November 7, 2017
Brollies rising: A takeover
by Marion Rankine
Recently, as we prepared for the glorious launch of Marion Rankine’s unreasonably charming Brolliology, we invited her to take over our Instagram feed, transforming it into a wonderland of beauteous and scintillating umbrella-tude.
Today, as Brolliology hits bookstore shelves everywhere, and because the best umbrella is one you can stand under with room for a friend, we’re pleased to share the brollies Marion’s been collecting,
Roll up the cuffs of your pants, Readers, we are going through, y’know, inclement weather.
Umbrellas in Snow: This here is a woodblock print from a 1904 collection called Bijutsu Kei, or Ocean of Art, and it’s one of my absolute favourite Umbrella Arts. And for truly stunning umbrella visuals on a staggering scale, go watch OK Go’s video clip for Won’t Let You Down. Do it. You’re welcome.
Sewing Machine with Umbrellas in a Surrealist Landscape, Salvador Dalí, 1941: At some point during 1868-1869 the Comte de Lautréamont penned the description, in Les Chants de Maldoror, of a boy as “fair… as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella!” Lautréamont (whose real name was Isidore Ducasse) would not live to see the extraordinary effect his words would have on a group of artists several decades later. The surrealists of the early 20th century were captivated by Maldoror — so much so that it directly inspired works of visual art and sculpture, including Man Ray’s appropriately enigmatic 1920 sculpture L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse and this ominous, looming piece by Dalí.
Umbelliferae: Umbrellas have even found their way into botanical lingo, with the Latin umbella (parasol) lending its name to a family of plants, the Umbelliferae (or apiaceae). So named for their umbels—flower heads of clustering blossoms radiating out from a central stalk, not unlike the ribs of an umbrella—family members include carrots, parsley, celery, fennel, dill, coriander, cumin and their friendly cousin hemlock.
Hanway’s Umbrella (engraving by an unknown artist): The British were remarkably resistant to umbrellas when they were first introduced to the country. Really. Wasn’t the Whole God-Given Point of rain to make people wet? And how were coach drivers supposed to make money if people could use portable shelters while walking? Early umbrella users were mocked, harassed and sometimes followed by crowds (seriously, those were weird times) on the streets. None of this deterred Jonas Hanway, who persisted with his umbrella for nearly fifty years. Only after his death did his excellent sense catch on with the rest of the populace.
Illustration from La Tribuna Illustrata, Vittorio Pisani: Fact: modern-day parachutes are umbrella descendants. Early European aeronauts looked to the umbrella as inspiration for their first parachute designs (a simple leap of logic, as anyone who’s wrestled an umbrella on a windy day will attest), and many of the earliest models were basically umbrellas on a grand scale (some even kept the central post). However, many years of innovation and several gruesome parachutist deaths later, better, more reliable designs were adopted and the parachute outgrew its awkward, unreliable parents. Apparently no one told these guys, though.
Illustration from Hints to the Bearers of Walking Sticks and Umbrellas: Early umbrellas caused all sorts of havoc and nuisance on British (and US) streets – partly because old-fashioned brollies were cumbersome, flappy affairs, and partly because people were only just learning the ins and outs of how to carry an umbrella without endangering the eyes, wigs and windpipes of their fellow citizenry. An exasperated man named JS Duncan wrote this arch little pamphlet entitled “Hints to the Bearers of Walking Sticks and Umbrellas” lampooning the umbrella-wielding habits of his contemporaries and laying out some guidelines for socially acceptable umbrella carriage. It would be nice to think that, with our technologically advanced brollies and over 200 years of accumulated umbrella-handling wisdom, people have managed to improve on their umbrella-bearing etiquette since then — but the recognisability of many of these caricatures leads me to suspect otherwise.
Broken Blossom, London, Christmas Eve: Turns out that as soon as you start even thinking about umbrellas they pop up everywhere; while I was writing Brolliology I started finding them almost daily. It was almost as if they knew what I was up to: whenever I was struggling to put pen to paper, a whole troupe of them would appear on the streets, as if they were reminding me to keep to my task. This broken blossom was lying abandoned in the gutter one Christmas Eve, sodden and flapping feebly.
