John Howe


Or the Fine Art of the Empty Space

It’s no secret. I quite like words. Meeting new ones is like meeting new people, each toting an etymological suitcase of complexity and experience in the simple syllabification of a few letters.

So, when the in-flight entertainment system offered the traditional quiz (I’m hopeless at sports and show-biz) and proposed the question “What is the name given to the space between the wine and the cork in a bottle?” I hadn’t the slightest idea there was even a word for it.

Turns out there is: Ullage.

All this said, it’s an intriguing term that might as well belong in the belly of a ship as that of a barrel. So, of course, I had to look it up. My maritime daydreaming never weighed anchor; lots of wine and dark, but no sea… but I did find out quite a lot more.

If you’ll pardon a detour where etymologists roam prudently: “amount by which a cask or bottle falls short of being full,” late 15c., from Anglo-French ulliage (early 14c.), Anglo-Latin oliagium (late 13c.), Old French ouillage, from ouiller “to fill up (a barrel) to the bung,” literally “to fill to the eye,” from ueil “eye,” from Latin ochulus.

Now, even the modest and amateur etymologist I imagine myself to be wonders how “oliagium”, which should have more in common with oil, derives from “ouillage”. Additionally, I can find no reference to bungholes being called “eyes”. But, be that as it may, obscure is to etymology as oak is to barrels.

Ullage is actually a noun and a verb: the air in a cask or a bottle, and the practice of topping up wine barrels to compensate for evaporation. Ullage describes essentially emptiness contained. While air is involved, as well as water vapour and a certain heady cocktail of chemicals, it is there by default, not design, though some air is necessary to accommodate changes in pressure.

We humans do enjoy our liquid in container analogies; life is seen as cups half full or empty, nel vino la verità; even bottles have mouths, necks and shoulders. Oenologists keep a careful eye on ullage, as too much – when the wine has dropped below the shoulders of the bottle (in this, wine and décolletées are opposites) there may be too much oxidation, rendering the ancient (and expensive) vintage collectable but undrinkable.

An aside: even bottles have specific and cryptic names for their sizes, starting with the piccolo (at 0.1875 litres) and topping out with the 30-liter Melchizedek. (There is a preponderance of Biblical kings – Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Nebuchadnezzar, Melchior and others – in the more extravagant sizes, undoubtedly the product of some spirited discussions amongst champagne makers, to a symphony of popping corks…) The Magnum, at 1.5 liters, is the best known, of course.

Ullage is self-contained; once a bottle is opened, the space unfilled no longer really qualifies as ullage. Thus ullage describes, by extension, the life span of the vintage, the aging of the same: its preservation, amelioration, evaporation or slow decay.

Another aside (much artful side-stepping in this newsletter) the sound associated with corks popping from bottles was, in the 1800’s, a most disappointing “clunk”, hardly worthy of the bubbly exuberance of champagne. Clunk is attested from 1796 as “the sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle”: the modern connotation (including clunker for an old worn-out machine) apparently dates from the 1940’s. The ongoing onomatopoeics of our existences are a thing of wonder to me.

Cork, by the way, may well have first appeared on fishnets and the soles of shoes and not handily occluding bottle necks although cork (along with wood and other materials) was used by the Egyptians to stop containers as early as 2500 BC, and later by the Greeks in the 5th century BC. The Romans equally used stoppers, and, like the Greeks, coated them with pitch to achieve an airtight seal. (They also used cork in shipbuilding, house roofs and women’s shoes, as well as to construct beehives.) Given its unparalleled qualities, it’s hardly surprising cork was quickly employed; one cubic inch contains approximately 200 million 14-sided hermetic cells, each measuring one one-thousandth of an inch in diameter.

Nevertheless, in the ancient world, the most common methods for closing wine jugs and amphora consisted of a coating of pitch or gypsum or a film of olive oil poured onto the surface of the wine. (A more likely candidate for the origins of “ullage” than the slightly dubious “eye” of a barrel.)
The Middle Ages and the Renaissance seem to have seen less wide-spread use of cork, medieval depictions favour stoppers made of twisted cloth or wood. Sealing wax was also used. When Rosalind says impatiently to her cousin Celia: “I pray thee take thy cork out of thy mouth, that I may drink thy tidings” cork may not yet have been in common use, as Shakespeare, whose references to wine are numerous (“The wine of life is drawn…”), only mentions corks once, in “As You Like it”, written between 1598 and 1600.

In the 1600’s, another alternative consisted of stoppers of ground glass, individually made for each bottle or carafe. British agriculturalist John Worlidge, in his “Vinetum Britannicum, or, A treatise of cider and such other wines and drinks that are extracted from all manner of fruits growing in this kingdom together with the method of propagating all sorts of vinous fruit-trees, and a description of the new-invented ingenio, or mill, for the more expeditious and better making of cider : and also, the right method of making metheglin and birch-wine : with copper-plates” published in 1676, declared “much liquor being absolutely spoiled through the only defect of the cork. Therefore are glass stoppels to be preferred…” Worlidge also preferred cider to wine, though the cider he would have known was a headier concoction than today’s milder version.

