Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The umbrella

In a downpour such as yesterday afternoon’s one reaches for one’s umbrella. This was not always the case. As with so many other branches of social history and what is often these days called “material culture,” I am heartened to know that others have not merely shared my curiosity about the history of that most civilized accessory, but have trodden the stony path of research (much of it before the advent of the Internet) and produced fascinating histories of it. These include but are hardly limited to Ombrelle—le gant—le manchon, by Louis-Octave Uzanne (Paris: A. Quantin, 1883); the relevant portion of Die Mode: Menschen und Moden im achtzehnten Jahrhundert, by Max von Boehn (Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1923); Der Schirm: Kulturhistorische Studie, by Elisabeth Moses (Cologne, 1924); The Umbrella, by A. Varron (Basle: Society of Chemical Industry, 1942); Der Schirm und die Maler, by Otto Brues (Cologne: [Jagra-Haus] Dr. Schmidt & Co. GmbH, 1952); A History of the Umbrella, by T. S. Crawford (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1970); Umbrellas and Parasols, by Jeremy Farrell (London: B. T. Batsford, 1985), and a collection of essays entitled Schirme: der Himmel auf Erden, edited by Claudia Bölling and Rolf Horst (Berlin: Transit, 1995). I am proud to have made my own very slight contribution, and would have been glad to go much further had such fertile ground not already been tilled so thoroughly. Alas, I daresay the need is simply no longer there. Most of the elements have been covered: the parasol from Goya to Seurat, Monet, and Renoir, and from Gignese and Mottarone to Copenhagen and St. Petersburg via Leghorn (Livorno) and Genoa; the liturgical umbrella from the Lateran mosaics to the Second Vatican Council, and from India to China and Japan; the royal umbrella from ancient Assyria through Byzantium to Burma; the umbrella in ancient Greece and Rome; the umbrella from Hokusai to Mary Poppins. The umbrella and effeminacy. The late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century English gentleman’s correctly rolled umbrella as an emblem, as indeed the model of correctness itself. The hazards associated with raising umbrellas and parasols in a motor car, as distinct from a statelier open landau. The question as to whether frills or fringes with toggles are vulgar, and, if not, what is? The evolution of double-, triple-, even quadruple-decker ceremonial cloth-of-gold models in Thailand, in other words piling protection upon virtual protection in direct proportion to the stature of the royal person underneath. The umbrella merely as a useful method of representing in oil paintings the action of the wind, or the fall of light. The historical panorama is wide and magnificent. Parasols are especially interesting to me, for never has the need for them been greater than in the hottest climates today, and in the ones that are steadily getting hotter, yet they have more or less vanished. Together with folding screens, much of the land fill of western cities must consist of the defunct parasol, its brittle skeleton awaiting retrieval by future archaeologists. Occasionally you see people strolling with one on Fifth Avenue. But on the whole dark glasses and peaked caps would seem to have supplanted it, though of course Regency ladies doubled up with wide bonnets and parasols, finding ample opportunities to deploy both. In fact the history of the umbrella and other forms of canopy has far more to do with the provision of shade than protection from rain or drizzle. Perhaps the umbrella has so often flown under the radar of scholars of the decorative arts precisely because it was so ubiquitous, but nevertheless its long history embraces at different times carved handles or handles adorned with precious stones or enameled ornamentation, embroidery, painting, lace, paper, and intricate construction—for which nature provided numerous sources of inspiration: the bat’s wing, and certain leaves and feathers, to name but three.

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