The Gardens of the Château de La Napoule

by / tag , ,

This is the story of a mysterious place, a place that must be found and explored to discover its secrets, set in an iconic landscape. This story tells of a castle and its gardens, a green refuge immersed in an almost fairy-tale atmosphere. But this is also a love story, one of the greatest that has ever been and often ignored. A love so deep, that some say it still lasts today, many years after the death of the protagonists. This is the story of Henry and Marie Clews and their refuge: the Château de La Napoule.

What would become the Clews couple met in Newport, Rhode Island, during a visit to a dog show. Both divorced, Henry and Elsie (at that time she had not yet changed her name to Marie), immediately realized that they had found their soul mate. Destiny had a journey in store that would take them very far from their country of origin.

This original couple was animated by a creative spirit and an insatiable thirst dictated by the sacred fire of art, a thirst that could not be satisfied in America, where values ​​were different from the high and spiritual ones that guided the lives of Henry and Elsie. So it was that after getting married, in 1914 they left for Paris, where Henry renamed his wife Marie (a reference to the purity of the Virgin Mary). For his part, Henry used a nickname, Mancha, seeing himself as a modern Don Quixote (Mancha was also the name they gave to their son).

With war on the doorstep of Paris, in 1918 they decided to move towards quieter shores, and moved to Cannes, where shortly after their arrival they fell in love again. This time love did not strike with another human being, but with a very particular place, west of the bay of Cannes, in the municipality of Mandelieu-la-Napoule. Overlooking the sea, a large, abandoned property attracted them inexorably, and there, after purchasing it, they founded their personal kingdom, building a work that would occupy them for the entire course of their lives.

The place that Henry and Marie had become the owners had a history spanning more than 2000 years. First settlement of the Oxubii, a Celtic-Ligurian tribe destroyed by Caesar in 49 BC, it became a strategic position under Roman domination; later, from 730 to 990 AD, was subjected to Saracen control. It was in 1284, when a fort had already been built on the property, that the Villeneuve family acquired the land and had a large medieval fortress built there, starting a long period of government that ended in 1719, when the property was sold to the marquis Dominique de Montgrand. During the turmoil of the French Revolution, it was razed to the ground. That was the eighth time the Castle was demolished and rebuilt.

When the Clews arrived at the site of their new home, what they found in front their eyes was a vision of desolation. A nineteenth-century style villa had been built, while the rest of the property was in pitiful conditions. A solitary palm tree, symbol of abandonment, stood courageously in the center of the main courtyard. That sight did not throw the couple of artists into despair, but spurred them to carry out a massive reconstruction work that would culminate in the building of a real Château.

As in every aspect of their lives, the restoration and construction works were also experienced as a couple, with Henry taking care of the decorative side and Marie, an architect and landscape designer, who designed a good part of the Castle and was responsible for creating a series of new gardens that immersed their artistic refuge in greenery. It is very interesting to note that, well before dealing with the reconstruction of the roof, one of the works that most involved the Clews was the creation of a series of terraces overlooking the waters of the bay of Cannes. To ensure that the Castle sank its feet directly into the Mediterranean, an arched path was built in place of the existing rock spur, on which the terraces rested. This particular construction required the presence of an eminent Russian engineer and even the laying of a small railway to transport the boulders necessary to complete the work. From the Clews’ point of view, having a roof over head was less essential than having a magnificent view out front, seamlessly integrating the architecture into the maritime landscape.

The works, which lasted 17 years, proceeded briskly. The home of their dreams became a neo-medieval style castle, with turrets, arches, and fantastic decorations, while the gardens embraced the building and filled with greenery every corner that was not occupied by Henry’s works of art. Once completed, the Castle was called Once upon a time…, a name of fairy-tale memory, precisely to make it clear that that new kingdom, founded by two lovers, was to become a place of peace, harmony and beauty, far from the narrow-mindedness of society and the world outside.

The main garden extends from the entrance walls towards the Château with a wide French-style avenue lined with topiary hedges, along which a series of green rooms with very different peculiarities, small hidden places, partially hidden from view, unravel as we follow the meanders casually: here an oriental room with fountains and water basins, there a formal garden with hedges and shelters in the shade of large trees, and again corners with wells or fake ruins, bridges and connections with different levels, vases and Henry’s works of art that are hidden among the intense green of the vegetation. In fact, green is the dominant color of these gardens, intense in every season thanks to the majestic evergreen trees (including cedars and eucalyptus), punctuated from time to time by delicate white summer blooms. The garden harmoniously mixes carefully designed spaces with a “wildness” of greenery.

When the Clews still lived in the Château, the park was home to various animals, such as swans, white parakeets, cranes, ibises, also white, which roamed freely. Extremely eccentric, the owners also owned a marabou stork named Don who kept company with a Great Dane called Ego and two bulldogs, Tory and Snob, much loved by the couple. One of the towers was used as a pigeon loft, so they could send messages to their friends on the French Riviera.

Overall, the garden was cloaked, like the rest of the Château, in a mystical aura of an enchanted forest, where it was not uncommon to encounter by chance, carved on some column, seat, fountain or on the walls, strange creatures, imaginary monsters and animals, the result of the work of Henry, who loved to adorn every little recess and every structure with delicate and fantastic inlays, inspired by his passion for myth, mystery and mirth, words engraved in the stone in various parts of the house, together with single or couple monograms, placed to indicate who had the merit of having created a decoration rather than a construction detail.

