Category Archives: Architecture

If It’s Friday, This Must be Fontainebleau

I’m continuing a brief rundown of my 9-day chateau blitz in France, with individual posts to come! Above is Chateau de Chambord, which I think of as The Really Big One With the Spiky Roof.

Francois I built Chambord starting in 1519 and naturally stuck his emblem, the flame-spouting salamander, all over the place. It’s a little short on charm but long on history and the Wow Factor.

Chateau de Langeais is a restored medieval chateau/fortress in a delightful town.

Langeais is most famous as the site of a secret wedding that changed French history: Anne of Brittany married King Charles III, uniting her coveted vast lands with the French crown. And she agreed in writing to marry his successor if Charles died (which he did). A dramatic tableau in the actual wedding hall (with narration every 15 minutes, in English once every hour) explains the characters and why this wedding was a very big deal.

Chateau de Villandry is most famous for its gardens, but the chateau has fine art, too. That’s a bust of Francois I in his armor above.

Chateau de Chaumont was the consolation prize given to Diane de Poitiers after Catherine de Medici kicked her out of the sublime Chenonceau. (See previous post, “Diane de Poitiers vs. Catherine de Medici). Diane hardly stayed at Chaumont, but shrewdly developed and farmed the estate to her great profit.

Later, Chaumont became a regular haunt of nobles and artists like Marcel Proust.

Today, Chaumont has fantastic gardens and art installations. When I visited, the chapel was filled with branches, flowers and beautiful found objects.

Chateau d’Amboise towers over the lively town of Amboise, right on the River Loire. Francois I brought Leonardo da Vinci here from Italy, to keep him company during the last 3 years of Leonardo’s life.

Leonardo died in 1519 at the mansion Francois I gave him, Clos Luce, just up the street from the chateau. He was buried on the chateau grounds.

Chateau de Gaillard, down a side street near Clos Luce, is really more of a mansion. But it was the home of the master gardener Charles III brought from Italy to do up his chateau grounds.

Dom Pacello was a monk with a serious green thumb. Among other great ideas, he brought orange trees to France. After Charles III died, Dom Pacello served his successors, Louis XII and Francois “The Builder” I. Today, the family renovating the estate is cultivating many of the 60 varieties of citruses grown by the gardener monk.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was the place that inspired Louis XIV, the Sun King, to go all out in building the Palace of Versailles.

Well, truth be told, it was more appropriation than inspiration. Louis was furious that his Lord High Treasurer, Nicolas Fouquet, had nicer digs than anything the King had at the time. So after a particularly grand blowout party in which Nicolas pulled out all the stops to amuse Louis, Louis turned around and had him arrested and imprisoned for life (overruling the court that failed to convict him). Then Louis made off with the great architect Louis le Vau, the painter and designer Charles le Brun, and the landscaper Andre le Notre, along with all the furniture. He even dug up the bushes.

Nearby Fontainebleau has been the home of French kings for centuries. There’s always renovation going on. But I really could not see the point of a short section of ugly fence right in front of the famous double staircase where Napoleon Bonaparte spoke to his troops after he was forced to abdicate. I think the fence was put there just to discourage selfies.

Napoleon especially liked Fontainebleau. There’s an absorbing series of rooms about him on display right now. Is that one of Napoleon’s outfits above? No. It’s just how he dressed one of his more important servants. The Emperor had style, for sure.

My very least favorite sight on this trip was the Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, where nobles and royalty once retreated to the monastic life. I saw it years ago, and expected it to be more developed for visitors now. It is, but not in a good way, at least for me.

The whole site was a fearsome prison for 150 years, only closed in 1963. The cavernous spaces were filled with prison cells for all that time.

Prisoners did forced labor in complete silence and were subject to terrible abuse. Life expectancy was 8 months. A series of exhibits in the cloister claims all kinds of similarities between prison life and monastic life. I don’t see it. Monastic life was usually (of course not always) a free choice of nuns and monks, and it was based on prayer and contemplation, not subjugation and punishment. I found the exhibit offensive and felt like the place was haunted by the thousands of prisoners who suffered and died there.

It’s true that Eleanor of Aquitaine spent her last days at Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, when it was a very pleasant place, and died there in 1204. Her effigy lies with those of her husband, King Henry II of England, her son, Richard the Lionheart, and Isabella of Angouleme, wife of King John of England. But the monastery was dismantled during the Revolution, and these may not be the actual resting places. Anyway, the space is cold, empty, and unconsecrated.

