Mary Mallet

Châtelaine of the Edwin Lutyens/Gertrude Jekyll domain at Le Bois des Moutiers
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mary de Luze: born Limoges, France 12 December 1905; married 1930 André Mallet (died 1964; one son, two daughters); died Varengeville-sur-Mer, France 30 March 2004.

Mary Mallet was the grande dame who for 40 years tirelessly presided over Le Bois des Moutiers, the house at Varengeville-sur-Mer, near Dieppe, transformed by the young Edwin Lutyens for her father-in-law Guillaume Mallet.

One of Lutyens's most interesting early essays in the Arts and Crafts style, it was completed in 1898. Guillaume Mallet, of a Protestant banking family, and a friend of Marcel Proust, subsequently engaged Lutyens to design two other houses in Varengeville, though only one - to a "butterfly" plan - was actually constructed, and a mansion in the South of France near Mougins. Mallet also brought him the commission for the official British Pavilion at the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition. But, as theosophists, the Mallets introduced their odd religion to Lutyens's wife Lady Emily, which created ructions in their marital harmony.

Le Bois des Moutiers stands high up overlooking the English Channel, with vertiginous views through its wooded park down to the sea. Close to the house is a series of intimate walled gardens for which Gertrude Jekyll, Lutyens's mentor, provided planting schemes.

Varengeville is a magical, bosky place which attracted the merchant prince Jehan Ango to build a Renaissance manor which is still there - it was briefly a hotel in the 1920s in which the Surrealists André Breton and Louis Aragon stayed. In the 19th century came Corot then Isabey, who resided with his very much younger wife, followed by Claude Monet who painted the parish church, thrillingly sited on the very edge of the chalk cliffs with an extraordinary panorama of the coast, seemingly poised to tumble into the sea.

Its churchyard contains the faintly erotic bronze tomb of the composer Albert Roussel and that of Georges Braque adorned with a bird-in-flight mosaic of his own design. Within the church is Braque's beautiful stained-glass window in vivid blue hues: The Tree of Jesse. Braque built a house in the village to which he came every summer until his death in 1963. In the 1930s the stream of visitors included Picasso, Léger, Derain, Giacometti, Le Corbusier, Kandinsky, Jean Renoir, Alexander Calder, John and Myfanwy Piper, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. Miró had a studio there until he fled to Spain on the last train out in 1940.

Throughout the turbulent events of the 20th century, Le Bois des Moutiers survived in the hands of the Mallet family. Mary Mallet, born Mary de Luze, of a French father, Henri de Luze of Bordeaux, and an American mother, Leonie Haviland, was born in 1905 in Limoges. Her American great-grandfather David Haviland (of French descent) established a porcelain manufactory in 1864 in this city long renowned for its ceramic production, and was succeeded there by his son Theodore.

Mary married André Mallet in 1930 in Limoges, but it was not until after the Second World War when, on the death of Guillaume in 1946, André inherited and came to Varengeville to take possession of a house spoilt by German occupation that Mary came into her own. André died in 1964 and initially Mary came regularly from Paris to supervise works, moving fully into the house with her three children in 1973.

Then began the great adventure of restoring the 12-hectare park with the particularity of its acid sub-soil, unusual in the region, which made possible the planting of certain rare species from far and wide in the world. Inheriting her father-in-law's passion for planting, although self-taught, Mary Mallet went beyond mere restoration to her very personal and energetic creation of what has become one of the most visited gardens in France. (It was opened to the public in 1970.)

Whenever one arrived, the elegantly dressed Mary always seemed to be there to greet, ever welcoming and friendly, but her distinguished air left no one in any doubt that she was the châtelaine and in full charge of her domain. In her own circles she was remembered for her regular telephone calls and frequent letters.

At the centenary in 1998 of the rebuilding of Le Bois des Moutiers, Mary Mallet, surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, stood, despite her great age, throughout the lengthy speeches. The future of Le Bois des Moutiers is assured by the creation of an association directed by Mary's grandson Antoine Mallet.

Michael Barker