In the western part of the main garden, along the wall of the property, runs the Philosophers’ Walk, a Virginia creeper pergola where Henry Clews, as the name of this place suggests, loved to walk while collecting his thoughts and seeking inspiration for his sculptures and his literary works, sometimes accompanied by illustrious guests. Henry was often defined as a misanthrope, but in fact he was a man of shy nature, who hated no one but could not stand the pomp and noise of society, where gossip and boasting were the order of the day. He preferred the company of a few close friends, like minds, intellectuals and artists, as well as of course his wife. His was a world of beauty and dreams, a land where time passed slowly and the days were full of interest and curiosity. Immersed in his work, the Château became a forge of curious ideas and works, sculptures with fantastic and bizarre features, grotesque characters sometimes inspired by real life, sometimes caught in an empyrean of imagination where only he and his wife managed to venture.

Emblem of this artistic fervor and love for all that is symbolic, was the bronze sculpture (wedding gift for Marie), created in 1913 and donated the following year, which stands out in the center of the cour d’honneur of the Château. A noble-looking old man, the God of Humormystics, welcomes visitors, offering them beauty and hospitality in the form of a rose. He is the guardian of this place, standing against the materialism of the society that venerates an omnipotent science, denigrating the subtle aspects of existence. Placed above his head, a halo acts as a refuge for two birds, symbols of mystical and ideal love. At his feet, sculpted above the base, faces deformed by vulgar grimaces symbolize the vices of human nature, and from these only the Holy Spirit, the Virgin and Mary Magdalene are protected, as well as two cherubs, with their delicate appearance, who recall innocence and purity. Just below, a snake biting its tail, a symbol of eternal return. At the base of the sculpture, two innocent cherubs play with each other: they are Adam and Eve. At their side, a cupid, human love, with a broken wing is looking at his navel, observing a universe of which he will constitute the center.

Three other gardens branch off from the main one. The first, the garden of La Mancha, is a terraced space at the foot of the homonymous tower, in which the mausoleum is located. It is a simple garden that invites contemplation, in which the reddish stone of the castle’s battlements stands out against the blue of the sea.

The terraces on the sea, perhaps the most evocative garden, are a long path overlooking the sea, where stairs and small niches allow you to observe the bay of Cannes, surrounded by cypresses and hedges of fragrant rosemary. This pleasant walk has its parallel in the passage below, protected by arches that sink their base directly into the sea.

The last garden is the secret one, Marie Clews’ refuge, a small corner protected by walls with some openings to observe the seascape. In the centre, a monolithic Venetian well gives rhythm to the structure of the hedges and borders. In a certain sense, it is the equivalent of the Philosophers’ Walk, the place where Marie went to rest and seek inspiration, lulled by the wind and the smell of the sea breeze.

Overall, the gardens form an extravagant tapestry whose basic structure is orderly, but broken up by the exuberance of these hidden places, small worlds within a large fairytale land. Unfortunately, the Clews’ idyll ended in 1937, the year of Henry’s death. The castellan of Once upon a time… had passed away, leaving his wife with a construction site still in progress, unfinished books, and a lot of pain for his loss. But Marie, an emancipated and strong woman, managed to carry on even without her beloved half and over the years completed the project of the Château and the gardens, taking care of the immense artistic work left by Henry.

Her mission became even more fundamental in 1939, at the outbreak of war. Marie did not abandon her mansion, despite being an American citizen. After becoming a strategic site for the French, with Italy’s entry into the war the danger became greater. Thanks to her knowledge, Marie managed to hide and protect all her husband’s works of art, the furniture and most of the precious objects, but when the Italians reached the Château, she was accused of having given aid to the Allies, managing to get away thanks to to his friendship with Princess Maria Francesca of Savoy. When Italy surrendered, the Germans took over the occupation of the Castle, and the widow Clews was forced to retreat to Cannes. On August 15, 1944, American troops landed on the beaches of the bay, and it was with great surprise that Marie discovered the identity of the liberator of her home: her cousin Colonel Lewis H. van Dusen. Once she returned to the Château, she spent the following years engaged in the restoration work of the parts of the building damaged by the bombings. Even today we can observe the bunkers remaining inside the garden, the last witnesses of those terrible years.

Having lived through two world wars, Marie had developed a firm belief that art was the best vehicle for opposing differences and the conflicts they generate. This thought was the reason why she created a foundation to safeguard the artistic heritage of the Château, and at the same time make it a sanctuary for artists, hosted for periods of study and work within the walls. Even today, the legacy of these two lovers of art and freethinkers helps spread beauty and creativity.

But the promise was that of a love story that would last to this day, although Marie left this world in 1959. Both she and her husband Henry are buried in the crypt under the La Mancha tower, watched over by funny spirits and benevolent creatures carved in stone. An epitaph magnifies Henry’s qualities of extravagance and love: Poet, Sculptor, Author – Grand Knight of La Mancha * Supreme Master Humormystic * Castellan of “Once upon a time” * Chevalier de Marie. If you pay attention, you will notice that the doors of the two tombs are slightly open. It is said that this was what the couple wanted, so that their spirits could meet again, finding themselves in a room at the top of the La Mancha tower, without doors and windows. Two kindred souls, who spent a stretch of their lives sharing an immense love for art, not caring about what the world wanted to impose, living for each other, until the end of their days and beyond.