Lost in France: The Lutyens jewel that nobody wants
Once a meeting place of artists and thinkers, Le Bois des Moutiers is now clearly out of place. John Lichfield reports
John Lichfield has been The Independent's man in Paris since 1997, covering French news. Before that, he was the paper's Foreign Editor and he has also worked in Brussels and Washington. In 1999, he was the UK press Awards Foreign Reporter of the year.
Saturday 01 October 2011
"And what should they know of England who only England know?"
When he wrote that famous line in 1891, Rudyard Kipling was praising trade and empire, exploration and conquest. He might have been thinking of Le Bois des Moutiers, a jewel of British savoir-faire and art de vivre which was built in the same decade to promote peaceful contemplation and global understanding.
Le Bois des Moutiers is a mock-Tudor manor, or overgrown English country cottage with pebble-dash walls, giant chimneys and mullioned windows. It was designed, in his youth, by the most important British architect of the 20th century, Edwin Lutyens. The house, almost unchanged inside and outside for more than a century, has become a cultural time machine.
It still has the furniture designed for the house by Lutyens and built by the William Morris workshop. It still has its Pre-Raphaelite tapestries and charming murals by Robert Anning Bell. The house stands in breathtakingly beautiful grounds, which were laid out by Lutyens and the high priestess of British 19th-century horticulture, Gertrude Jekyll. A broad river of lawns and trees, rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias and hydrangeas flows down to white cliffs and the English Channel. Or rather, La Manche. For these white cliffs face north, not south.
Bois des Moutiers, as its name suggests, stands above the tall, chalk cliffs of upper Normandy, just west of Dieppe. More than 100 canvasses were painted by the impressionist painter Claude Monet on the cliffs nearby. The great British wine and gardening writer Hugh Johnson once described Bois des Moutiers as a "Sussex garden on vacation on the French coast". It might also be described as a scene from fin de siècle 19th-century England which has been miraculously preserved in 21st-century France.
But just how much longer Bois des Moutiers can survive in its original condition is open to doubt. The house and grounds, owned by one family since the beginning, have been on the market, with no takers, for four years. Over the next month, an ambitious plan will be announced to try to preserve the site – which has connections with writers, artists and musicians from Marcel Proust to Virginia Woolf, Joan Miró and Claude Debussy – as a Franco-British cultural centre.
"I cannot yet give all the details but two great artistic institutions in Britain and France are already interested in being involved," said Antoine Bouchayer-Mallet, the great-grandson of the wealthy French couple who commissioned the house from a then obscure British architect in 1898.
"We are hoping to win European funding. Most importantly of all, we are looking for financing from a private buyer or sponsor who would be interested in using Le Bois des Moutiers as what it should be: an embassy for British culture and a site to promote peace and reflection on the future of humanity."
Antoine's great grandfather, Guillaume Mallet (1860-1946), was the son of a wealthy French protestant banking family, a friend of the novelist Marcel Proust and a patron of the arts. His wife, Antoine's great-grandmother, Adélaide was a theosophist, who believed in the brotherhood of humanity and the unity of all religions. The couple turned to Lutyens, then only 29, because of his links with the arts and crafts movement started by William Morris in Britain.
The movement, like the theosophists, preached "harmony" and "wholeness" and warned of the dangers of machine civilisation. Beauty, Morris argued, should go hand in hand with utility and traditional workmanship.
Bois de Moutiers, converted from an older house, became a meeting place for artists and thinkers. Visitors over the next 49 years included most of the cultural avant-garde of the early 20th century. They included writers such as Virginia Woolf, André Gide and Proust; painters such as Miro, Wassily Kandisnki, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian; and composers including Erik Satie and Debussy.
The house was seized by the Germans during the Second World War. The grounds were turned into a minefield as part of Hitler's Atlantic Wall, but the house was not despoiled. After the war, the Mallet family worked tirelessly to restore the grounds which became the first private garden in France to open to the public in 1970. So why is the family selling now?
