Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Loitering in tents
The Cheltenham Festival of Literature has just been on. A large tented village appeared – or rather two tented villages, filling two of the gardens lined with terraces of Regency houses that are among the highlights of Cheltenham’s town centre. As the canvas was alternately heated by the sun and buffeted by the wind, thousands of us sat around while hundreds of authors got on their hind legs to entertain and instruct us on every subject from the Spanish Civil War to the history of the bathroom, from Charles Dickens to Eric Gill. Most of the tents used at the festival are standard-issue white canvas jobs of various sizes but, as I discovered when I went in search of a coffee between events, one of them is nothing less than a Spiegeltent, one of those early-20th-century rococo confections imported from the Low Countries as palaces of entertainment or boudoirs of burlesque.
Spiegeltents originated in Belgium and now a number of these antique structures have been restored and are on hire to those who want a venue a cut above the usual marquee. As I went for my coffee I understood the attraction. Gilded fronds and curlicues run up and down the walls, putti and scrolls hang from columns, surfaces are covered with bits of mirror or painted in a fairground palette. Carefully positioned light fittings accentuate the glitter. The richly coloured canvas roof completes the exotic ensemble. Now, I was here in the morning, so did not experience the joys of Kiki de Montparnasse or the provocatively named Ophelia Bitz, two entertainers I believe were billed to appear later in these seductive surroundings. But the rococo environment still delighted my eye as I sipped my coffee and waited to return to the more elevated matters on offer in the rather puritanical white marquees.
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Apologies for my quick-fire iPhone photo, taken on the hoof and somewhat blurred, but atmospheric nonetheless, I hope.
You can find more about Spiegeltents and see more images of them here.