Category Archives: History

Le Petit Mousse

‘Le Petit Mousse’ by Ad. Rémy & A. Baudeuf, published by Serpeille (Paris, sd) and illustrated by L. Lantier.

A mousse is the French word given to apprentices carrying out chores on a ship. They used to be young boys, usually 12–16 years old but sometimes as young as 7-8 years old, when they were called a mousaillon. It is only by a decree from 1852 that the boys had to be at least 10 years old to enlist on a ship.

‘Moussaillon’ by Demarquette & Henry Min, published by Félix Mackar in Paris (sd). Lithography by Jannin & Denis.

The mousse‘s tasks consisted of cooking meals, sweeping the deck, cleaning the chicken coops, tending the animals, scratching the rust, serving the crew. One other important (and dangerous) duty was to scramble up the rigging, in all kinds of weather, whenever the sails had to be trimmed. It is in this particular role —alone high up in the mast— that the mousse is represented iconographically, time and again.

Left: ‘Le Petit Mousse‘ by F. Plasschaert & J. B. De Baes, published by Charles De Vylder (Gent, SD) and illustrated by N. Heins. Right: ‘La plainte du mousse!’ by Louis Abadie & Anatole Morancé, published by Mayence (Bruxelles, sd).

Tales of spectacular shipwrecks and martyred mousses inspired a certain kind of literature, romantic and moralistic novels with a generous portion of melodramaAlso contemporary songs and magazines mawkishly lamented the miserable existence of these children at sea. In these sentimental stories the mousses were either real examples of virtue who earned a living for their family, after their father, a sailor, had perished at sea or had spent everything on booze. Or they were pitiable martyrs who were treated very badly on board: they were caned, flogged or shackled with the rats.

‘La Mère du Mousse’ by Etienne Arnaud & Anaïs Segalas, published by G. Jacqmain (Gent, sd).

In the Revue des deux Mondes from 1903 an extreme case of maltreatment is described. A mousse was punished for being seasick. He had to stand on deck, with a heavy wooden bar on his shoulders, and was left there for days on end. The child, at the slightest roll, stumbled, slipped on the deck, got soaked to the skin and shivered from the cold. Then, as he did not toughen up quickly enough, his hat and muffler were cut off. The sleeves of his jacket and shirt were lifted up to his elbows, and his trousers up to his thighs. By temperatures below zero his skin turned bluish. He was kicked and clubbed there where wounds began to form. He was deprived of food, and, not surprisingly the poor mite died. In the same magazine, another mousse accused his captain of sexual abuse but as it could not be proven the captain went free.

The normal life for most of the mousses was not as horrendous. Although it was absolutely not an easy living. No laws regulated their working conditions. Captains, usually with a drinking habit, were quite often uneducated and brutal. Luckily for some of the mousses, especially those on local fishing boats and small coasters, the crew knew each other and in many cases the captain, or someone in the crew, was related to the mousse.

Lithograph and picture of a French mousse. Both 19th century.

Nevertheless this kind of apprenticeship was much too harsh and rough for such young boys. They had to act as adults much too early. There were frequent cases of sexual abuse and allegedly a lot of the mousses had syphilis. They smoked and drank alcohol: typically a mixture of coffee, cider, eau de vie and lots of sugar. Apart from a few initiatives in the first half of the 19th century to provide a minimal education, it was not until the 1950s that mousses got a proper schooling.

Now comes the  story of the heroic petit mousse Marcel Rioual. While writing this story, I’m looking at a painting depicting Marcel’s  real-life tragedy at sea.

The sixteen-year old Marcel had registered on board of a dundee called the Bon-Retour’. A dundee was a fast tuna boat with an over-extended stern typical for Brittany. In September 1930 a fierce storm hit Brittany, brutally exposing the weakness of the dundee. Like so many other boats, the ‘Bon-Retour’ was in distress and two sailors were swept away. The water filled the boat but the pumps were broken. The rest of the crew desperately tried to empty the hold with buckets. When Marcel saw that the ship’s wheel was abandoned, he attached himself to it and clang to it during twenty-four hours, thus hoping to survive the raging sea.

At some point the Bon-Retour —I don’t know how— finally touched the port of Concarneau. It was devastated by the storm and its deck was strewn with ropes, pieces of sail and wood. Only its mast was still standing, the flag at half-staff. After being treated by a doctor, Marcel modestly said “I just did what I had to do”.
Marcel was also greeted by the Minister of Merchant Marine. That encounter was related in the press, together with a photograph of the embrace.

Mr Louis Rollin, the Minister of Merchant Marine posing with Marcel Rioual, and giving him a paternal embrace.

Clearly that picture inspired our amateur painter to represent the fatherly embrace in the clouds of the deadly storm.This naive work by an amateur painter may seem clumsy and funny. However it is testimony to the pain and mourning of the whole Finistère region, as 207 sailors died in that storm of 1930.

