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An Ideal Shape: "Polonius" by Gert Holbek

Gert Holbek: Polonius

There was one pipe that I desperately wanted to see with my own eyes for quite some time. My first encounter with that pipe was a photograph of it carried in a Japanese book about pipes and pipe smoking, which I bought when I started pipe smoking. It was almost literally a case of love at first sight. The pipe had an almost definitive air of sharpness to it, honed to near extreme but not quite, yet was successful in preserving its unique warmness somehow. It even had its own shape name, "Polonius" (yes, from Shakespeare) and was a creation by the well-known Danish pipe craftsman Gert Holbek.

Design freedom that bent pipes have

When I started smoking a pipe, for some reason I preferred bent pipes to straight ones. "Bent" pipes in contrast to "Straights" have its shank (the wooden tubular part protruding from the bowl) and stem (the mouthpiece, in most cases made of plastic rubber (Vulcanite) or synthesised plastic material (Lucite, etc)) forming an angle other than 90 degrees to the bowl. Novice pipe smokers are often advised to choose a straight pipe for their starting pipe, as it is believed that straight pipes are easier to smoke, and so was I. Upon advice given to me at a pipe shop, I bought a straight Billiard (name of a classical pipe shape), scorched my tongue and palate quite a few times until I learned the knack to keep the tobacco in the bowl burning while at the same time not to make it overheated through incessant puffing. Most probably if you are familiar with any kind of tools, you know the feeling; once you master the basic skills and methods of using it properly, you begin to realise shortcomings peculiar to that tool, and also the beauty it has. With my fist pipe in Billiard shape, I found many of the former (it was inexpensive, to boot, which is not in itself bad, but in many cases implies sloppy craftsmanship) and very few of the latter. Since then about 95% of the pipes I purchased are "bents".

It appears that there exist very few straight pipes which do not fall into one of the classical pipe shapes; perhaps it is more difficult to create a truly original pipe shape for straight pipes. In contrast, by simply giving a certain angle to the bowl/shank connection, it seems pipe craftsmen get a lot of designing freedom. And in fact you can see literally hundreds of different, unique bent pipes being made and sold when you have a look at the showcase in a pipe shop or on the Internet pipe related websites. But having seen so many, and in some cases owned and smoked some, of bent pipes, Holbek's "Polonius" still seems to me to be the ideal bent pipe shape.

No real "Polonius" handy around me

Anyway, when I first learned about "Polonius" there was none available on sale in any of the then extant three or four pipe shops in Tokyo. It was nearly a couple of decades ago and there were no auction sites or the Internet itself. As I gather, there was a pipe smoking boom over here in Japan in 1970s, but it had already gone by the time I started and even any pipe related publications (books, leaflets, catalogues, etc) were scarcely available. I had to consider myself rather lucky to be able to buy a copy of the book in which I came across the photo of Holbek's "Polonius".

More bad news: in this pipe book, it was mentioned that Holbek had been meaning to do industrial designing work (which apparently he did as his main career) and his pipe production was virtually stopped. So there remained very little chance for me to see his pipes with my own eyes, let alone purchase one even if I could afford it.

Well, tough luck; but what would you do if you wanted something so badly, something such as a smoking pipe which is some kind of device or tool, functionality of which is well defined and not that difficult to meet (yes, I know this is an oversimplification; it is extremely hard to craft a genuinely good smoking pipe)? — "Make your own!" was my answer.

Carving to copy...

Amateurs are, by definition, audacious. But as foolhardy as I was, pipe crafting/carving kits ("pre-bored" one, with the smoke hole and bowl already drilled and mortise/tenon fits ready, as well as mouthpiece mostly formed) are not that cheap. Besides, carving three-dimensional objects by myself was new to me, except for the arts classes back in the junior high school days some ten to fifteen years prior to this pipe carving project. So I proceeded with caution, getting myself ready by buying a pound or so of clay for modeling the basic shape to be realised.

