Les Beaux Pays (Arthaud) – illustrated France of the 1930s-1950s

As the weather starts to provide us with some hope for the summer, it is useful for us to look at guidebooks in the University Library, and what role they can play in a collection such as ours. An interesting series, donated to the Library by F.T.K. Caröe, covers some areas of France and provides both a literary and photographic record of these areas as they were at the time of publication.

The series is called Les Beaux Pays, published by B. Arthaud in Grenoble and Paris. These are an excellent example of guide books as historical documents. The University Library had several volumes in this collection, which are significantly augmented by those donated as part of the library of F.T.K. Caröe, about whom we’ve previously written in relation to his interest in Scandinavian literatures. Caröe’s gifts from this series date from 1935-1959, and cover a number of regions of France. The series was very wide-ranging, and our collections cover only a selection. However, this selection is illuminating and a true asset to the University Library.

With one exception (Egypt, an English translation published in 1966 – 9510.c.99), all of the volumes in the UL catalogue from this series cover specific regions of France, and they do so in great detail. The volumes are all highly illustrated with photographs in the form of heliogravures. Many of these illustrations show an aspect of life that no longer exists—rural France has undergone massive cultural and population changes since these books were produced—while others show that a surprising amount remains the same.

The book titled Mes Pyrénées, de Gavarnie à la Méditerranée by Raymond Escholier is a good example of the type. Escholier was a novelist and art critic, and the UL holds a number of works by him—most recently published was a two-volume set Avec les tirailleurs sénégalais, 1917-1919 : lettres inédites du front d’Orient in the Autrement mêmes series about which we wrote last week. There are a number of images (particularly those that involve people) that a visitor to France would be unlikely to see replicated today. However, there are a number that look almost exactly like modern photographs of the same scene.

It is also worth noting that while the contents of these volumes are illustrated with black and white heliogravures or photographs, the covers are all illustrated by striking colour illustrations.

A number of illustrations from these books follows:

The benches in Mirepoix have changed… :

(contemporary photo ©france-voyage.com)

The trees in Chambéry have grown… but not much:

(contemporary photo ©jasonvy7, Panoramio)

There is no substitute for the depiction of the social life and customs of a place and a time than one written by a contemporary. Books in this series were widely produced, and are not particularly valuable today: a search on eBay or AbeBooks results in numerous volumes from this series, none priced very highly. The Arthaud series Les Beaux Pays is not necessarily a particularly unusual example of the genre, although its worth to the Library’s collections and to historians is undeniable. Searching the Library catalogue subject list by a geographic location and the phrase ‘description and travel’ can identify a number of other examples of this sort.

Josh Hutchinson

2 thoughts on “Les Beaux Pays (Arthaud) – illustrated France of the 1930s-1950s

  1. Thank you for this article – I have a number of Beaux Pays books from the collection of my parents – do you need further copies or know of any institution that would welcome them as a gift?

    • Dear Juliette,

      Thanks for your question, and for your offer.

      I don’t think that we need further copies of this series in the UL, as the ones we have do a good job of illustrating the genre. It’s nice that we have some, but we don’t need them all!

      I’m afraid I don’t know what to advise regarding other institutions, though I wish you good luck in finding a home for your copies.



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