More serious fans of architecture could spend hours studying the Romanesque abbey, but I probably would not go back.

Kings, queens, nobles and assorted favorites acquired serious real estate over the centuries. Every chateau and abbey and church is one-of-a-kind, like the people who built and lived and worshipped in them. The ones I visited on this trip are just the most famous ones.

I’d like to take another whole trip going to lesser-known and farther-afield chateaux, and also to the churches I didn’t have time for. But I would always carve out a morning to gaze out the leaded-glass windows of beautiful, magical, sublime Chenonceau, draped like a necklace across the River Cher. The kitchens at Chenonceau are even beautiful, and they have that river view.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Penrhyn Castle: A Neo-Norman Victorian Fantasy

I can’t believe I even have a “least favorite” castle, but right now Penrhyn is it. Why would that be? Penrhyn is spectacular in every way. It was built to impress: a fabulous Victorian gingerbread castle in Wales.

Penrhyn is in the very northern part of Wales overlooking Snowdonia. Originally, there was a medieval fortified house on the property. In 1438 the house was expanded into a stone castle and tower. Between 1822 and 1837, the architect Thomas Hopper expanded the building into a “neo-Norman” castle–in other words, a castle like the ones built by William the Conqueror after 1066, in order to show his new British subjects who was in charge.

That’s William above, in the Bayeux Tapestry, lifting his helm to show that he’s still alive during the Battle of Hastings (public domain).

The Tower of London is the best-known example of a Norman castle in Britain. William began the White Tower as a timber fortification almost as soon as he left the battlefield, and work in stone continued until about 1100. It still dominates the Tower complex. (The photo is by Bernard Gagnon, licensed under Creative Commons).

The owner of Penrhyn was the fabulously wealthy George Hay Dawkins-Pennant, who inherited the property and a whole lot of money from his second cousin, Richard Pennant. The money came from Welsh slate mining, from Jamaican sugar, and from Jamaican slavery. (I do realize that a lot of British wealth came from slavery and other ills of the colonial era).

Starting at the entrance, everything about Penrhyn seems overbearing.

The cavernous entrance hall is meant to impress. It does. I found myself wondering whether I was all that welcome, even with my National Trust Pass.

Everything looks somehow overdone. The huge stained glass windows seem like they belong in a cathedral, plus they block the light from outside.

I know the huge entrance hall is meant to be welcoming, but I felt like menacing faces were looming high above me in the arched ceilings.

Even the chairs looked uncomfortable.

Oh, well, I thought, maybe it’s just my silly reaction. I looked at one of the framed photos, which showed a visit by Albert, Prince of Wales, in June 1894. Bertie is the portly fellow in the hat. He was a regular–he obviously liked the place. Maybe I could learn to like it.

Guests would have proceeded into the library for some aristocratic R & R.

There’s the dinner gong! I wonder if I would even hear it, if I was still upstairs checking the mirror in my evening dress and trying to remember which fork to use for which course.

And so to dinner, admiring the fine paintings on all the walls…

…and then coffee and conversation and cards in the drawing room. So what’s not to like? I don’t know exactly. It all seems dark and heavy and confining, without feeling very Norman.

Especially in the stairwells, there are acres of fine stonework and plasterwork. It’s beautiful, but it seems to me that actual Norman architecture is a lot more elegantly austere.

In the family and guest bedrooms, there’s fine wood carving and canopied beds galore.

At least one person found the decor too heavy for her taste: Queen Victoria. The photo above was taken in 1860 by J. J. E. Mayall, public domain.

A one-ton bed was carved from local slate especially for a royal visit. Victoria took one look and refused to sleep in it; she said the slate headboard and footboard looked like tombstones.

Maybe she ended up in the very pretty Lower Indian bedroom instead. That’s beautiful handpainted wallpaper from around 1800. The last Lord Penrhyn chose this as his bedroom. I would have, too.

I’m sure Victoria enjoyed a world-class bathroom–essential for any vacation, especially if it’s tended by an army of discreet servants. I liked the more modest bedrooms and bathrooms better than any of the grander rooms.

I hope the many carved stone faces in the hallways didn’t scare Victoria if she wandered around in the middle of the night.

Maybe she wandered all the way down to the kitchens, and maybe the French chef was still awake, cooking and baking goodies for the royal visit.

