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Bibliomaniacs' Corner
by Martin Davies

Gaston Vuillier (Part One)
Forgotten Islands ... and Authors

April 23rd is a special date for England, Catalonia and booklovers the world over: not only is it the day of Saint George (patron of the abovementioned lands) but also the death-day of Shakespeare, Cervantes and Wordsworth. This astonishing literary coincidence recently prompted the day-designators at UNESCO to declare it World Book and Copyright Day. Have any of those enterprising functionaries, I wonder, heard of my favourite bibliomaniac, Richard Heber (1773-1833), dubbed by Walter Scott "Heber the Magnificent, whose library and cellar are so superior to all others in the world." This sterling eccentric represented Oxford University in parliament until book-collecting forced him to resign his seat. His best-known dictum - "No gentleman can be without three copies of a book, one for show, one for use and one for borrowers." - fills spiritual descendants with a pang of nostalgia for an era when such sound advice was economically feasible. At his death in 1833 he possessed eight houses where books overflowed from every room and towered above every available flat surface. Besides his country seat at Hodnet, Shropshire, there were two London residences, a fourth in Oxford High Street, and others located at strategic points on the continent - Paris, Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent - as well as smaller hordes in several other European towns. 146,827 volumes were sold during the three years which followed his death - the largest collection of books ever assembled by a single individual. Many went to Britwell Court in Buckinghamshire, before passing to Henry E. Huntington's library in California. Richard's half-brother Reginald was Bishop of Calcutta and author of that perennial Ancient & Modern 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains', besides being a well-known Victorian travel-writer. Which brings us neatly to Ibiza.

In the pioneering days travel writers would arrive either in the spring or the autumn, just like the swallows pirouetting in the dusk beyond my library window. Primitive connections limited them to a tiny band of intrepid scribblers prepared to overlook - or spurred on by - the dubious tales recounted in the bars of neighbouring Palma. "It is by no means the mode to go so much out of the way" one Englishman was elegantly informed by a Palma innkeeper in the early 1890s while in 1906 the writer-photographer, Margaret D'Este declared that "if the whole annals of [Palma's] Grand Hotel were searched they would hardly produce a single record of a stranger having gone to Iviza, or if he did, of having ever come back to tell the tale." Backing up this startling statistic, a contemporary Glaswegian Mary Stuart Boyd reported that "with regard to Iviza, even the usually omniscient Baedeker maintains a dignified reserve ... Indeed, it is so little visited that while the Isleña Marítima Compañía Mallorquina de Vapores conveys passengers thither from Majorca for fifteen pesetas first class, they charge eighteen to bring them back to Majorca, which looks as though they thought voyagers might require to be cajoled into going to Iviza, but would need no inducement to return." On the far side of the Atlantic, a National Geographic journalist wrote in 1928 that "when the name of Iviza is mentioned, the other islands shake their heads and 'look volumes'. It is insinuated that this island sister is not all that she should be." Among dozens of similar anecdotes my favourite is from Chapter 13 of Gone Abroad (1933) by New Yorker Percy Waxman:

But the climax was reached when Pepi [sic], the head-waiter at the Mar i Cel heard of our mad idea.
"Going to Ibiza?" he cried. "They're nothing but a lot of savages over there."
"Have you ever been there?" we asked.
"Been there?" he echoed. "I was born there." That settled it. We made up our minds to go the following day.

To give credit where due, all the abovementioned made the same stalwart resolution, the man from National Geographic hastening "to seek the explanation for the apparent libel." He came up with two underlying factors: one was "the seriousness with which the islanders take their love affairs ... disputes were frequently settled with the aid of knives or pistols." The other that "jealous Majorca, fearful that some of the profitable stream of tourist traffic may be diverted from her more familiar shores, has spread the gossip that Iviza is hard and ill-favoured." In fact the way the Balearics have "their eyes fixed on the tourist" took him rather by surprise: "They even talk in Formentera, little more than a bare rock and a couple of sand dunes, of the possibility of attracting visitors." The irony, three-quarters of a century later, is flattening. But all these British and American visitors overlooked a Frenchman who beat them by a clear two decades. The elegantly-illustrated tome in question was published in Paris in 1893 and in London and New York three years later as The Forgotten Isles. In fact, so little is known about the life and career of its author-illustrator Gaston-Charles Vuillier, despite his importance for Pityusan bibliography, that this and the following article will be devoted to the subject.

Unlike the Archduke Luis Salvador (see Emily Kaufman's article in Ibiza History Culture Archive article Weekly Edition 004 of 24th March 2001)), Gaston Vuillier had no proverbial silver spoon in his mouth when he popped out into the world in 1845 in the southern French city of Perpignan: he was born to a servant by the name of Anne-Marie Pont outside the bonds of matrimony. Paul-François Vuillier, the father, was a master blacksmith from the Franch-Comté, whose upper-bourgeois family connections prevented him at the time from marrying the lowly domestic. So little Gaston Pont was packed off to spend his childhood in the tiny village of Gincla fifty miles to the west in the Pyrenean foothills, a locality which had changed little since the Middle Ages. This early introduction to a rural France half-buried in time provided a taste for local colour and vanishing customs which was to play a decisive part in Vuillier's subsequent career. He also learnt to speak Languedocian, a language closely related to Catalan, which was later to help him in his travels around the Mediterranean. Young Gaston eventually emerged from the hills to enrol at the Perpignan lycée and shortly after this his father married Mlle Pont and recognised his paternity. From this date (1860) on, he became a Vuillier, the name by which he subsequently rose to fame. On finishing school he was sent to Aix-en-Provence to study to become a solicitor - the idea being to follow a legal tradition on his father's side, but it soon became clear that he had no real calling and so he switched over to art, completing his studies at the Marseilles Academy of Fine Arts.

