Article from Country Life



The dining room. One of a suite of three intact schemes of the 1860s on the ground floor. Madame de MAUVESIN

It is not obvious the mighty, early-14th-century exterior of Roquetaillade that it contains some of the richest Second Empire interiors in France. These were designed from 1864 by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the restorer of Pierrefonds, and his pupil-assistant, Edmond Duthoit.

The château neuf at Roquetaillade, near Bordeaux, has always had the character of being both a fortress and a palace. Its superb, gaunt silhouette at once suggests its military strength. From its chalky bluff, the castle dominates the little valley of the Brion, a tributary of the Garonne. When you approach from the north-east, its tall central tower can be seen from a distance above the vineyards and pine trees on the edge of the Graves winemaking area. On this side the land rises more gently, but Roquetaillade was protected by deep moats, sometimes quarried out of the bedrock. To the historian Leo Drouyn, writing in his study of Aquitaine castles, La guienne militaire (1865), the château neuf was one of the finest early-14th-century structures in France: "One could not, given the means of attack then in use, find anything more simple, more comfortable and more strong.

As well as describing Roquetaillade, Drouyn also helped initiate the reinstatement of the château's palatial quality with the creation of some of the richest Second Empire interiors in France—hardly to be guessed at from its sober exterior. For, having been visiting and drawing the castle since 1845, he recommended Viollet-le-Duc as the architect to restore it 20 years later. Fortunately the outside was sufficiently intact not to suffer too harshly from Viollet's often doctrinaire handling of old buildings, while the sumptuous interiors, for which he was assisted by his pupil Duthoit, show a different and more sympathetic aspect of his response to the Middle Ages.

According to an ancient chronicle cited by Drouyn, the château neuf was begun in 1306 by one of the La Mota family, perhaps Cardinal Gaillard. The date is plausible, for it was in the previous year that Cardinal Gaillard's uncle Bertrand de Got, Bishop of Bordeaux, was elected Pope as Clement V. The latter seems to have been born only a couple of miles from Roquetaillade, at Villandraut, where he erected a castle. Other evidence of the Pope's interest in the area are the choir at the cathedral of Bazas, where his brother-in-law, Guillaume-Anaud, was Bishop, and the building of the then collegiate church at Uzeste, where his body is buried. As Pope Clement V he is remembered for removing the curia to Avignon, beginning its 70 years of "Babylonish captivity".

From this time on the already powerful and wide-spreading family of the La Motas was further enriched by church appointments, some in England. Gaillard, appointed Cardinal in 1316, was also Archdeacon of Oxford and stubbornly fought a 20-year legal battle to retain prerogatives that had been transferred to the university by the Bishop of Lincoln. When Amanieu La Mota was Archbishop of Bordeaux in the 1350s, 16% of the archepiscopal revenues went to maintaining his family, without taking what was spent on victuals into account.

The château neuf at Roquetaillade rose above a complex of buildings. Only a few dozen yards to the west stood an earlier castle, the château vieux, of which the ruins were later converted into stables. It was probably begun in the 12th century, but the machicolation of the tall square tower indicates that it was at least altered after the château neuf was completed, for machicolation was not introduced to this region until about 1315 and it was not originally employed on the château neuf. Around the skirts of both structures and within the enclosure probably formed by an outer curtain wall clustered the houses of a little, one-street village—the "castelnau" characteristic of Bordelaise military architecture. Nothing of these dwellings remains today, however, and the abruptness with which the château rises from its lawn makes its bulk all the more impressive.

The eye-an English eye at any rate-seizes first on the tall central keep. Its battlements are shown on the earliest view of the château, from an estate map of 1817, and from their close spacing would seem to be original. As Jacques Gardelles, Jean-Claude Lasserre and Jean Bernard Marquette analyse in Roquetaillade (1981), published by the University of Bordeaux, the new château was both smaller and in some details less finely finished than Clement V's Villandraut. The towers are weaker, generally without interior vaults, and they project less; the moat was not so strongly built and the entrance less securely protected. But the Pope's castle was built on the plan of the Edwardian castles in Wales, perhaps by some of the same engineers. The means of defence were entirely concentrated on the curtain walls to permit the building of palatial domestic quarters inside.

