A Pipe Smoker’s Inquiry

Pipes and Paintings

I’ve always had a very keen interest in art, especially paintings.  With my personal artistic background focusing more on the music discipline rather than a visual art specialty, I have always envied those that have the natural ability to paint, draw, and sculpt.  No secret here, I can’t draw or paint…  However, this does not negatively influence my love and appreciation for great art, more specifically, historical works from centuries past.  And for me, there is no better way to take the time for analysis and appreciate of a historical masterpiece than with a great pipe and tobacco.  I love intentionally planning moments to examine fine masterpieces of the past and do so by letting my imagination drift in tandem to the artist’s brush strokes, all the while, accompanying my imaginative playground with the wonderfully aromatic clouds of smoke as they drift into the heavens above.  Essentially, that is what this segment, Pipes and Paintings, will focus on.  My annotations, stories, questions, and thoughts related to paintings and artworks of days gone by.  I hope you enjoy, as I share a small part of my imagination and love, for both pipes and paintings, with those of you willing to adventure into the vast mind of a fellow pipe smoker.

Smokers in a Turkish Coffee House

Painting by: Joseph Nash (1809 – 1878)

Smokers in a Turkish Coffee House Open

I always love people in paintings.  When done well, each carries their own unique personality and identity that either helps or hinders the story being communicated. Smokers in a Turkish Coffee Houseis a prime example of how an artist can utilize facial expressions and focus to communicate a story.  Before we go any further into facial communications of the artwork I must point out the monkey in the room.  What am I referring to you may ask?  Obviously, it’s the oversized churchwarden pipe held by the gentleman wearing the dark clothing in the front right portion of the painting.

Smokers in a Turkish Coffee House Pic 1

I mean, my lord! There are several questions as to the actual functionality of that smoking implement.  First, how the hell does one light a pipe that large (assholes are saying, “with a match”)?  I understand that practice used to be one of the owners/proprietors of the establishment typically would keep a customer’s pipe lit throughout their visit.  But what if this individual was busy and your pipe continued to go out?  Or, what if this extraordinarily long tavern churchwarden pipe belongs to the gentleman in the dark clothing…. how would he light it at home?  Further, what type of draw do you think the pipe has?  Cigar aficionado’s love to boast about the tight draws that most Cuban cigars have.  Well, let me chime in a moment, Havana lovers.  You haven’t experienced a tight draw until you have smoked the above pictured behemoth of a pipe.  Anyway, I digress.  Back to the story being communicated by the characters in the painting.

Several expressions indicate that whatever the gentleman (red circle) is saying, or has said, is not liked by the ‘regulars’ (blue circles).

Smokers in a Turkish Coffee House Pic 2

I use the adjective ‘regulars’ as both the grouping of individuals in the full-scale work, and the use of a hookah, indicates to me these people are friends or acquaintances. Further, the positioning and lighter colors/shades of the messenger (man with a red circle) indirectly confirm his status to be an outsider.  Quite possibly, the men are discussing politics?  Maybe the guest gentleman (red circle) has come in and made comments about an ugly female tavern winch he encountered earlier in the day.  It just so happens, the winch in which he is detailing is the wife of the white turban hookah smoker in the front.  I image the conversation to be as follows:

Red Circle Man: “Wow gentlemen!  Have I had a most unusual experience with the most absolutely horrifying woman I’ve ever encountered.  I mean, seriously fellas, telling this lady she was ugly would be a compliment.”

The gentleman’s comments draw some chuckles from individuals around the room.  Some of the patrons continue minding their own business and conversations while a few have now turned their attention to the newcomer. 

Long Churchwarden fellow: “I beg, who is this you speak of and where did you meet her?  I can assure you, not one of us wishes to fall ill to this terrifying woman you describe.”

Turning his body to address not only the individual who asked the question, but the entire room, the foreigner continues his tale through the wafting clouds of aromatic smoke filling the room.  Now with several individuals paying attention the man speaks in a louder and fuller voice.

Red Circle Man: “Ah, yes!  I will gladly disclose my encounter to you as I would not wish this beast of a creature on the worst of my enemies.”

He takes a long draw from his tavern churchwarden before continuing.

