A girouettier makes girouettes – weathervanes – recognised as a skilled craft by the Institut National des Métiers d’Art. There are now only around half a dozen such artisans in France who earn their living solely from this. Jane Hanks talks to one.
A family tradition
Girouettier Thierry Soret still works in the workshop where he first saw his grand-father making weathervanes. He said: “He started when he was a soldier in the trenches during World War One. The men would make things out of what they found lying around to pass the time and they used the weathervanes to warn them what direction poisonous gases would come from. I started making them when I was aged about 12. Then, when I was in my teens, locals would ask me to make one for them. When I was 25, I set myself up as an artisan d’art-girouettier. I’m 50 now and have never been short of work.”
A passion for his craft
Mr Soret, of Les Girouettes du Mage in the Orne, learnt his trade through experience and says there is no school for weather vane-makers. His craft is his passion. “I work long hours and sometimes through the night. I have never had time to find a wife or have children. I have not been to a supermarket for at least five years. Luckily, my mother is there to cook for me.” Mr Soret makes his weathervanes from brass, shaped using tiny saws and chisels.
"They are all made to order for clients and are very personal to them. First, they will send me their ideas and I need a photo of their house to see where they intend to put it. I need to work out how big it will need to be so that it is easily visible and in proportion with the building. I draw up a design and usually after discussion with the client and four or five modifications it is ready to cut out."
The crafting process
“I start by making holes in the brass sheet and then insert my saw or chisel and cut away the excess. It is all done by hand.” He then adds the compass points, which are also sometimes personalised. “I recently had someone who wanted each point to represent the different crops grown in France, so there was an ear of wheat for the north, maize for the south, the buckwheat grown in Brittany for the west, and hops for beer in the east.” The most difficult job is balancing the weather vane so it will swing easily in the wind.
“I use lead, which though it is getting more and more expensive, is the only suitable material. Even after 25 years’ experience it is still tricky to get it right. I need about 100-150g for each one. If there is too much I can scrape some off. If there isn’t enough, I have to melt more lead and add it on.”
Timing and costs
Mr Soret spends a week on each one, on average, and charges €165-300. “I cost my time at €50 a day and though I know that is nothing compared to the hourly rate for a garage mechanic, for example, I realise that what I am making is decorative and I want them to remain affordable not just for the rich, but for ordinary people in villages.” He says the first weathervanes were made in the 8th century as a navigation aid on boats.
During the Middle Ages, they were used by noblemen to show off their coat of arms on their chateaux, and only the aristocracy had the right to have one. This droit de girouette was not abolished until after the French Revolution. After that, they would often be used by artisans to show their trade in the personalised design. Sometimes they showed the politics of the building’s owners. Royalists would have fleurs-de-lys as decorations.
The history of the weathervane
The golden age of the weather vane was from 1815 to 1914, Mr Soret said. “During the war, metal had to be recovered and melted down and so many disappeared. Afterwards, as radio began and people could hear the weather forecast, they were less in demand. When TV was introduced, aerials replaced weathervanes on roofs. Now it is a different age when we no longer need aerials and house-owners are once again turning to weathervanes as a way to decorate and personalise an empty chimney stack.” Mr Soret says weathervanes have always had a double role: to tell the weather and a story.
“I feel I have succeeded when people stop and look and wonder what the images mean. They were always used to give a certain message. I have repaired old ones with a gardener and a chamber pot. They meant the owner had a reputation for growing good veg and had fertile soil because he would tip the contents of his chamber pot on his land. Another one had a hunter on one end and a wild boar on the other. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, and so which angle you see it from, you either see the hunter about to shoot the wild boar, or the wild boar chasing after the hunter.”
A decade of craftspersonship
Mr Soret has kept a record of the 500 that he has made in the last 10 years and each one has been different. He hopes to continue into his 80s because he thinks he will never run out of ideas and is proud that they are made to last for several hundred years. “I sell them all over the world. I am making one for a sisal grower in Madagascar with a mother and baby elephant."
"I have made them for cyclists who want to know which direction to set off in so they will have the wind in their backs for the return journey. I have made them for famous singers and actors. My work is known along the pilgrim way to Santiago de Compostela. Some are in England. There is one in Plymouth which shows one of the largest sailing ships ever made, the Royal Clipper, built in 2000. Above all, I like making weathervanes for ordinary homeowners. They are often the people with the best ideas and most imagination.”