Perfect French home for a fine art collection
John Richardson, who died in March, was a British art historian and friend of Picasso. In his entertaining last book, he revealed how a rundown French castle became his home
1950 Douglas Cooper, whose pursuit of me had been swift and focused, invited me on a Grand Tour of the Continent. En route to the dilapidated duchy of Uzès, in the south of France, Douglas and I were stunned by glimpses of golden columns on the edge of a vineyard.
We stopped the car and found ourselves in front of a miniature version of Bernini’s colonnaded peristyle in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Part of the peristyle, which had been quarried from the same sandstone as the nearby ancient Roman Pont du Gard, had fallen down – in an earthquake some thirty years earlier, we later discovered – but so picturesquely that Giovanni Paolo Panini might have stage-managed the scene.
What made the place of more than casual interest was a small sign proclaiming Château à Vendre (Castle for Sale). Little did Douglas and I realize that our lives were about to undergo a radical change.
The approach to the chateau, along a short, colonnaded drive, was nothing if not theatrical.
Besides concealing two ranges of tumbledown farm buildings, these colonnades were part of an elaborate trompe l’oeil effect.
The columns decreased in scale and converged, thereby accentuating the perspective—“Just like Borromini’s prospettiva in the Palazzo Spada,” observed Douglas, a formidable art historian. This gave the relatively cramped entry a decidedly imposing air.
Through the bars of a padlocked gate we had our first glimpse of what was to be our house: a moderate-size building with a turret at each corner and another sandstone colonnade running around three sides so as to form a balustraded balcony. Incised repeatedly into the balustrade was a large monogram, C.R. (for Castille Rohan, we later learned). “It stands for Cooper/Richardson,” I said. “We have to get it.”
“If I buy the place,” Douglas said, “I’ll buy it for myself.” His acquisitive heart was already set on it.
The oxblood shutters looked as if they had been closed tight for centuries, except for one on the ground floor that was slightly ajar: chickens wandered in and out.
A mangy hound on a long chain did not bark so much as howl at us, which prompted a slatternly woman to emerge from the house, making angry gestures. No, we could not visit the chateau. Douglas brandished a banknote at her. Yes, she would unlock the gate.
Apart from weeds, the courtyard consisted of an elaborate jardin de buis (boxwood garden), which was so overgrown that it was unclear whether it had started life as a maze or simply developed into one.
Off to one side of the chateau, overlooking what had once been a formal garden, was a long tumbledown building with columns at either end, which looked as if it might have been an orangery.
It turned out to have been a magnanerie, a place where silkworms were raised, a common feature in old Provençal houses.
This, the slattern told us, was the Château de Castille, known locally as “le palais des mille colonnes.” The building had apparently originated in the sixteenth or seventeenth century as a fortified bastide.
Shortly before the French Revolution, the owner, Gabriel-Joseph Froment, Baron de Castille, had returned from a grand tour of Italy so enamoured of columns that he set about “columnizing” his ancestral home in honour of his marriage to a Princesse de Rohan.
To judge by a little monument to her in the wooded park at the back of the house, inscribed with the words “She lived like a rose, the space of a morning” (elle a vécu ce que vivent les roses / l’espace d’un matin), his wife did not live very long, but her widower continued to squeeze every last drop of glory out of his illustrious alliance.
Another banknote induced the slattern’s sullen, peg-legged husband to open the shutters and let us inside the chateau.
Thanks to a roof that had remained in good repair, the fabric of the building was dry and less damaged than we had feared. Surprisingly, there were no cellars, not even any proper foundations.
And with most of the floorboards downstairs either burned or stolen or allowed to rot, the chickens pecked away at earthen floors.
The rooms, which opened one onto the other, turned out to be modest in scale, provincial Louis XVI in style, with simple mouldings and chimney pieces and multi-beamed ceilings in good shape.
Mercifully, the walls were not panelled or otherwise embellished – the better for hanging paintings – except for one dramatic little room that seemed imbued with the more romantic spirit of the Enlightenment, the spirit that had inspired so many other neoclassical follies of the period.
This curious chamber, constructed of the same sandstone as the columns outside, took the form of a small but massive Doric temple.
This miniature temple, which would become our dining room, would have made a most appropriate setting for the meetings of a secret society. (The Baron de Castille would surely have been a friend of his neighbour, the Marquis de Sade.)
There turned out to be a major problem with the house: no water, hence no bathroom, toilet, or kitchen sink – not a tap in the place.
The slatternly woman, who was called Madame Grousset, showed us the only well; it’s always running dry, she explained with relish. There had been several wells on the property, but these now belonged to her family.
The Baron de Castille’s descendants were apparently a feckless lot who allowed the family fortune, such as it was, to dwindle to nothing.
Around 1930 the bank foreclosed, and the Groussets bought up all the land that was under cultivation and the wells that went with it, in addition to the scruffy farm buildings, down by the road, where they now lived. These included a little chapel that they used as a bar.
A local businessman bought the “useless” part of the property: the chateau, colonnades, outbuildings, and pocket-size wooded park at the back. He had intended to restore it and sell it at a profit, but all he had time to do before the war intervened was repair the roof.
During the war a family of Polish refugees had moved in and kept sheep and goats in the little Doric chamber.
By rubbing their itchy flanks against the friable stone columns, the animals had transformed more than one entasis into a concavity. The ‘for sale’ sign had gone up a year or two after the war, and Madame Grousset had become the concierge.
Since the chateau was going very cheap, for ten to twelve thousand dollars, several people had shown an interest, but lack of water precluded a sale.
As we emerged from the shade of the colonnaded house into the glare of sunlight and the blare of cicadas, Douglas announced that he was going to buy the property. “Ghastly, philistine England” had never deserved his collection of modern masters and now would never get it. His pictures would be much more at home in life-enhancing France, where most of them had been painted.
Get the look
Browse the French high street and online to recreate elements of Mr Richardson’s former country retreat... Prices and availability are correct at time of going to press.
Top of the pots
Nothing says ‘sun-kissed rustic elegance’ quite like a ceramic pot for your prized olivier, and Anduze are the most admired among them.
This ‘flamme’ model measures 80x60cm and costs €429.95 from www.jardiland.com
Chic lick of paint
Pale green volets (shutters) provide some enticing country chic to any property, whether your home is as grand as Château de Castille or more ‘bijou’.
This specialist outdoor wood paint (the colour is ‘Olivier’ – olive) costs €55.90, currently including 20% extra free.
When looking for a table lamp in one of the French specialists such as Luminaire, try finding a lampes à poser.
This Costanza model designed by Paolo Rizzatto mimics the one pictured in Mr Richardson’s supremely tasteful home, and costs €491.90