Cultivating Beauty

Ever since the age of 15, Bernard Hautefort dreamt of owning this chartreuse in rural France, close to his childhood town. Decades later, he opens the doors to his exceptionally beautiful home in Ros Byam Shaw’s new book, Perfect French Country.

There is no direct translation for the French word chartreuse. The closest equivalent is hunting lodge, or possibly dower house. But a chartreuse was not designed specifically for country sports, nor to accommodate the widow of an estate owner. Most date from the 17th and 18th centuries, and were built by noble families as small, rural retreats – places for quiet contemplation, and intimate, informal dinners – comfortable, unassuming, charming and not in any way ostentatious. And if this sounds like a blueprint for the ideal country house in the 21st century, in the case of this particular chartreuse, it is.

Surrounded by 90 acres of Périgord meadow and woodland, and framed by a garden that contrasts clipped topiary and pleached hornbeams with clouds of scented roses and blousy peonies, this is a house of golden stone, its long, steeplypitched roof punctuated by three square towers and pierced by dormer windows. It is L-shaped and, according to its devoted owner Bernard Hautefort, presents different personalities depending on which side you are seeing it from. Inside the crook of the L, he says, it looks like a farmhouse. Go through the central door and out to the other side, turn back to gaze on the long facade, and it has ‘a feel of Le Grand Meaulnes’. Go round to where the shorter leg of the L has a view across the flower gardens, and the building has ‘a touch of Mozart’.

This is a house that Bernard wanted to own from the age of 15. Brought up in a town nearby – his mother, now in her 90s, still lives there – he used to come here for riding lessons.

‘The house was owned by an English lady who bred Connemara horses,’ he says. ‘She was marvellous, wearing tweed always, with a big brooch, and a silk headscarf tied under her chin.’

The fragment of elaborate carving on the mantelpiece in Bernard’s bedroom was a present to him from the antique dealers who supplied much of the architectural salvage with which he restored the house. The angel’s face has been sawn off, probably by the anti-religious revolutionaries who targeted churches during the French Revolution

When the house first came up for sale, and Bernard was at the beginning of the long career in investment banking that earned him the Légion d’Honneur, he tried to persuade his father to buy it. Later, while he was based in London, it came up for sale again and he bought it for himself, his wife and his teenage son, as somewhere to come home to in a peripatetic existence that included stints in Tokyo, New York and Sydney.

‘The first thing we did was to lay out and plant a new garden,’ he says. Thirty years on, the design has matured, as gardens do, and the garden has spread and been embellished; today there is also a music pavilion, a glass house, and a potager arranged around a second pavilion where he plans to hang a recently-purchased portrait of Lady Hamilton alongside 18th-century engravings of lemons and lemon trees.

This is the roof space above the grand salon at one end of the house. Bernard’s desk sits in front of bookshelves made around sections of antique panelling, and is back-lit by sunlight pouring through a small oval window at floor level

The garden was a priority, as it continues to be, and when it came to the interior of the house, the aim was to make house and garden feel as closely interlinked as possible. This ambition was well served by the layout which, in its original 17th-century form, was a single-storey enfilade of rooms, each one spanning the width of the house. This simple arrangement had been tampered with by later generations, with the addition of partition walls. Once these had been removed, the flow, or fluidity as Bernard calls it, was restored with a kitchen at the far end of the longest leg of the L, leading into a dining room, then an entrance hall, a petit salon and, at the far end, the grand salon. Each of these rooms has windows on two sides and, in the case of all but the grand salon, they are opposite one another in an arrangement called ‘en lanterne’.

Bernard considers the dining room to be the heart of the house, the focus of hospitality and, to that extent, the most important room

‘When the windows on both sides are open, goldfinches fly through from the front garden to the back,’ says Bernard. ‘In planning the garden, he has always taken care to create vistas from the inside looking out. There are no curtains to intervene, just the gentle distortions of glass, much of which is 18th century. The external shutters can be closed against sunlight or the battering of storms. In the shorter leg of the L there is a guest bedroom and bathroom, and a corridor that takes you to Bernard’s bathroom and his double-height bedroom, where there are windows on three sides.

Bernard’s choice of materials, and of colours, intensifies the dialogue between the natural world outside and the domestic world within. Floors are reclaimed clay tiles or oak boards. The staircase is carved from elm and all the ceilings are lined with lime-tree planks, as is traditional in this part of France.

Walls have the texture of stone, thanks to lime plaster, and colours are the soft hues of ripe summer fruit – plum, apricot, cantaloupe melon – the dusty green of sage leaves and the warm grey of weathered oak.

Bernard continues to work on the garden, adding buildings as well as plants. He built this ‘music pavilion’ in honour of his granddaughter, Clemence. Although a new building, it has a patina of age thanks to the use of antique elements, such as the doors and fanlight; inside, the floor tiles and chimney piece

Two years after buying the house, Bernard suffered the tragic loss of his wife. Work on the house slowed then stalled. It began again in earnest when his son had children, a boy and a girl, and Bernard converted the tall beamed triangle of roof space to make bedrooms for them, adding dormer windows and a staircase, and making himself a library with shelving that reaches up into the rafters.

Antonin and Clemence are now young adults, still Bernard’s pride and joy, and still visiting this house full of books and music where they spent so much of their childhood. Sprinkled among the elegant furnishings, which range in period from 17th century to Directoire, are things that must have amused them greatly as children. There is a table bustling with a flock of china tureens in the shape of birds. There is a beautifully modelled crib figure carrying a birdcage in one hand and a basket of fruit in the other, whom they named ‘Papageno’. Wooden tulips are lined up along the mantelpiece of the grand salon, and a couple of toy snails creep along the ceiling beams in one of the attic bedrooms. Then there are ‘Fanny’ and ‘Alexander’, silent companions painted on board; life-size portraits of children wearing small versions of the late 17th-century fashions of their elders.

‘I have collected many things over the years,’ says Bernard. ‘This house is a summary of my life, its contents like the feathers of my nest.’

 

Extract taken from Perfect French Country by Ros Byam Shaw, photography by Jan Baldwin, published by Ryland Peters & Small.

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