Red Circle Man: “You see friend, I am currently lodging at the Iron Rose Inn, however, found myself at the Pewter Pot Tavern last evening for a drink and possible a turn at the dice tables.  Aside from a good pipe and tobacco, I’ve always found pleasure from a hearty ale and a small amount of gambling.  But woe to me, as upon calling to the bar maid I was greeted by a swine of a human being.”

Blue Circle Man Wearing a Black Turban: “Tell us, was it a bear of a man?  Grizzly and unkept in nature?  That is Pots, the owner of the establishment.”

Red Circle Man: “To my regret no.  Although I do recall seeing the gentleman you are describing, the individual I am speaking of was a woman and would have benefited from such a description as the one you have giving.”

As more heads have now turned to listen to the visitor’s story, the tavern foreigner gains an air of confidence in himself and his tale, being the focus of attention to most patrons. 

Red Circle Man: “My friend, what I tell you next is but a nightmare to say the least.  The woman turned and asked what I’d be having, and I surely shrieked aloud in her face. The sight of such a ghastly individual I’ve yet to encounter in all my journeys.  Her eyes were but remanences of a dark endless well.  Her nose and mouth looked as if to had been flattened by a forty-ton ship. And her hair!  My, my, that unkept, greasy heap of string would have made even Medusa look as though she were but a spring of beauty to be had.”   

Blue Circle White Turban Man Holding the Hookah Handle: “Pray, do tell me, what did you say the color of her hair was?”

Red Circle Man: “Ah yes!  I do understand that you too want to make sure you never have to see such a hideous sight as I.  Why, it was red. As the fires of the devil himself.”

There is a slight pause as the visitor laughs aloud not sensing the awkward silence that has befell the room, accompanied by stares of shock and concern. 

Blue Circle White Turban Man Holding the Hookah Handle: “I beg your pardon ‘friend’ but that would be my wife you are describing.”

This is where the painting displayed above picks up the story.  The stranger is now turning to address the angry gentleman and his friends, while onlookers wait to see how the situation resolves.  You may be wondering how I came to know the story from a single capture of time in ink?  Well, there are several other facial expressions and clues that confirm the truth behind my prediction.  Let me explain.  There are two other expressions that can be disseminated from the painting that help provide evidence to the accusation that the visitor has insulted the hookah smoking gentleman. These expressions are symbolized through worry (yellow) and joy (green).

Smokers in a Turkish Coffee House Pic 3

As we see in the snapshot above, the gentleman identified by the yellow circle is likely the proprietor of the coffee house.  Although he has been tending to guest and working hard to meet their demands, he has also monitored the conversation taking place (eavesdropping).  As soon as the gentleman in the white turban, who is smoking the hookah, announces to the visitor (man with the red circle) that he is aggressively insulting his wife, the owner turns his attention to the gentleman displaying a look of panic and concern.  What possibly could the proprietor be thinking?  Maybe, “Oh no, please don’t fight”or “I hope this resolves better than last time”or “Ouch, Gustav will not be easy to calm after those comments.”  No matter the circumstance, his job from this point on will be to keep the shop calm, ensuring a scuffle does not occur disrupting the relaxing smoking pleasure of other guests.

Smokers in a Turkish Coffee House Pic 4

Now, there is not all doom and gloom to come from the story.  Last, and certainly not least, we see the green circle individuals, most of whom are young children/youth.  Keen observers will note their expressions to be happy and almost playful in a manner. Why, we may ask?  When reflecting back to my own childhood and youth, if I were to be a spectator of such a scene, through my immaturity and youthfulness, I too most certainly would have found the scenario to be funny.  In all honesty, the male child standing next to the visitor is probably an employee of the smoke/coffee shop who is looked down upon and mistreated on a regular basis from the clientele.  For him to experience such a scene would certainly make his day better.

Further, I assume the two young girls in the lower right corner of the painting are the daughters of one or two of the patrons.  As they mindlessly wait in boredom for their father(s) to enjoy smoke and small talk with other men in the shop, they become very amused with the insults being disclosed by the visitor.  For them, this is drama at its best.

In reality, I have no on earthly idea what the artist, Joseph Nash, was attempting to display in this work.  Although this is one of the stories my mind likes to tell, it may be nowhere near the original intention of the artist.  This is one of the beauties of art, especially historic paintings with people in them.  We get to create a story, therefore, allowing our mind to become a piece of the art. And there is no better way to do so than while smoking a treasured pipe with an exceptional tobacco.

Dr. Kyle Andrew Signature

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