Saturday, October 13, 2007

Still life at the Château de Bogard

I approach Bogard down the small country road that runs parallel to the great wide grassy avenue leading from the main gates. The avenue still creates a beautiful vista down to the house, but is mostly used as pasture. The peaceful grazing cattle enhance the arcadian pastoral vision, rather than detracting from it, especially if, like me, you prefer your grandeur faded.

The fishing lake in the parkland is in use, it is a rather dreamy, reedy mere.

I pass the long curve of railings,

and pull into the wooded car park. Bogard is rich in trees, not only oaks, chestnuts and poplars, but more unusual species like aspens, a great stand of hornbeam, and a stately copper beech on the front lawn, which I love; they are much less frequent here than in Britain.

I hop across the rutted secondary gateway, and approach around the side, watched by some guardians of the place.

"Child Roland to the dark tower came..."

I don't in general do much hobnobbing with château dwelling folk. Their lives are a closed book to me. We spent one holiday before we came here to live, meandering down the Loire and its tributaries, and didn't enter a single chateau, but looked at them from the outside a little and moved on. It wasn't only the high entrance fees, or the disinclination to rub shoulders with so many coach parties, but a fear of being overwhelmed and stifled by their grandeur, the prospect of lugubrious and rather hostile rooms full of gilding and curlicues, a sense of alienation, though I liked the story of how they smuggled the Resistance members across the river down the colonnades and corridors of Chenonceaux. I have visited lesser known country châteaux occasionally, and felt a sensation as I approached them across their vast empty forecourts of something akin to true agoraphobia ( I also felt it in the approach to the Australian Parliament in Canberra), of wanting to run and hide or slink to the edges of the space and approach in a roundabout way, as if the building is making me feel unwelcome, bidding me to shrink and skulk in its presence. Inside I have felt oppressed then depressed by the atmosphere, found them lifeless and uninteresting.

Whatever I may think of the landed upper classes in Britain, be they Norman blood going back to the Conquest, the scions of 19th century industrialists, or even modern millionaires, they are somehow a known quantity. Their names and titles pepper the narrative of our national life, past and present, their houses and grounds, roped and guided, the gardens delightful, the parks turned into funfairs and zoos, are a staple of the traditional British summer holiday. Though many grandiose stately piles left me cold, I enjoyed the parks and the animals, the monuments to climb, and often the impressive scale of the places, in a country where cosy often verges on pokey. And I've pleasant memories of smaller lesser known country houses; once on a rainy afternoon as a child with my parents, a very courteous welcoming old fellow gave us, the only visitors, a personal tour, invited me to play an 18th century piano, said he vaguely remembered Florence Nightingale's sister from when he was a child. He was Sir Somebody-or-other, I don't know if I was unduly impressed by this even then, but I was by his general kindness, the lack of side about him, his listening to my chatting about the falcons I'd seen on the way there ( I thought they were peregrines at the time, on reflection they were probably hobbies ); another time when I was older, I cycled down a long lane in the Somerset levels, at the end of which was a pretty hamstone country house. A couple of Americans turned up at the same time, and the inhabitants, I don't know who they were, said they were just finishing their lunch, but please have a wander round the garden and they'd show us round shortly, which they did, taking perhaps a couple of quid off us for the service. The place was very evidently their home, as well as a bit of heritage.

But here my impression is that the château people are a world apart, aloof, closed. Some of this may be my own ignorance; ultimately, however interested an observer I am, or how much I seek to inform and educate myself, however European I try to make myself and or how distanced I inevitably become from my roots, this is not my country or my culture, I don't have that inculcated understanding of how things work and have worked, the narrative of national life will always have elements lost in translation. But I don't think it is only that; French friends concur about the château dwellers; they marry their sons and daughters to one another, it's said, they insist on using the vous form even between long-married couples, sundry things are alleged about their difference from the usual, their haughtiness. (Not that this enclosed, consolidating, defensive exclusivity here is unique to them...) Probably something to do with the Revolution, most things are. Nancy Mitford said something about the key to the strength and survival of the English aristocracy being its adaptability, and how the French is less so, more rigid and closed, though I'm not certain of the reliability of her analysis any more than my own.

I enter by the back door, and climb the ellipsoid spiral staircase. The staircases here are the stuff of my uncomfortable dreams. This one slopes inward towards its well, that small tug of off-balancing gravity gives a feeling of being insidiously sucked into a vortex. In the old part of the building, a door that looks like little more than a cupboard gives onto an ancient, crumbling tight spiral stairway in a tower, without windows or handrope. As well as dreams of undiscovered rooms - quite frequent appparently - and dangerous and collapsing upper storeys, I also have them about hidden and additional secret staircases, which are very much like that.

