French postie’s ideal palace has the X-facteur

A French postman’s stonework story is set to find a new audience, says Samantha David

Published Last updated

The ‘Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval’ (‘Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace’) in Hauterives, Drôme, is arguably the most extraordinary construction in France. A mishmash of turrets, stairways, terraces, balconies, hidden doorways and windows, the entire structure covered in hand-made fantastical sculpture, you need several visits to take it all in.

There are real and imaginary animals, fruit and flowers, huge exotic gods, fairies, foreign scenes and decorative motifs, and there are maxims and mottos everywhere you look. The Facteur had things to say, and he quite literally set them in stone. Hundreds of his thoughts decorate the palace; they are carved from stone, are picked out in pebbles and shells, are daubed on the stone in white paint.

“This is art, this is a dream, this is energy,” he wrote. “Let any man more obstinate than me get to work.”

Born in 1836, Ferdinand Cheval’s mother died when he was 11, and he left school the following year. His father died shortly afterwards leaving him in the care of his maternal uncle. In 1858, at the age of 22, he married Rosalie Revol, and almost simultaneously disappeared for six years, ostensibly to find a job – but there is no record of what happened to him during that period apart from a brief mention of him as an apprentice baker in Valence.

He returned to his wife in Hauterives in 1863, and the following year his first son was born, only to die a year later. A second son was born in 1866 but a year later, Ferdinand Cheval left the village again, this time to become a postman.

When his wife died, he sent his son Cyril to live with relatives. It was only in 1878 that he returned to Hauterives again, as the postman. On his 18km daily rounds, he met his second wife, Claire Richaud and the year after they got married, at the age of 43 he started building.

The story goes that in 1879 he was inspired, by finding a particularly interesting stone on his rounds, to build a fountain and simply never stopped. For 33 years he collected stones on his rounds and used them to build a fantasy. He used picture postcards for inspiration, constructing marvellous foreign wonders he knew he would never see himself, and using them as a monument to express his own philosophy of life.

He retired in 1896 at the age of 60, but continued building and by 1905, people had started to talk about his amazing palace and when an article about it appeared in a national magazine, La Vie Illustrée people suddenly wanted to see what he was doing. Two years later, there were so many visitors that Facteur Cheval had to employ someone to show them round. The palace was finally finished in 1912, when he was 76.

For most people that would be enough. But not for the obstinate postman. Two years later, perhaps because his wife died, or perhaps because he had been told he could not be buried in his palace, he began work on a tomb in Hauterives cemetery, calling it Le Tombeau du silence et du repos sans fin (The Tomb of Silence and Rest without End).

It took 10 years to build, and was in the same extraordinary, richly-decorated style as his palace. He finished it in 1922, just two years before he died at the age of 88.

It is an extraordinary tale of perseverance and creativity in the face of personal tragedy. Facteur Cheval was not lucky when it came to family life. Orphaned as a child, he outlived both his wives and both his children. His daughter Alice, born the same year he started building his palace, died in 1894 when she was 15. Her loss was a bitter blow to her parents.

His son Cyril (from his first marriage) died in 1912, and his second wife died in 1914. Facteur Cheval left his palace to Cyril’s two daughters.

For many years it was almost totally abandoned, people saying that it was just a monument to madness. Many visitors simply came to laugh and scoff at it. But in 1969 it was protected as a historical monument, and in 1983 it was restored.

By 1994 ownership of it had passed into the hands of the local council, who now manage it. Over the years, it has become seen as an outstanding example of ‘art naïf’ and receives thousands of visitors per year. The garden in which it stands has been extended to include a new exhibition space and evening concerts are held in the summer months.

Facteur Cheval’s story has become so well known, that it has been turned into a feature film, ‘Facteur Cheval’ directed by Nils Tavernier, which is coming out this November in France. Whether or not it is well-received, one thing is certain: it will make Facteur Cheval’s palace even better known than it is now.