Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Chateau in the Woods...

With a few days off work, the warmer, albeit windy weather led me on a walk in the wilderness to track down the remains of a chateau in the woods. Le château de Toussicourt was one of seven grandiose edifices around the town of Hermonville, of which few have survived to the present day. 

Whether grand or minimal, their vestiges offer a glimpse of very different pasts, fates and fortunes…

Whilst I anticipated difficulty locating the elusive Toussicourt, in fact the site turned out to be clearly – even blatantly - visible from the road. However, as the domain was not indicated by any signs, I assumed the chateau must surely be set in the heart of the woods, far from the intrusions of the 21st century.

View from the main access route - front of the chateau grounds with wild boar prints in the mud.

The unwelcome attentions of ramblers and urbex-ers are naturally discouraged, due to the standard hazard risks posed by game hunting, dangerous masonry and of course for trespassing issues. 

As a result, I set off for the hills and finally came across the high stone wall flanking the side of the grounds, complete with a grand gate –chained up - that led tantalisingly onto the land. This reminded me of The Secret Garden, with all the anticipation of what lay beyond the ivy-covered entrances and the frustration of not gaining access to it. 

As I was not prepared to break into the grounds, I just wandered further along the lane, feeling a bit disappointed. I was very surprised to find a very wide clearing at the back of this whole area and could barely contain excitement that transported me back to childhood. I would have loved to have made such discoveries back then! 

Brick walls, in varying degrees of ruin, still remain of the chateau outbuildings. Brambles, thickets and trees of all shapes and sizes have taken over the land, whilst ivy has grown up and over all the building vestiges. I can imagine this could be quite dangerous to visit, especially for any kind of activity other than simple observation and would be damaging and disrespectful for the grounds too and all that they represent. 

Atmospheric visions of window openings and doorways have been created, all leading nowhere, offering no views but suggesting numerous secrets and stories that are now buried in the rubble and undergrowth. 

I kept wishing I could be transported back to the 19th century, just to be able to experience its gentle past glory that can only be glimpsed at in the old black-and-white photographs that always seem to lend themselves to flights of imagination. 

Working my way towards the front of the grounds, I came across where the former gardens must have lain, with their lawns stretching out. Wild boars now leave their mark ; cloven-hoof prints in the mud and upturned soil heaps creating half-hearted molehills and trenches. 

The land here is curiously devoid of trees, bushes or even saplings, which leaves you to assume it has been cleared regularly, and so preserving some spirit or essence. 

Of the body of the chateau itself, there are but a few vast metal girders that protude like massive bones from undergrowth where piles of bright green, mossy stones lay amassed.

Several distinct features of the cellars are still visible, and to the left, on what was once the side façade, stands a relatively well-preserved fortified structure that resembles a low turret, with its slit openings, and crenelated crown. 

This dates back to the chateau’s later years and can be identified on photographs prior to the First World War. The images that remain from the turn of the last century attest to the beauty of the Toussicourt domain and to the peace and tranquility of the pre-war period.

The grand façade once looked down towards an ornamental pond which has certainly been maintained over the years and now adds to the eerie emptiness of the grounds.

Reeds grow elegantly from the water and the stumps of truncated columns rise up at the top of the structure and beyond stands the main entrance to the chateau.

Situated at the end of what must have once been a majestic tree-lined alley, we can still imagine the original stature of Toussicourt. Today the fields that flank this path-way are plain, feature-less expanses of arable land.

A large wrought-iron gateway dominates the view, serving as a vanishing point, although it is now the chateau beyond it that has simply vanished.

The gates are not, of course, the original ones and perhaps nor is much of the stone wall that encircles the front of the domain in a curious manner. The impressive height and width of the gates, is not equalled by the walls. 

Although entry is in theory barred to the public, any visitor can simply step over the lowest parts of the stonework that offers no fortification whatsover. This seems to add to the strange atmosphere that reigns here, and highlights the void beyond, where the chateau had once stood. 

Nothing could give the slightest indication to the devastation that was soon to befall the region in 1914 with the onset of the Great War. Nor could it be imagined that the the chateau itself would be actively used during the hostilities, or that it too would be a casualty. 

Like so many individuals of the Lost Generation, the chateau would never see the end of this war ‘to end all wars’. 

As French chateaux go, Toussicourt was not, in fact, by any means 'ancient'. A chateau in the Louis XVI style was constructed at the end of the 18th century between Hermonville and Villers-Franqueux, at the behest of the head of the wealthy Cliquot family.

