Fiona Lewis has lived a glamorous life. She was part of the swinging 60’s in Paris and London, with friends including Oliver Reed, Cary Grant and Orson Welles and she has acted in films made by Roman Polanski and Ken Russell. She has lived in California for several years married to film producer, Art Linson.
In recent years though, it is a house she has bought and renovated in France, which has been the centre of her life and saved her from depression:
“I was in my late fifties and scared of getting old. I had no children. My career was over and past glories fade fast. Is this it? I thought to myself. I had spent a lot of time in France when I was young, and I had always had this dream of owning a house in France, but I had pushed it to the back of my mind as I thought it would be impossible.
“Then one day in 2004, I visited a decorator friend, Kathryn Ireland and she took me to see Château de la Vinouse near Caussade. It was a wreck but I immediately knew I wanted to buy it. Restoring the house was a way to re-invent myself. It made me live in the present and that is why the house was good for me. Doing practical things. You have to learn to live in the present and look to the future.”
The house is a maison de maître, a manor house built on the remains of a chateau that had been burnt to the ground during the French Revolution. When she first saw it, the house was falling to pieces, with water running down the walls, no plumbing and no electricity to speak of. What passed for the kitchen contained a 1950’s modular sink and an odd three-legged tin tub, stuck in a corner.
Several years later, after experiences with French builders that many would recognise, the house is finished. During the process, her husband, who is a city man through and through and who was highly sceptical of the project, wondered why it was taking so long: “Because we’re in France.” she would say. “Because the workmen leave every day for a two-and-a-half hour lunch break. Because, afterward, they often show up drunk, or not at all. Particularly on Saints days or on Friday afternoon where they may stop off for a pétanque tournament.” Her builder, Mr Bruni, would tell her: “We work to live. We don’t live to work.”
To escape frustration, Fiona Lewis would tour the flea markets and discover treasures to furnish her new house. She wanted it to be a kind of fantasy: “The idea was to create a sort of ruined chateau look, not too ruined, but lived in, with beautiful faded fabrics. My husband says it is like a theatre set.”
She particularly enjoyed the Sunday morning flea market at Caussade: “I spent all my time going to brocantes and bought everything from forks, old patterned plates, to wardrobes. Large Louis Philippe wardrobes were relatively cheap then as everyone wanted the carved Provençal ones which were still very expensive.”
Her first find was, indeed, an immense, polished walnut wardrobe, two-and-a-half metres high. She remembers the purchase in her blog, fionasfrenchchateau.com.
She describes how she tried to feign disinterest, trying to pass as the seasoned bargainer. “But from his expression I could tell he saw the excited novice, the tourist who has fallen in love. “How much?”I asked. “Well it’s Louis Philippe,” he said. “But the real one.” Le vrai! he adds, raising a finger for emphasis. I had no idea what he meant. Was there a fake one? And if so, what period for furniture was that? I reminded myself to look up the kings of France.”
King Louis Philippe was in fact the last monarch to rule France, from 1830-1848, and the furniture from that period is still popular today. It was a time when buying furniture was no longer confined to royalty and the aristocracy. There was a move away from highly decorated pieces to furniture with simpler, rounder lines and with very little ornamentation. At that period, every bedroom began to have its armoire.
To add to her bedroom look, Fiona Lewis made her own bed hangings. “It took forever”, she said, “because I didn’t know what I was doing. I made patterns, taking measurements from the old mahogany ciel de lits I had bought in the flea markets there. I copied old designs from French beds, then bought silk taffeta in downtown LA very cheaply, cut out shapes, backed them, and attached them with Velcro when I went back.”
However, she did not find any beds she liked in France and so she had these, plus sheets, towels and a sofa shipped over from LA and benefitted from the fact that if you are moving to France from the USA, the first container is not customs taxed.
For her bathroom, she had to work hard to persuade her builder that a bath in the centre of the room was a good idea. She said he obviously thought that the notion of converting an oversize bedroom with a marble fireplace into an area used solely to wash oneself was a mad Hollywood idea. He relented but the other idea, to hang an old chandelier over the bathtub never materialised. “But you will be electrocuted, Madame!” the builder said. The bathtub is, however, in the middle of the room and on one wall is another of her finds, an 1850 marble lined coiffeuse on wheels which she bought for €250.
Her dining room is full of treasures from her flea market forages. On one occasion she bought silver spoons and forks, ten of each for €40, then two chairs with rush seats for €35. They were also sold as Louis Philippe, though she says there is no way of knowing if they are authentic or not. The wide poplar floorboards were hidden under lurid green linoleum on top of an inch of cement and she spent weeks chipping the old floor away.
She says she still continues to look for finds for her fairytale interior.” I still have one room to go and I am still making cushions for it from remnants. I look on websites all the time for old paintings that aren’t too expensive, and that are relatively witty – more difficult than anything to find for a price.”
After all her hard work she was rewarded with a visit by her husband from Los Angeles: “You were right to drag me here”, he said “The house is beautiful. You have done an incredible job.”
Buy the book
You can read all about Fiona’s restoration of Château de la Vinouse (above) and her life as an actor and model in her very honest memoir: Mistakes Were Made (Some in French), published by Regan Arts, £19.99
Get the look
Scour brocantes for antique chic finds or hit the French high street or online retailers for faux-vieux purchases. Prices and availability correct at time of going to press.
Etsy is a useful online resource for vintage items. This 1940s soup tureen from the - Ceranord - St Amand - in Houlgate costs €40 plus postage. The site has lots more for sale.
Dining in comfort
Braided rattan (rotin tressé) dining room chairs are on trend at the moment. This white example is both modern and timeless and would look equally at home on the terrace or balcony. €226 from www.pieceavivre.com
Less bold than lime or turquoise, mint coloured cushions lend a certain countrified elegance to a plain beige sofa or armchair. Vivaraise Mineth, from La Redoute: €32.90.