Garden Development

La Carmejane was bought using a real estate transaction known as viager. Popular in France, the arrangement allows home owners to sell their property for an initial “down payment” followed by monthly payments for the life of the home owner, who remains in the home until death. Upon the death of the home owner, the buyer takes possession. The arrangement is starkly realistic: viager property listings in France typically include the age of the owner along with the price.

Before they took possession of their new home, the owners had to deal with many stumbling blocks between them and the resident owners still living in the house. One incident, in particular, was of disastrous proportions. After a long dry spell, on May 12 1993 torrential rain soaked the earth of the central garden on the property’s upper level. The water dislodged a boulder below weighing over 1,000 tons. As the boulder fell away, the ramparts it was supporting collapsed. A third of the upper garden washed down the hillside! It took five years and a major engineering feat to repair the damage while retaining the traditional appearance of the wall.

If there was a silver lining to the destruction, it was the opportunity to begin with a blank slate for the new upper- level garden. The couple first retained the services of Nicole de Vésian, a stylish woman who had worked in the Parisian design industry for most of her adult life. After moving to Provence in 1986, she began a second career as a garden designer – a tribute to her prodigious creativity and life energy. After designing her own garden masterpiece, La Louve, she was asked to design several other gardens in the region. Sadly, Nicole took ill before completing her work at La Carmejane. She passed away in 1996, a year before the new owners finally took possession. Though she did not get to work her magic on La Carmejane, her advice was invaluable: “Listen to the stones, and they will speak.”

The new owners brought in a series of creative minds to help with the garden plan. English designers John Brookes and Tim Rees helped with initial ideas about what the garden might become, but it was the magical talent of a local Frenchman, interior designer Michel Biehn, that carried the day. Extraordinarily gifted, Michel was already helping the owners with the interior of the home and, at their request, stepped into the role of garden designer, bringing his talents to the challenging hillside. Working alongside the owners, nurseryman Jean-Claude Appy, plant sculptor and de Vésian protégé Marc Nucera, and mason Max Ellena, Michel transformed La Carmejane into a series of beautiful garden spaces. The various garden “rooms” tucked into the hillside are simple in their impact, never fussy. The ancient history of the site is respected, yet the garden design feels fresh.

This is an extract of an article from The Mediterranean Garden first published in 2014.

Picture: The Mediterranean Garden

 

La Carmejane is one of the most spectacular properties in the Luberon region of Provence. Privately owned, it’s gardens appear often in those expensie coffee table books about the Gardens of Provence.

The website The Mediterranean Garden published this series of article during 2014 and they are really worth re-publishing here on LSW. The journalist is E. Kirsten Honeyman.

Visiting the hilltop property of La Carmejane, one feels as though the last small figure in a lovely set of Russian nesting dolls has been revealed. Modern-day France holds tremendous beauty inside its borders: within this beautiful country, the mediterranean-climate region of Provence is a stunning area, known worldwide for its charm; within Provence, the area of the Luberon Mountains, with its many scenic villages, is ravishing; and within the Luberon sits the medieval hilltop village of Ménerbes, designated one of the “Most Beautiful Villages of France.” Beauty within beauty within beauty. After exploring Ménerbes, with its spectacular views over the surrounding valleys, one might well think that beauty has revealed itself fully, but there is one more heart-stopping “doll” to be unveiled: the castle complex of La Carmejane.

