Catherine Scotto’s journey to discover the owners of French châteaux listed as heritage sites in locales throughout the country can be described as nothing less than an odyssey. After traveling far and wide, she chose which medieval fortresses she’d visited, from Normandy to Provence and everywhere in between, to feature in her new book French Chateau Style, which was recently published by Prestel. As she made her way from mansion to mansion, she met the decorators, antique dealers, artists, and collectors who had made the decision to rescue the gems. Scotto says the group represents the “epitome of French culture and taste.”
French Chateau Style
Scotto, a journalist and stylist whose clients include Maison Française and Elle Décoration, where she once served as editor-in-chief, chose Marie Pierre Morel to photograph the chosen locales. Specializing in interiors, landscapes, and food, Morel captured the interiors, exteriors, and landscapes with great skill and heart. I’m featuring several of these properties below, presenting them mainly through the book’s author’s eyes, and ending with a manor house in the Les Landes Region transformed by a poet.
But first, we visit Auvergene, where Joseph Achkar and Michel Charrière inhabit the Château de Ravel. “At the beginning of the twenty-first century lightning struck several times.” Scotto tells readers. “The first was in 2014, when Joseph Achkar and Michel Charrière learned that their dream chateau was for sale. The second was a few months later, when the lightning set one of the wings of the building on fire. Four-hundred square meters were destroyed. ‘A rare piece of luck!’ insists Achkar, ‘because the fire revealed one of the most beautiful attributes of Ravel.’ This was Philippe le Bel’s former chamber…”
Scotto explains that Ravel will likely continue to be a construction site into the mists of time, as new mysteries are continuously revealed as layers are peeled away, all under the watchful eye of the Society for the Preservation of Architectural Heritage. As you can see from the exterior attributes of the building in the image above, the Castle was completed in the thirteenth century. Philippe le Hardi, who built it then, bequeathed it to his son Philippe le Bel. It had only three owners before the current residents snapped it off the market.
The Château d’Écrainville, located in Normandy, is owned by a pair of visionaries about whom Scotto says, “Always one step ahead of the rest, Arnold Van Geuns and Clemens Rameckers decided, at the beginning of the new century, to ‘go green,’ long before ‘neo-rural’ became the rage.” Though the Dutch couple told the author they were far from the typical chateau owners, she declares they have slipped into the role with ease. “From the time that they first met in the 1970s in the fashion department of the School of Fine Arts in Arnhem,” she adds, “these two artists, who have collaborated with the biggest names in the fashion industry, have shown that they have an innate sense of the theatrical.”
This is illustrated in the low-lit image above, which is of the music room with ornate paneling depicting several allegories relating to the horrors of war. Large portraits of wounded soldiers festoon the walls, reminiscent of the period during which the Château was transformed into a military hospital. Flanking the fireplace, are plinths holding large glazed pottery vases in the “Solferino” style. Van Geuns and Rameckers have restyled the name of the chateau as Ravage, a pseudonym of their last names. Scotto compares the couple to Napoleon’s architects Percier and Fontaine, as they have created an ornamental style with its own unique language. She describes it as “where Louis XV slums it with the Empire, and where the languid aesthetics of the Pre-Raphaelites flirt with the stern lines of Bauhaus.”
There’s nothing like an anniversary to put the past into perspective: 2023 will be the 1000thanniversary of the famed Mont-Saint-Michel. On the coast a bit further north from the renowned Romanesque Abbey that juts into the English Channel, is Château d’Agon, which is owned by Sabine de Saint-Jorre and Jean-Michel Bourdon. Scotto says of the residence that sits at the hem of the Sienne Estuary, “It is an ideal environment for housing the impressive collection of objects acquired by Sabine, a former antiques dealer, and Jean-Michel, former notary in Granville, who adopts a whimsical approach when it comes to making an inventory.” Saint-Jorre calls the experience of being in it as magical as the watery focal point beyond the windows.
Scotto quotes the couple as saying, “The house was begging to be taken,” which awes them given that once their belongings were in place, each piece felt right at home. The image above is of the centerpiece of this section of the chateau, the Great Gallery of the piano nobile. The long billiard bench upholstered in fake panther skin seems perfectly placed in the narrow space. The walls are hung with valuable canvases that are heirlooms. These include the brightly lit Madonna and Child in the style of Pierre Mignard.
