The extraordinary travels of Ella Maillart

Ella Maillart’s Leica, from the documentary Les voyages extraordinaires d’Ella Maillart

Swiss traveller Ella Maillart was born in 1903 in Geneva of a Danish mother and a Swiss furrier father. Attractive, sporty, outdoorsy, she loved to be on the lake, especially with her childhood friend Hermine de Saussure. “Bobbed chestnut hair with a fairer lock in front, clear grey eyes, and a frank and delicate smile – there was a light in her face. Later, reading Homer, I felt that Pallas Athene must have looked like her.”

Still from the documentary Les voyages extraordinaires d’Ella Maillart

Hermine was “Miette” and Ella was “Kini”. This early pash blossomed into lifelong friendship. Surviving photos show a kind of 1920s sailor-suited lesbian chic – about which a new documentary on Maillart remains fairly circumspect. Ella played hockey, sailed, rowed and skied at a time when many sports clubs denied entry to women.

Ella Maillart (with pipe) on board her yacht.

She went on to represent Switzerland on the sailing team at the Paris Olympic Games of 1924 and to become one of those mythical between-the-wars travellers, a field dominated by British gentlemen of a certain stamp, such as Peter Fleming, whom she met and befriended in Sinkiang or Chinese Turkistan in 1935. They too became lifelong friends. She met the widow of American writer Jack London, and through that contact met Madame Tolstoy in Russia. She had a well-adjusted view of Europe’s position in the world: “Europe is a little peninsula of Central Asia.”

Traveller in furs, Peter Fleming, photographed by Ella Maillart in China, 1934

A new documentary about her life and travels, Les voyages extraordinaires d’Ella Maillart, is showing in French cinemas. I caught up with it recently in the Odeon Cinema in Morges near Lausanne, where it was screened as part of the book festival Le livre sur les quais. I was entranced from beginning to end, especially by Maillart’s photos of an Asia that has disappeared.

Director Raphaël Blanc makes wonderful use of the Maillart archive at the Élysée museum of photography in Lausanne. She was an accomplished photographer, an early user of a Leica III (a Leica F), with a good eye and an engaging manner with her subjects. That talent for friendship stood her in good stead. Peter Fleming (brother of the more famous Ian) described the advantage of the Leica:

… a large proportion of the photographs we took were taken from the saddle; and it made a lot of difference being able to hold your horse in with one hand while you focused the camera with the other.

Somewhere in India, photograph by Ella Maillart

Journalism and book publication paid for Maillart’s road trips. She wrote for Le petit parisien and other magazines of the day, and illustrated her own travel books. The film cuts between her still photographs, archival footage from the 1920s and ’30s, TV interviews with Maillart dating from the 1970s as well as contemporary interviews with people who knew her.

The documentary follows Daniel Girardin, art historian and curator of the Élysée museum, who rides and walks in Maillart’s footsteps across Central Asia. These travels are shot by Raphaël Blanc using high definition drone photography to capture the wide karst and mountain landscape of Kyrgistan and Afghanistan, the thousand year-old horse market of Karakol and scenes of transhumance that seem timeless. Maillart’s extraordinary travels, as well as her spiritual quest during the Second World War in India, are handled without too much hokus-pokus.

Ella Maillart’s luggage on the airfield, Samarkand, Ouzbekistan, URSS. 1932

In 1938 she teamed up with Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach and the two of them headed off in a Ford to revisit Afghanistan. Schwarzenbach was a troubled soul and addicted to morphine. The two travellers eventually parted ways. Ella’s account of their journey under the shadow of war, written after Schwarzenbach’s death, has wonderful photos of the androgynous Schwarzenbach as well as the enormous Buddha statues of Bamiyan, dating from the 4th and 5th centuries CE.

The Bamiyan Buddha, August 1939, photo by Annemarie Schwarzenbach

They stood in the cliff-face niches of limestone from which they had been carved, looking out over the valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan for a millennium and a half. The Taliban dynamited them in 2001. Switzerland and Japan have pledged to reconstruct them.

Ella Maillart photo of the royal palace, Balaju, 1961

Maillart’s books and her style have dated a bit, and she was aware of her limitations as a writer. Her fellow traveller Nicholas Bouvier said of her: “I much prefer real travellers who write to writers who travel.” It’s an astute distinction.

