the river!” he muttered, hurrying on.
Who can picture the condition of Dalègre when the marvelous violin, thus carried off from under his very nose, was shown to him? A mist swam before his eyes; he could hardly see it. And the triumphal entry of Gardilanne into Paris! He was prouder than a conquering general returning from his wars.
Time did not abate the chagrin of Dalègre, but rather increased it. He felt at last that he could not live without the inestimable treasure. At night he dreamed of a St. Cecilia drawing tones from it clearer and sweeter than those of crystal. He went to Paris to throw himself upon the mercy of Gardilanne. If he did not have it, he should die. Arrived there, he found his friend as full as ever of enthusiasm. He was assured that Paris lived but for faïence. His heart failed him, and he dared not prefer his preposterous request. He was taken to the club, and heard porcelain unsparingly denounced. He was introduced to this one, who collected only revolutionary pottery; another, pieces with fleur-de-lis; another, pieces with game-cocks, of which he had already more than seventeen thousand; another, whose hobby was shapes of fruits and vegetables. He saw a thimble of Henri Deux ware which had cost six hundred and twenty thousand francs, and Madame Dubarry’s faïence phaeton. He passed through a museum of faïence lions, tigers, and dragons, but Orpheuslike he clutched the memory of the faience violin to his breast, and passed their yawning jaws in safety.
He resolved to return to his home and write what he dared not speak. His pathetic letter enhanced the charms of the faïence violin amazingly, as the fame of a willful beauty is increased for whom despairing suitors have blown their heads off.
It was read by its proud recipient to the faience club in full council.
Still Gardilanne relented to the extent of agreeing to leave it to him in his will. Thenceforward, reproach himself as he would, Dalègre lived only in the hope of the testator’s death. He prepared the place the violin should occupy upon the wall, and looked forward with unceasing desire to the time when he should rapturously fix it there. Meanwhile, it was securing a European reputation. A Dutch savant, with the sublime effrontery of his race, published a memoir claiming it as of the manufacture of Delft. Then did every member of the faïence club sink his private theory and unite in a common rebuke of the audacious Hollander. Before all, the honor of France must be protected.
Gardilanne died, and the violin passed into the possession of Dalègre. The emotions of this poor man seemed to have been tried to the limit of endurance. But they were to be racked still further. While making his elaborate preparations for suspending the violin in his cabinet, the fancy took him to play an air upon it. He tightened the screws to secure the proper pitch. More. A faïence violin is not made to stand the pressure of ninety pounds, which the strings at their full tension exert. It flew into twenty pieces. For a moment the unhappy man was mute. Then he rushed in fury upon the rest of his museum. His servant endeavored to stop him; he hurled her against a cabinet of specimens, which crashed down and added to the ruin. The passers-by rushed in; the fire department followed; under their feet the remains of the collection were ground to powder. Dalègre was stark mad. A friend of his gave utterance in a café to a witticism, which must be rendered in its own tongue: “ Dalègre has fallen into defaïence.”
The author, however, is a merciful person, who by no means desires to lay himself open to the attention of the proposed society for the protection of readers. He does not leave us with the clamor of this complete catastrophe ringing in our ears. A supplementary paragraph explains that Dalègre had a benevolent aunt and pretty cousin in the place, who took care of him in his sickness. He had brain fever for a month, during which he dreamed that the world was inhabited entirely by faïence people, who were very polished and brilliant, it is true, but declined to have any intercourse with each other for fear of spoiling their enamel. He awoke entirely recovered from his delusion. After a proper interval, he espoused the pretty cousin, who took care never to allow him to relapse into it again.
Such is the vivid account — which the unique character and rarity of the volume may be an apology for having paraphrased at some length — furnished by a competent witness of the possible vagaries of the passion for pottery. Few of us would be prepared from any personal experience to guarantee it. Its substantial correctness must rest for the most part upon the reputation for accuracy of the author. The rage is not easily understood by reasonable people. The taste itself is less difficult of comprehension. It is, with those who possess it, a sort of instinct. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, indignant at Richardson, for some slighting reference to it, and casting about for an argument in refutation of him, in one of her sprightly letters, could find nothing better than that it was enjoyed by a prominent person in the social world at that time. “ I cannot forgive him [Richardson],” she says, “ his disrespect of old china, which is below nobody’s taste, since it has been the Duke of Argyll’s, whose understanding has never been doubted either by his friends or his enemies.”
But if other reasons were needed than the smooth and flowing forms, which have properties in common with the liquids they are for the most part made to contain, the outlines of flower and leaf and curling waves and beautiful women, the cream and pearl-tinted enamels, the dainty patches of color, — pink of seashells, blue of the sea and of lapis-lazuli and turquoise, the ruby reds and opaline iridescence, — doubtless they could be found. One is the apparent capability for use of even the most elaborate specimens. It gives them an air of honest worth lacking in the gingerbread articles which are solely objects of ornament. Another is the odd marks, the anchors, arrows, crosses, and monograms, upon the pieces, which show the personal interest taken in them by their makers, like that of painters in their pictures. The great age of that art of which they are the product is again an attraction. There are specimens extant three thousand years old, as bright in color as the day they were made. The potter’s wheel is one of the oldest of human mechanisms; after centuries of progress towards patent side-draught and stem-winding improvements, frescoes of four thousand years ago in the catacombs of Thebes show it to have undergone no change.
More potent than all the rest is perhaps some subtle influence emanating from the trial by fire. Whatever has bravely undergone tribulation diffuses an involuntary air of respect for itself about it. Yonder pretty vase, of the thickness of an egg-shell, has withstood a hea, of 4717 degrees. It was not shriveled like a leaf at the first breath of the hot blast, but endured its whole fury for days, and came forth glorious at last, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, from the fiery furnace. Henceforth the ruggedest stone and the hardest metal will corrode while it blooms unchanged in its coquettish beauty. As if all possible calamities were concentrated in that one furious trial, which having passed nothing else could harm it, it has entered upon an immortal existence.
W. H. Bishop.
- Champfleury. Le Violon de Faïnce. Paris. E. Dentu, Editeur. Libraire de la Société des Gens de Lettres. Paris. 1877.↩