Everyone has their guilty pleasures. BBC costume dramas, pumpkin spice lattes, lemon verbena bubble bath….
High on that list for me are antiques stores. After all, they’re a brilliant way to interact with the objects that the people in our books used in their everyday lives. (I’ll just keep telling myself that.) Museums, for the most part, have only the cream, the items that are special because they’re exceptional examples of their kind. There are, to be fair, folk museums and local history museums that try to collect items that people who didn’t live in Versailles would use, but they don’t usually let you behind the ropes to play with those.
Do you know what’s really dangerous? Antiques stores online. A friend recently introduced me to a sight called 1st Dibs, a compendium of various antiques dealers who list their wares online.
Look what they had on sale earlier this month:
Yes, you’re seeing that correctly. That is, indeed, a sedan chair. An eighteenth century Venetian sedan chair, to be precise. (For the 1st dib link and more detail shots, click here.)
Can’t you just see Lady B being carried through Venice by a matched set of perspiring footmen in white wigs and brightly colored livery?
It’s very easy to imagine a masked lady leaning through that wide window, blowing a kiss or passing a message to a lover. It’s fascinating to look at it and imagine what it would feel like to be carried along in that rather unwieldy thing, swaying with the steps of the bearers as they wove in and out of traffic, with a link boy carrying a brightly lit torch running ahead.
It makes you stop and think about the sort of environment where such a contraption would be useful: a world where streets are narrow, sometimes too narrow for a carriage. A world with open gutters and without sidewalks, where it’s safer to be carried than to soil one’s shoes. A world where physical manpower is cheap.
Then there’s the detail, the paint job. The outside is leather, richly decorated and gilded. Can you imagine a car being painted with that delicate design of leaves and flowers, with that gilding, and those ornamental whatnots at the top? This is a society that revels in display, that can take a mundane and practical object and turn it into a statement of beauty and power.
What do you see when you look at that sedan chair? Have there been objects that have worked in a similar way on your imagination?