Ella Maillart’s itineraries, courtesy of Zoé publications, 2013

Maillart retreated after the war for part of each year to the village of Chandolin, high in Switzerland’s Valais, where she kept a chalet, her books and her spiritual equilibrium. Her interest in eastern mysticism and religion was ahead of its time in the West. With this new documentary, its stunning photography and high definition aerial shots of Central Asia, perhaps more people will get to know of Maillart’s exploits and her groundbreaking life.

Philippe Vermès portrait of Ella Maillart

The tiny Ella Maillart museum at Chandolin in the Valais


Michel Lablais: Flora & Fauna


Michel Lablais is a French artist, born in Paris in 1925, and now embarking on his tenth decade. He recalls visiting the French Colonial Exhibition of 1930, with its colourful displays of life in Indochina, miniature model of Angkor Wat and pictures of aspara undulating on old stone. The aspara are female Khmer dancers, akin to the Greek muses: threshold figures, devas, angels. The exoticism of it all appealed to the five-year-old child. The world of colonialism has grown sepia as its time has passed: pith helmets, Cochin China, the velleities of Marguerite Duras: revisionism and apologies. Plus ça change… The French-Vietnamese war has been occluded by the louder American one. But something was sparked in the imaginative child that he carried into the decades of work that followed, and that remains alive in Michel Lablais, the ninety-year-old artist. Perhaps it is the mix of exoticism, exploitation, the lure of strangeness.

Odalisque-homme, by Michel Lablais, 1987

Odalisque-homme, by Michel Lablais, 1987


From the age of six or seven he developed an interest in drawing, and delighted in Christmas and birthday presents of paints, paintbrushes and sketchpads. Lablais’ work still shows a childlike fascination with the accoutrements of art: paint-loaded brushes, vintage paper, copybook handwriting all recur, faithfully rendered. The calligraphy incorporated is often that of the école primaire, neatly comme il faut. He likes an unfinished canvas, the skeleton behind the flesh: the peacock’s feather, the marauding fly and the penis are all on a par, observed as nature morte, as in the Odalisque-homme above, alluding to Ingres but also to a whole school of French orientalism.

Monumental diptych by Michel Lablais, 1985

Monumental diptych by Michel Lablais, 1985

Lablais was born in Paris’s 17th arrondissement, into a bourgeois family. His father was a business director (directeur commercial) and mother a stay-at-home housewife. Both parents were quite elderly and their only child attended the Collège Chaptal, now the Lycée Chaptal in the 8th arrondissement, where he discovered an aptitude for drawing in its august classrooms filled with busts and bas-relièfs.

Le Collège Chaptal, drawing by Eugène Train, 1875 (Musée d'Orsay)

Le Collège Chaptal, drawing by Eugène Train, 1875 (Musée d’Orsay)

His career was decided at fifteen, at the beginning of the Second World War, when he spotted a poster for art college. He spent three years studying applied arts before entering the Compagnie de Topographie, one of those self-important French institutions propping up the work of empire, when France was mapping its territories in Indochina. At nineteen he signed up to go to the Far East and got permission from his father to spend three years with the army in lieu of military service. It was the time of the French-Vietnamese War.

We might laugh at the sight of an artist in uniform – but there’s nothing remotely military about Michel Lablais. He has a fondness for white linen, espadrilles, and an early photo shows him resplendant in Maghreb pantaloons. In the army he was an artiste-peintre hired to paint murals, to decorate walls and from time to time do guard duty. His anecdotes, recalled a lifetime later, have a kind of French Dad’s Army tone – the foibles of the officer class and their pretensions. Colonial duffers. Generals like big boy scouts.

Drawing of Angkor Wat by Albert-Charles TISSANDIER (1839 - 1906), 1893

Drawing of Angkor Wat by Albert-Charles TISSANDIER (1839 – 1906), 1893


He spent several months at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, at a time when one made one’s way there through jungle on horseback and there were few tourists. It was an extraordinary sight, he recalls: the monkeys, parrots, the lush impenetrability, the mystery of the grand architectural project. Many of Lablais’ paintings look at plant and animal life with wide-eyed wonder, using the limpid colours of the topographical sketch, employing ethnographic exactness. It’s as though he’s mapping the flora and fauna of his own imagination, grabbing what he can from the world as he sees it.