Early history of the region
While the beauty of Ménerbes, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Cavalon Plain, is the draw today, its defensive position high on a rocky promontory has attracted settlers since Neolithic times. It would be difficult to determine exactly when the area was first settled, but the nearby coastal areas of Provence have some of the earliest known sites of human habitation in Europe, dating as far back as one million years BC. The dolmen of La Pitchoune (a megalithic tomb) is situated on the outskirts of Ménerbes, so there is evidence of early human habitation in the immediate area.The Greeks arrived in Provence around 600 BC, founding the town of Massalia, modern-day Marseille. These early immigrants brought a Mediterranean civilisation to the area, introducing the cultivation of grapes, olives, and wheat. The Romans followed after the conquest of Provence by Julius Caesar (58-51 BC). Ménerbes, situated on a hilltop with an elevation of nearly 700 metres (or roughly 2,275 feet), became a strategic Roman outpost on the Via Domitia, the major Roman road through the Cavalon Plain linking Italy and Spain. Under Roman rule, a 200-year period of relative peace known as the Pax Romana (27 BC-180 AD) settled over the region. For the first time, all of Provence had the same language, administrative government, currency and culture. In spite of the chaotic years that followed its downfall, the Roman Empire left an enduring cultural signature on the region.

 

History of La Carmejane 

After the fall of the Roman Empire, fear ruled Provence. Waves of barbarian invaders swept over the region, and the local residents moved out of the valleys and into fortified hilltop villages. The stone structures of the Provençal villes perchées, so charming to the modern-day visitor, acknowledge the intense anxiety of those times. Anyone who has ever moved stones in the garden knows that no one would erect such structures on the top of a rocky outcrop without terror gripping his heart. The property of La Carmejane has a fear-filled history, as jumbled as its stones.

La Carmejane was not built all at once, but was erected over hundreds of years beginning in the 11th century. Changes were made according to evolving warfare and lifestyle needs. Around 1020, the first feudal castle was built on the site. It consisted of a simple stone tower with arrow-slit windows and crenellated battlements surrounded by a huge stone wall – all with the sole purpose of defence. In the 13th century, the original defensive tower underwent profound changes, and the property became a fortified residence.

The power of the Catholic Church was ascendant during the 14th century and had a significant impact on Provence and La Carmejane. Political infighting and the election of a French pope resulted in the moving of the papal seat from Rome to Avignon in 1309. The popes brought tremendous power and wealth to Avignon, which had a ripple effect on the region. Even after the papal seat returned to Rome in 1376, the Catholic Church continued to rule a large area of Provence known as the Comtat Venaissin. The village of Ménerbes profited from this association with the church, but then sank under the effects of the plague and the religious wars sweeping all of Europe in the ensuing decades. The region finally emerged from this black period in the 15th century, which saw a revitalisation of Provence.

The first Carmejanes settled in Provence in 1499. Jehan I de Carmejane had been living in Fumel, near Agen in the province of Guyenne and Gascony, now the Lot-et-Garonne département. As devout Catholics, they chose to live in the Comtat Venaissin and settled in Ménerbes. The family came not only seeking protection from the Church, but also wishing to reinforce the papal presence in both Ménerbes and Avignon. They bought the tower, the maison forte, and the residential castle, as well as extensive farm holdings around the village. Soon after taking possession of the property, they began a series of renovations designed to transform the complex from a medieval fortification to a Renaissance showplace. Today, the only evidence of the superb sixteenth-century castle that resulted is a 1577 watercolour found in the Bibliothèque Inguimbertine in Carpentras. Between 1499 and 1830, nine generations of the Carmejane family lived on the property and made their architectural mark on the complex.

Over the 800-year period of its existence, the footprint of La Carmejane underwent countless transformations from defensive tower, to fortified residence, to Renaissance castle, to carved-up apartments. By the time the current owners purchased it in 1987, the house was but a shadow of its sixteenth-century glory, but it still held magic and promise.

 

The fourth artist from Ménerbes…

Finally the sad fate of the French-Russian painter Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955) further suggests that living in Ménerbes is not sufficient to lift your spirits. The abstract artist bought Le Castellet, the little château at the top of the village, in 1953 but didn’t stay long and committed suicide two years later (the property is still owned by his family).

Nicolas de Stael was in fact Baron Nikolai Vladimirovich Staël von Holstein and was  born on January 5, 1914 (December 23, 1913) in St. Petersburg. He died on March 14, 1955 in Antibes.