But the cork really came into its own thanks to a French Benedictine monk named – but of course – Dom Pierre Pérignon (c. 1638–14 September 1715), who replaced the commonly used wooden stoppers with cork models, A little disappointingly, the quote attributed to him, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” appears to be the invention of a 19th century publicist. This said, the atmosphere at the Abbey of Hautvilliers (near Eperney, in Champagne) must have been, at least on occasion, a much less solemn affair than in regions less favorable to wine-growing. (Amusingly, the old town of Troyes in Champagne, when seen from the air, aptly echoes the shape of a champagne cork.  The city of Cork has nothing to do with quercus suber, the name derives from the Irish corcach, meaning “swamp”.) This said, champagne is ullage under pressure: between 4 and 6 atmospheres, or 60 to 90 pounds per square inch, about what you will find in a truck tire.

The production of bottles with a uniform neck opening, the expansion of wine exports and trade, the advantages of allowing wine to continue to mature in hermetically sealed, chemically neutral and easily transported containers, rapidly led to bottled wine as we know it. The first printed reference to a “bottlescrew” is dated 1681, from a certain N. Grew: “a steel worm used for the drawing out of corks out of bottles.” Likely enough, soldiers had already used their musket’s worms or cleaning screws for the same purpose far earlier.  The earliest known corkscrew made to remove corks is a French model dated 1685, the earliest known British model dating from 1702. The term “corkscrew” was coined in 1720. The world’s first cork stopper factory opened around 1750, in Anguine, Spain.

A. Outdoor ullage, or the aerobics of tipsiness. Sign for a Wine Shop. French Rococo. Anonymous, c.1700-1799, Paris.
B. Applied ullage, or the occupation by a submerged body or part of a body of a volume that would otherwise be occupied by a fluid, a principle first determined by Archimedes, although he got it backwards. Medieval monks successfully experimented the opposite approach. Cellarer adjusting ullage in a cask, from Li Livres dou Santé (French ms, late 13th century)
C. Armed ullage, or when high spirits go to the heads of those who risk to lose them.  Battle for the Mead of Poetry. Scene from Snorre’s Edda. Viking, anonymous, circa 500-1050.
D. Ullage by emulation and from the air. Troyes-en-Champagne (clunk!) the old town imitates the shape of a champagne cork. (This would aptly place the ullage of the colossal bottle precisely where Vauban left his fortifications.)
E. The peripatetics of ullage. Habit de Cabaretier, 1695-1720, by Gerard Valck (1651/2 – 1726) after Nicolas de Larmessin II.(1645-1725)
F. Ullage and logomachy, or the uncorking of ire and ennui. (Most years provide truly memorable vintages; I’d particularly recommend the Weltschmerz ’59.) Uncorking Old-Sherry, James Gillray, London 1805.
G. Do-it-yourself ullage for the beginner bricklayer. The Cask of Amontillado, illustration by Harry Clarke, 1919.
H. “The astrologer emptied the whole of the bowl into the bottle.” Time, Ullage and Relative Dimensions in Space. Illustration by N.C. Wyeth, from Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious stranger”, published in Harper’s Magazine, New York, 1916.

All of that to transform the space between the wine and the cork into something to be reckoned with. If, as Galileo said, “Wine is sunlight held together by water”, then ullage holds it in place, and guarantees its integrity. In vino veritas, perhaps, or more exactly, in the empty space just above.

Ullage is the space you leave yourself between who you are and what you do, a little space to absorb changes in pressure, not too much or too little, but the necessary distance to avoid confusion between creator and creation. Too much – below the shoulder of the bottle, and it’s no longer a vocation, but a job, too high a fill, and the line between the two blurs and it’s no longer your work you take seriously, but yourself. In parallel, it is also most surely the space between tangible, recognized physical form and the unquantifiable spirit of the individual self that sometimes a painting or photograph can capture, fixing forever an elusive essence entrapped fleetingly in light and shade.

I’m grateful for the simple grace afforded me by the hazards of birth – a most bearable lightness of things inherited, a lack of obligations except those willingly chosen – an ullage of circumstance, but a precious one. I’m grateful for the simple belief I have in myth, naturally not in the characters, beings and events themselves, but in the clarity of the archetypes they contain, the lucidity of the narrative they convey.

Perhaps ullage then is what turns religion into myth. From faith in one exclusive version of truth to faith in the multiplicity of explanations whose meanings remain clear even if the cast changes. Muthos and logos, one attached to reasoned thought, the other to myth, are not fundamentally in opposition, or at least not in Aristotelian terms. There is no absolute truth, or at least no justifiable one, in muthoi. On the other hand, truths inherent to logoi cannot be propounded without solid evidence and cannot rely simply on belief. The space between absolutes, where belief is not suspension of reason, where reason accommodates belief.