His motifs are consistent, deployed over many decades, seeing out the artistic fashions of the day. He has a fascination with the primitive under the veneer of civilization, an obsession with the enigmatically smiling child, a child-like view of objects, plant life, bird life, reproduction of all sorts. He likes to use collage, assemblage and trompe l’oeil, to incorporate objects in his paintings, to deploy visual and verbal playfulness. His work is saved from illustration by surreal wit, the documentary satisfactions of the natural scientist allied to the dreamer.

Carnets des nouvelles Hébrides, by Michel Lablais, 1950-51

Carnets des nouvelles Hébrides, by Michel Lablais, 1950-51

He followed Indochina with four years in New Caledonia (1949-1954), a French dependency, and the New Hebrides (now Vanatu), with occasional forays to Tahiti. Lablais’ eye has always sought out the exotic, and in this he follows the tradition of the artist-explorers, especially the nineteenth century orientalists and mapmakers. He has lived long enough for the names of the countries to have changed, their masters too. What was remote and wild – the Doms and the Toms (Départements and Territoires d’Outre-Mer) have become tamed. In mid-twentieth century it took two months to get to New Caledonia, one of the remotest places on earth.

Map of Nouvelle Caledonie, 1862

Map of Nouvelle Caledonie, 1862

“The attraction,” says Michel Lablais, “is that people lived the opposite to us. I was interested in the dances and ceremonies, the rituals of primitive tribes, their cannibalism.” He filmed their rituals, a film now archived in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. “They wrapped their penises in straw, in rattan. The women would weave these “cache sexe” for the men.

He had always liked the work of the financier turned artist Gauguin, and visited his tomb in Tahiti. The island reminded him so much of Gauguin’s paintings: their vibrant colours, rose petals scattered underfoot, the flat totemic shapes of the Polynesian faces. He encountered old women who remembered Gauguin, who had been given paintings by the artist, which they had used for target practice and long destroyed. Tahiti was a magnet for drop-outs from civilisation and refugees of all sorts. He remembers a man sitting cross-legged on the deck of a ship, a lawyer from Paris, who had given it all up to become a tramp.

Crayon-Poignard by Michel Lablais, 2006

Crayon-Poignard by Michel Lablais, 2006

Lablais returned to Paris in 1954, back to civilization. He illustrated an article in Realités (October 1954) on the Amok tribe in New Caledonia. He tells stories of cannibalism, of the taste of human flesh, with a shocking relish, enjoying the taboo breaking. His paintings, too, are much concerned with taboo, the edge of experience, with the animalistic cruelty of humans, observed dispassionately. His work has always aspired to whimsical exactitude, closer to illustration than to paint. Motifs recur: the tea towel of traditional red or blue pattern, tile work, masks of all sorts, the severed or detached limbs based on anatomical drawings, the erotics of vegetables and fruits – particularly the radish with its rose madder colouring. He often embodies a jeu d’esprit, and has worked with writers and poets.

Enfant-Canard by Michel Lablais, 2004

Enfant-Canard by Michel Lablais, 2004

Lablais has found himself in his work and at ninety is still painting at a phenomenal rate. His painter friends, particularly the collector Daniel Cordier, bought much of it, now in the Beaubourg collection. He has exhibited in MOMA in New York, in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and in many galleries around the world.



Horst-Egon Kalinowski and Michel Lablais (seated), date unknown

Horst-Egon Kalinowski and Michel Lablais (seated), date unknown

In Paris he met the German artist Horst-Egon Kalinowski, a sculptor. Kalinovski had been a prisoner of war in France and at first people said they wouldn’t get on, but they clearly hit it off. The relationship flourished for sixty years. They kept a studio in Paris and a loft in New York, where both exhibited. The couple spent part of every year in Hollywood, in Palm Springs. Kalinowski died in 2013.

Besides Gauguin, Michel Lablais has an enthusiastic liking for Japanese art, Hokusai in particular, but also the Elizabethans – ruffs keep reappearing in his work – the anatomical plates of the 18c graphic artist Jacques Fabien Gauthier d’Agotie. He also has an affinity for the Douanier Rousseau, especially his jungles, for Max Ernst, Paul Klee, René Magritte and the Flemish Primitives. He doesn’t quite see the point of the Impressionists. “I’d much prefer look at some anatomical plate than at a sunset.”

