A French chateau Picasso fell for

A French chateau Picasso fell for

A French chateau Picasso fell for

Elisabeth Higonnet Dugua describes how a chateau in France, that has Picasso’s indelible mark, was revived.

You may not even notice it behind plane trees, cypresses and cork oaks, driving along the Departementale 981 from Uzes to the Pont duGard, past the village of Argilliers, in southern France. Doric columns and white oleander trees line the drive leading to a perfectly proportioned three-storey mansion of sand-coloured stone, with tall French windows flanked by pale blue shutters. Like the old Provencal houses, the chateau faces south, its back to the Mistral wind. On the ground floor, a peristyle winding along the front facade and around the east and west sides supports a terrace. A second balustrade runs around the cornice of the roof, echoing the one below. No wonder the mother of the current owner succumbed to its magnetic charm. Picasso had fallen in love with the property before her, but failed to persuade the British art critic Douglas Cooper, who owned it at the time, to sell. The artist did, however, leave an indelible mark in the form of five sculpted murals now listed on the register of protected monuments by the French state.

The estate, known as the Chateau de Castille, is on the market with Sotheby’s International Realty for 8.9 million euros, or $9.9 million. The property, 29 km from Nimes, is a three-hour TGV train ride from Paris, while Montpellier/Mediterranee
international airport is an hour away by car.

Built on the 13th century foundations of a fortress, the chateau was entirely remodelled by Gabriel Joseph de Froment, Baron of Castille, who was born in Uzes in 1747. He gave it its soul and its ubiquitous columns, which would become his trademark; this innocent mania, contracted during a trip to Italy, earned him affectionate teasing from his friends, who
nicknamed the home the chateau with a thousand columns.

A true son of The Enlightenment, the baron was nonetheless arrested during The Terror. Spared by the timely downfall of Robespierre and the end of The Terror, in 1794, the Baron was released and welcomed with open arms by the villagers, who paid back the rent owed during his imprisonment. Gabriel De Froment devoted himself to charitable endeavors: His construction works, with yet more columns, created employment and alleviated the community’s suffering through periods of scarcity and hardship.

Tales of deterioration

After Gabriel de Froment’s death, in 1826, the estate entered a long period of decline. Shortage of staff, unscrupulous owners who succeeded the family in 1924, greed and time took their toll on the chateau and its park. In 1929, an administrator of the Sauvegarde de l’Art Francais (Preservation of French Art), arguing for desperately needed financial support, wrote to the Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts that recently relocated farmers’ livestock had made a home for themselves in the castle (“there are rabbits in the boudoir and cows in the main salon”).

In 1950, Douglas Cooper, the art historian and collector — and friend to Paul Klee, Nicolas de Staël, Picasso, Georges Braque and other members of the European art scene — bought Castille, giving the castle new life. In Barcelona, Cooper had admired Picasso’s drawings engraved in concrete by Carl Nesjar at the Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos using the Betograve technique. During a visit to Castille, Picasso had exclaimed “Give me a wall!” on which he would design such a work of art. Thus five drawings by Picasso, inspired by David’s “The Rape of the Sabine Women” and “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” by Manet, were engraved on the wall of the eastern veranda in 1963 by Nesjar in collaboration with Thorbjoern Ulvoden, Leif Johannessen and the sculptor Erik Hesselberg.

Revival stories

When the mother of the current owner, who does not want to be identified, bought the chateau, she entrusted the decor to Dick Dumas, an influential interior decorator and antiques dealer. His work is a creative tribute to the spirit of the place, where balance and harmony are everywhere evident, creating a sense of intimacy and nobility through colour and volume. Warm shades reflect the garrigue and Provencal landscape, especially the seasonal changes in the surrounding vineyards and almond trees.

In the drawing room, terracotta-red Roman blinds attenuate the strong Mediterranean sun to a pinkish hue. French windows, topped with fan-shaped sections, expand the view onto the gardens. A soft-yellow carpet leads into the library, where the ochres, browns, reds and greens of leather-bound books on floor-to-ceiling shelves are counterbalanced by whitewalls. The recurring colours and patterns from the walls of the drawing room reappear on the upholstered modules of the library furniture, unifying the two rooms.

The three stories of the chateau can function as separate units, each with its own kitchen, providing privacy and independence, whether for a family of four or a party of 12. The towers have been fitted with small bathrooms and an intimate reading room. The upstairs windows afford views of extensive gardens, a maze and extraordinary moss-covered paths in the woods, all the painstaking creation of the current gardener.

Two of the focal points on the ground floor are the long dining rooms, conjoined by a portico, one of which is decorated with a 64-square-metre, fresco, specially conceived and executed by Naman Hadi, an Iraqi painter, in 1977. The owner — with whose family Naman is still friends — had requested only that the work be ready for the wedding of her daughter.

In his Paris studio recently, Naman recalled teaching local masons to help create the plaster and materials needed for the mural, and told of completing the fresco in two months of arduous labour on a giant scaffold. The mural is the artist’s personal interpretation of the Arabian Nights: Ivory-painted arcades and pointed arches supported by slender columns unfold along the walls, opening into the rooms of a regal house where on a background of blues, soft golds, Indian-rose pinks and muted browns, yellows and greens, women, a child and a man holding a dog seem to draw an observer in to the peace and quiet their demure poses inspire.

The Chateau de Castille epitomises Locke’s and Burke’s definition of beauty: It exudes joy, cheerfulness and calm. Responding to an observation about the serenity of the chateau, the owner says: “Yes, yes. It’s not a chateau. It’s a home.”


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