"His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum,I smell the blood of a British man."

I find my British man; he is relaxed but intent, and clearly happy, in a room full of mostly French chat, the light coming over his left shoulder, an arrangement of fruit and old-fashioned kitchen vessels beside him, an easel before. Bogard, in fact, contains no menace, and is becoming a warm and friendly place to us, confounding my preconceptions. It is the home of three charming, welcoming, if somewhat enigmatic and, puzzlingly, single men, each of whom occupies an appartment on each of the floors of the building, where they seem to live a very agreeable bachelor existence, paying each other visits for meals and coffee. Two are brothers, the sons of the family who have held the place since some time in the 19th century, the third is Jos Van De Ven, the Dutch painter.

The final burst of Tom's birthday month celebrations - he really must stop enjoying himself soon - has been a two week painting course in the afternoons with Jos, painting still life using the techniques of the 17th century Dutch painters, only in order to complete a painting in that time you use an alkyd medium called Liquin which dries quickly rather than linseed oil. He has enjoyed it enormously.

I accept a cup of tea, hunker down among the easels and spy, on Jos at work (above)

and some of the results of it. Then I take up the suggestion to spend the rest of the time until school's out taking a walk around the grounds with the camera.

Bogard, and in the interests of information I supply a straight-on front elevation postcard-type shot of the kind I don't usually bother with, is mostly 18th century, except the right hand end with the square tower, which is 16th. It was a Breton parliamentarian family's country house, one of several fine ones of the period in the vicinity of Quessoy, whose heydey was the period leading up to the Revolution. One of the reasons the people of Brittany were such staunch counter-revolutionaries was that the centralising of the state threatened the significant and popular local power base of the Rennes parliament. Our friend Jean-Jacques says of the old Breton nobility " They were close to the people, sometimes quite poor. The houses are rather manoirs than châteaux, often they were simply farms which grew bigger." Their power was local, he told me, their attendance at the Parliament occasional.

The gardens and grounds at Bogard were designed to express ideas drawn from the Enlightenment and Freemasonry, with grids and radials and other formal elements symbolising reason and intellect and presumably the masculine principle, and sinuous, curving paths and an enormous egg-shaped lawn area to represent the emotions, the heart, the feminine. (Masonic and esoteric motifs and symbols can be found inside the building too, inlaid in floors and carved into mantels and panels .) Over-simple? Doubtless, and probably over-ambitious too; one has the sense that the design, on a very grand scale, was drawn and laid out not quite ever fully realised. However I don't know enough to say more about its history. Perhaps it has simply faded into a charming but ghostly vestige of what it was, the radial paths simply mown tracks in a space of meadow weediness, the egg-shaped park fenced into a horse paddock.

A 19th standard issue if deluxe model cast iron calvary cross embellishes the view of the old tower.

But perhaps the friendliest, most interesting part of the place is the old stable block, which forms a square with the orangery. The Brothers and Jos are developing this as a venue for music and art events, wedding receptions, charity functions.

Inside, Jos has rather spread his activities. The silvery light filters through cobwebs and climbing plants, through old glass and oval windows in thick granite walls.

Outside, a warm corner wall shelters an abundance of pears, mixed up with other growth of this and that.

I find a motley backyard with an outbuilding behind it, the kind of place I like. Old terracotta ridge tiles, a flaking picket fence, homeless potted plants, a reclusive canna lily, old window frames and elder bushes, and oddly, a satellite dish? Out of place perhaps on the main building, tucked away here.

We went to a jolly party in the orangery last night; an Anglo-French gathering with an exhibition of paintings, including Tom's. It was remarkably well-attended. I first met Jos in April when they had a garden open day, and another exhibition of his students' work, and one of the Brothers gave a short but scholarly lecture on the garden's history and themes. As boys, they had found old plans and documents while playing in outbuildings, which had started him on his quest to learn more about it. The events are sporadic but always genial. " A cultural centre..." Jos described it as last night, "almost.". I laughed "Why almost?"
But I think perhaps it is Bogard's fate to be outstripped by its own dreams of itself, which doesn't mean the reality, in its faded, or not quite realised state, is not a very lovely thing.

