One man and his magical menagerie

Natural history lovers seeking a day of animal magic should visit Deyrolle in Paris. The owner talks taxidermy and tomatoes with Samantha David

20 December 2017

Deyrolle in Paris is more than a shop, it’s literally and figuratively a French institution. The shop, in the wealthy, aristocratic St-Germain district of Paris, has been there since 1831 when it was opened by Jean-Baptiste Deyrolle – and strolling around it feels like visiting an extraordinary museum packed with curios, taxidermy, seashells, insects, fossils, prehistoric tools and collections of butterflies and minerals.

You walk through the door into a display of upmarket gardening gloves and hats – the Prince’s own line of equipment for rich gardeners – and the curving staircase beckons you to explore.

The first floor is light and airy, the walls pale green, the wooden floors and display cases beautifully varnished, but what is amazing is the cornucopia of relics and curios from the natural world. As you wander through the rooms, you come across a stuffed polar bear, a mass of cleverly-mounted birds, crabs, a peacock, a tiger, a brown bear standing on its back legs, a collection of butterflies, and of course, a rail of posh gardening waistcoats. There are mysterious drawers, trays of insects, a giant crab and a giraffe. Don’t miss the winged unicorn, the horned rabbit, the white peacock or the drawer full of ducklings looking just as if they’re ready to tumble out all over the floor.

It’s all very elegant with moulded ceilings and chandeliers, not a spot of dust anywhere. And, of course, although photography is forbidden, stroking and petting the animals is not. Nor is buying them. A stuffed duckling is €200. There’s no particular pressure to buy anything, however, and many people visit the shop just for the pleasure of seeing the displays. A trip to Deyrolle is a long-standing favourite with Parisian children.
The style is antique but in fact it is in large part new, the entire shop having been gutted by a horrendous fire in 2008. It probably broke out as a result of faulty wiring, but the ferocity was increased by the taxidermy chemicals stored on the premises, and it took fire fighters all night to douse the flames.

In the morning, there wasn’t much left, and when news of the disaster spread, the owner, Prince Louis Albert de Broglie, faced numerous pleas not to abandon the site. Not that he had any intention of doing so. “When I bought it in 2001, it wasn’t just because I’d fallen in love with it. I bought it because I wanted to add a scientific arm to my other activities,” he said. “There was no question of abandoning it.”

The shop was faithfully reconstructed, and all its functions retained. As well as the shop, the building also houses a scientific institution on the top floors which, amongst other things, produces the famous educational charts. They have been part and parcel of school classrooms for generations of French school children, who have used “Musée Scolaire Deyrolle” educational wall charts to study geology, biology, zoology, botany, entomology, geography, anatomy, physics, chemistry, mineralogy and even civics. “Visual instruction is the least tiring for the mind,” declared Emile Deyrolle, “but this education can have good results only if the ideas engraved in the children’s minds are rigorously exact.” The charts start at €12 for a modern one, and go up to €150 for a reproduction antique one.

It’s almost a sacred mission for Deyrolle’s owner. Prince Louis Albert de Broglie, sometimes referred to as the “gardener prince”, is passionate about the natural world, but possibly even more so about the transmission of knowledge, which is why he had bought Deyrolle in the first place.

Taxidermy and tomatoes
Louis Albert de Broglie (b. 1963) was brought up in Paris and educated by Jesuits. He got a degree from the “grande école” ISG (Institut Supérieur de Gestion) and became a banker, working in London and Paris from 1985-1992. He has travelled widely including time spent in India and Latin America. In 1992, he changed direction and bought the Château de la Bourdaisière in the Loire Valley. He opened it as a hotel and began growing hundreds of varieties of tomatoes.

“They’re easy to grow, colourful and tasty and exist in so many different varieties. I love tomatoes, they’re like the sunny days of childhood, happy and carefree.” Fascinated by them, he now cultivates around 700 varieties and has even opened a tomato bar at the chateau, which serves tomato dishes and, of course, freshly squeezed juice. In 1996, the project was formalised, and became the Conservatoire National de la Tomate.
The annual Fête de la Tomate is held over two days in mid-September and offers an extraordinary range of attractions. There are tomatoes for sale, of course, but also around 50 stalls selling seeds, books, tools and equipment plus decorative items and all sorts of products made from tomatoes; jams, chutneys, and even beauty products.

