Miniature works of art wrapped around an orange

The orange may be just a juicy fruit to some people, but it was the fruit of fortunes for many in Valencia. The Museo de Taronja tells its story. Those in the know will tell you that during the hey-day of the orange, from the early 19th century until the middle of the 20th, Burriana was the centre of orange production and exportation in the Valencian region. At least they will if they are from Burriana but, just as there are plenty of towns that would dispute Llíria’s claim to be the first place to have a town band, so there would no doubt be plenty to challenge Burriana’s assertion of its orangey fame. However, what it can quite rightly claim is to have the only orange museum in Europe, the Museo de Taronja, the result of one man’s obsession, that man being Vicente Abat, a real, live Doctor Orange, because he has a doctorate in everything you could possibly want to know about the citrus fruit. At first sight of the collection of ancient agricultural machinery, with its vicious prongs and blades, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have to be seriously sad to get any fun out of a visit to Vicente’s pride and joy (although for the fashion conscious there are a few fine examples of upper-crust clothing in silk and lace from the 18th and 19th centuries) but the crown jewels of the collection are the labels used to carry the name of Valencian oranges worldwide. Most tourist info tells you that the orange was first brought to Spain by the Moors in about the 7th century, as indeed it was, but that was a bitter variety used in cooking. The deliciously sweet fruit that provided the commercial backbone of the Valencian region for generations actually arrived from Gerona in the early 18th century. Britain became the biggest market for the fruit thanks to the coal industry. In the days when the British Raj relied on steamships plying between India and the UK, coal ships would leave their loads at various bunkering ports throughout the Mediteranean and would pick up Valencian oranges so as not to return empty handed. Initially the fruit would be delivered in bulk in large crates and sold at auction, but eventually wily producers wanted to have their own brand names known and began to label the boxes so that the greengrocer would ask for his specific brand. The next stage was to wrap the orange itself in decorated tissue paper, known as papel de seda¸ silk paper, because it was so fine, although not actually made of silk, so that the ultimate buyer – the housewife – would do the same. (Although there was  secondary reasons for using the paper in that, in the times before refrigeration, it protected the fruit from being contaminated by rotten fruit next to it, and also stopped the fruit from ripening.) From these simple promotional ideas came the stunning artwork on display in the museum. There’s barely an illustrative device that hasn’t been used in creating the ‘orange artwork’; sports, folklore, luscious ladies and equally luscious fruit, geometric forms, animals, cartoons, fantasy, exotic, all beautifully executed, even though they were only ever intended be slapped onto the side of a wooden crate. As much of the fruit was exported to the UK, the Union Flag and various iconic British images feature in the display; The British Boy Scout, who for some unknown reason, stands on top of a mountain with snowy peaks in the distance, perhaps showing a sense of alpine adventure, The English-Bull Dog (sic), looking more woeful than proud, The Grand National, and Our Sam, which illustrates a rugby ball set vertically for kick in a crowd filled stadium, with the image of a lantern-jawed player in a navy and white striped shirt with that stern Wigan-ish short of look of a champion. One of Vicente Abat’s uncles is represented with The Wireless Brand, where an ancient wireless radiates the lightning rays symbolic of the radio signal, at whose tips are written Liverpool, London, Glasgow, Manchester and Southampton, the British ports most used by the Valencian companies. Below the radio, the strap-line’ All Stations Calling “Eat More Fruit” ’  reflects a promotional phrase of the British Government at the time. You can just imagine the elegantly archetypical British tones of Bob Danvers Walker calling out “Broadcasting Sweetness”. Disney is represented by Donald Duck, Les Trois Petits Colchons and De Zeven Dwergjes, with Snow White holding a glistening orange instead of the poisoned apple her stepmother provided for light refreshment. Jeanette MacDonald peeps coyly from behind a sprig of orange blossom, advertising the Extra Extra Selected, which must be as good as you can get, and a one curious label for Vater Und Sohn, depicts a very disgruntled baldy with a nipper bent over his knee getting a darn good spanking. Probably best not to enquire further about that one!Vicente Abat considers his labels to be works of art in miniature, and I know of at least one person – me – who would happily spend more hours gazing at both collections than a dozen galleries of Rembrandts, Goyas or Picassos. Perhaps it’s the ‘art cretin’ in me, but nonetheless, I’m extremely grateful for these obsessives – sorry, passionate collectors – who have seen fit to dedicate most of their lives to collecting delights that would usually have been consigned to the waste bin. And one for the home team!   Museo de la Toronja, Carrer Major 10, Burriana, Castellón. Tel 96 451 5415

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