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The Désert de Retz
Image by Ackteon
Echoing Voices: More Memories of a Country House Snooper
by John Harris
I FOUND THE teaching methods of the Ecole du Louvre dispiriting. Professors declaimed lectures from a rostrum to a large audience. There was no dialogue. So I ceased to attend. It was six months before the authorities realized I was occupying student accommodation (or, rather, a student slum), and enjoying student medical attention, but had disappeared from the halls of the Ecole. I had hit upon an alternative means of acquiring an education in architecture and the decorative arts (I believe may still be available). I refer to those groups who meet a guide, usually outside a designated Metro station, with whom to explore an area of Paris in detail for a fee of a few francs. One afternoon it might be ‘Les hôtels du Marais’ or ‘Les hôtels du rue de Varennes’, another ‘La Sainte Chapelle’, or ‘La Chambre des Députés’, or an examination of ‘Les ameublements de Louis Seize au Musée des Arts Décoratifs’. Most of my companions on these perambulations of artistic discovery were more or less genteel, I suppose the equivalent of our present-day NADFAS ladies, but one or two were decidedly aristocratic: a duchesse here, a comtesse there. At first they regarded askance the young Englishman with his fumbling, atrocious French, but later, when I had been a regular for a few months, I was accepted, and even invited to what they called the apres-tlre, which meant cream cakes!
We also made excursions in the environs of Paris. Several were to examine what survived of wholly or partially demolished royal chateaux: Sceaux, Saint-Cloud, Louveciennes. One after- noon we walked the ghostly outlines of the lost gardens and layout of Louis XIV’s Marly le Roi, whose ruined chateau and pavilions had been finally demolished in 1816. On the way there our coach followed green roads through the degraded forest of Marly (this was long before the beastly AIJ autoroute cut its devastating swathe of environmental pollution through it).
We were driving along a ride somewhere near the small village of Retz when our guide, Madame Piçon, pointed out the Ferme de Retz by the roadside. ‘We’re near M. Racine de Monville’s famous Desert de Retz,’ she said -I knew of this eighteenth- century ornamental garden by reputation -adding a little bitterly that the owner, Monsieur Albert Passy, was ‘très difficile’, as well as ‘agressif’, and always refused her pleas to visit. During our drive back to Paris Madame Piçon told us all about the scandal of the Desert, how there appeared to be no way of compelling the owner to maintain the garden’s historic monuments. It was all too tantalizing: I was determined to see the Desert, denied to so many.
At the library of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs I was able to look at Georges-Louis Le Rouge’s Jardins anglo-chinois a la mode in its thirteenth cahier of 1785. The engraved views whetted my appetite. I could scarcely believe that the Broken Column House and the Maison Chinoise might have survived. I decided my approach would be more circuitous and secret than Madame Piçon’s: I would avoid the Ferme de Retz, and the’ agressif’ M. Passy. Two buses took me to the village of St Nom on the edge of the Foret de Marly. I walked a mile or so along a lane and then struck off into forest rides. I have a fair sense of direction, but it was serendipity that enabled me to find the Desert on my first cast, on the ride out of the forest leading to what is known as the Grotto Entrance. On a wayside tree was a large wooden sign: ‘PRIVE -DEFENSE D’ENTRER’. I noted with relief that it was very weather-worn.
At this juncture I must jump a little ahead in time to recall a conversation I had with Geoffrey Houghton Brown in 1954. He asked whether I had ever seen the Desert de Retz and I was able to reply, ‘Why, yes,’ and give him an account, as I give it now, of my experience. Geoffrey agreed that there was no other surviving ‘exotic’ garden like the Desert; indeed, as a collector of country houses and their appurtenances, he wanted to buy it. He had gone there with John Fowler and Ian McCallum in the spring of 1950, following the publication in November 1949 of an article by Osvald Siren in the Architectural Review, where Ian was an editor. Siren’s article caused a sensation in London and few now remember how many English aficionados made for the Desert as a result of it -David Vicary, Jonathan Vickers, David Styles, Felix Harbord. It was essentially a foretaste of Siren’s China and the Gardens of Europe of the Eighteenth Century that came out the following year, a book I did not discover until 1959~ I should also add that although the Desert had been the subject of much publicity in Paris when it was listed in 1941 as a Monument Historique classé, it went into limbo during the war years and after, unprotected from decay. Indeed, it was only in 1966, thanks to Andre Malraux’s Loi Malraux ‘Concerning Historic Monuments’, a legislative means of saving such monuments, that it received an umbrella of protection -but by then the Maison Chinoise had gone. I have never been able to discover exactly when.
Mature reflection has led me to the view that M. de Monville’s garden buildings and ornaments were overcrowded, that the Desert de Retz lacked the expansive layout and properly designed landscape setting of, for example, Painshill- also photographed by Siren for his book -and that this was typical of many French ‘Picturesque’ gardens. At the time, however, the Desert seemed to many the ne plus ultra of an abandoned garden.
In its heyday the Grotto Entrance of the Desert must have been spectacular. Just two blocks survived of this vast rusticated, almost megalithic stone portal, taken from Piranesi’s Carceri. The wooden door was still there, but the grotto behind it was only a pile of stones and tufa. It is difficult now to remember exactly what the Desert was like when I first saw it. Today M. de Monville’s gardens is as well documented as any in France – although vigorous dispute still rages as to whether Hubert Robert contributed to its making. I contest this: the garden bears all the hallmarks of Racine de Monville as its amateur designer. As its present owner and saviour M. Choppin de Janvry has shown, however, de Monville did have an executant in François Barbier, a garden architect.