Still life with blue coffee pot by Tom Kempton, (school of Jos Van De Ven!) - best reproduction we could get in the conditions.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating and beautiful tour, once again, Lucy! Love the gardens and the old building. I can see ithis place as a cultural centre, especially with the resident artist, and with Tom there too! Lovely painting, Tom! Another talent revealed.

Sheila said...

Oh, Lucy, I don't know if your blog is good for me or not! I'm afraid it makes me aware that envy is still a force to be reckoned with inside myself. Certainly it makes life in Memphis seem rather, um, ugly and boring.

With that, I'm off to the Dixon Gardens, which are truly beautiful and are less than a mile from my house. I must find the beauty that is here, no?

The painting is lovely. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful place and painting :-)

Lee said...

Lovely. Thank you.

You have a wonderful eye for composition.

herhimnbryn said...

Your images are like paintings in this post L.

Thankyou for the 'tour'.

Lucas said...

A visit to the Chateau Bogard through your eyes has become a mysterious adventure. The mood reminds me of Fournier.
I like the two stone guardians followed by what appears to be a real guardian.

Unknown said...

I love Tom's painting and especially the perspective of the enamel pan on the right - difficult. Heidi and I both thought of Vermeer. Congratulations to you both.

Fire Bird said...

Impressive post, impressive painting. Yes, something of Le Grand Meaulnes hereabouts...

Lesley said...

Have you read "L'Elégance de l'Hérisson" by Muriel Barbery? The writing is sublime and just this morning I reached passage in praise of still life. Here are the last two sentences : "Dans la scène muette, sans vie ni mouvement, s'incarne un temps excepté de projets, une perfection arrachée à la durée et à sa lasse avidité — un plaisir sans désir, une existence sans durée, une beauté sans volonté.
Car l'Art, c'est l'émotion sans le désir"

Lucy said...

Thanks all!
ML - Tom says you're his friend!
Sheila - the urge to make beautiful gardens is universal; enjoy! But being lucky enough to live in quite a beautiful place is not everything. Beauty in the human spirit, courage, compassion, finding faith and grace to transform your reality into something inwardly beautiful, as you do, is perhaps the most important thing.
rr - thank you, :~)
Lee and Hhb - thank you, I spend quite a bit of time editing, and of course took far more photos I haven't shown.
Lucas - yes I did think about Meaulnes(and hence about you), though the air of melancholy is not so strong. Before living here I wondered how the domain could have been Lost so easily, other than as a fictional device, a symbol. Now I see, and especially in an area like the Berry, how remote things can be here, and how local and limited people's knowledge must have been.
Plutarch - praise appreciated from whence it comes! Jos does teach the glazing techniques and style from Vermeer's time, which is a bit unusual now, only with the convenience of some modern media.
TG - thank you dear!
Lesley - that does sound lovely. It's time I read a book in French again, though it's a bit of a slow process for me, it gets easier as I go along. I'll look for it.

leslee said...

Wonderful. Thanks for the vicarious tour. I love Tom's painting (an excellent end for the post).

Pam said...

Oh, wow. I'm now in love with Tom! That painting is really beautiful. I do love paintings that look like things instead of black blobs on a white canvas (or whatever).

As my daughter's friend Anna once said in an expensive dress shop: "Want! Need!". (I actually mean the painting, not Tom himself - that would be a bit forward of me... although he does look very nice, and a man who paints like that would never go amiss...)

Lucy said...

Thanks girls!
His head is swelling most terribly,it'll have to stop!
Isabelle, well he does have his uses...We could do a Wife Swap type of thing and I could come and look after Mr Life and the kitties!

meggie said...

Oh what a wonderful tour! I enjoyed every word & vision of it all.
I do really admire that wonderful painting. Tom is very talented.

apprentice said...

Fantastic post Lucy. I loved your bit about the British aristos. I must say most I've met have been without side and happy to share their wonderful surroundings.

The photographs are wonderful as ever and the painting is terrific. I love the light on the coffee pot in particular. I've a great fondness for enamel ware.

Anonymous said...

I came back when I had more time for the tour. It's very appealing, especially as you get more nook-and-crannyish. You and Tom appear to have such a satisfying life, pursuing the love of beauty and true things. Confetti to Tom!

Unknown said...

I just stumbled upon your blog...and was so enchanted I decided to stay! This is a rarity for with internet searches it seems impossible not to stumble into someone's blog...but yours is one worth reading! I loved the tour and your story telling abiliities. I am from western New York and it is a rarity to see such beauty around here, so I have a great appreciation for it when it comes along.