Drawing by Jacques Fabien Gautier d'Agoty

Drawing by Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty

I ask him why the child figure reappears in his work: “It’s a figure, neither child nor man, maybe myself. You know, I’m not very adult. I’ve never voted. I have no interest in politics or in public affairs really. People keep asking me about the figure of the child, women especially. ‘Do you like children?’ they ask. I don’t really. Children aggravate me sometimes, but not especially so. What I like is anatomy. When I was a child I asked my mother for the head of a rabbit because I wanted to draw the severed head. I found that beautiful. Some people don’t like my work, but there you go. Take it or leave it. I was curious. For me the skinned body of an old anatomical plate is beautiful. I’ll leave the sunsets to the Impressionists. In Indochina a surgeon asked me if I wanted to watch his operations. Sure, I said. Why not? I found it fascinating, surprising, but hardly frightening.”

Bandelettes, by Michel Lablais

Bandelettes, by Michel Lablais, 2016

I ask him about the drawing paper he likes to use, sometimes appearing to be recycled map paper, the crimps and folds still visible. “I like old paper, the feel of it, it has a life, a patina. It seems more alive. There’s a certain pleasure in drawing a carrot. I’m not looking to make pretty (‘a faire joli’), to please. Carrots, onions, radishes. I like the colour and form of a radish. Once we had a show opening, a vernissage, in Paris and we served nothing but radishes… radishes with butter…”

Michel Lablais’s official website is here.

Michel Lablais at work in his studio in Marseillan, 2017

Michel Lablais at work in his studio in Marseillan, 2017



New Geneva, County Waterford


Had history turned out differently, Swiss watchmaking might have established itself in Waterford towards the end of the eighteenth century. A thousand Geneva watchmakers were ready to bring Swiss industriousness and know-how to the people of Passage on the southern coast of Ireland. This utopian project fell through at the last moment. Switzerland on the River Suir was not to be. All that remains is the name: Geneva Barracks.


Arial view of the ground plan of Geneva Barracks, Passage, Co. Waterford

In 1782 a group of Geneva “mechanics,” as the documents characterise them, one thousand strong and disaffected, staged a bloodless uprising against their masters, the combined forces of the French and the Bernese. Their rebellion was defeated. Some rebels relocated to Brussels, others to the shores of Lake Constance. King George III of England, through his emissary Lord Mahon (who had studied at the University of Geneva), offered these rebellious craftsmen asylum in Ireland. The idea was that the hard-working Genevans were to set a good example to the local population, then under English rule. Tired of the heavy hand of their masters, these “mechanics” thought Ireland might prove a more utopian location. We could see this genuine attempt to found a new community of workers as an early example of a free-trade zone or business park.


The proposed site for New Geneva was east of the town of Passage in County Waterford on the estuary of the River Suir. It was on tenanted land of the well-connected Alcock family, whose line ran to members of parliament and soldiery. Their estate, however, had originally been confiscated c. 1654 from the Butler family. The British government acquired the site in 1782 with the intention of making it over to the Genevans. Across the water from the proposed New Geneva is Duncannon Fort, testifying to the strategic importance of the estuary.

Map of Duncannon Fort dating to 1611 © The British Library

Map of Duncannon Fort dating to 1611 © The British Library

There was already a settlement of French Huguenots in Waterford and Switzerland’s Geneva was itself a Huguenot town, staunchly reformist. Utopias were all the rage in the late eighteenth century. Shakers in America had founded utopian communities built around the sanctity of work, work as a sign of the Elect, an idea derived from Martin Luther and still part of the American tool kit today.


Map of Duncannon Fort dating to late 16th or early 17th century ©Lambeth Palace Library

Ireland at the time had a parliament comprised of the Protestant Ascendancy, a landowning class under the yoke of the English crown and seeking to establish a measure of independence from it. But there was no question of extending the franchise to the ordinary peasant or sharecropper. 1782 is also the year of the founding of the Irish Volunteers in Dungannon, a force keen to secure free trade for Ireland and opposed to the French. Granting land to Geneva rebels was part of a grander plan to stimulate trade and in line with contemporary anti-French sentiment.