Family members lived in the castle until 1951, when the dreaded British “death duty” taxes plus the staggering costs of upkeep, drove them to more modest digs. Penrhyn is now owned and run by the National Trust.

There’s a very entertaining little railroad museum, trains having been important to the family slate business. The photo above shows the open bench car that slate mine workers rode in.

The shiny red car towering over the workers’ car was for mine owners and other bigwigs. They got cushy swivel chairs and stained glass. Sorry, that’s me being judgmental. But if I’m honest, I should admit that I’m very privileged myself. I’m a budget traveler. But I know how fortunate I am to be able to hop on a plane and go pretty much anywhere I want, even if it’s in a too-narrow seat with no legroom. So I really have no business turning up my nose at Victorian luxury.

I’ll visit Penrhyn again if I happen to be nearby. Maybe I’ll be in a better mood and I’ll like the place better. I do love castles, but I like them to be authentic. For my taste, Penrhyn is not–at least not authentically Norman. On the other hand, it’s a reflection of the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. In Penrhyn’s heyday, British business tycoons were Masters of the Universe. That’s about as authentically Victorian as anything gets.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Arts and Crafts Perfection at Standen

If I could move into any house I wanted in the English countryside, I’d take Standen, near East Grinstead in Sussex.

The house has a complicated floor plan, built in stages. I’m not exactly sure what was older and what was newer. The final stage was to link the new building to the original farmhouse on the property, Great Hollybush (I’d have kept that name!)

It is not a particularly grand house–in fact, that is the point. It was built by the architect Philip Webb, a close friend of William Morris, in 1892-94.

The client, James Beale, was a very wealthy solicitor who had made his fortune in London. At age 50, Mr. Beale wanted a beautiful but functional second home in the country for his wife and their seven children. The children were already beginning to marry and move away, but Standen remained the gathering place for children and grandchildren for almost eighty years.

Philip Webb and William Morris had met in their twenties at Oxford. They immediately hit it off, and collaborated on projects for the rest of their working years.

I’d love to hire “The Firm” today. They were the very opposite of the sleek throw-away esthetic of IKEA. (Not that I don’t own plenty of practical IKEA stuff!)

James Beale was a hardworking, pragmatic, sober, simple-living family man. He wanted a comfortable family home, not a showplace. But he was willing to pay for quality.

His idea of luxury was a house big enough to contain the hijinks of his large family and lots of visitors.

The house is large and filled with daylight. The conservatory was a favorite place to lounge and read.

Billiards, anyone? The house had electric lighting from the beginning.

All the fixtures were specially designed, most of them by W. A. S. Benson, who trained under William Morris.

The effect is subtle but beautiful, even in daylight.

The Beales did not need any grand rooms for entertaining; they just wanted to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

Most of the textiles and wallpapers were William Morris designs.

Margaret Beale was creative and handy with any kind of needle.

She kept her children busy making things for the house.

One of the daughters, Maggie, never married. She stayed at Standen and became a skilled artist and designer in her own right.

Maggie’s studio is one of the most pleasant rooms in the house. It seems like she could breeze in at any moment with an idea for a painting or a sofa cushion.

My other favorite room is the Larkspur Bedroom, so named for the William Morris wallpaper. I like the built-in wardrobes and I LOVE the tub in front of the fire (the maids may not have loved lugging pails of water up and down stairs for it).

Mr. Beale and his architect were old-fashioned and a bit frugal. The floor with all the bedrooms had only two “necessary” rooms and one bathroom. (I think bedrooms still had chamber pots and maids still had to deal with them).

The family enjoyed their meals and they were big eaters. The children used to have contests to see who could pack on the most weight from a single meal. The family record was five pounds, put on by one of the boys. (The family dressed for dinner. I guess someone’s satin cummerbund must have felt a little tight after that epic meal).

The children had plenty of room outside to burn energy. There were flower beds and a kitchen garden and woodlands to explore.

Then as now, there were chickens right outside.

And the door was always open to the home the Beales created, where everything was useful or beautiful–or both.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Chirk Castle

Catching-up time: I’m off to England soon, so I’m posting about places I will not see because I’ve seen them before. For a hopeless Anglophile like me, England has way too many stellar sights. Chirk Castle is one of my favorites.

Construction began in 1295, under Roger Mortimer. He was an English army captain who received the land from Edward I, with a mandate to show the recently-subdued Welsh who was in charge. A powerful ring of fortresses grew within a few years on the Marches, the brooding borderlands between England and Wales.

