I knew the art of travel was dead. We all know those hopelessly aspirational social media posts from clickbaiters with that tag, showing pictures of matching hardsided leather suitcases or steamer trunks, with all of the ridiculous specializations that used to be needed for the itinerant leisured class: hat trunks, crocodile-wrapped valet cases fully stocked with every unguent and ivory-handled accoutrement, shoe cases…
The art of travel, never available but to a vanishingly small, obnoxiously entitled class, is dead. No more nabobs travelling with 50 trunks placed outside their stateroom, from which early-rising valets and maids would carefully choose the day’s outfits before squeezing out their masters’ toothpastes and doing everything short of wiping their bottoms. No more ludicrously heavy, gigantic cases that bearers would strain to carry up flights of stairs, awkward in all ways and undermining the veneer of elegance such cases and their owners put on, in old movies and a few old lives. Those days were done to death by the jet age shortening travel times and reducing baggage space, by the 20th century’s eventual destruction of an entrenched leisured stratum of society with the time to travel at length and the ceremonial codes that required dozens of changes of clothes to be carried in such a volume of luggage, by security requirements that mean we all need to keep our checked luggage unlocked and as unremarkable as possible to avoid pilfering and resentful damage.
Indeed, those instagrammers posting luggage porn do art a disservice by suggesting those trunks and cases, each now the price of a first class flight to the other side of the world, are part of an art of travel. They impute to art what is useless, impractical and irrelevant. Which is the opposite to what art is: transformative craft, relevance to our existence, enhanced meaning.
Nonetheless, for decades my mind roved. I indulged daydreams of a vagabonding princely existence, using antique trunks for furniture and storage, as if to suggest that my workaday real life was just a momentary mundanity, with something else – some essence of the unpredictable and indomitable –stored in those trunks like Pandora’s boxes. They suggested, to me in my fantasy, that I could pick it all up and leave for somewhere those trunks could make sense.
I thought of a character in the Sherlock Holmes adventure The Sign of Four, whose dwelling’s humble exterior and unsavory address hid a palatial interior, exotically decorated and staffed due to his family’s colonial connections. There was something unearthly and magical about that, something that suggested fairyworld impermanence, a dreamland that vanished when a door shut.
Pressed for a wardrobe, a decade ago in an expensive boulevard Saint-Germain showroom I saw a hugely expensive Andrée Putman piece clearly based on a wardrobe trunk, one of those immense, ancient cases whose panels folded and hinged to reveal a rack and a chest of drawers. Why not, I thought, get the real thing for cheaper? The ultimate result, after other bulky variations, finally left my house last weekend: a “Malle Edison” by the defunct French trunkmakers Krogner, founded 1850 and based on the avenue de l’Opéra, very close to the historical bases of the other famous French trunkmakers Louis Vuitton (rue Scribe) and Moynat (place du Théâtre francais). The “Edison” trade name was not because it viciously stole others’ designs, but because the Krogner trunks were supposedly lighter. Two latches locked on the side; released, the face lifts off to reveal a chest of drawers.
Of course, any trunk today is heavy, creaky, cumbersome, if not dangerous with metal bindings gone jagged and rusty. The illusion of portability was an expensive indulgence for me, these immense, musty monoliths with their fussy racks that never could fit many clothes, or drawers whose century-old canvas handles always threatened to rip off. Today luxury French trunkmakers use that illusion of past elegant travel, where the art and artifice are the creation of nostalgic myth rather than the facilitation of graceful transit: it helps them sell handbags and overpriced leathergoods; all they need is that past they won’t let you forget and the vague promise that they can make you a trunk (by special order, and for a king’s ransom) that you can never take on a commercial flight.
Sholto’s colonial oasis also likely featured a campaign trunk, which has become a recognized type of stationary furniture: a brass-bound wooden dresser. Another promise of movement, arrested. Today a trunkmaker of recent vintage, Pinel & Pinel, has a new Paris boutique showcasing other trunks that seems suspiciously designed not to move: a shoeshining trunk with pull-out stool and fold-out shelf; a large DJ trunk with a Bang & Olufsen CD player and space for dozens of CDs. Come to think of it, an iPhone with a Bluetooth speaker would probably have the same capacity.
I have to concede to reality: it is far more useful, cheap, convenient and esthetically pleasing to own even a nice piece of furniture than these trunks. It only took me years to admit this to myself, to settle down for furniture that has no possibility, even nominally, of travel and escape.
The title is the title of a poem by Lord Byron about evenings of loving which contains, among other things, the line “For the sword outwears its sheath,” suggesting a more interpersonal sort of roving. Instead, I bid adieu to the roving of a wandering and indulgent mind, a particular escapism in daydreams of a secret, elegant travel come to rest, that trunks like this represented to me.