Glorious Years

John Westbrooke visits an unusual exhibition of historic French calendars

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It wasn’t just Marie Antoinette’s head that came to grief in the French Revolution. One of the sweeping changes the revolutionaries decided to make was bringing in a whole new calendar. The tale of the French and their almanacs is the subject of an off-beat exhibition at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire.

Now that shops fill up with them every September, it’s surprising to realise that it hasn’t always been that way. But the first on display comes from 1656, and is a single sheet mostly listing the days of the year: saints’ days, phases of the moon, and not interactive: there’s no room to write in “wedding anniversary”.

Across the top, though, is an illustration labelled “The king in triumph”. There’s Louis XIV, soon to become the powerful and wealthy “Sun King” but here only two years into his reign. Nonetheless he’s being carried in a chariot like the Roman emperors of old, accompanied by fabulous beasts and heralded by angel trumpeters.

He didn’t have to be there: the calendar was privately produced by Jean le Pautre, designer and engraver, at his own expense and risk. Still, he points out that it was done “cum privilegio” – with royal privilege, a form of copyright for which he had to pay.

Strict censorship would have prevented le Pautre from saying anything rude about his sovereign, and competing calendars might affect his sales. None the less, it was a money-making proposition; at their peak, these sold in their thousands. Clearly, Louis was already aware of the value of propaganda, and money.

By the time Marguerite Van der Mael produced a calender in 1671, the dates were almost an afterthought: you’d need a magnifying glass to read them (the gallery has provided some). Pretty much the whole thing is a classical engraving involving the seven muses, and above them all the king and queen, with a scroll listing the liberal arts – grammaire, arithmétique and so on – flourishing under their kindly rule.

Other calendars were equally royalist: François-Gérard Jollain’s in 1734 depicts not only the young dauphin (the heir to the throne) but all the dauphins since 1333. This one survived smallpox, and P. Thévenard’s 1753 calendar shows France thanking heaven for his recovery. That for 1775 is a 30-year almanac, which would have had a second sheet of paper (now missing) attached; owners would rotate it each year, to keep the constellations, holidays and equinoxes in step.

If it seems odd for people to have such royal glorification on their walls – well, it wasn’t unknown even as late as the 1950s; and the French didn’t have the alternatives of Star Wars and Sir Cliff (the best-sellers in 2015 and 2016). But the old order was coming to an end.

In 1789, the revolution overthrew not only the royal family but the way of counting time. In came new months with poetic names reflecting the seasons, the weather (in Paris) and rural activities: Germinal (germinating seeds, March to April), Floréal (flowering) and Prairial (month of meadows), for instance, or Vendémiaire (wine harvest, September to October), Brumaire (fog) and Frimaire (frost).

A British poet, unimpressed, called them Snowy, Flowy, Blowy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy, Breezy, Sneezy and Freezy.

Months were 30 days, weeks became 10 days, and there were spare days to add up to 365 or 366. (There was also a 10-hour day, a 100-minute hour, and the metric measuring system, still going strong.) It didn’t last, because there were fewer days off; but an elegant 1794 Republican Calendar by Philibert Louis Debucourt marks the moment: Philosophy on a marble throne, against an austere black background, and at her feet the old calendar and other remnants of “superstition”.

By now, as well as wall calendars, bound almanacs had come into fashion – pocket books much the same size as a smartphone and serving a similar purpose, which might include reference book, revolutionary history, postal times, songsheet and notebook: erasable pages allowed you to write down shopping lists, gambling debts or bons mots you thought of too late.

The exhibits come from the unique Waddesdon collection, compiled by its Rothschild owners; as with all ephemera, most of these documents have long since vanished. To complete the show, however, a new calendar was commissioned from artist Adam Dant – The Mother of Parliaments: Annual Division of Revenue. Alongside May and Corbyn, it depicts Jamie Oliver with the Department of Food, and Harry Potter with the Department for Education. And in the absence of saints’ days, it lists the birthdays of all MPs, in case you want to send them a card.

Glorious Years: French Calendars from Louis XIV to the Revolution runs at Waddesdon Manor, near Aylesbury, Wednesdays to Sundays until 29 October 2017. Entry £20 (free to National Trust members) also lets you roam the grand house and grounds.