At Roquetaillade, by contrast, the keep not only provided a second line of defence but, because of its great height, a further point from which the outer walls could be protected. Its form is square so that each of its sides faces one of the outer walls. In this it prefigures the great fortification of the later 14th century, at Vincennes, the Bastille and Montaner. Yet the absence of machicolation indicates that the date must be prior or very close to 1315. (Gardelles, Lasserre and Marquette suggest a date of 1316-25.)

The present crenellation and machicolation of the walls was one of the relatively few additions made in Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's restoration campaign for the Marquis Lodoïs de Mauvesin, a rich Périgord nobleman who had married a descendant of Roquetaillade's 18th-century owners. Portraits show him as elegant, bearded, somewhat brooding; her as conventionally charming and wearing a dress of mauve silk —neither betray symptoms of an interest in Gothic. The Second Empire was a golden age for wine: prices were buoyant, international financiers like the Rothschilds and the Péreires had begun buying vineyards; phylloxera had yet to strike. With their Bordeaux estates the de Mauvesins were doing well.

Even without Drouyn's recommendation it might have been expected that the de Mauvesins should have gone to Viollet. In 1864 he was 50, heroically active as architect, restorer, scholar and polemicist, and committed to Gothic as a logical and perfect structural system which was therefore fully compatible with the use of modern techniques. Among the huge number of religious buildings that passed under his hand were Notre Dame and the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, and he had also already worked in the Bordeaux area—as indeed in almost every other quarter of France.

He was not unknown as a designer of châteaux, as Dr Robin Middleton has described in AA Files 6 (1984): as well as Gothic his range encompassed the Louis XIII, English cottage and Swiss chalet styles. And, most importantly for a rich and fashionable couple with a medieval castle to modernise, he had, since 1862, been restoring and decorating the château of Pierrefonds for the Emperor and Empress themselves.

The career of Edmond-Clément-Marie-Louis Duthoit has been described by B. Bergdoll in The Beaux-Arts (edited by Robin 1 Middleton, 1982). He came from a family of sculptors who had worked often with Viollet-le-Duc: at his birth in 1837 his mother had a Gothic chapel built in the attic. Viollet recognised the young Duthoit's potential and, after Duthoit had spent a spell in the family workshop, saw that he was trained as an architect in his own short-lived atelier. Then he recommended him as a draughts-man to the archaeologist Comte Melchior de Vogué, who was planning a long expedition to Syria and Lebanon in 1861.
Having entered Viollet's office, it was Duthoit who was sent to measure Roquetaillade in 1864. But he was away on another expedition, this time to Assos in Greece, when work began in 1865.

On his return he again went into the Viollet office and in the first phases of work at Roquetaillade he served in a subordinate role, realising Viollet's intentions. Viollet referred to him as "mon jeune aide-de-camp" in correspondence. A letter from Duthoit dated May 5, 1870, shows that even after he was entrusted with designing rooms, the results were vetted by the master. The frieze for the Grande Salle or Salle Synodiale was to have represented a synod, but Viollet felt that "this series of seated bonhommes would be very monotonous" and suggested "une réception de Clément VII [sic] à Roquetaillade".

In a famous passage in his Dictionnaire Viollet wrote that "To restore a building . . . is to put it back to a complete state whichcould never have existed at any given moment". Old drawings show that before restoration Roquetaillade had rather charming pantiled roofs to the towers and flat-topped walls. In addition to the crenellation and machicolation already mentioned, Viollet enlarged and Gothicised the windows and added a machicolated porch on the south elevation. But otherwise the exterior was respected.

Inside, perhaps the only undertaking to offend purists was the creation of the staircase within the square central keep. This involved piercing a door and window onto the relatively small internal courtyard. Light from the window pours onto a first-floor gallery and then into the central well of the staircase, which rises up round the walls. It had long been Viollet's ambition to realise a square staircase: he had sketched one in projects for Lauture and Warwkworth Castle. Functionally, with only a couple of inconveniently placed spiral staircase before, it was necessary to give access to the Grande Salle with its adjacent salon on the first floor. The walls are grey and jointed in imitation of stone and the vault decorated in tones of buff and olive green.

