Monday, 15 October 2012

Santons and Paper Mache dolls

While I had my late summer holiday in Italy my sister and her husband had theirs (complete with their labrador) in the South of France. The destinations for both this holiday and their holiday last September were chosen so that they could retrace the journey our father made in 1945.  He was a radar technician in the New Zealand Air Force who arrived in England in the autumn of 1944 and after spending the bitterly cold winter of 1944/45 here, found himself attached to an RAF unit sent to Europe to dismantle Nazi radar stations.  We have the letters that he sent back to his parents and it is these that have formed the basis of my sister's holidays.

The unit left Norfolk at the end of April 1945 and the family story goes that someone chased the lorry down the drive from the base waving the telegram to announce that I had been born.  There is then a gap in the letters (most annoying) although we do know from later ones that he spent VE day in Mons.  I never knew this when, driving to Luxembourg one year, my husband mis-directed me and I ended up driving right round the main square, cobbles and all!  After spending some weeks in the Taunus mountains near Frankfurt, (scene of last year's holiday) the unit moved to Languedoc.  While he was there my father decided he wanted to buy a present for his baby daughter.  He came home with a doll which he bought in Mende in the upper Lot valley.

For a child it was a strange doll and I never really played with it.  Although it is jointed at the shoulders and groin, it does not really bend.  It is made of paper mache and is obviously very old.  I know it is paper mache because I had a terrible accident and trod on it, causing a deep cut in the right cheek which revealed the paper mache.  You can just see the scar in this photo.

 It has real hair and is fully dressed with petticoat, heavy lace camisole and cotton knickers under the clothes you see here.  There are lovely shoes with straw soles.  I suspect a textile historian could date it roughly from the clothes.  It originally also had a headscarf to match the apron but this disappeared at some point.

My father, whose French was appalling, used to say that the person who sold it to him had said something that he took to be either 'Saint Anne' or 'cent ans'.  He also said that there had been a companion man doll and that the shopkeeper had tried very hard to sell him both.  My father refused, probably because he could not afford it.  For many years that is all we knew about its origins but some time after the horrible accident, I was telling some colleagues and one who had lived in Switzerland, told me that it was almost certainly a 'santon': a figure from a crib scene in a church.  So I decided that was probably the case as by late 1945 people in that part of France would have had nothing left and were probably selling off anything that could move to the occupying forces.  I looked into getting it repaired but gave up in the end.

And that was that until my sister decided to visit the area and said she would look into its origins further.  Interestingly this has shown that it is almost certainly not a santon.  Now we know that there are two museums with collections of these dolls: Marseilles and a very small museum in  Les Baux de Provence.  The museum does not appear to have a website.  This is apparently a very beautiful small Provencal town.   My sister and her husband went to this museum and learnt that santons are generally made from clay and are also smaller than my doll.  I was fascinated by the history of the dolls which seem to have made their way from Spain via Italy to Provence.  The church in Monetfiascone where I have just stayed had a large modern village scene with dolls and I remember that when I went to Rome at Christmas 1970 many of the churches had intricate crib scenes and there were queues of people waiting to visit them.  My sister and her husband bought themselves a modern santon as a souvenir.  They are not cheap!

Last week we decided my doll is just that, a doll, so I did a bit of Googling and came up with a very interesting article.  The article specifically mentions paper mache dolls designed for churches so I now think that is what I have.  My sister tells me that the santon tradition included dolls representing various occupations including an old couple who stand for fidelity, longevity etc.  So I think that probably answers the question.  But if there is anyone out there with more information we would love to hear from you.  Just put a comment on the the blog and I will follow it up.  If you are interested in the history of dolls you will also enjoy the Museum of Dolls in Paris. but do note that at least part of it is closing for redevelopment next January.


  1. Interesting story Elizabeth, and what a lovely idea for a holiday. Your doll looks typical Provencal judging by the clothes she is dressed in. I love her straw Sabots. She looks as if she could be a hundred years old now. I don't know about in 1945. The ric rac on the bottom of her apron is posing me a problem. Can't decide about that but her blouse is made of that spotty muslin that was so popular in the 19th century and even earlier. She is lovely.

    1. Don't know why but I have only just read this comment! Thanks for the information. I had forgotten you are an expert on French textiles. You should see her camisole which is what we used to call 'Guipuere (SP?) lace - very coarse. I will pass this info. on to my sister who is the history expert.

  2. Thanks Lizzie for your comments on the fabric. You're right - the shoes are a lovely feature of the doll. Our trip to the Languedoc was amazing and we feel that we need to go back and try to get to the bottom of the santnn/doll saga. The visit to the museum in Les Baux de Provence was a highlight of our trip even though we didn't solve the 'is it/isn't it' question. Certainly the two or three papiermache santons on display were all Italian in origin and completely different from Elizabeth's doll. But I like to think that maybe the doll is in fact Grasette - the traditional old lady who with her husband is meant to represent loyalty and faithfulness in old age (in spite of squabbling incessantly with her husband!).