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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Frenchie

  As I was walking past St-Paul's Cathedral during the Occupy Saint-Paul protest movement, my attention was caught by a poster displayed in the shop window of a burger bar:
 Avertising the French-themed special of the month, it bore all the requisite markers of Frenchness: the tricolour colour-scheme, the béret, the stripey jersey... AND... a necklace of onions!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Keeping posted

  On arriving in my Breton home for the weekend yesterday night, I was welcomed by a small package from Britain which had been waiting for me in the post-box. 
  Inside was, a small, slightly yellowed 1900s postcard, which is, to date, the earliest English artefact in my small collection of onion-seller-themed artifacts.

  I was especially delighted to happen upon this card the other day, as it offers quite an original perspective on its subject.
  Like most cards of this period, it doesn't bear any printed date, & as it never was written or sent, we don't even have the postmark to go by. However, the seated woman's straw boater & tailored clothes suggest the photograph was shot in the early 1900s.
  Untypically, the scene seems to have been captured at the back of the house rather than on the street side, which creates an unusually intimate atmosphere. 
  In contrast to more traditional representations, where both the onion seller & his customer are carefully positioned so that we may clearly see the conventionally benign expressions on their faces, here the lady of the house is turning away from us. But the amused twinkle in the eyes of the 2 other female figures, as well as the half-awkward, half-defiant attitude of the onion man suggest more ambiguous feelings than are customarily depicted on published photographs.
  In the thirties however, open allusions to the romantic/sensual thrill of excitment afforded by the visit of the onion-seller would become a recurring feature in the articles produced by female journalists writing in the ladies' pages of the popular press. As "Bea" Howe suggested in a column issued in the Daily Mirror on September 26, 1933, "onions bought from handsome, young, black-eyed cajolers taste different, surely?"


  Not the slightest hint of a racy innuendo is to be found in this carefully staged, neatly manicured scene showing Breton hawker, adroitly balancing his trademark onion-laden pole on his shoulder, against the backcloth of an idyllically picturesque English village street. The action is theatrically frozen at the key moment when the front door of a respectable-looking house is about to open.
  It is interesting to note that such a subject was deemed worthy of interest by the Keystone View Company, a Pennsylvannia-headquartered firm, the world's largest producer of stereoviews, which manufactured didactic photographic images used in schools all across the United-States.
 The back of the stereoscopic card was printed with educational notes providing basic information about the geographical & historical context of the scene.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The icing on the cake!

  In the course of my research, I have discovered that the figure of the Breton onion seller is so deeply ingrained in the imagination of the British that it may take on the most diverse forms, from hero to villain, and that its representations may be fashioned from the most bewilderingly diverse materials. Alongside the countless ink-and-paper onion-festooned characters leaping from the pages of newspapers, magazines, novels, children's books, plays and poetry collections, I have found many canvas-and-paint Johnnies & one statufied bronze Jenny, as well as versions made of china, clay, knitwear, plastic, lead, cardboard, or plush . 
  But of all the avatars ever taken by the proteiform migrant, here is the sweetest I have come across yet:
  This carefully detailed royal icing cake topper was designed in the spring of 2010 by Carol, from Dublin (the fame of Johnny Onions having crossed the Irish sea!) as a birthday present for a friend who had moved from Ireland to France.
  Revealingly, Carol named her creation "French man" rather than Breton man. And as a matter of fact, her design benignly encapsulates almost all of the attributes thought to convey the notion of Frenchness in modern stereotyped representations of French people. Not only is the figurine wearing the mandatory beret, hooped jersey, red scarf & moustache of the "Titi parisien," but he is also equipped with the palette, paintbrush & easel of the French "artiste." And of course, his neck is decked with a plump garland of golden onions!
Which prompts one of the commentators on Carol's Flicker page to exclaim:
Many thanks to Carol for kindly letting me show her lovely creation.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Onions galore! Roscoff - August 20, 2011

On the onion market, the Johnnies' stall. 
Olivier Le Sann (Winchester) making strings in the traditional way.

Laurent Caroff (London).

Emmanuel Le Noac'h (London).
One of the signature features of the Onion Johnnies' bike:
the crosspiece attached under the handlebar to hang onion strings from.
Ready to hit the road...
François Quéméneur (Bristol).

Damien (London).
Emmanuel Le Noac'h stringing onions while the President of the Johnnies ' Association, François Séité (Bristol), greets customers.

Olivier Le Sann with an Anglo-Irish couple.

Damien chatting with an English customer.

André Quémener (Edinburgh).
André Quéméner conversing with visitors from across the Channel.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

From father to sons

   At first sight, this scratched, yellowed photograph of a tight-lipped, melancholy-eyed young Breton onion seller does not seem to stand out from the dozens of similar studio portraits which have survived & reached us from the late 19th & early 20th centuries.
  At a time when photographic shops were still something of a rarity in rural Northern Brittany, it was almost a ritual for onion peddlers to sit for their portrait during their stay in British urban centres. These heavily staged pictures, where the sitter would usually pose rather self-consciously in front of a painted backcloth, almost always showed him carrying an onion-festooned shoulder-pole. Paradoxically, what appeared to British observers as the distinctive attribute of the Bretons' trade, was used exclusively in Britain & would have been an unfamiliar sight for their families back home, to whom the portraits were sent as postcards.
  While most portrait-cards would have been carefully kept as keepsakes by relatives, this picture appears to have been trimmed down & recycled as an identity photograph, as shown by the purple stamp mark in the upper left-hand side corner.
  What is even more remarkable is the hand-written dates on the passport which the photograph was glued on: August 24, 1916 (Police authorities, Saint-Malo) / December 22, 1916 (Aliens Registration Office, Southampton) !... at the height of the Great War, when all migrant onion sellers had officially been called back to France.
 The young hawker's name was Yves Kériven, from a Roscoff family where boys were sent away to work as onion sellers across the Channel from generation to generation.
I have met his two sons, François & Pierre.

Béret-clad Yves Kériven & his younger son Pierre showing  2 modes of onion-peddling.

François Kériven, 1960s.

François & his uncle Jean-François posing for the Manchester Evening News in the late 1960s.

This portrait of Mr François Kériven was shot last May, when I first met him by chance during his afternoon walk, in front of the Station Biologique in Roscoff.