Vuillier's career now received an unexpected twist thanks to a combination of history and his natural facility at drawing: the Academy's director was a close friend of the leading politician Léon Gambetta, and thanks to his excellent portraits of the republican titan Vuillier found himself as a lieutenant in the beleaguered French army during the Franco-Prussian war, rising rapidly to the rank of aide-de-camp; this was followed by a six-year spell in Algeria as chief minister to the prefect of Oran. The flirtation with politics was short-lived: in 1876 he moved to Paris and resumed artistic studies under the painter Emmanuel Lansyer, making his début in the Salon des Artistes Français two years later with a series of Provençal and Limousin landscapes - missing Van Gogh and Gauguin, incidentally, by a mere decade (the ear-cutting episode occurred on Christmas Eve 1888). In the same year he took his Algerian sketches to publishing phenomenon Edouard Charton, editor of Le Magasin Pittoresque and Le Tour du Monde. Charton had recently formed a formidable business alliance with the key Paris publishing firm of Hachette, then under the direction of Emile Templier.

Word and engraved image, equal in importance, complementary in the best sense - this was the special Charton-Templier recipe for publishing success, and it was into this promising environment that Vuillier suddenly stepped from out of the blue, a draughtsman of undoubted promise who also knew a thing or two about writing. Beginning with a couple of short pieces based on his Algerian sketches in Le Magasin Pittoresque, he was promoted in just over a year to the more serious literary counterpart, Le Tour du Monde, where the articles were longer and better illustrated. Vuillier's role here was initially to simply engrave illustrations based on travellers' photographs of far-flung outposts such as Panama and the Australian outback. Then in 1888 came his big break - a commission to illustrate and write a full-length article about Andorra, the mysterious Pyrenean principality a hundred miles further in from his childhood haunts.

Between 1888 and his death in 1915 Vuillier was to write sixteen travel articles for Le Tour du Monde and five full-length books, dedicated respectively to the Balearics-Corscia-Sardinia, Sicily, Tunisia, French dancing and traditional games and past-times. All were beautifully illustrated with the author's engravings, some from original sketches, others worked up from photographs taken by other investigators. Parallel to this highly successful career as author (during the course of which he became a widely-recognized social historian and ethnographer of the Limousin), he also illustrated eight works by other writers - three travel books (on Arabia, Indo-China and Scotland respectively) and five literary works (including Prosper Mérmimée's two masterpieces Carmen and Colomba). It was the Balearics which launched this multi-faceted career, above all the book published by Hachette in 1893. Before we move on to this, his first full-length publication, let us first take a look at his method for getting to grips with a particular region, seen in embryo in the Andorran piece. The text, written in the first person, would first consider the local countryside and monuments, paying particular attention to the dramatic, the romantic, the picturesque, the sublime - things to do and see for an anticipated trickle of tourists (never in his wildest nightmares could he have foreseen the current deluge). As well as these superficial impressions, his articles and books aimed to foster a deeper understanding of local traditions and folklore, thereby satisfying the more discriminating armchair traveller. For this, the meat of his work, he would seek out a local savant, someone deeply versed in the region's history and ethnography, expertly culling their detailed knowledge. Exquisite engravings backed the whole thing up, bringing dry 'scientific' knowledge to life and giving his reporting a definite edge over the bland tourist fare of other journals. He became, in short, an archetypal Tour du Monde reporter - the National Geographic of its day. Word and image in perfect harmony.

'Le Val d'Andorre' appeared as a thirty-one page article and was so well received that Vuillier was quickly sent off again, this time to another forgotten part of Europe, the slumbering islands of the western Mediterranean. In Mallorca, which he visited in the autumn of 1888, his local contacts included the Archduke Luis Salvador, with whom he got on so well that the two began to collaborate on a book about Miramar, the aristocratic polymath's favourite property on the precipitous northern coast. Meanwhile the Tour du Monde article, 'Voyage aux Baléares, Majorque' double the length of the Andorran one, appeared the same year, by which time the indefatigable artist-reporter was already in Sardinia, working on another tour de force of ethno-tourism. Editor and public alike were delighted with text and illustrations, some of the finest yet seen in that cutting-edge travel journal.

It was in the autumn of 1889, twenty-two years after Luis Salvador's autumn visit that Gaston Vuillier arrived in Ibiza on the final leg of his Balearic mission. 'Minorque et Cabrera' were well in hand and the French public eagerly awaiting the final instalment from this remotest of outposts. A modern-day equivalent would be the centre of the Antarctic or a mountain range on Mars. In a fortnight we'll be back to see what exactly Vuillier found to report on, and why he has remained for so many decades as enigmatic a figure as the forgotten isles he discovered. To whet your appetites (in more ways than one, perhaps) I will leave you with one of the illustrations to pore over. We will also, UNESCO mandarins take note, discover the real day on which the Stratford bard breathed his last.

Sausage-maker, Ibiza Town, 1889
Engraving by Gaston Vuillier

Martin Davies



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