Even at this stage of clay modeling, however, it became clear to me that it is almost impossible to imitate (and needless to say, re-create) this characteristic sharpness of the Holbek shape. Copying to achieve a certain degree of resemblance to the original was not that difficult; I got the bowl/shank angle mostly correct, the general shape of the bowl more or less all right. But it is from there that you definitely need a talent. The clay models I made, however hard I tried, always ended up as something that could only be called obese Polonius.

In crafting a smoking pipe, you simply need to maintain a minimum thickness of the bowl and shank walls to prevent the pipe from scorching inside and out (after all, the bowl of pipe is a small furnace where you burn the tobacco and keep it lit). If you make it too thin, it can get burned easily, or the shank can be prone to breaking or cracking even at a slight shock given to it by accident.

By the time I got bored at making clay models and decided to go on and tackle the real briar root for carving, I was pushed to realise that I was lacking in that special talent, and also that there indeed exists a reason for master craftsmen to be called "masters". Doubtless, Gert Holbek was a master extraordinaire, capable of carving out a beauty with such sharpness without sacrificing the functionality and durability of a smoking pipe. My admiration for him grew after a series of my attempt to copy his piece of art.

And... you ask me about the outcome of my trials at pipe carving? No, please don't. I apologise, but I shall not be showing any of my hand-carved pipes until I get a decent one complete.

[Translation completed and posted on the 1st of August, 2004. The original article in Japanese with the same title was posted on the 6th of February, 2004, under the category: nicotiana.

Note that this particular article is a more or less a free translation of the original article, with some paragraphs and passages relevant only to visitors reading Japanese and living in Japan edited out.]

[English Articles Index of this site is here.]


  • The photograph of Holbek's "Polonius" at the top of this article was scanned from a book written by Mr Souzi MATUYAMA, a well known senior Holbek expert and fan in Japan. Mr Matuyama's book is titled Denmark no Paipu ("Danish Pipes" or "Pipes from Denmark"), published 1983 (out of print, all in Japanese). It contains 8(!) pages of superb full-colour photographs of Holbek pipes (all named after characters in Shakespeare's plays) as well as many essays discussing Danish pipes which Mr Matuyama had contributed to the then active Japan Pipe Smokers Club organ. My thanks are to Mr Matuyama with whom I cannot make an official contact yet to ask for permission to carry this scanned image.

    The caption in the photograph (which is now illegible due to resizing of the scanned original) reads: "POLONIUS/by G. Holbek 1975 normal".

  • Please refer to the official website of alt.smoking.pipes netnews newsgroup for general information about pipes. In particular, its Pipe Parts pages explain with nice illustrations the basic structure and parts names of smoking pipes.

  • The most comprehensive portal website for pipe and pipe smoking resources on the net is Pipes Web Pages. This site was started by Steve Beaty who was a contributing subscriber to the Pipes Digest mailing list moderated by Steve Masticola, to store Pipes Digest back numbers and also other pipe related texts and info.

  • Now we have a detailed story about the master pipe craftsman Gert Holbek himself on the net. www.danishpipesmokers.com has a very nice essay, written by Jacob Groth, with photos of Holbek pipes and the man himself, on the life and work of Holbek at Gert Holbek.

  • Most of Holbek's pipes were sold via the world famous pipe shop in Copenhagen, Denmark, named "Pipe Dan". You can see the scanned images of Pipe Dan product catalogue (in English) in the website of FinePipes.com at Pipe Dan Pipes.

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A Virtual Trip to Staglieno: Joy Division "Closer"

Staglieno Tomb Sculpture

Photograph by Mr Michel Enkiri

This topic may well be a "Not again!" FAQ&A to those genuine Joy Division fans out there. My apologies in advance.

