Thursday, 14 January 2016

The Château du Grand-Lucé gets a makeover

In 2003 the 18th-century Château du Grand-Lucé in the Loire Valley was offered for sale by the Department of Sarthe and, after a lengthy application process,  bought by Californian interior designer Timothy Corrigan. For once this is a happy story of private ownership. The chateau, which was an empty shell, has been lavishly refurbished and now has a new lease of life as an upmarket event venue.   Admittedly access for ordinary mortals is strictly limited though the gardens, which had already been partly renovated and opened to the public, can still be visited on Sunday afternoons in the summer.

Le Grand-Lucé is one of France's finest surviving examples of neo-Classical architecture. The 45,000 square-foot chateau came with eighty acres of formal gardens, landscaped grounds and ancient oak forest.  Corrigan was surprised to find it in the middle of the town of Le Grand-Lucé, which had once been entirely within its domain - the elegant cour d'Honneur had been turned into a municipal car park.  There was no usuable electricity supply, no heat and, Corrigan reports, only four bathrooms.  The kitchen was also housed in a different building. 

I cannot find the amount Corrigan paid for the chateau in the first place but I have seen seven-million Euro as the estimated cost of the renovations.  The declared aim was not to restore, but  to create modern comfort and informality whilst retaining a sense of 18th-century elegance. The refurbishment was on a ambitious scale, with many genuine antiques imported.  Although the "before and after" photos make clear the enormous amount of work needed, Corrigan was fortunate in the number of original features that survived;  the wooden panelling, parquet flooring, even the door furniture, were all largely intact.  Most remarkable of all, were the rare chinoiserie murals by Jean-Baptiste Pillement, fortuitously covered by canvas in the 19th century and beautifully preserved.  As Corrigan cheerfully admits, the Architectes des Bâtiments de France dogged him every step of the way.  Every tree in the park had to be tagged and new additions were vetted to ensure they were 18th-century species .He was even obliged to call upon experts from the Musée Carnavalet to present his case for replacing the original "Trianon gray" paint with brighter but still authentic hues. Every room is different in style.  I won't reproduce loads of views - there are literally dozens of videos and articles on the internet.

The "Salon Chinois" 

Jacques Pineau de Viennay, baron de Lucé

Photograph of paintings (now lost?) depicting Jacques Pineau de Viennay and Marguerite de Gennes
 with their son.  This is the only extant portrait of the future baron de Lucé.
The history of the chateau is much more difficult to piece together.  In the early 18th century the feudal domain of Le Grand-Lucé, dating back to the 11th century, came into the possession of a family of noblesse de robe.  The purchaser in 1716 was Marguerite de Gennes, who was daughter of a conseiller et procurateur du Roi.  Her husband Jacques Pineau de Viennay,  seigneur de Viennay et de la Peschellerie,was conseiller de grande chambre in the Parlement de Paris; his ancestors had originally been cloth merchants. The the present chateau was constructed by the eldest of their five children Jacques Pineau de Viennay, baron de Lucé (1709-1764).  Almost an exact contemporary of Louis XV, Jacques Pineau de Viennay exemplified the successful royal official. He acquired the office of conseiller to the Parlement of Paris at the tender age of twenty, then became maître des requêtes in 1730 et finally président au Grand Conseil  in 1739.  In the 1740s he occupied various royal intendancies: from 1743 in Tours, from 1745 in Valenciennes, and finally from 1752 until his death in Strasbourg. In 1761 he was made conseiller d’État. There is no surviving portrait, and little in the way of anecdote.  His surviving manuscripts show a confident cursive hand; although he was never resident in his ancestral domain, he habitually signed himself “Lucé”. The family coat-of-arms, with its three fir cones, adorns the walls of the chateau:
Arms of the Lucé and Lalive de Bellegarde families
On 20 April 1743 Jacques Pineau de Viennay married Marie Charlotte Françoise Lalive de Bellegarde, daughter of the fermier général Louis Denis Lalive de Bellegarde.  He was thirty three and the bride two months short of fifteen. The marriage brought access to a monied and cultivated society.  His wife’s brother was the diplomat and art collector Ange Laurent Ange Laurent de La Live de Jully. Their sister-in-law was Madame d'Epinay  

In her biographical novel  Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant  Pineau de Viennay appears under the guise of the "comte de Grangé", as a would-be lover. We do not really know the truth of the matter. 
(See p.160: Si je puis compter sur une tendresse sans bornes de votre part, telle qu'est la mienne pour vous (en me prenant les mains), et telle qu'elle est depuis longtemps, sans avoir osé vous le dire..., je passerai sept ou huit mois de l'année ici. Qu'est-ce qui vous empêcherait de venir passer le reste du temps avec moi..)