When on a Winter’s Day a Traveller, by Matej Andraž Vogrinčič: This photo was taken by my venerable grandfather, who called his hefty umbrella “The Drought Stick” for its remarkable ability to prevent rain when carried out and about (and to cause it when left at home). One of the places he took his Drought Stick was Melbourne’s GPO building, where, in 2005, it found a whole flock of contemporaries. This installation was created by Slovenian artist Matej Andraž Vogrinčič and entirely filled the negative space between the first floor balconies with black umbrellas. From below, a spiky riot of umbrella handles; from above, a roiling landscape of spoked domes, misted over occasionally by the quiet belching of a smoke machine. Needless to say, the drought sticks did their job: it did not rain once in the GPO Building for the duration of the installation.
Young Woman Jumping from the Kiyomizu Temple Balcony With an Umbrella As A Parachute: In the 1760s, at least four different Japanese artists produced prints depicting a woman leaping from a high place—often a temple—with just an umbrella to break her fall. Apparently the jump served as a litmus test for the futures of a love affair — if the woman landed unharmed, the relationship would be a happy one. That said, it does seem a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy; happiness doesn’t usually proceed from snapped ankles or shattered pelvises.
Skyline, Hudson River, New York, 1995 (photo by Rodney Smith): I picked up a postcard of this print at a gallery shop somewhere, and it stayed on the wall by my desk the whole time I was writing Brolliology. I love its form and structure: the heights of the umbrellas matched to the buildings behind, the stylised poses and acute tailoring of the outfits, the way the stick of the far-right brolly is obscured such that it appears to hover, unsupported, above the girl (or perhaps the girl has been transformed into a brolly?) It’s a perfect illustration of the architectural nature of the brolly; how it’s not merely a fashion accessory but a constructed shelter: a small portable roof to carry around in the wet and the snow.
The Actor Arashi Sangoró III as an Umbrella Ghost, by Utagawa Toyokuni: “Yokai” is the name given to demonic beings of Japanese folklore. There’s a subgroup of yokai called tsukumogami — old tools & household objects which have fallen into disuse and become sentient. One of these objects is an umbrella. The “haunted umbrella” or “umbrella ghost/monster” is known as a kasa-obake, and it’s appeared in Japanese art, comics and movies for centuries. The haiku inscribed on this print reads:
My flower umbrella
tattered and worn —
in the guise of a monster!
For a stunning filmic example of kasa-obake and other yokai in action, watch Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko, where scenes from the ancient Japanese picture-scroll Night Parade of One Hundred Demons is re-enacted on modern Tokyo streets. It’s spooky and funny and beautiful all at once.
James Smith and Sons shop (photo by Marion Rankine): If you have more than a passing affection for umbrellas, and you’re ever in London, do yourself a favour and visit James Smith and Sons. Trading since 1830, the shop has been in its current location since 1857, and has perfectly preserved its traditional Victorian design. Step through the doors and be transported back to a time before flimsy pop-ups and single-use bargain basement brollies cornered the market: here you’ll find an enormous array of elegant carved handles, fine fabric finishes, sturdy staffs and seatsticks — and a giant horseshoe to protect against indoor-umbrella-opening bad luck.
The Umbrella Maker (photo by Kimbei Kusakabe): Traditional umbrella manufacture in the Gifu Prefecture, Japan, is an incredibly detailed process. It’s broken down into five or so stages, each of which is considered a distinct and highly specialised craft. Umbrella wholesalers would go between craftspeople, moving the umbrellas-in-progress around the neighbourhood for nearly a month until they were finished and ready to be sold. Since Western steel and nylon umbrellas took Japan by storm in the twentieth century, the demand for traditional bamboo-and-paper umbrellas has steeply dropped, and umbrella-making is a dying craft.
Rainy Day in London, 1928: It’s publication day! Here is a suitably gloomy picture to celebrate. I like to think they’re all huddling there to talk about how great umbrellas are (but I could be wrong). If I’ve piqued your interest enough to buy a copy – thank you. Go give some money to an awesome indie bookstore and help them in the ongoing wrangle against Giant Tax-Dodging Workers-Rights-Abusing Bookselling Behemoths. Or just go through the Melville House website. They’re pretty cool too.
Brolliology is on sale now. Buy your copy here, or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.
Marion Rankine is a London-based writer and bookseller. Brolliology is her first book.