To me, from the very beginning of my encounter with their music, Joy Division has always meant their second (and also the last original) album Closer. To be more specific, Joy Division to me was the four songs on the LP B-side, namely "Heart and Soul", "Twenty-four Hours", "The Eternal" and "Decades", which again always sounded as if they were intended to be a loosely inter-related suite. And last but not least, Joy Division to me has always been inseparably connected to the monochrome "picture" on the record sleeve, occupying approximately the bottom three fifths of the square white quality bond paper. Their music was and still is literally helpless yet positively powerful at the same time, and the scene recalled therefrom as that of depthless lament and despair.

Is this Etching?

For well over two decades, somehow I had believed that this "picture" on the record sleeve was perhaps a piece of etching, or else graphically retouched work of some copper engraving original, as often found in the typeset books printed in the European Middle Ages. The shadows and lights of this "picture" seemed to me to be too impressive and dramatic to be true if it were a photograph of some real scene. Besides, a couple of years after the release of this album, I happened to come across and read an article in a Japanese literary magazine which referred to an oil painting dedicated to the memories of Ian Curtis, by a British painter who took the motif of his work from this sleeve "picture." This anecdote about which I always vaguely remembered may have contributed to forming of my uncorroborated belief that this was a "picture" of sort, not a photograph.

It's a Photograph!

As said above, the music of Closer and this record sleeve "picture" have always been invariably connected with each other in my mind. If this "picture" was indeed an etching or copper engraving artwork, what is its identity and who in the world created such an impressive piece? Up until some months ago, this kind of question had never surfaced while I continued to listen to the album countless times. Yet as soon as this question popped itself up, I could not help but finding out about the "picture." Christian implications or influences are obvious here, and its capability of the scene depicted therein to leave strong and lasting impressions is quite remarkable, so this must be created by a well-known artist?

Apparently, however, there seem to exist very little information available on the web explicitly identifying the origin of this "picture," although there do exist quite a few resourceful quality websites dedicated to Joy Division. Searching by almost every possible combination of keywords that may hit, I came across at long last the Wikipedia (English edition) which says:

The album cover was designed by Martyn Atkins and Peter Saville, with photography from Bernard Pierre Wolf. The cemetery on the cover is Staglieno Cemetery in Genova, Italy. [The original is the second paragraph of the entry Closer (album).]

So... this was a photograph, after all.... My own unfounded belief over some twenty years got finally corrected. But now, who is this Bernard Pierre Wolff (whose surname is sometimes spelled as Wolf (as in the Wikipedia article) or as Wolfe)? And this is a photo of a cemetery? What is this "Staglieno Cemetery"?

Cemetery/Grave Sculpture

Shame on me, I did not know that cemetery/grave sculpture has a long tradition in the history of Western art. Michelangelo's Medici Tomb sculptures are regarded as one of his masterpieces, and many photographers are apparently fond of choosing these sculptures as their subject.

This "Staglieno Cemetery" as photographed by Wolff and used on the Closer album cover, is also apparently quite well-known for its numerous unique grave sculptures. At the official website of Japanese Collegium Mediterranistarum, I was able to find the following reference to this cemetery, in an essay written by Ms Yoko Kamenaga:

The most likely places for Genovese to name as best tourist attractions of their city are neither museums nor churches. They are either of the following two: One is the Aquarium (Acquario di Genova) designed by the architect from there Renzo Piano; The other is the cemetery Cimitero di Staglieno, about which I will write in this essay....

... This spacious cemetery contains many grave sculptures in various styles of Classical, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance, Romantic, Naturalistic, Symbolism, Liberty, as well as huge chapel artifices. Particularly notable are the emotional expressions and realism of the grave sculptures found in the Corridor of the 19th Century[?]....

[Please note that this is an unsolicited translation done by this writer from the Japanese original, titled "Place for Prayer: Cimitero di Staglieno in Genova".]

This essay by Ms Kamenaga also refers to the book Images of Man and Death (Images de l'homme devant la mort) by French historian Philippe Ariès, which has many photographs of the Staglieno Cemetery.