Most of these stone piles are now picturesque ruins, but Chirk has been continuously inhabited since it was finished in 1310.

I’d like to think this emblem, showing a hand above a crown, is from the days of the Mortimers. I’m a “Game of Thrones” fan. Was Roger Mortimer the “Hand of the King?” No, actually the hand emblem is from the late 1500s, when the Myddelton family owned the place and bought themselves a title.

When they added to King James I’s coffers by paying for the title of Baronet, they were entitled to add a red glove to their coat of arms.

The original Roger Mortimer and his namesake nephew both turned against the Crown. The first died in the Tower, and the second was executed as a traitor by Edward III. Three other owners of Chirk were also executed as traitors over the years. It’s easy to imagine the castle being haunted.

In Tudor times, in 1563, Elizabeth I gifted the castle to her favorite, Robert Dudley. Some rooms and parts of the gardens still have a distinctly Tudor look.

After Robert Dudley died, the castle was eventually sold to Sir Thomas Myddelton I. His son, Sir Thomas Myddelton II, found himself in the peculiar position of being ordered to break in and occupy his own castle in 1643. It had been taken by Royalists under Charles I in the English Civil War. Myddelton was ordered to retake it, which he could have done with artillery. But he didn’t feel like bashing his own home to smithereens. Eventually, the Royalists were bribed to leave peacefully, Charles I was executed, and Chirk went on as before. If these walls could talk!

Later, subsequent generations of Myddeltons were forced to rent out their castle to make ends meet, but the family managed to hold on until 1978. Even after giving the castle to the National Trust, family members lived there, and they still actively help manage the castle and grounds. That’s a Lady Mary Myddelton above, circa 1613.

One of her descendants sits, wineglass in hand, in the Bow Drawing Room.

The room is furnished as it was for posh parties in the twenties and thirties.

A gramophone plays dance music, and visitors are invited to make themselves at home.

Maybe we should take a turn in the Long Gallery?

Wait, I heard the dinner gong!

The dining room, last decorated in the 1930s, has entertained the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Augustus John, and any number of other people I would love to meet.

I’m not big on romantic castle ruins, but I’d go back to gloriously UN-ruined Chirk Castle anytime.

The exuberant Baroque Davies Gates, made by two local blacksmiths in 1712, will be waiting.

Swan Maidens at Oslo City Hall

I was just planning on a quick walk-through of the building, which honestly is not to my taste. But the courtyard has sixteen large wood reliefs, each about eight feet tall, by Dagfinn Werenskiold. They portray Norse myths from the 13th century. He had me at the Swan Maidens. Legend has it that three Valkyries appeared on a beach one day in the form of swans. They turned into beautiful women, married three brothers who happened along and couldn’t believe their good fortune, and stayed fourteen years. Then they flew away. I don’t know the end of the story, but the Valkyries are beings that fly over battlefields, deciding who will live and who will die. Did the brothers later fight in battle and get saved? Or had they maybe left the toilet seat up one time too many? The answers are lost in the mists of time.

The Oslo City Hall replaced a slum in the middle of the city, directly on the Oslo Fjord. The exterior style is listed as “Functionalism,” which sums it up. The architects were Arnstein Arbeberg and Magnus Poulsson. It was partially built by 1939, but then World War II intervened and it was finally completed in 1950. The spectacular interior more than makes up for the so-so exterior.

Inside, the grand rooms were decorated by the finest Norwegian artists, chosen by competition. The details above are from Henrik Sorenson’s huge mural “The Nation at Work and Play.”

It dominates the Main Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded every year.

The rear wall features a mural by Alf Rolfson.

I like the “smaller” rooms even better. The Festival Gallery has windows looking out over the fjord, and a beamed and painted ceiling. Of course there are Viking motifs, like this creature inset in the marble floor.

Axel Revold covered the end wall with a mural depicting the long, narrow country of Norway from north to south.

Aage Storstein, a young up-and-coming artist, painted the West Gallery with images of freedom and democracy. I don’t really understand the history or the politics, but a captive princess and a bear depict the centuries that Norway was in union with Denmark (not exactly willingly, it seems).

My favorite room is a smallish one, the East Gallery. Per Krogh considered it his masterpiece.

The beehive represents city life and the rosebush country life.

He painted an uprooted tree as a rose window.