"Partly, it is the fault of French inheritance law," said Mr Bouchayer-Mallet, 48, referring to the rules that give equal shares to all direct descendants. "The house is now owned by 11 people, three in the third generation of the family and eight in the fourth.
"If we wait much longer, it will be owned by 25 people and it will become impossible to make a coherent plan for its future.
"As it is, we could carry on for a while but very soon we would be forced to find some way of making the house pay for itself. Whatever we did, turning it into a luxury hotel for instance, would inevitably destroy much of the character and beauty which has miraculously survived."
No private buyer has come forward in four crisis-blighted years. The reputed asking price of €10.5m (£9m) may have put off even the super-wealthy. The largest French châteaux do not sell for more than €5m. On the other hand, there are scores of French châteaux; Le Bois des Moutiers is unique.
Mr Bouchayer-Mallet says he is "relieved" that no Russian billionaire has come forward to "build an electric fence and a swimming pool and sell off the original furniture". "If we got a private offer, we might still have to sell," he said.
"But I have been working on a dossier which I hope to present within three weeks. My dream is that Le Bois des Moutiers should become once again a meeting place for thinkers and artists, a centrepiece for exhibitions or festivals, which would show off British culture or explore cultural connections between Britain and France."
The Independent understands that the Mallet family has discussed the house with the Conservatoire du Littoral, which protects the French coastline. The conservatoire has recently started a partnership with the Landmark Trust in Britain, which restores historic buildings and lets them for holidays or weekends. For the time being at least, the Conservatoire and Landmark Trust have decided that between them they cannot afford to take on such a demanding project. The house is extraordinary but, as Mr Bouchayer-Mallet suggests, not really to the taste of the average modern billionaire. There is a vast music room with a 7m (20ft)-tall picture window, playfully designed by Lutyens to resemble a piece of sheet music. Over the door of each bedroom there is a small mural by Robert Anning Bell. There are Lutyens-designed beds, cupboards chairs and even garden benches. The bookshelves have first editions of The Water-Babies and Alice Through The Looking Glass and, yes, early editions of the complete works of Rudyard Kipling.
Lutyens (1869-1944), who went on to design the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the government buildings in New Delhi, was something of a joker. In the main hall at Le Bois des Moutiers, there are two large, matching, mock-medieval doors. One leads to the outside world, the other to a broom cupboard.
The uniqueness of Le Bois des Moutiers is also its problem and may become its tragedy. As a quintessentially British house in France, it cannot expect to attract public funds from either London or Paris in deficit-ridden times. The house was the whim of a rich French couple who loved Britain. To survive in its present condition, it needs the whim, or the vision, of another equally wealthy person.
The World of Lutyens
Queen Mary's dolls' house
After nine years designing monuments and palaces for New Delhi, Lutyens was asked to design an exquisite 5ft-tall abode to house Britain's finest micro-artworks, created by more than 1,500 artists and craftsmen as a gift for King George V's wife. Now owned by the Queen, it is displayed at Windsor Castle.
Erected between 1910 and 1930 for the retail tycoon Julius Drewe, Castle Drogo is, according to historians, the last castle built in England. Located amid the wilds of Dartmoor above the Teign Gorge, this imposing fortress was built almost entirely from granite and is considered one of Lutyens's finest works. Sadly, it is now under threat from water damage.
Great Dixter House
It may not be one of Lutyens's most famous houses, but it is one of the most charming. Commisioned in 1910 to restore the 15th-century manor house at Northiam, near Rye, East Sussex, Lutyens made his mark with such signature touchs as a "crawling window" in the first-floor nursery, which allowed crawling infants to look out into the garden through it.
Any visitor to the Somme battlefields will be familiar with Lutyens's imposing yet touching monument to the 72,195 British and South African soldiers who were never found after the bloodiest battles of the First World War. It bears resemblances to his designs for other memorials, including the Cenotaph at Whitehall and India Gate in New Delhi.
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