Stories of spectacular shipwrecks and heroic mousses have inspired young adult novels in pulp magazines, even as late as the fifties.


In Ambleteuse, the small French coastal village facing the English Channel where I am writing this story, there is this fast-food ‘restaurant’.  Au Petit Mousse offers typical French cuisine: pizza, Welsh and kebab.

Au Petit Mousse, Ambleteuse – France

Although their logo on the menu might be politically offensive, they were perhaps inspired by an old sheet music cover…

Le Petit Mousse Noir‘ by P. Cheret & Marc Constantin, published by Choudens (Paris, sd).

The Lambeth Walk & Felix Nussbaum

The Lambeth Walk‘ by Noel Gay, Arthur Rose & Albert Gumble, published by Modern Screen Songs (Shanghai, sd) and illustrated by J. Zane.

The naive drawing for The Lambeth Walk is a unicum in our collection. It’s the only one of our sheet music to have been published in Shanghai, which illustrates the song’s worldwide success. In 1937 the cheerful cockney Lambeth Walk started as an instant hit in England and soon rocketed to planetary triumph.

‘Lambeth Walk’ by Noel Gay, Arthur Rose & Albert Gumble. Left published by Cinephonic Music Co. Ltd, (London,1937). Right: published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1938).

The Lambeth Walk was composed by Noel Gay for the musical Me and My Girl about a Cockney boy who in order to inherit a fortune must abandon his working-class ways. The musical was turned into a film in 1939. In the clip we see the leading character, played by Lupino Lane, telling all the snooty aristocrats: you should come to my working-class neighbourhood, and do this little dance we do. This dance starts with a strutting gait, thumbs cheerfully up in the air. Add to that some kicks, knee-slapping, risqué pelvis motion, turning around and shouting “Oi” all seemingly without end. Earworm alert: code red!

The strutting gait is the way London costermongers used to walk. Costermongers, or costers, were street sellers of fruit and vegetables for the labouring classes. They used melodic sales patter, poems and chants to attract attention. The distinctive culture of costers inspired many comedians and made them prime targets for songwriters.

‘The Coster’s Mansion or Yo’uve only got to stop just where you is!’, by George Le Brunn & Will Fieldhouse, published by Francis, Day & Hunter (London, 1899).

The Lambeth Walk takes its name from a street in central London, once notable for its street market and working class culture. An article in the 1938 Picture Post wrote about Lambeth Walk: “In spite of its severe poverty it has a racy and vigorous life of its own.”

Life in the Lambeth Walk‘, Picture Post, December 1938.

In 1942, Charles A. Ridley of the Ministry of Information manipulated parts from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will  to ridicule Hitler and Nazi soldiers as if they were dancing the Lambeth Walk. The newsreel companies gave their own credits to the propaganda film. This copy is titled ‘Schichlegruber doing the Lambeth Walk’ referring to Adolf Hitler’s father who was born as Alois Schicklgruber.

Felix Nussbaum was a German Jewish painter who lived in hiding in Brussels during the war. His last known painting, Triumph of Death,  shows skeletal figures making music in an apocalyptic world. It reads as an anticipation of the painter’s own doom. We see the despair on the face of the organ grinder, a self-portrait of Nussbaum. A few weeks after finishing this work in 1944, Nussbaum was arrested and shipped to Auschwitz where he died one week later. He had been betrayed by a neighbour.

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Triumph of Death‘ by Felix Nussbaum, 1944.

In the left bottom of the painting, amid a pile of debris of the painter’s everyday life, lies a torn and crumpled piece of sheet music: it is the score from the Lambeth Walk. The detail tragically illustrates that for Nussbaum there was no more place for the simple tunes that can make people happy.

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Doin’ the Lambeth walk
Ev’rything free and easy
Do as you darn well pleasey

Margaritis and Wartime Utopia

Everything I Have is Yours‘ by Burton Lane & Harold Adamson, published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1933) and illustrated by Florent Margaritis.

The cover with the close-up profile of Joan Crawford is illustrated by Florent Margaritis (1910-1983). In this beautiful fragment of the musical film ‘Dancing Lady’ (1933), Art Jarrett croons Everything I Have is Yours while Joan Crawford floats by dancing. 

We have only three sheet music by Florent Margaritis. One of them already introduced a previous post about bumper cars. And here is the third one.

‘Got the bench got the park’ by Al. Lewis, Al. Sherman & A. Fred Phillips, published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1930) and illustrated by Florent Margaritis.

Details about Margaritis’ life are largely unknown, except for the following WWII episode when he became a founding member of the Groupe d’Oppède.