Bernard Pierre Wolff, the photographer

So far so good; some background about grave sculpture in general and where that particular tomb sculpture on the Closer cover is located have become clear. Well then, who is this photographer who was able to capture and hence eternalise this impressive, tragic scene of intricate shadows and lights?

Another series of searches on the web brought me to the website by Mr Michel Enkiri, who took the photo of the Closer cover tomb sculpture on the spot in Genova for himself, which you saw at the beginning of this article. This site by Mr Enkiri shows you many photographs shot by Wolff, along with the original Wolff Closer cover photo. You will also find the lying Angel[?] photo by Wolff which was featured on the cover of 12inch "Love Will Tear Us Apart" issue by Joy Division. Bernard Pierre Wolff was born in 1930 in France, died in 1985, five years after the release of Closer. Mr Enkiri writes about the work of Wolff as follows:

Most Wolff's B&W pictures that were published are taken "live" in the streets (with his discreet Leica), or portraits. He was fascinated by people on the edge, countries like India or Japan, or cities like New York or London, where everything is possible.

His pictures are focused on men, and they talk to the heart as well as to the eye. They contain joy, despair, friendship, pride, madness, beauty and ugliness, often a real sense of humour and a kind of poetry.

He managed to captivate what he had seen in a second, with the right angle and the right light, rendering the original atmosphere with superb accuracy. His pictures often include a part of mystery, and push the viewer to recreate a story around the image.

Mr Enkiri's Bernard Pierre Wolff page, under the section "His art"

Looking at the photos by Wolff in Mr Enkiri's website, I can only nod and heartily agree.

A Virtual Trip...

I have continued to listen to Closer from time to time, numerous, countless times for well over two decades. When I became heavily (and at times clinically) depressed, I always turned to this album and got myself literally dosed with its music. This may sound overly serious, but I think I would not have been alive now if I had not encountered with the four songs on the LP B-side of this album. Pondering about it, I find it rather ironical that the dark, depressive voice and lyrics sung by the vocalist who hanged himself only months prior to the release of this historical masterpiece keep on helping myself and healing my equally helpless depressive bouts.

Anyhow, if I hadn't begun searching the web for more info on the identity of the Closer cover, most probably I would have believed that the cover artwork was a "picture." till the end. By arriving at Mr Enkiri's website, and having confirmed that this "picture" was actually a photo, learnt that its subject was a real tomb sculpture located in Genova, Italy, and that the photographer who had sadly been dead for many years now took quite a few other impressive photographs, I felt as if I had gone on to and returned from a rather long journey.

[Translation completed and posted on the 22nd of April, 2004. The original article in Japanese with the same title was posted on the 15th of February, 2004, under the category: music.]

[English Articles Index of this site is here.]

[Added: the 30th of July, 2004] Please refer to the bottom of this page for an addendum as to the history of the Staglieno Cemetery.


  • Before anything, I'd like to express my sincere acknowledgements for Mr Michel Enkiri. Mr Enkiri kindly granted me permission to carry the resized image (at the top of this article) of his own photo of the Staglieno Closer tomb sculpture. I thank you, Michel-san!

  • I'd urge visitors who happen to come and see this little article to visit and see for yourselves the original photo by Mr Enkiri, as well as the original Wolff photograph used for the Closer cover. You will be able to see the details of the sculpture and original photos much more clearly.

  • His website Michel ENKIRI's Homepage (he's a Frenchman but his site's contents are in English) is rich with the already referred to resources about the photographer Wolff, as well as an excellent information collection about the band Joy Division, and his other personal interests.

  • I would like to write more (no, some more!??) about my personal accounts on Joy Division the band and their album Closer. I'm planning to refer to other rich resources that can be found on the web in that coming article.