Indeed, the ‘Seigneur de Toussicourt et d'Hermonville’ had been ennobled by Louis XV at Versailles in 1765 and needed a country property worthy of his fine position – up until the French Revolution in 1789. 

The chateau entered into the possession of the Arnould family in the early 19th century, until finally becoming one of the homes of the baron Guillaume Krafft and in turn, his son Hugues. During this later (and final) stage of the chateau’s existence, the domain was built up in line with the aspirations of the family made rich through their contributions to the champagne trade with the Louis Roederer house. 

The park was made more elaborate still, with further gardens and the impressive central drive-way. Nothing could indicate that within a few years these same lawns would soon be used to accommodate French troups of French footsoldiers, who camped out in the grounds whilst the officers took refuge in the chateau itself. Like the château itself, few would survive the ravages of the war…

Hugues Krafft

Indeed, Hermonville – and therefore Toussicourt – was situated near the fort of Saint Thierry and the Front, with the strategic site of the village of Loivre and the fort of Brimont. Artillery was installed in the highest zones in the area, a centre for special espionnage and reconnaissance missions for pilots was inaugurated in Hermonville, and medical facilities and a cemetery were likewise set up.

Although it freed itself from enemy troups, the village was subject to assault and after the prolonged onslaught, the chateau was left in a pitiful state. The centre of the edifice appears to have been ripped apart by a direct bomb hit in 1917 and whilst it could perhaps have been restored to its former state, funds permitting, this did not happen.

Agence de presse Meurisse. Agence photographique

At the end of the hostilities, Hughes Krafft took the decision not to use the money given as a war indemnity to restore Toussicourt, preferring instead to use this sum to finance a project closer to his heart; the restoration of L’Hôtel le Vergeur. More about that another day….

From this period, the domain of Toussicourt went from a certain Mr Charbonneaux, to a farmer from the neighbouring village of Villers-Franqueux in 1958. Since the abandonned chateau was considered to represent a danger to the public, the remaining architectural structures were knocked down, leaving what we see today, and letting us imagine what its past had been.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Porte de Sèvres...

Along the impressive Boulevard Saint-Germain in the 6th arrondissement, stands an almost imperceptible vestige from the Parisian Belle Epoque. Indeed, as throngs of tourists and Parisiens alike stroll or scuttle in the Haussmannian landscape of the Rive Gauche, few may notice the beautiful ceramic plaque on the flank of a building that closes the discreet little Square Félix Desruelles, just next to the Eglise Saint-Germain.

St-Germain-des-Prés is not only thought to represent quintessential Parisian chic, with its luxury boutiques and restaurants but also to reflect the traditional literary and intellectual core of the city. Indeed, the famous cafés of Les Deux Magots, Brasserie Lipp, Café de Flore and Café Bonaparte are renowned as the former gathering points for great intellects, writers and artists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Man Ray, Picasso, Léo Ferré or Georges Brassens from the 1920s. However the monumental Porte de Sèvres dates back to a moment in history when the whole world turned to the City of Light to observe its shining examples of modernity and audacity, promising an bright, illustrious future. Held in 1900, the Exposition Universelle de Paris was the fifth and last of its kind in the capital, following those of 1855, 1867, 1878 and 1889. It drew visitors in their droves over the months between its opening in April and closure in November. The first World Fair – the 1851 Great Exhibition of Crystal Palace, London – enticed a meagre 6 million visitors whilst the Exposition Universelle of 1900 announced over 50 million.

It is difficult to imagine how this vast, dazzling display must have appeared to a public, little accustomed to such sights. Immense pavillions and palaces were constructed in the very heart of the city, representing different nations, inventions and technologies. The sheer scale of the exposition and the scope of the other worlds and realities exhibited must have been incomprehensible to the average visitor. I wonder what they could have thought of the Palais de l’Electricité, with its spectacular arrays of sparks or the incredible moving pavement – ‘La rue de l’avenir’ ?

In our digitally-enhanced, device-enabled, over-stimulated universe, we would find it hard not to be underwhelmed, assuming that we had been able to lift our eyes from the 'precious' smartphones we clutch, Gollum-style, in the first place...

And yet in the Belle Epoque, the exposition would have been a breath-taking experience – an incredible assault to the senses and imagination.‘Projected motion pictures’ had been developed by the Lumière brothers in the very last years of the 19th century and were simply light years away from the cinema films that would later stun audiences with their images of the future.

