Artillery Row On Art The Critics

Transports de joie

En route back to childhood at the Wallace Collection

A French friend of mine has lived in London for decades, yet somehow not managed to lose her central-casting accent. I suspect she secretly keeps it up with écoutez-répétez exercises in front of old episodes of ‘Allo ‘Allo. She always says that whenever she is yearning for the land of her birth, she goes “to ze Wallace Collection; it makes me sink of ‘ome”. It’s not difficult to see why, for the Hertfords’ former residence on Manchester Square surely remains the premier outpost of France in London. Alongside Le Beaujolais on Litchfield Street, it is much more fun than L’Institut Français in South Kensington, or the students from the Lycée Charles de Gaulle grumpily snogging each other in the upstairs galleries of the Natural History Museum.

Twenty-four stills from Cinderella dominate a whole wall

Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of the French Decorative Arts arrived at the Wallace Collection last month, having been previously at the Met in New York. Although it is a physically small exhibition it seems huge, mainly because it involves time travel in two directions. The first part transports visitors to rococo France, to present a convincing thesis of how the europhile Walt Disney was inspired to include historic objets d’art in his films. Short and informative audio-clips provide technical explanations of how his studios turned these pieces into cartoon form. Various luxury items — previously the preserve of the few — became familiar through his work to the many. The skill of the animators is stupendous, and their attention to detail breath-taking. 

As far as I can tell, the esse of rococo art lies in its seeming tendency towards movement while it remains yet firmly still. It is a point underlined here by the clocks, all of which are set to the right time; at the top of the hour they burst into tinkling peals of laughter. It evokes in its own way the joy of watching a crude stick-man run through the bottom right-hand corners of a school exercise book, and has more in common with old-fashioned animation than I had realised. Twenty-four stills from the eponymous Cinderella dominate a whole wall. They represent just a couple of seconds of motion: that of her dazzling transformation at the hands of her fairy godmother on the way to the ball. For the really keen, the accompanying catalogue worthily notes that “under thousands of individually drawn (and later hand-transferred and painted) sparkles, her rags turn into a fine ballgown and she into a radiant apparition”.

“Tradition has it that this was Walt Disney’s favourite scene,” it continues. “Many have since read the Disney princess’s transformation as the realisation of the ‘American Dream’ of the 1950s.” If we’re going to be earnest about it, we might also conjure up an imaginary doctoral thesis investigating the obvious theological themes of salvation and deliverance that play out in Beauty and the Beast — the broad theme of the second part of the exhibition. Much more satisfying, surely, to allow oneself to be led in another direction: right back to childhood, before the realities of life took hold. Elsewhere a curatorial note observes that “although separated by two centuries, the artists and craftspeople represented in the exhibition had one shared goal: the animation of the inanimate”.

With old favourites to the fore, it was impossible not to enjoy

To that end, elegant playfulness and finely-honed talent combine and break out in indulgent exuberance. Turreted châteaux become fairy-tale castles; whimsical vases become elephants; complicated candlesticks become footmen; elegant teapots become doting matriarchs. It is a world in which anything is possible. All of it comes back to the same theme; viz, that from the beginning Disney found inspiration for various characters in French buildings, ornaments and furnishings of the eighteenth century, and then also in some of their belle-epoque successors. Anthropomorphic tendencies are stretched to extremes, but once one’s seen a large rococo mantle clock right next to the drawings for Cogsworth, the Beast’s stuffy old butler, then there’s no turning back.

The audio guide lends erudition in tolerable chunks. It also provides the comfort of a general introduction by Angela Lansbury, still with us after all this time, who played Mrs Potts (the maternal teapot) in Beauty and the Beast and sang the big tune. I challenge anyone of my vintage not to go a bit fuzzy at that point. As Disney himself said, when asked about his approach to movie-making, “over at our place we’re sure of just one thing: everybody in the world was once a child.” The full quotation sets the whole exhibition in context: “we don’t think of grownups and we don’t think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot, down deep in every one of us that may be the world has made us forget and that maybe our pictures can help recall.” 

Seen through that lens, there is far more to this exhibition than just the items on display. If I’d hated the show then I suppose I could have called this review “Bibbity Bobbity? Boo”, but with old favourites of my early youth to the fore it hit the spot so well that it was impossible not to enjoy. It’s totally visceral; one would need a heart of stone not to be transported back to simpler times and to have one’s imagination taken along too, to be refreshed and reset in those far-off days without the frenzy of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest, when there were only four TV channels, the evening bulletin was at nine o’clock, and ‘Allo ‘Allo was new. 

The refreshment lingers, I soon discovered. Before leaving the building I meandered through the armour galleries on the ground floor, with their empty suits of plate and the horseless chain-mail and helmets hung in ready-for-action poses. As I did so another memory burst out of a vault in my head, where it had presumably been firmly buried for nearly thirty years: Angela Lansbury again, as Miss Price on her broomstick with a Union Flag astern, and rising chants of Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee.

Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of the French Decorative Arts is at the Wallace Collection until 16 October.

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