Essentially, ullage doesn’t exist; it is as intangible as the essence of human life. Scientifically, we can quantify shape, form, substance, but the element of the essential self defies categorization and measurement.
It’s very tempting to consider it an apt analogy for the human spirit, the distance between tangibles, with no shape and form except that defined by body and spirit, by the boundaries that contain it.

Something that is given form only when contained by other forms.

And that, all things considered, is something that I quite like.

Have not abandoned sphinxes, it’s simply that for the next stage of the wandering – into the Levant – the trail grows much more complex. In the meantime, here are a few words from “Eothen” by the inimitable and unavoidable Alexander William Kinglake. Proof if need be of the curious, conflicting and occasionally regrettable emotions stirred by such age-old monumentalism.  Or perhaps he had forgotten his hat.

“And near the Pyramids more wondrous and more awful than all else in the land of Egypt, there sits the lonely Sphinx. Comely the creature is, but the comeliness is not of this world. The once worshipped beast is a deformity and a monster to this generation; and yet you can see that those lips, so thick and heavy, were fashioned according to some ancient mould of beauty—some mould of beauty now forgotten—forgotten because that Greece drew forth Cytherea from the flashing foam of the Aegean, and in her image created new forms of beauty, and made it a law among men that the short and proudly wreathed lip should stand for the sign and the main condition of loveliness through all generations to come. Yet still there lives on the race of those who were beautiful in the fashion of the elder world, and Christian girls of Coptic blood will look on you with the sad, serious gaze, and kiss you your charitable hand with the big pouting lips of the very Sphynx.
Laugh and mock if you will at the worship of stone idols, but mark ye this, ye breakers of images, that in one regard the stone idol bears awful semblance of Deity—unchangefulness in the midst of change; the same seeming will, and intent for ever, and ever inexorable! Upon ancient dynasties of Ethiopian and Egyptian kings; upon Greek, and Roman; upon Arab and Ottoman conquerors; upon Napoleon dreaming of an Eastern Empire; upon battle and pestilence; upon the ceaseless misery of the Egyptian race; upon keen-eyed travellers—Herodotus yesterday, and Warburton to-day: upon all and more, this unworldly Sphinx has watched, and watched like a Providence with the same earnest eyes, and the same sad, tranquil mien. And we, we shall die, and Islam will wither away, and the Englishman, leaning far over to hold his loved India, will plant a firm foot on the banks of the Nile, and sit in the seats of the Faithful, and still that sleepless rock will lie watching, and watching the works of the new, busy race with those same sad, earnest eyes, and the same tranquil mien everlasting. You dare not mock at the Sphynx.”
Mark Twain, when he visited Egypt in 1867, must have remembered his. From “Innocents Abroad or the New Pilgrim’s Progress”:

“After years of waiting, it was before me at last. The great face was so sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient. There was a dignity not of earth in its mien, and in its countenance a benignity such as never any thing human wore. It was stone, but it seemed sentient. If ever image of stone thought, it was thinking. It was looking toward the verge of the landscape, yet looking at nothing—-nothing but distance and vacancy. It was looking over and beyond every thing of the present, and far into the past. It was gazing out over the ocean of Time—-over lines of century-waves which, further and further receding, closed nearer and nearer together, and blended at last into one unbroken tide, away toward the horizon of remote antiquity. It was thinking of the wars of departed ages; of the empires it had seen created and destroyed; of the nations whose birth it had witnessed, whose progress it had watched, whose annihilation it had noted; of the joy and sorrow, the life and death, the grandeur and decay, of five thousand slow revolving years. It was the type of an attribute of man—-of a faculty of his heart and brain. It was MEMORY—-RETROSPECTION—-wrought into visible, tangible form. All who know what pathos there is in memories of days that are accomplished and faces that have vanished—-albeit only a trifling score of years gone by—-will have some appreciation of the pathos that dwells in these grave eyes that look so steadfastly back upon the things they knew before History was born—-before Tradition had being—-things that were, and forms that moved, in a vague era which even Poetry and Romance scarce know of—-and passed one by one away and left the stony dreamer solitary in the midst of a strange new age, and uncomprehended scenes.

The Sphynx is grand in its loneliness; it is imposing in its magnitude; it is impressive in the mystery that hangs over its story. And there is that in the overshadowing majesty of this eternal figure of stone, with its accusing memory of the deeds of all ages, which reveals to one something of what he shall feel when he shall stand at last in the awful presence of God.”

Recently did another interview with Lloyd Harvey, at INSIDE THE ARTIST’S STUDIO. Interviews with Lloyd are most agreeable, as he has this astonishing tendency to answer his own questions, which leaves me to nod sagely and pass on to the next.

After nearly two years of keeping up newsletters despite having a regular office job, I confess that I am slowly but inexorably running out of steam and time to keep on, even with monthly newsletters. I will try, but should I fall behind, it will hopefully only be for a few weeks or a month.
Very special thanks to Ann Carling, without whose assistance these newsletters would have ceased long ago.