For the last 26 years, calligrapher extraordinaire Eric de Tugny has lured the curious into his magical bolt-hole of a stationer’s shop in Paris, on the Rue du Pont Louis Philippe.
Long down at the heel, part of the crumbling old Jewish district, this short, straight road is on the western edge of the Marais. Most of the traditional businesses have gone elsewhere, though the nearby Shoah Memorial remains the neighborhood’s soulful anchor. Now a chic shopping enclave, indigenous bobos and visitors crowd the sidewalks to gaze at the handmade papers in the accessory-filled boutiques, do the photo gallery and tea salon, and open their wallets wide in the chocolate or specialty food shops that stand cheek-by-jowl between the Seine and Rue Francois Miron.
The shop’s name – “Mélodies Graphiques,” meaning “Graphic Melodies” – gives nothing away. What might it really mean?
The melody of beautiful writing, or the graphic quality of music? Inside, Bach or baroque chamber music plays softly on the sound system. The only other sound is that of Tugny quietly penning sinuous lines of his inimitable script letters – creating invitations and announcements, or love notes, wedding menus and anything else clients can imagine where the beauty of the penmanship and the composition are essential to the message. Perched behind his working surface – it doubles as the cash desk – Tugny merges village scribe and New Age seer.
He has far too much work for one calligrapher to do. Fan mail from friends and clients in Helsinki, San Francisco, Casablanca and London is pinned to the wall behind.
But there’s more to the shop than first meets the eye. All may seem proper and normal: pens, pencils, wrapping paper, agendas, book plates, cards and suchlike are carefully displayed, with an artistic yet orderly sensibility. Look closer and you might recoil. Real, preserved bugs adorn the shop windows, or perch near the cash register. The book of bugs, a richly illustrated volume with Tugny’s illustrations, is displayed nearby.
What makes the middle-aged Tugny so extraordinary is not merely his talent with quill pen, ink and rag paper. Insiders know the impish Frenchman as the City of Light’s most bug-wild, beetle-mad collector, an intrepid hunter, preserver and illustrator of creepy crawlies, coleopteran many-legged, horned, fanged, stinging, biting, dangerous, deadly, gorgeously weird-looking insects from around the globe.
If you’re lucky you might step in as he’s drawing a scorpion he caught, most likely in the Cote d’Ivoire, and brought home triumphantly, pickled and floating in a mason jar.
Ask the affable Tugny what he has in the old-fashioned folders propped up on wooden crutches at the front of the shop and you will be treated to beetle mania. Green bugs with antennae that would put Big Ears to shame, locust-like monsters with translucent wings, giant yellow beetles with chocolate-brown bottoms seemingly dipped in chocolate – dozens and dozens of exquisite drawings done by Tugny. Each is a labor of love requiring, on average, 60 hours of work with loupe, caliper and the ink-filled tools of his trade.
Born in Morocco to French parents, brought up and educated in Lyon, Tugny’s first profession was biologist, with a specialty in entomology. His expertise: the coleopteran of North Africa. In the last 30 years he has captured – or been sent – every known species, and has immortalized each with the precision of an Audubon. Astonishingly, the modest, soft-spoken Tugny is self-taught, his hand and mind driven solely by passion.
“It all started 15 years ago,” he told me recently, one rainy Paris day as spring turned to summer, his mirth contagious, “with an invitation to a bar mitzvah.”
A local Marais resident came to buy paper supplies, admired his handwriting – the store hours are in calligraphy – and asked him to write out names and addresses for a celebration. Soon the Jewish community was beating a path to him for personalized invitations: bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, anniversaries, special events, art exhibitions and more. Word spread. Now photographers, authors, movie directors, fashion designers and wealthy new neighborhood denizens beeline to Tugny’s shop. He is in such demand that, with evident regret, he refuses clients who don’t give him a long enough lead time. I watched as several came in, one begging for the scribe to write a letter, another to create a menu for a soiree.
The calligraphy led him to indulge his twin passions: drawing and insects. Now he’s preparing to sell limited editions of his prints. “Oh, I never sell the originals,” he answered when I inquired politely. “Those I will always keep.” Alongside the mounted pickled bugs – and his inimitable, wry sense of humor.
Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James” and “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His Paris Time Line app was published in April: www.davidddownie.com and www.parisparistours.com.