Provencal finds

Beautiful Uzes was not far up the road from Castillon. I remembered it fondly from a visit when I was twenty.

En route we stopped at a Brocante.  A taciturn man with a head of dark unruly hair nodded as we walked into the courtyard. Every kind of metal work was here. Moustache hinges, door grilles, wine bottle dryers, lanterns and garden chairs made a sculptural ensemble. Two finials from the stable stalls of a big house were beautifully worn, in an original dusty blue and were wrapped for me. Uzes didn’t disappoint with its narrow streets, glorious buildings, elegant squares with cafés terraces beneath plane trees in fresh new leaf.

The Deballage at Avignon offered a handful of reasonable finds and some lovely chandeliers, but the Mistral brought oppressive clouds of dust and, of course, more broken mirrors.

It was a fine day for the Deballage at Montpellier though.  From Max, the dealer loves to recount aphorisms – “la réalité poetique” – I bought a 1930’s pastel of flowers in a vase, in a Matisse palette of colours. Sometimes I need to interrupt Max so I can just take a look at what he has to sell. “Victor Hugo”, he continues regardless, “he said that melancholy is the happiness of being sad….”

Someone passed me carrying two small and delicate stuffed birds. Not what I usually buy, but these were so pretty. He took me over to where he’d bought them. “They were in those boxes”, he pointed. But when I lifted the lids all that remained was nesting material. “Oh, ils se sont tous envolés!” he said, they have all flown away!

A large 18th century canvas of a religious figure in flowing robes and surrounded by cherubs, propped against the side of white van, was visible from across one of the selling areas. It would need a fair bit of cleaning but stood out in its drama and colour. A deal was struck and hands were shaken.

A few years ago Channel 4 produced an excellent programme about buying antiques in France. It had been a more realistic insight than any of the frequently broadcast gamified shows, reminding viewers that as well as occasional marvellous finds, there can also be disappointment and long days spent driving with very little to show for the time and expense. Richard E Grant, an antiques enthusiast of many years, had been the presenter.  When I saw him in one of the hangars at Montpellier I went over to express my enjoyment and appreciation. He was, needless to say, charming.

Meanwhile the shipper with his overloaded van had come up with a transport solution for our purchases and another van had been diverted on its way from Italy. All was packed and despatched on its way home.

Graham and I were spending a few more days in France, further east in La Provence Verte. Through St Remy de Provence and on south of the Luberon, we drove on local, quiet roads.  Near our lunchtime café stop stood the long closed down Boucherie and Charcuterie, with signage remaining, just waiting for someone to buy it…..

Further on we spotted a rusty sign with that enchanting word “Brocante.” In a dusty yard with rows of rusting items and a number of chickens scratching about stood three long nizzen huts all full of dusty, cobwebby brocante. A woman with large eyes in a gaunt face came over. Her employer was the only brocanteur in the region, she told us, and seemed vaguely surprised that we should have stopped there at all. She came round with me and told me a little about her life.  I gathered a few items together including a chipped but very pretty pink enamel bucket and a grimy oval platter with an old staple repair. We agreed that old ceramics have a wonderful feel. We shook hands and exchanged names. I’ll always remember her.


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