The career of Nicolas de Staël spread over fifteen years – from 1940 to 1955 – through more than a thousand works, influenced by Cézanne, Matisse, van Gogh, Braque, Soutine and the wild beasts, but also by the Dutch masters Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hercules Seghers.

His painting constantly evolved. From the dark colors of his beginnings (Porte sans porte, 1946 or Ressentiment, 1947), it leads to the exaltation of colour as in the Large Orange Nude (1953). His canvases are characterized by thick layers of paint superimposed, passing from impasto to knife (Compositions, 1945-1949) to a more fluid painting (Agrigento, 1954, Railroad by the sea, Sunset, 1955).

Refusing labels he worked very hard and was notorious for destroying as many works as he painted. “In his frenzy of painting he constantly meets the abyss, finding chords that no one else had dared to attempt before. Painting tense, nervous, always on the wire of the razor, like the last paintings of Vincent van Gogh that he joins in the suicide “, said an art historian.

Nicolas de Staël died at the age of 41, throwing himself from the terrace of the building where he had his lodging and one of his workshops in Antibes. He is buried in the Montrouge cemetery.

Dora Maar (1907-1997) was one of Picasso’s most influential mistresses and muses. But simply to describe her as that is to belittle a woman who was a successful and acclaimed photographer in her own right.

Dora Maar photographed by Man Ray

Born Henriette Theodora Markovitch in Paris (her father came from the former Yugoslavia), Maar studied art. She became a busy photographer with her own studio, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jean Renoir, Man Ray and Georges Bataille. Pictured: Dora Maar photographed by Man Ray in 1936.

Her own work was inspired by surrealism and also political activism; she captured haunting images of the poor in Barcelona, Paris and London. Then she met Picasso in 1935.

During their nine-year relationship Maar photographed Picasso at different stages of the creation of his masterpiece, Guernica and was painted by him, often in tears as the model for his great Weeping Woman cycle. Their relationship was stormy.

Female bather by Dora Maar

Many critics feel that Picasso wrecked Maar’s career by encouraging her to give up photography, at which she excelled, and to focus on painting in a pale imitation of his own style.

Like Camille Claudel the sculptress and mistress of Auguste Rodin, she was overshadowed and diminished by her more famous lover. Maar realised this herself, once saying, “I wasn’t Picasso’s mistress, he was just my master.” Pictured: Female Bather by Dora Maar, circa 1935.

When they split up she suffered a nervous depression, was hospitalised and psychoanalysed by Jacques Lacan, before finding comfort in the arms of the Catholic church. Perhaps out of vestigial guilt or an attempt to continue to control her, Picasso bought her a large, beautiful 18th century house in Ménerbes.

Maar divided her time between there and Paris, living as a virtual recluse while continuing to paint. The images she produced there were much bleaker than those of Eakin or Downing. After her death this house was bought by Nancy Negley, an American philanthropist and resident of Houston and Ménerbes, who established an art foundation there.

Dora Maar house in Menerbes

Administered by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Brown Foundation Fellows Program provides residences of one to three months for painters, scholars and writers and opens its doors to the public at intervals for them to meet the visiting artists.

Newsflash: 16 May 2017: A portrait of Dora Maar, painted by Picasso sold for $45m yesterday in Christies New York. It had many years ago been in the hands of the Nazis but had found its way into the ownership of a NY industrialist, who has now parted company with the piece.

Source: www.marvellous-provence.com

 

The American painter Jane Eakin (1919-2002) lived in Ménerbes for 40 years and now her blue-shuttered house in a steep, narrow street, the montée Sainte Barbe, has been turned into a charming museum, the Maison Jane Eakin.

Left much as it was when she was working there, the house is jam-packed with her sun-drenched paintings and personal effects and is convincing proof – if proof were still needed – of the tonic effect of moving to the South of France.

Eakin married a distinguished New York journalist, Robert Kleiman, who was based in Paris in the 1950s but, expected to give up painting and become a society hostess, Jane was ill at ease there.

After her divorce, she had a long relationship with the violinist and conductor Isaac Stern, but this too eventually ended when she was unable to give him children (the couple remained close, however).

