The Mystery Cushion Cover
A surprising WW1 antique discovery
A few weeks ago we visited a beautiful small brocante at Prétot-Sainte-Suzanne. The traders had taken over the grounds of an old chateau and were spread out along the central avenue, flanked by vast trees. It was an idyllic French summer day.
We managed to pick up a few curios. Among them was this silk cushion cover:
How odd. Hand painted and hand embroidered, a souvenir of what seems to be a burning church. We struggled to think which part of France would regard this an event worth celebrating on cushion covers. The seller was an English lady who was nonplussed and just thought it was a pretty object (there are many traders who work both sides of the channel, buying and selling in each. How this will continue after Br*x*t is anyone's guess). We took a punt and bought it home with us. Indoors, without having to squint in the bright midday sun, Carole found a name:
"Vores". An artist name always makes life easier. But after several hours swearing at internet search engines, Vores had yielded nothing meaningful. The brainwave came when she spotted the down-stroke under the second letter- it wasn't an 'o' but a 'p'. And it wasn't a 'v'' but a 'y'. Not Vores, but Ypres. A burning building in Ypres? This made us think of WW1 and it wasn't long before we realized it wasn't a church but Ypres Cloth Hall. But Ypres is in Belgium...so why 'Souvenir de France'?
Most British schoolchildren of a certain age would have learned a little about Ypres, a town which was near-destroyed by continual battle from 1914. They may be aware of the 3rd Battle of Ypres in 1917, usually called Passchendaele where over 500,000 men died. Nicknamed Wipers by the English soldiers, the town entered the same litany of brutality as the Somme, Verdun and Gallipoli. “Far, far from Wipers I long to be. Where German snipers can't get at me. Dark is my dugout, cold are my feet. Waiting for Whizzbangs to send me to sleep.”- World War One Song (Source) I learned a little later about the extraordinary story of the The Wipers Times, the bizarrely brilliant satirical newspaper published in the Trenches by British infantry which included weather reports such as:
5 to 1 Mist
11 to 2 East Wind or Frost
8 to 1 Chlorine
The image of the Cloth Hall and its slow destruction under years of bombardment was, at the time, iconic and reproduced in postcards and paintings:
So, why Souvenir de France? We know that after the Great War families began tours to visit the graves of Flanders and see where friends and family may have passed through. Michelin began publishing war tour guides in 1919 (fantastic source here) and it wasn't long before Thomas Cook and others began organised tours. Clearly a small tourist industry developed across Northern France and Belgium. Our assumption is that our cushion was made as a souvenir for English tourists visiting French war graves. The image chosen was one that would have been well known to many, even if the building was actually in Belgium. Its likely that the silk would have have ended up in England. I imagine a house clearance where grandchildren unthinkingly chuck out grandad's old stuff at a car boot sale... where our seller then picked it up to bring it to France... to sell it to us. We love this object but not just because it looks so odd. Its creation and cross-channel afterlife give it a kind of social texture. Even though parts of its meaning have been lost it still has some kind of weird charm, like an inappropriate funeral gift. #History #VideGrenier #Brocante #Antiques #WW1 #Interwar #FrenchHistory