Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Centuries of colour

Around the corner from the Pompidou Centre, on the rue Rambuteau in the Marais district of Paris, is a small courtyard. At its far corner, an unassuming shop open only one afternoon a week. However, inside is magical colour and an amazing window into the history of art.

La Maison du Pastel manufactures and sells artists' pastels in an enormous array of colours - over 1,000 of them. Each stick is hand-made in a labour-intensive process used for centuries; they have to be carefully formulated to ensure not only solid, luminous colour but also longevity. While the process has endured, some of the pigments used in the past have been replaced with either better or safer pigments: mercury and arsenic fall into the latter category! 

This business dates back to at least 1720, when pastels were at the height of artistic fashion and Paris was recognised as having the finest producers. It settled  in the Marais in 1766; in 1865, it was taken over by Henri Roché, chemist, biologist and pharmacist. Through his interest in art, he had got to know the pastel workshop and its presiding craftsman, and through them artists including Degas and Whistler. He thus turned away from his successful pharmacy to devote himself to learning the craft and collaborating with the aging craftsman to produce improved colours and a wider range. The business has stayed in the Roché family ever since.

By 1878, Roché was in sole charge of La Maison du Pastel and would go on to increase its range from about 100 to 500 shades. In 1906, he and his doctor son moved the business to its current location and further increased the range to over 1,000 shades. Their work was disrupted by the First World War and the death of the elder Roché in 1925, aged 88; nonetheless, Dr Roché continued with his father's business, and kept the shop in rue Rambuteau. Rising property costs, though, prompted a move outside the city for the workshop. In this new location, the range continued to expand and the collection of 1,650 colours won a gold medal at the 1937 Exposition Internationale de Paris.

Business was interrupted again during the Second World War, when Dr Roché moved his family to the South of France. His wife and daughters returned to Paris to resume trading, putting right the damage done to the shop by the German occupation and Allied bombing, while the elderly Dr Roché concentrated on his medical work to fund the reopening. He died in 1948; his widow would live and continue to head the business until 1975. The three daughters then kept it going, but as they aged, manufacture slowed and stock declined badly. By the end of the century, La Maison du Pastel appeared to be in terminal decline. 

However, Isabelle Roché, daughter of a cousin, discovered a passion for the craft. Her background was in engineering, not art, but she worked with the sisters who were eager to pass on their knowledge and ensure the family heritage survived. After the eldest sister, Huberte, died, Isabelle took over in 2000. She has increased the range once more: to 300 shades by 2002, double that in 2007. Since 2011, she has worked with American Margaret Zayer, and they have expanded the selection to over a thousand colours. Each small batch of pastels is made by hand in a workshop which has barely changed since the 1930s: pigments are carefully weighed and mixed, combined with a little binding agent, pressed to remove excess moisture, then rolled and trimmed by hand into individual sticks of pastel ready to be stamped, packed, labelled and sold.

Inside the shop, dark wooden shelves and flat boxes house subtle neutrals, shimmering metallics, and vivid jewel colours. New shades glisten against a backdrop of old shopfittings and materials; there are even pastels made in the last century, still on sale today. 

As part of a visiting group, organised by the Seine-Saint Denis tourist office, I was fortunate enough to learn about this history from Isabelle herself. Her passion ensures that the workshop and shop thrive, offering both an unbroken link back to the eighteenth century and the finest-quality contemporary art supplies.

The shop opens on Thursdays, 2-6pm; you can also buy the pastels online

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