Nude in an Orange Hat by Jane Eakin

Eakin was understandably feeling low when a friend and neighbour, her fellow-artist Joe Downing, told her about the hill village in the Luberon where he had a house. She went down to see Ménerbes, and was sold.

She left the sophisticated and glamorous circles she had known in Paris to spend the rest of her life there as an active and popular member of the community. Pictured: Sylvie with Grapes (top left) and Nude in an Orange Hat (right).

When she died, Eakin left her house and paintings to the village she loved. About a hundred of her pieces are on display there in every available corner; the Town Hall owns about twice as many again, which are currently kept in store. Some members of the Jane Eakin Foundation which runs the museum, knew her personally and will be delighted to talk about her to visitors.

The ground floor of the Maison Jane Eakin has an introductory area with photographs and souvenirs in her former kitchen, filled with fruit and flowers just as the artist liked it. Next is a room of posters of her early exhibitions, simply marked Eakin in case anyone was still prejudiced against female artists. Her Paris paintings are here too.

These are unsurprisingly rather gloomy, but the later work on the upper floors – impressionist portraits and landscapes glowing with colour and light – shows how Eakin’s art bloomed when she arrived in the South.

“I have hugged life to me and had the joy of feeling life hug me back,” Eakin wrote the year before she died, and you can certainly see that in her art.

Her work wasn’t just about an idyllic, almost fantasy vision of Provence. Other displays show Eakin’s brief early flirtation with cubism or a book of wryly satirical New Yorker-ish cartoons about a woman’s lot with the self-explanatory title I Do All The Work Around Here (and an introduction by Danny Kaye). Watch out, too, for vivid portraits of a watchful Jean Seberg, playing an artist in the 1963 film In the French Style and of a dowager-like Alice B Toklas.

Jane Eakin studio in Menerbes

On the first floor are Eakin’s open-plan bedroom, an office with furniture brightly painted by her and the guest bedroom, now a screening room where you can watch a film (subtitled in English) about the artist. On the top floor her airy studio, pictured, overlooks the mountains.

This is a typical hill-village house, narrow, steep and troglodyte (built into the rock-face) and so the visit isn’t suitable for anyone with restricted mobility. Eakin herself became bedridden and couldn’t cope with the stairs at the end of her life.

The Maison Jane Eakin is open every summer from May to October and organises a lively programme of cultural events both at the house itself and at other venues in Ménerbes such as La Maison de la Truffe et du Vin.

Source: www.marvellous-provence.com

2017 marks the 10th anniversary of Joe Downing, an acclaimed American painter’s death. Jo made Ménerbes his home.

Joe Downing (1925-2007) lived in Ménerbes even longer than Eakin. Born in the small town of Horse Cave, Kentucky, he served in Europe during the Second World War and settled in Paris and Ménerbes soon afterwards.

Downing first studied optometry and, after he decided to become an artist, specialised in brilliantly coloured abstract pieces that draw on that training to play with refraction, colour and light. Pictured: Untitled (1973), Musée Unterlinden, Colmar.

Untitled by Joe Downing

He also loved to paint on unusual surfaces such as old doors and windows, ceramic and terracotta tiles and even leather.

Different though their styles were in most other ways, his luminous palette was, like Eakin’s, inspired by Provence, “Some artists paint death and violence – two facts of modern life,” Downing said at the opening of one of his shows. “I paint the sunshine”.

His work – praised by Picasso among others – hangs in galleries around the world, including the Smithsonian in Washington, the Museums of Modern Art in New York and Paris, the National Fine Arts Gallery in Sydney, Australia and the Musée Calvert in Avignon.

You can’t see it in Ménerbes (unless there happens to be a special exhibition on) but Downing is honoured with a tiny garden in his name opposite the Dora Maar House.

Source: www.marvellous-provence.com

Note: During the summer of 2017, there will be an exhibition and homage to Jo Downing at the Ménerbes Maison de la Truffe et du Vin – details to follow.

