Le Bois des Moutiers: A corner of England in France
- 24 September 2011
- From the section Magazine
A unique French house and garden created by British designers more than 100 years ago is about to be put up for sale. The family owners want it preserved intact, and kept open to the public - but for that to happen, a wealthy patron must step forward.
If you wish to behold the perfect epitome of an English country house and garden, then you may have to leave England far behind.
Come instead to an obscure corner of northern France. In a hamlet on cliffs outside the port of Dieppe is a place called Le Bois des Moutiers.
A luminous lawn loses itself in woods overlooking the sea, while bright rhododendrons line the pathways. A formal English garden adjoins the southern face of the house, with protruding brick walls creating a series of flowered and flagstoned spaces.
The house itself has high chimney-stacks and mullioned windows. Inside are wooden ceilings, a plain baronial staircase, a double-height music room with a minstrels' gallery and a vast 150-pane window.
The bookshelves are full of late Victorian English classics, some better remembered than others. There are first editions of J M Barrie's Peter Pan and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, as well as the complete H Essenhigh Corke on Wild Flowers As They Grow.
"Sometimes English people come to visit the gardens, and they are so moved by the beauty that they are in tears. I have seen people literally crying," says Antoine Bouchayer-Mallet, who lives at Le Bois des Moutiers.
It comes as no surprise to learn that the house is the work of that quintessentially English architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens. In 1898, well before he made his name, Lutyens was given the commission by a French banker called Guillaume Mallet - Antoine Bouchayer-Mallet's great-grandfather.
Monsieur Mallet wanted a home whose simplicity and harmonious proportions would be an encouragement to contemplation and the arts.
More importantly, he was strongly influenced by the ideas of the English Arts and Crafts movement, and he saw in Lutyens a fellow believer.
Lutyens, then aged 29, performed to perfection. His architectural design was pure Arts and Crafts, with an almost monastic plainness and not-so-subtle gestures to medievalism.
He then decorated the house with fittings and furniture produced by the finest English craftsmen of the day, many of them working for Morris and Co - the company set up by the movement's founder, William Morris.
And for the garden, he turned to the woman who was to be his long-term collaborator, the horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll.
If Le Bois des Moutiers is unique today, it is not only because it is such a strange outpost of Englishness abroad. In the words of the wine writer Hugh Johnson, it is "a little like a Sussex garden on vacation on the French coast".
For historians, the more important point is that Le Bois des Moutiers is believed to be the last Lutyens country house still in the hands of its original owners - in this case the fourth generation of the Mallet family.
What that means is that very little at Le Bois des Moutiers has ever changed. The house even remained intact when requisitioned by the German army in World War II. The gardens are now open to the public, but the house remains private.
And inside, it is like stepping back 100 years.
"Everything has been preserved," says Antoine Bouchayer-Mallet. "You are straight back among William Morris and the Arts and Crafts people. It is a miracle."
A place of culture
The original chairs, beds and cupboards are still in place - all built to reflect the Morrisian maxim that utility and beauty are two faces of the same ideal.
Outside the seven bedrooms are seven extraordinary Pre-Raphaelite bas-relief women's heads (one of them representing Morris's wife Jane, who modelled for several of the Pre-Raphaelites).
And in the music room is the grand piano played by the composers Eric Satie, Claude Debussy and other visitors to Guillaume Mallet and his wife Adelaide.
For the first 25 years of its existence, Le Bois des Moutiers was the centre of an intimate and highly distinguished arts scene, with other visitors including writers Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf and painter Pablo Picasso.
How long this miracle will be able to survive is an open question, however. For the Mallet family has now decided it is time to sell.
Because of French inheritance laws, Le Bois des Moutiers is now divided up among 11 descendants of Guillaume Mallet. In the next generation there will be 25. At that point, it will become next to impossible to agree on a course of action, and the house could slip into neglect.
Antoine Bouchayer-Mallet, a 48-year-old architect, fears that the family could be obliged to sell to a wealthy international business type, with no appreciation of the house's uniqueness.
"According to law, if someone comes with the asking price we have no choice but to sell. We can delay for a bit, but not forever," he says.
"What I dread is seeing Le Bois des Moutiers shut up behind electric fences and with a swimming pool on the lawn. It has happened to other Lutyens houses."
The alternative - what the family is pushing for - is for some kind of Anglo-French foundation to be created that will maintain Le Bois des Moutiers as a place of culture and reflection. Antoine Bouchayer-Mallet is desperately seeking patrons in London and Paris.
"Everyone can see that there is something very spiritual about Le Bois des Moutiers," he says.
"My great-grandfather was part of the movement called the theosophists. He believed in the brotherhood of humanity, and he used Le Bois des Moutiers to spread his ideas. The spiritualist writer Krishnamurti used to stay here as a young man.
"Today people can still feel there is something special. A few weeks ago for example I bumped into (former French finance minister and current IMF chief) Christine Lagarde in the gardens.
"She was just about to embark on her new job, and she told me she often comes here to contemplate when she is at a crucial point in her life. Gerard Depardieu was here to make a film, and he said he could feel it too."
For Antoine Bouchayer-Mallet, the ideas of the theosophists and the Arts and Crafts people have never gone away.
"They stressed the human over the material, and they feared the ravages of hyper-industrialisation. How much more relevant could you be?" he says.
"We have got to save Le Bois des Moutiers. It is not just a piece of English heritage in France. It also represents the whole Arts and Crafts philosophy - spirituality, humanity, simplicity."