Lord Temple, Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant and Vice-Regent, endowed the tract of 11,000 acres overlooking the Suir estuary. Temple had ulterior motives. He thought an influx of Geneva Protestants would have a sobering effect on the locals. In a letter to Grenville,[1] the Chief Secretary, Temple mused that the Swiss in Waterford “might make an essential reform in the religion, industry and mores of the South who want it more”. He had plans to establish a university there but needed his scheme kept secret from the governors of Trinity College.

 James Gandon and Family by Paul Sandby

James Gandon and Family by Paul Sandby

No less a figure than James Gandon, himself of French Huguenot descent, was appointed architect. Gandon was responsible for O’Connell Bridge, the Four Courts and the Bank of Ireland, all well-known Dublin landmarks. There were plans for a school, the Swiss being known for excellence in education. Town planning was grandiose. Existing documents show provision for not one but two churches, academies of science and arts, and row housing as befitted the artisan class. The original town footprint stretched south to the headland of Crooke and was intended to be much larger than the barracks ruins evident on-site today.

Ami Melly was the de facto leader of the Genevan exiles. An advance group disembarked at Waterford. They wanted representation in the Irish parliament (Temple’s “very unreasonable in their demands”), a franchise even the Catholic Irish didn’t have at that time. They also demanded the right to their own laws. Thus the project fell foul of Swiss and Anglo-Irish intransigence: neither side was prepared to make concessions. The august tradition of Swiss democracy came up against English colonialism in its back yard. “Some few of the Genevese came over to Ireland, but they soon returned, rather chilled by the prospect before them,” Egan tells us.

It was not just watchmaking that the people of Ireland missed out on. P. M. Egan’s county history cites a local farmer who reminds us of Waterford’s lost industry of silk weaving:

You see, sir, these people that came here were great silk waivers,’ and they expected, of course, to go on well at their trade. Myself doesn’t know, but as I hears. They set a lot of mulberry trees to feed the silk-worms, but sure you know they wouldn’t grow, the climate was too damp, so they gave up the place and went back again to their own country.

Perhaps some mulberry descendants still grow today along the Suir estuary, with the benefit of the warming Gulf Stream. (Those extant on the Upper Suir were planted in 1702 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Anne.) The only remains today of this attempted New Geneva are some ruined walls in a grassy field above the sea.

The quays in Waterford city, circa 1890

The quays in Waterford city, circa 1890


The site was turned into a prison housing 1798 rebels – “croppy boys” in local parlance, referring to their cropped hair. Over a thousand nationalist prisoners were interned at what became Geneva Barracks, across the estuary from Duncannon Fort. The site was ideal for shipping them out to the colonies. In one of history’s many ironies, the Geneva utopian settlement morphed into a holding centre for Irish rebels transported to Australia or conscripted into the Prussian army. What had begun in utopianism, ended in incarceration, with an after-life of song. Geneva Barracks makes a brief appearance in the last verse of the well-known rebel song “The Croppy Boy”, one of James Joyce’s favourites and cited by him in Ulysses:

At Geneva Barrack that young man died,

And at Passage they have his body laid.

Good people who live in peace and joy,

Breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy.

The song’s lyrics are by Irish poet William B. McBurney (Carroll Malone) and it is set to a five-hundred-year-old air, “Cailin Óg a Stór”, a tune picked up by Nobel prizewinner Bob Dylan in his song “Bob Dylan’s Dream”.

Essayist, traveller and historian Hubert Butler, painted in 1957 by Claude Harrison

Essayist, traveller and historian Hubert Butler, painted in 1957 by Claude Harrison

Groundbreaking and stylish Irish essayist Hubert Butler (of the family originally expropriated by the Alcocks of Waterford) explored this early utopian experiment in “New Geneva in Waterford”, a short essay published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquarians of Ireland in 1947, and to which I am indebted. Writing from Geneva, Butler brings to bear documentary research from the Hotel de Ville archives. “Geneva was a hotbed of humanitarian thinking, very disquieting to its rulers and also to its neighbours in the Kingdoms of France and Savoy.” Butler explains the rationale behind the choice of a Waterford site by the Viceroy, Lord Temple: “I wished to remove them from the Northern Republicans and to place them where they might make an essential reform in the religion…” The whiff of ethnic cleansing here is unmistakable and the name Geneva Barracks still resonates with colonial oppression.

[1] Letter dated February 9, 1783.