When Viollet paid a visit of inspection while en route for Toulose, Mme de Mauvesin carefully noted all the great man's responses for the sake of her husband, who was then ill. The staircase "he found light and beautiful and was enchanted by the effect of his openings". The sumptuous lantern suspended by swans (a reference to the de Mauvesin crest) was designed by Duthoit, in a more eclectic taste than Viollet's, in 1872.

The Grand Salle and the salon are the only rooms to show any significant evidence of activity between the Middle Ages and the 19th century. Both contain immense fireplaces in stone, emblazoned with military trophies, garlands and statues. That in the Grande Salle, with no fewer than three pediments (the smallest bearing reclining figures ultimately derived from Michelangelo), amalgamates elements of design from two fireplaces sculpted in 1606 for the nearby Château de Cadillac.

Duthoit's Salon des Beaux-Arts water-colour shows the decorative scheme he proposed, in colours of terracotta, stone and blue. Bonnet et Vincent, the Bordeaux firm who were responsible for framing the painted canvas supplied by Nicolle of Paris, called this room the Salle de Musée, and among the furniture can be seen cabinets and a stand with rotating panels for the display of watercolours. "The grande salle astonished him," wrote Madame de Mauvesin in her note of Viollet's visit. "He did not find it too high despite its 10 metres"—a puzzling comment since shape of the basic of the room had not changed and he had presumably seen it before.

The Grand Salle would have been Roquetaillade's climax of grandeur, but the scheme was not finished before the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 halted work. What survives in its entirety, however, is the superb suite of three rooms—two bedrooms separated by the dining room—along the ground floor of the south-east front. All are divided by great, low-springing arches which have been ingeniously put to good use in the painted scheme. The dining room was one of the first interiors at Roquetaillade to be completed, and since Viollet was meanwhile engaged on Pierrefonds many motifs echo those of the imperial château, particularly the Salle des Preuses.

But whereas Pierrefonds impresses the visitor by its massive scale–none of the more intimate rooms having been finished before work there also stopped in 1870—the dining room, like the Pink Bedroom and the Green Bedroom, gives a sense of the comfort that the opulent Second Empire expected even of a décor in Gothic. One does not think d Viollet's schemes as pretty but here the armorial trees and creatures painted against a blue background undoubtedly merit the adjective. In the medieval manner, the heavy velvet curtains to the doors and windows swing on brass poles (the arrangement is illustrated in a plate in Viollet's Dictionnaire du mobilier showing a "château bedroom of the 12th century”); but the set of 24 oak dining chairs are equipped with castors—a typical piece of Viollet rationalism.

Created in 1868-69, the Pink Bedroom and the Green Bedroom—the former feminine, the latter masculine—show Duthoit in full stride. Into a Gothic ensemble much indebted to Viollet's Dictionnaire du mobilier he blended some of the Moorish motifs from his travels, notably in the ceiling of the Pink Bedroom. Perhaps, too, the almost savage palette of Green Bedroom, dominated by olive green, black and red, shows an Islamic influence. "My Arabic style," Dr Middleton quotes him as saying, "has a touch of the Gothic, and my Gothic an after-taste of Arabic or Byzantine."

The furniture, made by Tricot and Jeancourt in Paris, was illustrated in a French architectural paper and reviewed by another Viollet pupil, Anatole de Baudot, who praised it for its simplicity. Only against the background of the other places shown in the Second Empire Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1978 can one appreciate the truth of this comment; a comparison could also be made with the entrancing, busy fantasy of Burges's contemporary rooms at Cardiff Castle, which were also influenced by Viollet—although beside these all other 19th-century Gothic interiors look slightly stiff. The simplicity was not easy to achieve: innumerable coats of lacquer went to create the white finish of the beds and chairs in the Pink Bedroom.

Although the bills show that work continued after the 1870 war, the era of social flamboyance had ended and the first-floor rooms remained unfinished. However, from 1875-77 Duthoit did take up Viollet's ideas for the Romanesque chapel, his taste for the Islamic slipping the leash in the resplendent and unrestrained mooresque ceiling.

The interiors at Roquetaillade are among the rarest of their date in France. The present owner's recent decision to move into the castle and open it more extensively to the public will, happily, ensure their survival.

The salon watercolour. Rich colours and black wood denoted the masculine character of the room. The green bedroom. Vine leaves on the soffit are a reference to the family's Bordeaux estates.