We’re back – sorry for the hiatus……

48 hours of frost has wreaked havoc over large parts of France’s precious vineyards. Here in the Luberon, certain estates have lost up to 80% of ths year’s crop.

Here’s an amazing sight – in Chablis, hundreds of oil heaters warming the crops.

I’m indebted to a loyal reader for this sequel to the N7 story published on 15 April:

Spotted in the Washington Post, no less.

In the otherwise ancient town of Piolenc, situated in the Vaucluse just north of Orange, I stopped in an old garage that serves as a collection point of nostalgia from another era of French motoring. The Musee Memoire de la Nationale 7 (literally: Memory Museum of the National 7) is a collection of cars, campers, motorized bicycles, photos, posters and paraphernalia run by a group of retirees.

“There are two kinds of people,” Raymond Rolland, the president of the museum association, told me. “There are the people who are in a hurry, and there are the people who take their time to see things.”

Of course, Rolland, who sees the world as being in a big hurry, longs for the days when families took picnics and camped along the side of the road as they departed for languorous summer breaks.

As afternoon faded, I drove past the Roman arc de triomphe in Orange, skirted Avignon and followed the road through bustling Aix-en-Provence. This stretch was one of the most nourishing, with its miles of platane alleys and fruit orchards backed by the dramatic silhouette of the nearby Luberon Mountains.

Continuing past Aix through stands of Mediterranean pines rooted in red soil, I watched Mont Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne’s favorite landscape subject, loom with a violet glow.

I stopped for the night in Saint-Maximin-La-Sainte-Baume to continue the next morning through the vineyards and hilly landscapes of Provence’s Var. At Frejus, with its massive Roman arena now used for bullfights and concerts, I saw the first strip of blue Mediterranean Sea through a line of modern condos. I drove toward it, leaving the N7 to make my way along the coast. Here at land’s end, I felt I had arrived — just like all the people in those buildings, who I imagined had taken that same road and never turned back.

Camuto is a writer based in France. His next book, “Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey,” is to be published in September.

Thanks Bill!

In the days before autoroutes and (expensive) toll gates, the main thoroughfare in France was the Route National 7, bisecting the country from Paris in the north towards the sunny south.

The recent Salon d’Auto in Avignon had a memorial to this iconic route and inaugurated an annual pilgrimage with vintage cars to traverse the old routes. All of 1,000km in length it finished in Menton on the Italian border. Other names were the Blue Route, or the route of Holidays, signifying that it was packed during the summer vacation period as the Parisians headed for the coast, and the Rhone Valley via the central city of Lyon.

On this route, and founded in 1930 was the famous restaurant Les Frères Troisgros. Other starred restaurants by the likes of Paul Bocuse were also placed strategically on this Route – and, of course, the Michelin Guide originated from the French love of driving and holidaying.

 

We’ve been watching this statue of Pan for 6 years at a stone vendor in Cavaillon, at the mouth of the Luberon Valley. Will they sell now at a ‘reasonable’ price, or won’t they? Negotiating with a Frenchman is an interesting experience, you would think he would want to move his stock! But, then maybe no!

In Greek religion and mythology, Pan  is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, nature of mountain wilds and rustic music, and companion of the nymphs.His name originates within the ancient Greek language, from the word paein meaning “to pasture”; the modern word “panic” is derived from the name. He has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, in the same manner as a faun or satyr. With his homeland in rustic Arcadia, he is also recognized as the god of fields, groves, and wooded glens; because of this, Pan is connected to fertility and the season of spring. The ancient Greeks also considered Pan to be the god of theatrical criticism and impromptus.

In Roman religion and myth, Pan’s counterpart was Faunus, a nature god who was the father of Bona Dea, sometimes identified as Fauna; he was also closely associated with Sylvanus, due to their similar relationships with woodlands. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Pan became a significant figure in the Romantic movement of western Europe and also in the 20th-century Neopagan movement.

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