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Friday, 24 February 2012

Harbingers of spring

As sweet as apples

  Today, I went to Plouescat to visit two brothers, François and René Bastard, who were among the very last Onion Johnnies in London in the mid-70s, when they finally stopped their yearly trips across the Channel after over twenty "onion seasons" in the English capital.
  While away from home, they worked as a team with their father Paul, who had been coming to England since the early 20s. They lived successively in Lambeth, Kennington and Barnes, but peddled their wares in the "posh" (quote) areas of Chelsea, Hampstead or Kew, where customers were well-informed and sensitive to the quality of Breton onions, which François praised as being "as sweet as apples." 

At the start of a day's rounds, bicycles would be hung with as much as 100 kilos of onion bundles.


In his shed, François still keeps a well-worn dartboard, which he brought back from London.

René now lives in his father's home in Plouescat...

... where a beautiful oil portrait of Paul Bastard, offered by an English customer, is hanging in the front room.

René also showed me a page from an English fashion magazine, in which he takes part in a rather surreal staging in the company of a Hitchcockian blonde...

Monday, 20 February 2012

Presidential visit

  This afternoon, I had a very lovely moment with François Séité, the President of the Onion sellers' Association & his wife Herveline, who came for tea at my house in Guerlesquin.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

On Johnny Onions's trail

  I am just back home in Brittany after a 5-days' peregrination around a large chunk of Britain, in search of traces left by the Breton onion trade. 

Stop I: London
  A journey of high & lows, my expedition started in the capital, where I expected a significant part of whatever information still exists to have been centralised. As it turned out, my main Londonian discovery was that there is, apparently, very little left to be found there.

  Walking from the small station to the Archives buiding in Kew, along rows of neat 1920s suburban little houses, I noticed that most front doors bore signs warning potential door-to-door sellers that they were not welcome. I wondered if the famously persistent Breton onion men would have been put off by such cautionary notices...

Stop II: Salisbury 
  After two rather disheartening days in London, I headed to Gloucester, to stay with Michèle Segura-Coz from Cléder, who had arranged a wonderful, action-packed programme for me. The first highlight in our tour was Salisbury. 
  There we met Ken SMITH, to discuss the inspiration behind The Frogband and the Onion Seller, the children's illustrated story that his father Jim SMITH had published in 1976 & which is now being reprinted, an event celebrated by the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, who held an exhibition of Smith's original artwork from last October to January.

Stop III: Pontypridd
  From Salisbury, we then drove to South Wales, to visit Gwyn Griffiths (, whose two books on Breton onion-sellers were my introduction to the subject & inspired me to explore the way the British see their seasonal visitors from across the Channel.

Saying good-bye, I couldn't resist asking Gwyn if I could take a picture of the pair of stickers on his car: one Breton, one Welsh!
Gwyn's present has now joined his other books in my collection.

Saturday, 11 February 2012


  Seeking to get at the root of the mysterious fascination of the British for the "luminous flask," the "heavenly globe," the "platinum goblet" (Pablo Neruda), what more natural course could I follow than to start with master lexicographer Dr Johnson?

The answer came as no less than an epiphany:
Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Dictionary of the English Language, in which the Words are Deduced from their Originals, Explained in their Different Meanings, & Authorized by the Names of the Writers in whose Works they are Found
London: T. Longman, 1794.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Romantic hero

 This morning was brightened with the arrival of another book I had been eagerly waiting for, an original edition of Daphné du Maurier's melodramatic take on the Tristan & Iseult myth, casting a Breton onion-seller evocatively (if unbretonly) named Amyot Trestane in the role of the star-crossed lover.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Onion pixie!

After weeks of detective work & waiting, the post brought me a new nugget of Onion Johnny lore (coming all the way from New-Zealand!) :

  I haven't had time yet for more than a quick perusal, but the apparently innocuous children's short-story actually seems to read as a study in ambivalence & the Uncanny, the initial, reassuringly conventional, characterisation of the onion man through the usual hackneyed attributes (notably the patched-up corduroys & the "merry dark eyes" (p.2) described in a previous post) gradually being superseded by the more disturbing, though equally commonplace, association of the Breton immigrant with the mysterious & the marvellous.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Onion therapy

My elder son Josquin just burst into my study saying: "Mummy, here is a drawing to cheer your spirits up!"