There are also jam and chutney-making competitions, tastings, demonstrations, visits to the conservatory and the microfarm, book signings, and workshops, and a drawing competition for children.

He also grows around 300 different varieties of dahlias and has a collection of 80 varieties of fruit trees. “I wanted to continue researching the natural world, but also transmitting the knowledge about biodiversity and the ecosystem generally to the next generation.”

So when Deyrolle came on the market in 2001, it was a natural fit. “The shop is a unique institution in the world, a passion of course, but also an educational tool.” In 2007, he re-launched the publishing arm under the name “Deyrolle Pour l’Avenir” (DPA) producing charts tackling contemporary issues including sustainable development, climate change, endangered species and renewable energies.

“Deyrolle is a well-established name, but deals with issues in the modern world. Science is my passion, agriculture, ecology, observing and documenting the natural world.” Deyrolle is present all over the world, our charts are distributed everywhere in collaboration with Unesco; Gabon, Nigeria, Spain...”

He is a self-styled defender of the natural world. “I want to preserve the world as we knew it in the past. Destruction of our ecosystem, of our planet, would mean the end of humanity so we have no choice but to fight to preserve it because it’s so important. If we don’t understand the natural world, we understand nothing and cannot understand maths, geology, nothing. And it is our duty to transmit our knowledge and our passion to the next generation.”

Animal print
His new book, A Parisian Cabinet of Curiosities, charts the founding of the shop, and its development over the centuries. Written in old-fashioned, formal, stilted sentences, it perfectly conveys the traditions of a particular school of landed gentleman-scientist, keen on botany, oceanography, gardening and nature generally. The illustrations are perfect too, reminiscent of dried ink, chalk dust and flies buzzing at the tops of the windows.
Reading it is like stepping back fifty years into another, more wondrous, more innocent but now almost lost world. A world in which the privileged aristocracy had the money and leisure to chose the pursuit of natural science over a career in banking. The book conveys all the magic of the shop, which has the same beauty and fascination as curio display in the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco founded by Prince Albert 1, and the “Dead Zoo” in Dublin (aka the National Museum of Ireland) albeit on a smaller scale.

It’s easy to see why the collection has fascinated artists, collectors and scientists through the ages. Much as the current shop is a delicate work of art, the photographs of the burned out wreck; the singed and damaged display cabinets, the tragically blackened lions have a beautiful, haunting quantity reflecting the profound mysteries of life and death, of memory and reflection. 

Woody Allen used the shop in his film Midnight in Paris, staring Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson. Wes Anderson is a fan. Damien Hirst’s 2014 work, Signification (Hope, Immortality and Death in Paris, Now and Then), was created using curiosities from the Deyrolle collection. Works inspired by the inferno that engulfed the shop in 2008 include a ferret within the jaws of a skull (Skull by Jan Fabre), a skull printed with black characters by Charwei Tsai, and Mark Dion’s Burnt Trophies which is made from hunting trophies mounted on charred wood panelling from the store. Arche (Ark) by Huang Yong Ping is a massive installation designed as an allegory of modern society. The animals on board the vessel, due to inhabit the future, are disfigured by fire as they prepare to sail away. Are they perpetual life or are they seeking refuge?

Wandering round the shop, buying a chart or two, possibly even taking a copy of the book home might just give you a taste for more. In which case, Prince Louis Albert has a message for you. “Come to the Château de la Bourdaisière! The gardens and park are open from March to November and have lots to offer. There is a micro-farm with animals to pet, we still grow tomatoes, you can drink the juice. It’s a fantastic place, extraordinary. There’s so much well-being, life... Connexion readers have to experience it!”

The Renaissance chateau is just south of Montlouis-sur-Loire (Indre-et-Loire) and the unpretentious hotel rooms start at €110 a night. The restaurant uses fresh produce from the gardens and guests are welcome to relax in the study. It is designed to be a home from home rather than an anonymous hotel, and feels like staying in the house of a keen gardener: there’s even a shop selling posh gardening equipment in the outbuildings!

A Parisian Cabinet of Curiosities (Flammarion) is out now.

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