Most of the immense edifices constructed for the Exposition were not built to last, yet that made them no less impressive and it should be remembered that the Eiffel Tower, erected for the 1889 Exposition, was in fact only intended as a ‘temporary’ feature ! Many buildings were largely stuccoed façades, of which nothing or little remains today. Nevertheless, the towering Porte Monumentale that welcomed the visitors and the huge globe-shaped planetarium – the Globe Céleste were no less incredible to behold. Other constructions, however, are still very much part of the Parisian landscape and skyline today – the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais for example, along with the Alexandre III bridge. Below ground, the first Metro lines were inaugurated with great pride to coincide with the Olympic Games – transporting visitors from the Porte de Vincennes to the Porte Maillot. The prowess of France’s production and arts were likewise showcased in the Pavillon des Manufactures Françaises on the Esplanade des Invalides. 

The merging of industry and craftsmanship with new materials and innovative usage was particularly exciting and the ceramic work of the Manufacture de Sèvres met much acclaim. Indeed, its organic, plant-like forms and unusual colours were very much  in l’air du temps and adorned buildings and monuments alike. The date 1753 figures on the porte ceramique in the Square Félix Desruelles – referring to the year that the porcelain production had become Manufacture Royale, shortly before the site was transferred from Vincennes to Sèvres in 1756. Indeed, from 1740 the porcelain had received support from Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour and the emblematic Sèvres coulours became synonymous with crown and court ; rose Pompadour, vert Vincennes, bleu de Sèvres, jaune de Naples, bleu Céleste.

By 1900, the work of the Manufacture de Sèvres was far more accessible and targeted a diverse clientele - Le jeu de l'écharpe by Agathon Léonard, for example met great success at the exposition. The porte monumentale de Sèvres originally decorated the entrance to the Pavillon des Manufactures Françaises and is its last remaining trace, having become the property of the city of Paris in 1901 and transferred to its present position in 1905. It was designed in enamelled stoneware by the architect Charles Risler and sculpted by Jules Coutan, and bears a large arch-shaped panel supported by columns, decorated with flowing Art Nouveau forms of plants, fruit and flowers. In the centre part is a woman representing the art of pottery-making, and again at the top a haut-relief depicts the art of ceramics. Towards the bottom is an owl – enigmatic figure of wisdom or learning.

This aesthetic movement became the symbolic expression of the Belle Epoque. In Paris, Hector Guimard’s strange, curving, fluid forms are integral to the Metro entrances, yet similar flowing lines would proliferate in architecture and its decoration elsewhere; wrought iron, mosaics, frescos, stained-glass windows and, of course, ceramics. Shortly after the Exposition Universelle, the Ecole de Nancy was officially founded and French Art Nouveau was expressed to its fullest form under Emile Gallé, the Daum, Louis Majorelle in art, furniture, pottery, glassware, jewellery…

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Head down... A Heads-up.....

Levalet - Reims
I realised the other day that I am starting to look around me less and less, as I scurry about, stressing over my latest rat-race issue and the most recent first-world problem. The proof of this was my suddenly noticing a Levalet collage piece that is already battered and torn, so by no means a 'recent' addition to the urban landscape of Reims city centre, and yet I must have passed it many times already, without even realising. As it is pasted onto the walls of a grotty underpass that I drive through at a certain speed in the rush hour, that could be excused to a degree.

Having finally caught sight of the peeling, tattered remains of this sequence of collages during a drive home in the impressive gusts of wind from Storm Ciara, I went out to investigate, on foot...

I think the collage illustrated the separation of a couple, in view of the expression on the faces of the protagonists. Unfortunately, I couldn't lift the other poster as the wind was buffeting it, me and the camera. The final gloomy image is the boy, heading off, head down...
Searching for further information, I discovered that in fact there had initially been seven posters in this sequence and that the whole scene had only been posted up at the beginning for the year. I don't know if the missing posters were removed by admirers or taken by speculators as Levalet currently has art on show in Paris and is earning ever-greater acclaim.

I have just become aware of another work (above) - Tourner en rond - that has also passed me by, as I travel home on the evening bus. I decided to walk back last night to track it down...

Unfortunately a number of parts are missing from this piece too so that it is difficult to grasp what is actually going on from the remaining images. However, this work initially featured the same individual going through the (trompe l'oeil) door, entering the wall cavity and then sliding out again from the blockhouse window, to resume his circular trip in an ad infinitum movement worthy of M;C Escher.

It is stuck onto the once-futuristic exterior walls of my daughter's old secondary school. In view of the sheer volume of young teenagers tramping past everyday, I would say that it has fared quite well, all things considered.
As a result of my regret at having missed out on so much, I have resolved to start looking up and around me again. This really has been a heads-up in every sense!