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Patched up

  In 1990, the leading American marketer of collectible goods, the Bradford Exchange, commissioned a series of 14 limited-edition collector plates from Davenport Pottery, one of the main traditional manufacturers of Staffordshire porcelain in Britain.
  The nostalgia-themed set was explictly designed as a modern reworking of the "Cries of London," a popular pictorial genre which had appeared in the Renaissance, flourished in the 17th & 18th centuries, before undergoing periodic revivals in the course of the 19th & early 20th centuries.
  The last piece in the group shows an onion-seller, identifiable to his profusely laden shoulder-pole, which was the onion men's iconic attribute from its introduction into British imagery by continental artist Marcellus Laroon in his seminal Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life (1688) until its replacement by the bulb-festooned bicycle in the early 1930s.
  My immediate impression on discovering this artifact was that, for some reason, the onion huckster appears oddly out of place, in spite of the artist's obvious concern with verisimilitude & the detailed care with which he crammed the backdrop with authenticity markers. Somehow, the visual hypotyposis does not seem to work. The off-centre, slightly disproportionate figure of the onion man hardly stands out against the confusingly saturated background. And yet, it looks superimposed over the rest of the scene. In contrast to his fellow street sellers in the other issues of the series, he is not pictured as engaging with a customer & seems strangely insulated from the hyperbolic activity surrounding him. 
  Unrealistically positioned in the middle of a busy street, he seems to be smiling out to an invisible audience. His static, awkwardly stagey position suggests that this image has been recycled from an older source. 
Which I found to be a black-&-white photographic portrait published in a 1926 3-volume illustrated collection of articles about London. 
   Purporting to "present a picture of living London" by depicting its contemporary "wonders," the encyclopedia notably featured "famous types peculiar to London" through the modern medium of photography. In keeping with the evolution of urban occupational opportunities, new characters, like the window-cleaner, made their way into this updated version of the "Cries," while classic figures, such as the onion man, took on a new face. 
Arthur St-John ADOCK. Wonderful London. London: Amalgamated Press, 1926.
 Indeed, by the start of the 20th century, the indigenous onion street-sellers which had been staple figures of the Cries format from the 16th well into the 19th century, had virtually disappeared from British sources. 
  From then on, almost all references to onion ambulant vendors - whether pictorial or verbal - actually pertained to the Breton seasonal immigrants who had gradually taken over the trade since the 1840s.
  Interestingly, the caption accompanying the photograph introduces the "Breton onion seller" as "another very familiar type," thus emphatically underlining his integration into & his appropriation by the British community. (The division of the page into 2 equal sections, & the mirror effect created by the symmetrical composition of the 2 photographs also contribute to placing the foreigner on equal footing with the native English worker next to him.)
  But then, the ostensibly burlesque warlike metaphor that follows, presenting the onion men's annual economic migration as a massive & brutal intrusion into a supposedly virginal national space, betrays much more ambivalent feelings. This notion of "inviolate England suffer[ing] a French invasion" (my italics) was actually one of the most prevalent leitmotivs running through the texts mentioning the Breton onion-sellers from the 1860s to the 1940s.

  Significantly, the issue of national belonging has been wholly evacuated from the 1990 Davenport reinterpretation of this image, the character being simply labelled as "The Onion Seller" - the definite article & the capitalised initials bringing the process of transformation from a flesh-and-blood individual into a generic type to its final stage.  
  The point here being the nostalgic recreation of an idealised past through the portrayal of a series of stock-characters selected for their picturesque potential, the efforts made to turn the comparatively austere black-and-white model into a literally "colourful" adaptation may explain a number of alterations which might seem rather perplexing at first sight. 
  A closer look also reveals that, while his smile has been broadened into the gaping grin of the obligatorily jovial street-seller, the hawker's eyes & hair have been darkened to accommodate expectations of Gallic swarthiness* .

   Though it may more easily go unnoticed by the casual observer, another meaningful alteration between the original photograph & its painted counterpart is the subreptitious addition of patches on the knees of the onion-seller's trousers.
  As it happens, this accretion brings the portrait into conformity with a well-established tradition in the British representation of Breton pedlars, the knee-patches serving as a conventional signifier of respectable poverty, at once drawing attention to the low status of the street vendors while associating them with notions of industriousness, thrift & dignity.
*One of the most pregnant topoi of the British** literary production concerned with the figure of the Breton onion-seller is his characterisation through the blackness of his bodily traits, with pointed emphasis on his "dark piercing eyes." (Jacqueline WALES. When the Crow Sings, a Novel. NY: Pantulan Press, 2007. p.7.) 

**Ironically, seen from the other side of the Channel, the potentially sulphurous black of the foreign interloper miraculously transmutes into the angel-like blue & gold of the homegrown hero : "His face was in full light and his eyes, of the clearest blue, seemed even softer in the nimbus haloing him.  His unruly hair glittered with gold flecks." (My translation from the French.) Yves-Marie RUDEL. Johnny de Roscoff, Roman. Paris: Librairie Celtique, 1945. p.7.