  • There used to be a very detailed description in English of the Staglieno Cemetery at comune.genova.it... but unfortunately this site has been renewed from the bottom up and the relevant articles apparently have gone[?]. According to my scribbled memo taken from these web pages, the Cemetery was founded in mid 19th century, has many tomb sculptures mainly made of marble, quite a few authors of literary acclaims have been attracted to this place including Mark Twain, etc etc.... The renewed pages seem to be moved and located at cimitero monumentale, but I cannot read Italian.... For a concise description in English, you can refer to Genovando: Staglieno Cemetery.

[Added: the 30th of July, 2004] Our correspondence continues between Michel-san and myself, and as I had told Michel that I cannot read Italian, he was so kind to send me the following translation of the relevant passages published in cimitero monumentale: Staglieno e la sua storia at comune.genova.it.

I have already received this via e-mail from Michel-san on the 8th of July, 2004, but due to pressing of my personal matters and also to a rather prolonged server-side problems caused by network setup renewal at the present hosting service in mid July, it took me over three weeks to publish this addendum and make my small article above much more enhanced. My most sincere thanks are due to you, Michel-san, and my apologies for this belated update.

History of the Staglieno:

The Staglieno cemetery officially opened to the public Jan 1st 1851. At this time it was largely incomplete, but had its basic specific architecture functional and symbolic aspects.

The project had already started in 1835 with the architect Carlo Barabino (1768–1825) — which had an important part in the Neo Classical physiognomy of Genova, and created buildings such as Teatro Carlo Felice, the Palazzo dell'Accademia, etc — just before he died of cholera. The project was then transferred to his co-worker Giovanni Battista Resasco (1798–1871) whose plans were approved in 1840. The works began in 1844, in the area of Villa Vaccarezza, where few people lived and not very far from the city centre.

From the original project of Barabino he kept the rectangle as basic structure, enhancing the monumental character. This brought great admiration from the visitors, who entered via the main gate directly in this scene, with homogeneous porticos, and the "Pantheon".

Once the complex structure of the cemetery works were over, in the 80s, this impact remained strong, even raised by the natural surroundings: The Pantheon with the porticos, the green hills — the zone of Boschetti & Valletta Pontasso — with vegetation and chapels and dissemintated monuments (like the tomb of Giuseppe Mazini and many names of the Risorgimento).

This integration in the landscape was increased in time, like the non-Catholic area or the cemetery of the English, in the last decades of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. The choices of Resasco made Staglieno the model for cemeteries Italian and abroad, combining the Neo Classical architecture, of Mediterranean tradition, a kind of a "gallery" of monuments, and the "natural" type, more specific after the 40s of northern Europe and Anglo-Saxon countries (beginning with the Pére Lachaise in Paris).

The growth of the city being one of the major industrial and commercial centres of northern Italy, provoked several changes. Resasco himself made a change to the north-east area, with new semi-circular porticos, which should have been followed by another one. Only one was built in the 90s, rich with Liberty and Déco works. More works brought several periods to other porticos, as well as expansion to other areas. Like the Valle del Veilino — already sheltering the non-Catholic graves — with the building of the Porticato Montino, rich of Déco & "Novecento" works, and also the area for the dead of WWI (1935–1936), or the latest monumental change with the Portico S Antonino (began 1937, inauguration 1955).

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Index of Articles in English

Since this writer's mother tongue is Japanese, most of the contents in this site are initially written in that language. Articles in English are translated by this writer himself; only those that might prove to be of interest (hopefully) to non Japanese speaking/reading readers are (and will be) chosen for English translation, as the process takes time.

Because of the weblog system used for this site, use of multi-byte Japanese characters at places could not be helped (the "charset" of the whole of this site is specified by the weblog system as "EUC-JP" (which is one of the Japanese language encoding sets currently in use on computers) in the <meta> tag). Apologies for the possible inconveniences caused by this.

Your comments and trackbacks to any article herein are always much appreciated, regardless of its initial publication date.

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