Throughout his career, Jacques Garcia has undertaken no small number of prodigious projects, including a sprawling Place Vendôme Parisian townhouse for the Sultan of Brunei; the exhibition designs for the Louvre’s new 17th- and 18th-century decorative arts galleries (which recently reopened following an eight-year, $36 million restoration); and reams of grand hotels, from the ever-chic Hotel Costes, in Paris, and the legendary Mamounia, in Marrakech, to the opulent Wynn, in Las Vegas, and the darkly glamorous NoMad, in New York. Yet his most consuming project of all has been the 20-year restoration of Château de Champ de Bataille, his own 17th-century home in Normandy.
The decorator first laid eyes on the castle when he was 12, in the company of his father, who took his son to visit many of the grand French châteaux that opened to the public during the 1960s. (An immigrant from Spain who worked at the Gare de l’Est railway station in Paris, Adolph Garcia was an ardent bibliophile, an amateur violinist and, key for young Jacques, an aficionado of flea markets.) Château de Champ de Bataille captured the young boy’s imagination and never let go. Thirty-four years later, he purchased the property, which by then was a virtually derelict estate, and went to work. His new book, Jacques Garcia, Twenty Years of Passion, Château Champ de Bataille (Flammarion), with text by Alain Stella and lush photographs by Eric Sander, shows the staggering results.
The book is as sensational as its subject. Splendor gleams from every page as the reader discovers rooms of palatial grandeur filled with fabulous art, objects and furniture. Garcia — an “alchemist of atmospheres,” as historian Franck Ferrand calls him in the book’s introduction — creates Louis XVI levels of refinement in the château’s drawing room, hung with portraits of the king and Marie-Antoinette; pays homage to his father with a display of rare books in the magnificent two-tier Consulate-style library; and then skips on to surprise with a room evoking a cabinet of curiosities, complete with a taxidermic elephant, giraffe and tiger, plus stuffed crocodiles caught mid-slither across the ceiling. Outdoors, the gardens, inspired by Le Nôtre (the landscape architect behind Versailles), are embellished with equally exuberant invention. Black swans glide down the canal that fronts the Egyptian-esque Temple of Leda; authentic ancient materials comprise the Greek Theater; and a genuine Mughal Palace, an ode to Garcia’s lifelong love of India, reigns over a limpid lake.
For a recent meeting in Garcia’s offices on the Rue de Rivoli — where the ceilings soar to château heights and the view extends out over the Tuileries Gardens across the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay — the designer arrives in glowing form, accompanied by Tadzio, his whippet. His abundant hair is snowy white, his cheeks are rosy, and he radiates energy. As we sit down at a large table, he waves a dismissive hand at a dark computer screen (clearly someone else’s province), and I snap on my recorder to catch his rapid-fire delivery as he launches into the epic story of his singular obsession with a magnificent house.
1. When you bought the château, in 1992, it was something of a boyhood dream come true. But in the book you recount how the restoration quickly turned into a nightmare.
Those first years were among the worst of my life. Although I had properties I could sell in order to buy the Champ de Bataille — a Paris townhouse built for Mansart in the 1660s called the Hôtel de Sagonne; the beautiful 17th-century Château de Menou in the Nivernais countryside — it was the recession and nothing was selling. I had the bankers and the bailiffs on the phone every day. Then, the worst misfortune happened: I lost my father to a medical error. I was already in the depths of despair when a terrifying winter storm ripped up all the trees in the park. I had two solutions: to fight or to give up. I chose the first. I had to find a new job, so I went from being a social decorator to being a decorator for institutions, hotels and restaurants all over the world. I had great success and that brought money. Then I immediately opened the château to the public, which by French law entitles owners of historical landmarks to tax benefits. Not everyone understood why I was open during the reconstruction — with all the bulldozers, scaffolding, plaster and cement. But I think it was almost more interesting to see it being rebuilt than to see it now in its finished state. It was a learning process that appealed to intelligent visitors.
2. Do you have favorite places in the house or in the garden at different times of day or in different seasons?
By moving millions of cubic feet of earth, by creating different levels and by inventing the dominant canal — 2,000 feet long and 150 feet wide — I not only remade the space but I changed the climate. Each morning, the mist that rises from the canal gives the feeling of being at the seaside. When the sun sets on the Cascade d’Or, you have the illusion that spotlights have been turned on to illuminate the waterfall, but it’s simply natural. The sun has already set, and the water is a luminous gold against the dark of night. The view from the house changes with each hour and is beautiful in every season. In the book, 10 photos of the lake are taken from the same point of view — each one is different. And when the chateau is viewed from the far end of the canal, you have the impression that it’s floating on the water. I love light, and the space indoors is created around it. I am an architect by default. I can’t put a curtain or a color in a room if the door isn’t in the right place. I don’t have one room I prefer. The chateau is a global harmony. And I’ve filled it with masterpieces, but I don’t have a preference among the objects. I can’t take one away — they are all in their rightful place.
3. The garden — on which you have collaborated with landscape designer Patrick Pottier, who is also your partner in life — is as unbelievable as the château.
It’s more unbelievable. There has not been a private or even public garden restoration on this scale — transforming nearly 100 acres — since Le Nôtre’s Vaux le Vicomte was brought back to its original magnificence in 1876 and Villandry was restored in 1910. Patrick and I have worked on the garden for 10 years. I designed the spaces, and he has filled them up with the fantasies of a horticulturist. The extraordinary bowers of roses, the millions of flowering shrubs that are permanently in bloom in marvelous colors, the exceptional greenhouses with one of the most beautiful collections of orchids in France; the extravagant kitchen garden with a collection of apple and pear trees worthy of La Quintinie [the creator of Louis XIV’s Potager du Roy] — they’re all Patrick.
4. You’ve been compared to Nicolas Fouquet (who created Vaux le Vicomte); Ludwig, King of Bavaria (serial builder of fairytale castles); and Cardinal Mazarin (a connoisseur collector on a pharaonic scale). How do you see yourself?
I feel closer to the Duc d’Aumale, who rebuilt the Château de Chantilly in the late 19th century, filled it with a collection of Old Master paintings and rare manuscripts and re-created the extensive gardens. When he had finished, he retired to Sicily. He continued to buy objets d’art for the château without ever coming back to see them in situ. That is why I would like to give the house as it is to a foundation perhaps. I can continue to collect, replacing some of the objects with better ones. I’m not frustrated for projects. We do 40 a year. And for the last five years, I have been working at the Château de Versailles with the curators in the grands et petits appartements refurnishing room by room.
5. You admit to making mistakes. Is there one thing in particular you can advise future châtelains to avoid?
I’ll tell you a simple thing: I had a lot of bad ideas, but to have excellent ideas you also have to risk having bad ones. As for my advice, if you want to live a tranquil life, don’t buy a château. But if you want to have an extravagant life — one that will bring you joy others won’t have — restore a château. There’s a phrase of Talleyrand: “No one who did not live through the last years of the Ancien Régime can ever know how sweet life can be.” That is what I wanted.
Château du Champ de Bataille is open to the public from Easter to All Saint’s Day (November 1). For more information, visit chateauduchampdebataille.com
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