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A model house for the arts

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Like many children I loved miniature figurines and model buildings. Some of the latter, including the beautiful model of Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester or the build-it-yourself paper model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in Southwark still resonate with me now. They felt (and still feel) as real as any full-scale buildings I have known. And in the case of the latter the model undoubtedly added to the groundswell of support for Sam Wanamaker’s full-scale recreation of the Globe, finally opened to the public in 1997. So, by creating a beautiful scale model of the ‘poetry house’ once occupied by the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine in London, and using it as a reminder of their story, R&V is also making a bigger statement about the importance of the arts and culture…

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The usual explanation of why children love models is framed around a narrative of ‘control’. Lacking in personal power and over-awed by the world, it is said that the child takes refuge in a miniature simulacrum of reality, and in an illusion of control over his or her environment. It is said that the child commands their toy soldiers in play battles in the absence of real subordinates to command, plays with a doll in the absence of a real baby, revs a toy car or glues struts to the wings of a model biplane in the absence of a real vehicle to drive or fly.

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Sometimes model-making is clearly part of some complicated pathology which helps us to claim or reclaim a grip on the world. In a narrow street in the town of Albi in France is the Académie des Miniatures et des petits goûters, an extraordinary house museum which exists solely to display the scale models created by a woman called Annie Jaurès, and who died a few years ago in her late 70s. The museum is now run by her daughter, who freely acknowledges that her mother was almost certainly living with an undiagnosed form of autism. The grandparents had enjoyed a life of great prosperity as part of the haut bourgeoisie, complete with a grand Paris mansion and a chateau, or country hunting lodge. However, due to ill-fortune, they lost their money and were forced to sell all their properties and possessions. Their daughter Annie never really recovered from the loss of her magical childhood world of beautiful houses and fine material things. As an adult she embarked on a lifelong mission to recreate every room of her childhood places, every pot and pan in the kitchen, every doorknob and gaslight, every book on the bookshelves, with their titles legible in tiny print. By the time Annie died there were 53 models of rooms, enough to fill a sizeable property in the town of Albi, where they are now on public display. They are an extraordinary testament to one woman’s obsession with recapturing (or was it preserving?) her once-lived reality. Although every piece of furniture, utensil, ornament and fabric is commemorated in miraculous detail, the rooms do not contain a single human figurine. This is no doubt an exaggerated case, but perhaps it tells us something about how all human beings fetichise our places and objects, investing them with meanings and almost unbearable emotional resonances? 

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This narrative of control through model-making is beautifully and playfully subverted in ‘Small Town’, a short story by the Science Fiction writer Philip K Dick in which the feverish model-making of a put-upon character ends up transforming the actual landscape of the town where he lives, and in which the imagined reality of the ‘perfect’ town displaces the unsatisfactory reality of his previous life. The projection becomes the reality. Whilst this story is an obvious fantasy magazine story in the spirit of Tales of the Unexpected, I think that it also picks up on something important about the way in which human beings use models and miniatures, not only to project imagined realities but also to make those imagined landscapes real.

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Back in 2015 I was responsible for creating Pope’s Urn, a public sculpture on the banks of the River Thames in Twickenham. The real sculpture: 8-foot tall, made out of weathered corten steel, weighing two and a half tons, and encircled by benches carved with poetry, forms the heart of a much-loved local pocket park on the riverside. However, the decisive moment in the commissioning process came when the architect with whom I was working (Ken Grix) unveiled a beautiful scale model. Suddenly the imagined sculpture had become a solid 3-dimensional object and was in a very human sense ‘real’. I understand that the scale model itself has since then enjoyed a long afterlife in a display case in the reception of the architects’ practice, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios in Bath, such that the sculpture is now ‘known’ to many architects and their clients who have never visited Twickenham. The idea of Pope’s Urn, if you like, is much larger than the sculpture itself, and this idea is embodied in the scale model.

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To take a quite different example, the medieval town of Cluny in Burgundy was once home to France’s largest abbey church, home to an ancient religious order of monks (the Cluniacs). This Romanesque church dominated the town and was on a scale to equal or surpass the largest of the Gothic cathedrals. However, in an act of historic vandalism, the French revolutionaries destroyed most of the church, leaving only one of its smaller towers and part of one transept still standing. Even this smaller tower remains an imposing feature in what is now a lovely country town, but the bulk of the abbey and its church have gone. Over a decade ago the regional government invested in some innovative new technology, then rather ahead of its time. Permanent digital panels were situated at various points all around the town, screens that can be swivelled on their bases to encompass an even wider view. Through these screens you can see the foreground as it is on the day of your visit: a car drives up the street, a family walks past in the park, the sun breaks through a cloud. However, superimposed in all of the screens using the magic of software code is the image of the abbey church as it was in its heyday, its great towers and rooftops rising high above the town and dominating the valley. Observers look back and forth between the grandeur of medieval Cluny and the modern denuded townscape and can apprehend, from many different angles and perspectives, what was once there, and what has been lost.

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After a while I found that these screens were playing a mind trick on me. The simulacra looked so real (more ‘real’ than the real you might say) that it began to affect my experience of the place I was visiting. After a day in Cluny I began to have the curious sensation of having visited the abbey and its church in its original, complete and undemolished form. The model was displacing the reality in my mind in a way that was not altogether comfortable, as though the fabric of our reality is fungible and what we see is determined to a great extent by what we imagine we see, or expect to see. I wonder if this does indeed tell us something about how human beings apprehend and experience the world? After all, we choose in which direction we cast our gaze, and how we interpret what we see. When we go to Florence we sensibly focus on (and remember) the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio, not the service stations or supermarkets on the ring road, although both are features of the real Firenze. Even on a normal day we populate the spaces and ellipses in our view with projected or imagined realities, half remembered or simply constructed to serve our practical purposes. Our imaginations help us to map not only our dreams and creative visions but also our everyday journeys, allowing us to walk down the street without fear of the unforeseen or unexpected, sinkholes, meteor showers or unknown viruses.

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I have been thinking about models and miniatures because R&V has created a beautiful scale model of the property at No 8 Royal College Street, the house formerly occupied by the poets, a replica ideally sized to go on a desk, bookshelf or mantlepiece. This is in the form of a superb 20cm high 3D plaster cast model weighing roughly 1.6kg created by artists at Timothy Richards Ltd, one of the UK’s most prestigious model-making companies. The immediate objective is to use these models as a modest fund-raiser for the charity, a way in which its members and friends can show their support for the organisation. As something that uses excellent craftmanship to champion the arts it represents R&V at its innovative best. The model of the ‘poetry house’ is also a beautiful and highly original gift, ideal as a birthday or Christmas present, a must-have ornament for anyone interested in the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine or in the arts of Decadence.

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The scale model may also have a wider significance. The reason that such a model is appealing is because it both represents the poets who once briefly lived in the property and embodies the values and the creativity of R&V as an organisation. Owning and displaying such a model is an expression of support for values and meanings that go far beyond one building in one street. Arguably the model represents something more important than that. It is a vision of the arts, embodied in miniature, a projection of a better world, and surely that is something we all need?

If you would like to order this limited edition scale model please register your interest by emailing us at info@rimbaudverlaine.org

Graham Henderson

Posted on:Wednesday 7th April, 2021