Pierre Almendros and Marc Simonet-Lenglart rescued the Château de Fléchères in the Dombes Region from being destroyed, and set about restoring it, a process that is ongoing. As layers continue to be peeled away, remarkable treasures come to light, like the fanciful frescos by the Italian master Pietro Ricchi shown in the image below. Scotto calls Almendros, who is taking on the renovation of Fléchères while Simonet-Lenglart looks after a second chateau they own about an hour north, “a cultivated, discreet individual.” She illustrates Almendros’s philosophy by quoting Daniel Boulanger as saying, “You make something more beautiful by avoiding the second-rate.” She adds that “Almendros has made it his credo, a kind of moral duty that has increased tenfold his determination to restore the extraordinary Ricchi frescos painted in the early 1630s.”
Quoting Almendros himself, she goes on to say, “The place swept us off our feet and allowed us to surpass ourselves,” he whispers, as he looks at the works being restored. Coming across these rooms decorated by the Florentine artist, one is hard put to understand how the descendants of the distinguished Sève family saw fit to vandalize these masterpieces, covering them with paneling, plaster, and hideous wallpaper.” The room in the image above had been plastered over, hiding the frescos that represent a military parade in honor of Henry IV’s visit to Lyon in 1632.
About the owners of the Château de Marcellus in the Valley of the Garonne, Scotto says, “It took just a few months for Catherine and Samuel Roger to rescue the treasure-trove that is Marcellus from Oblivion. Situated on the banks of the Garonne, life in the chateau flows by at a gentle pace.” She quotes Samuel, a passionate antiques dealer, as saying he would never have embarked on such an adventure without the support of his wife. “For several months, the couple had been looking for a location big enough to install their vast collection of statuary,” the author adds. “The idea of leaving the Paris region in order to live in the South-West had been under consideration for a whole summer; discovering Marcellus decided them.”
As they were strolling through a maze of historical monuments acquired by Roger, a specialist in architectural antiques and garden ornaments, he told Scotto he no longer felt daunted by life in a chateau; then he confessed he had become addicted to his new, unorthodox way of life. The vignette in one corner of the Grand Salon shown above features sculpture that spans from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, as well as a vintage architect’s easel made by Maison Vivenox in Brussels.
Other Châteaux in the book include: Château de Larradé in the Les Landes Region, owned by Jean Mortier; Château de Poncé in the Loir Valley, owned by Marie-Hélène de La Forest Divonne, a gallery owner, and Guy de Malherbe, a painter; Château d’Outrelaise in Swiss Normandy, owned by Jean-Louis Mennesson and Walid Akkad; Château de la Haute Borde in the Loire Valley, owned by the Jacques Barrère family and now in the hands of Céline Barrère; Manoir de la Carllére in the heart of Normandy, owned by fashion artists Peter Copping and Rambert Rigaud; Château de Lascours in the Département du Gard, owned by Alain Challier and Bertrand de Latour; and Château de Digoine in the Burgundy Region, owned by Jean-Louis Remilleux.
Also featured is Le Pourtaou de Jean Rameau in the Les Landes Region, which was once owned by the poet after whom the chateau is named. It is now being passionately overseen by Jacqueline Sarthou, who spent her childhood and summer holidays in the house. She became its owner in 2013. “She occupies one wing and guards with jaundiced eye the remainder of the house, which had not changed an iota since Jean Rameau’s death in 1942, as old postcards attest,” Scotto explains. She adds that the home would likely have been earmarked for destruction had the Monuments Historiques not stepped in. When she inherited the home from her mother’s estate, Sarthou embarked on a meticulous restoration.
Rameau, who was born in 1858, was also a novelist and a member of the Les Hydropathes artistic group. The admirer of Victor Hugo, who shared the great poet’s love of houses, art, and poetry, would proclaim, “My house is nothing more than a heap of dusty old mementoes.” The images of the interiors in the book show quite another truth—that the interiors are gracious, filled with beauty that can only be created by artifacts and artistry at which the French have excelled throughout the ages. Such devotion as is seen in the pages of this book should be lavished on every historical building in the world; unfortunately, this is often not the case. If you want to have a grand tour of critical efforts to rescue important structures, French Chateau Style is definitely for you.
French Chateau Style © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns. The author received a review copy of this book from the publisher but her comments were in no way swayed by this fact and are authentically true.