So much for a quick walk-by of a boring city building. I wandered in the Oslo City Hall for a long time. Outside, I admired Dagfinn Werenskiold’s wooden carvings again. How about Odin on his eight-legged horse Sleipner?

Or ponder “Embla,” an elm tree turned into the first human woman in a Nordic creation story.

Her partner was Ask, a man created from an ash tree.

I was so inspired by Norse mythology that when I recently had an art-class assignment to do a painting that tells a story, I tried my own Swan Maidens. They’re creepily faceless right now while I work out how to do noses and eyes and chins and mouths. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy my Nordic memories.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Copenhagen’s Romantic City Hall

My new favorite City Hall is in Copenhagen.

Why do I even have a favorite City Hall? In most cities, it’s about the last place I’d care to visit. I remember a long-ago trip to Winnipeg, Canada, when I spent several frustrating hours in the City Hall dealing with a fender-bender. (The only consolation was that I got to see an actual Canadian Mountie in his spiffy red jacket).

But Scandinavian countries like Denmark are proudly secular societies. City Hall is front and center in people’s lives, much as cathedrals are in other cities.

Martin Nyrop designed the building in National Romantic Style. To me, it looks distinctly Jugendstihl, Art Nouveau, or Arts and Crafts. This is not surprising for a building inaugurated in 1905, the heyday of these artistic movements. In Denmark, the movement was called “Skonvirke,” meaning “aesthetic work.”

A gilded statue of Absalon stands grandly above the main entrance. Absalon (also known, maybe to his buddies, as Axel) lived from 1128 to 1201. He was a warrior, politician, and archbishop–a Renaissance man before there was a Renaissance. He conquered pirates who plagued early Denmark, expanded its territories, built the first fortifications of what is now Copenhagen, and began untangling Denmark from the Holy Roman Empire. I don’t know whether he was also a kingmaker, but King Valdemar I leaned on him for counsel.

Just inside the main entrance, I think Absalon is dispensing good advice. (Or maybe this is the king–I couldn’t find any information and there was no tour going on).

In early December, the great central hall was being set up for an event. Another time I visited, there was a fascinating exhibit about immigrants to Denmark. (I wouldn’t mind emigrating to Denmark myself).

Inside on a weekday, city workers walk up and down beautiful staircases and go calmly about their business in hushed corridors.

Visitors are free to wander, taking in the beauty everywhere.

Some doorways are carved and fitted with elegant hardware.

All the other doorways have colorful painted decoration. No two are the same.

Even a janitor’s hallway slop sink is a thing of beauty.

The great and good are featured in murals, but so are working people. Tycho Brahe, above, lived from 1546 to 1601. He was a Danish nobleman and a great astronomer, but in this most egalitarian country, machinists and laborers are also honored.

Carved workmen trudge up a staircase. I especially like the man carrying a sheet of glass for a window.

Other spaces are more grand, with murals and ceilings celebrating Copenhagen’s history.

An owl stands at the doorway to the city archives. I have a feeling that important papers don’t get lost here in this most civilized City Hall. It’s no wonder that Denmark’s citizens line up at their beautiful City Hall every Saturday to celebrate their weddings. More on that on Valentine’s Day!

Christmas Time in Copenhagen

Danish flags and paper cutouts are popular on Christmas trees.

The upscale Magazin du Nord department store is festooned with paper cutout garlands.

Tivoli Park is full of lights and people.

Right, I’ll be next on the carousel giraffe!

The snow is not real yet at Tivoli, but it’s cold. Pink and purple hyacinths are planted everywhere. Their scent fills the air.

Festive music fills churches.

The Christmas market at the Gustaf Swedish Church is the best weekend party. Church ladies all wear costumes of Swedish districts. I have shawl-and-apron envy!

There are only about 5 million Danes in the entire country. The pace is relaxed, even in Copenhagen. Art galleries are pleasantly uncrowded and stuffed with beautiful things. Above is “Mary with the Christ Child and the Infant St. John” by Maurice Denis, 1898. It’s in the fabulous French collection at the Glyptotek.

Copenhagen’s City Hall is a work of art in itself. I’ll cheerfully wander its hushed halls for an hour anytime.

Cafes are cozy and store windows full of temptations.

Buying a gift? A friendly elf in ruffled pantaloons will wrap it up for you.

Is Copenhagen expensive? Oh, yes. We rented an apartment, ate in a lot, took in free concerts and recitals, and bought Copenhagen cards, which cover all the sights and all the excellent public transportation. It’s manageable and worth it!