Thursday 29 September 2016

Remembering Passe-partout

My latest charity-shop spot was this slim volume from 1954 - scarcely more than a pamphlet - of church poems by Betjeman, with delightful line drawings by John Piper. The Author's Note is characteristically self-effacing: 'These verses do not pretend to be poetry,' he begins. They were written, Betjeman explains, 'for speaking on the wireless', and 'in order to compensate for the shortcomings of the verse, I have prevailed on my friend Mr John Piper to provide the illustrations.'
 The volume contains Septuagesima, Betjeman's love song to the dear old C of E ('The Church of England of my birth, The kindest church to me on Earth') and the ever popular Diary of a Church Mouse. One I hadn't read before was the mildly satirical Friends of the Cathedral, and in this I came across a phrase that gave me pause - 'The hundred little bits of script Each framed in passe-partout'. Framed in passe-partout? Passe-partout? Suddenly it came back to me...
 You used to see it everywhere. Passe-partout was a kind of tough adhesive tape, typically black with a slightly grainy texture, that had a variety of uses but was particularly popular as a cheap form of picture-framing - just run the tape carefully around the edges, pressing picture, glass and backing board together, leave to set, and you had the semblance of a framed picture at negligible cost. My father was keen on the stuff, I remember - this before he discovered the thousand and one uses to which Fablon could be put - and there were pictures framed in passe-partout all over the house. It was not pretty, but it did the job, just about.
 The stuff is no longer manufactured, but it still has its devotees. You can buy vintage rolls of passe-partout on eBay ('Butterfly Brand', with the stylised Camberwell Beauty trade mark), and there is even - you will not be surprised to learn - a blog devoted to the wonders of passe-partout. Don't you just love the internet?


  1. Jean Passepartout was also Philes Fogg's assistant. Just saying....

  2. Yes indeed - and the bizarrely named actor Cantinflas who played him in the David Niven film briefly became the best-paid actor in the world.