In 1933 Florent Margaritis started studying architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Not having finished his studies he was mobilised in 1939. In the aftermath of the armistice in June 1940 Florent and two of his schoolmates were demobilised in southwestern Pau. As the Germans occupied Paris they decided to stay in the zone libre. One of the friends, Georges Brodovitch, suggested to go to Oppède, a ruined medieval village in the Lubéron. There his brother had bought a derelict oil mill and a priory just before the start of the war. This brother was Alexey Brodovitch, a Russian-born photographer, designer and teacher who after working for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris had moved to the US where he became artistic director of Harper’s Bazaar. He had bought the two old buildings in Oppède in order to restore them as part of an artist-in-residence program for his students. A plan which was cut short by the war.

Graphic work by Alexey Brodovitch, from Arts et métiers graphiques, July 1930.

The three mates persuaded three other pals to accompany them to Oppède. When the six youngsters arrived there, they were surprised to see a deserted Romanesque village hanging on a steep rock, dominated by a fortress church and a dismantled castle. The village had only six inhabitants left. The other seven hundred had gradually abandoned the crumbling eagle’s nest. Have a look at this bird’s eye view of the place nowadays.

The first members of the group settled into the old oil mill. There was no water nor electricity. Florent Margaritis acquired a trailer in which he made his office and his bedroom.

Florent Margaritis working in his trailer – L’Illustration, 29 novembre 1941 (source:  l’Association des Amis de Saint-Hilaire)

After the summer and the early enthusiasm, one would have expected the embryonic community to fall apart and disperse. But quite the opposite happened.

The workshop of the Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts to which Florent Margaritis belonged, had also moved to the Zone Libre, to Marseille. And Margaritis obtained that the Oppède workshop was recognised as an annex of the school. Students would be able to complete their studies and graduate in Oppède. It was an adventurous enterprise though: with large drawing cardboards on their bicycle racks, the students had to shuttle the 170 kilometres between Oppède and Marseille.

Workshop in Oppède – L’Illustration, 29 novembre 1941 (source:  l’Association des Amis de Saint-Hilaire)

The then latest winner of the premier grand prix de Rome of architecture, Bernard Zehrfuss, was detached to Oppède. He quickly became the undisputed leader, or rather, since any hierarchical structure was excluded, the driving force of the community. Rapidly the group grew up to forty members, counting architects, painters and sculptors. A dormitory was set up for the bachelors in an old building with walls as thick as those of a fortress. The two or three couples aggregated to the group nestled in makeshift lodgings.

Like every avant-garde movement the group wrote its own art manifesto: Oppède would become the centre of a vast corporate city to group all sorts of artists and craftsmen who would then spread all over the Vaucluse…

But life in Oppède was rough. Three months of snow and not a single hour of sunshine during the winter of 1941. Everything was pooled, including ration cards. There was a war going on after all. The group lived a monastic regime and matching schedule: meals at 5:30 am, 1 pm and 7 pm, late arrivals not allowed. On the menu carrots and turnips every day, neither oil nor butter, and meat twice a month.

The group had close contact with the surrealists finding refuge in villa Air-Bel in Marseille. This mansion was home to artists who had fled the zone occupée and were waiting for a departure to the United States. Amongst them were André Breton, Max Ernst, Marc Chagal and Marcel Duchamp. At one point, the wife of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Consuelo, left villa Air-Bel to join the Groupe d’Oppède. This comes as no surprise knowing that de Saint-Exupéry’s marriage was strewn with periods of infidelity (from both sides). So it seems that Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry had followed Bernard Zehrfuss to Oppède. She stayed there a few months in 1941 before returning to her husband in New York. In 1945 she wrote a book about her stay in Oppède: ‘Kingdom of the Rocks’.

The decline of the group began in 1942 with the German invasion  of the Zone Libre. Everyone scattered except a few.

The training of young people by the Groupe d’Oppède matched   the wish of the Vichy government to restore the glory of France. So the regime gladly supported the group’s projects. Also, the group easily reached an agreement with the deputy mayor sworn in by the Pétain regime. As a consequence, after the war, members of the Groupe d’Oppède had to defend themselves against charges of collaboration.

‘Maréchal, nous voilà’ by A. Montagard & Ch. Courtioux, published by Ver Luisant (Paris, 1941) and illustrated by Atelier Ergé Lyon.

One can ask oneself why these young people retreated to a remote corner of the Provence after France’s defeat. While the participation of the Groupe d’Oppède in the Vichy propaganda is beyond doubt, their cooperation was apolitical. They were naively in search of a collective artistic experience, and they tried to forget the drama of war. In this way they had created their self-contained utopian community.

Zehrfuss joined the Free French Forces while others participated in the French Resistance. It is also known that Jewish refugees found shelter in the group.

After the war Florent Margaritis continued his work as an architect and illustrator in the South of France.


Further reading (in French):
En Vaucluse, Oppède-le-Vieux (L’ Association des amis de Saint-Hilaire)