Some of Pineau de Viennay's correspondence with the comte d'Argenson survives from his time in Strassbourg.  In 1752 he notes that Voltaire has "almost taken up residence in Strasbourg"; Voltaire himself mentions Lucé favourably in several letters, asking to be remembered to him.

In the 1750s the baron embarked upon the project of reconstructing the chateau and making of it a modern demeure de plaisance suitable for an royal official and man of the Enlightenment. The old bastion was demolished and the timbers incorporated into the stable roof.  Pineau deViennay chose as his architect Mathieu de Bayeux, inspecteur général des ponts et chaussées in Tours, the man later responsible for the  famous Pont Wilson in Tours, at the time the longest bridge in existence. Presumably  the two men had met in Tours; certainly surviving archival sources testify to Pineau de Lucé's passionate interest in architecture and urban development.  Work on the new chateau began in 1760 and by 1764 it was substantially completed.  With Strassbourg several days journey away, it was necessarily planned and built "by correspondence". The letters, together with original plans and drawings, survive in the  Archives Nationales (the Sarthe Departmental archives also holds Lucé's livre de comptes). Timothy Corrigan comments:

I've read many of the letters exchanged by the baron and Bayeux - every last one resides at the National Archives in Paris, along with the original plans and drawings - and believe me, to anyone in my profession, the client's missives would be very familiar.  Half of them are along the lines of, "I want whatever's hot now in terms of architecture and interior design".  And the rest are one or another version of, "No way I'm going to pay that much for that".  Plus ça change, as the French say. (Corrigan, 2013, p.16)

Livre de comptes for the project (Archives de la Sarthe)
Sadly the proud proprietor did not live to enjoy his chateau,; he died of a heart attack a few days into his first visit whilst inspecting the porte d'honneur, on September 23rd 1764.  His monument can be seen in the church at Le Grand-Lucé.  His epitaph proclaims that he was "dear to all good citizens, adored by his family, a friend to men of letters, esteemed even by the Court".

Later history of the chateau

After Jacques Pinneau de Viennay's death, the inheritance was disputed; at one stage his wife was confined to an asylum. In 1767 she remarried, and in 1771 renounced her usufruct over the property which  now passed to her son.  He in turn died of smallpox in 1774, leaving the property to his eldest sister Anne Marie Françoise Louise, henceforth known as "Mademoiselle de Lucé". 

 In 1781 a major fire broke out in the town of  Le Grand-Lucé.  Its origins were traced back to the baker who had been making resin candles ("oribus").  As most of the surrounding structures were made of wood, they were  rapidly consumed by the  flames;  144 houses burned down and 5 people lost their lives. The chatelaine sheltered many of the townspeople in her outbuildings and set about organising the rebuilding of the town, this time in tuffeau,  the local white limestone. At the outbreak of the Revolution the reconstruction was still ongoing.  Whether through gratitude, or through the closeness of their dependency, the people of Le Grand-Lucé  protected the chateau and its treasures during the Revolutionary years; there was even a tunnel built, so that the inhabitants could escape out into the town.

After the  death of in Mademoiselle de Lucé 1806  the property passed to her nephew the marquis d'Argence. At this point it narrowly escaped demotion.  It remained in the family until the 20th century, when it was finally sold after the First World War.  In 1939 the then owner,  the princesse de Broglie, let it be used as a hospital for British officers.  It subsequently became a sanitarium.  In the 1990 a modern medical centre was constructed on the grounds and the vacated chateau passed into public ownership as a listed historical monument. An association was formed to oversee preliminary restoration work and in 1998 the gardens were opened to the public.  In 2002 it was acquired for a symbolic sum by the Department of Sarthe which had already invested a considerable sum in its upkeep.  It was promptly offered for sale. There were apparently quite a number of prospective buyers - some wanted to build apartments, others turn it into a hotel  or a spa.  A famous Parisian chef even wanted to convert it into a restaurant.  According to Timothy Corrigan, he was chosen because he alone wanted to keep the chateau's integral structure.  The Vice- president of the French Senate supported him "and that's how this Californian won the grand prix" (Corrigan, 2013, p.11)


Le Château du Grand Lucé website (facilities, history, virtual tour etc.)

Timothy Corrigan, An Invitation to Chateau du Grand-Luce: Decorating a Great French Country House (2013)  Preview on

"Architecture et jardins : le Grand-Lucé",  La Folie XVIIIe [online forum]

"Lucé, les jardins retrouvés"  video of 1999 by Pierrick Bourgault.

Tatiana Yvon, "2 Juin 1781: L'incendie du Grand Lucé"  Entre nous et nos Ancêtres [blog]
post of 28.9.2012.
See also:  Renan Yvon, Flickr. photostream
 There are many articles and videos on Timothy Corrigan's renovations. For some good pictures, see the posts in Architectural Digest: 
"Timothy Corrigan's Spectacular French Château", 6 Nov 2015.
"Before and after" photos, 31 July 2013

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