In 1952 all demarcations had been obliterated by brambles, and nearly all the buildings were covered with creepers and surface ivy. The first to catch my eye from the entrance, to my left, was the Pyramid (called by Le Rouge La Glacière), looking like nothing more than a pile of ivied stones. The apprehensive silence of trespass lay heavy upon me: I was distracted from the Ruined Gothic Church beyond by a glimpse of the Broken Column House through the tracery outline of a vast linden tree. I almost burst with glee. Andre Breton and his Surrealists were fascinated by this edifice, which functioned as a proper house, furnished in a simplified Louis Seize style; they saw the bizarrerie in it, as they did in the ‘Palais Ideal’ of the Postman Cheval at Hauterives, that strange temple to Nature in the Drôme.
The door to the Column House was broken down, the vestibule derelict. Fallen plaster, splintered wood battens, lumps of stonework, dusty bricks formed piles to be climbed over to get to the spiral stair, which at first glance appeared to defy ascent, not so much from its precarious condition as because of the rubbish blocking the way and the nursery of cats that scattered at my approach. Much of the upstairs decor had survived, however. The reception salons were on the third floor, for the view across the gardens through oval windows, and here, as Siren had discovered, the pretty Louis Seize chimney-pieces were still intact. There were also the unpleasantnesses all too familiar to me from my explorations of empty English country houses: broken glass bottles, human excrement, paper rubbish -all the evidences of temporary and alien refuge. And then, framed by an oval window, I spied the roof of the Maison Chinoise. I shivered with anticipation and went scurrying down the stair, afraid I might be apprehended by the’ agressif’ farmer Passy before I had had a proper look at this most famous of all European Chinese houses.
Recent studies seem to have concluded the date of the Maison Chinoise to be the early 1 780s, following the construction of the l3roken Column House between 1781 and 1782, rather than the earlier date of 1778-9 traditionally assigned to it. Having lately written about the Drottningholm China House, built in 1763, I am just now surfeited with European chinoiserie, but neither this nor half a century as an architectural historian can dim the memory of the profound emotion of my first encounter with a chinoiserie building. There it stood, in terrible and terminal decay, yet somehow electrifying. Of course I was too ignorant to recognize it for what it was, a Western European interpretation of Chinese originals, the invention of the Physiocrat Racine de Monville; only later did I analyse it and compare it with the more authentic Chinese houses in Sir William Chambers’s Designs of Chinese Buildings (1757).
Pushing upon a varnished door, I realized why Siren had published no photographs of the interior. All was darkness: the window shutters had been nailed up. I don’t know whether he ever ventured upstairs; I did. The door leading off the stairs opened with a hefty push to reveal a well-lit room panelled in acajou wood, recognizably a library. A photograph taken about 1900 survives, clearly showing the skilful and graceful harmonization of Chinese and Louis Seize elements. A pantry still retained its beautiful beaten-copper sink, and in the ground-floor bedroom there were scraps of an orange-patterned silk on the walls. But something I saw, and Siren did not, was particularly exciting: half a dozen or more rectangular panels stacked against the wall, painted and varnished with green and brownish chinoiserie subjects. No doubt when the Maison Chinoise vanished they disappeared into the maw of an antiquaire.
Then came the heart-stopping moment. Still in the upper salon, I heard crunching footsteps and barking dogs. I furtively peered from a window, to see an elderly, rough-looking man with a gun under his arm, accompanied by two largish dogs with pointed snouts, running about in circles, sniffing excitedly. They went into the Broken Column House, came out, then circled it. As they approached the Maison Chinoise I withdrew into the far corner of the room, petrified by the thought of canine assault, ill-wrought excuses in bad French whizzing through my mind. I heard noises from below, then a step on the stair. ..but no more. Amazingly, it seemed they were not following my scent. A command to the dogs rang out, crunching footsteps faded away, silence descended. I must wait, I knew, so I curled up in a corner, and until dusk approached amused myself with day-dreams in which I took down de Monville’s books from the shelves, imagined him discussing with M. Barbier his design for the Chinese House. He lived in the Broken Column House, I thought, and used the ground-floor bedroom of the Maison Chinoise for amorous pleasures. It all seemed right and proper.
When I thought it was safe to leave I paused downstairs to cast a covetous glance at the painted panels, then left the way I had come. I have been unable to this day to reconstruct my return to the rue des Cendriers near Père Lachaise. It certainly involved a long walk with no hitch-hikes, and no buses until Porte d’ Auteuil.
I returned to the Desert in the 1980s with Monique Mosser and Phyllis Lambert, as guests of Choppin de Janvry. He could never believe I had been there so long before him -nor I think did he believe the fervour with which we of perfidious Albion had taken the Desert to our hearts in the late 1940s. His saving of the Desert is an epic in the history of garden conservation, of course. But I will permit myself the same naughty note of dissent I expressed about Painshill in No Voice from the Hall: like Painshill, the Desert has, to my mind, been saved at the expense of the romance of decay and ruin. Andre Breton would not like it today -but then, we can’t have our cake and eat it, can we?
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