Tour de France (4) – Sharif Gemie

Five years ago I visited the Chateau of Lunéville, located in the east of France. It was an extraordinary sight: this wonderful eighteenth-century building had been devastated in a fire in 2003. We walked through enormous, high rooms, with cinders and burnt timber on the floor and no roofs. Although the fire had taken place two years ago, we could still smell the smoke in the air. Well over half the chateau was ruined. Walking through this fine, elegant building, built in 1730, and seeing the evidence of recent destruction was a bizarre, striking experience.

I went back to the Chateau yesterday to give my lecture on UNRRA. It has been transformed. Five years have been spent in trying to re-create an eighteenth century building: the original plans have been located, and there has been a sustained effort to follow these in the re-construction. Once again, it’s a striking sight: an authentic eighteenth-century century building, but now looking as if it was built yesterday. Lunéville was built after the great royal palace at Versailles, which it closely resembles: the same vast scale, the same symmetry, and same sense of space in its rooms. The chateau is now once again open the public.

Although such buildings were the preserve of immensely wealthy aristocracy, I can’t help admiring them: I particularly like the formal French gardens, which present such a contrast with the gardens of the British aristocracy. While our national myth is rooted in the organic, natural and spontaneous. Eighteenth-century British gardens attempt to present an idea that they ‘just happened’: that they grew almost by themselves, as part of the natural world, the French aristocracy operated to a quite different code, in which they wanted their gardens and their houses to demonstrate the control over nature.

While the chateau was being restored, my friend Didier Francfort created a centre for European Cultural History in its building: he invited me to give my lecture. We were not in one of the vast rooms which were designed for entertaining crowds, but in a small, purpose-built lecture theatre. I think that I probably spoke as well as I did in Rennes, but this time the audience was more mixed, and while they were interested in UNRRA, they had less to say in response – although one woman did say that she would definitely buy our book when it was published.

Sharif, 13 April 2011

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