Living with Antiques: Eighteenth-Century Modern

Joan DeJean

Joan DeJean Living with Antiques

  • Fig. 1. Grand salon at Montgeoffroy. The chairs are all by the Paris menuisier Jean-Baptiste Gourdin (maître 1748), 1772–1775. Above the mantel hangs a portrait of the maréchal de Contades’s daughter Françoise-Marie-Gertrude de Contades (1727–1776), later comtesse de Plouër. At the right is one of three matching marble-topped console tables original to the room, and just visible in the foreground is the trictrac table.

  • Fig. 2. Château de Montgeoffroy, Mazé, Maine-et-Loire, France, designed by Jean-Benoît-Vincent (sometimes called Nicolas) Barré (c. 1732–1824), built 1772–1776 for Louis Georges Érasme (1704–1795), marquis de Contades and maréchal de France.

  • Fig. 3. This cabriole armchair by Gourdin, 1772–1775, is one of the few pieces in the château to show the early neoclassical influence known as the goût grec. The upholstery fabric is by Pierre Frey.

  • Fig. 4. View along the window wall of the grand salon. The floor is a variation of parquet de Versailles

  • Fig. 5. Detail of the first page of the inventory of
    the grand salon in the 1775 inventory of the château
    de Montgeoffroy. Photograph by the author.

  • Fig. 6. The maréchal loved the game that was also a favorite of French kings, billiards. His château’s billiard room features seventeenth-century Aubusson tapestries and a full-length portrait of Louis XIII by Frans Pourbus the Younger (1569–1622); the king’s favorite hunting dog was a gift from a member of the Contades family.

  • Fig. 7. Eighteenth-century ivory scorecard for trictrac.
    Author’s photograph.

  • Fig. 8. Barré included this sumptuous marble buffet outside the dining room to aid in the cooling and serving of wine. He used a similar one in the Paris dining room of the celebrated gourmand Grimod de La Reynière (1758–1837).

  • Fig. 9. The 1775 inventory of the château’s contents ends with a long list of the kitchen’s many copper pots and utensils. Today, the eighteenth-century pots still gleam on the room’s walls.

  • Fig. 10. In the eighteenth century beds suitable for only one person were placed lengthwise in bed niches. This niche has been adapted to accommodate a modern double bed. The “toilette” armchairs with caned backs were made by Noël-Toussaint Porrot (maître 1761) in his workshop on the rue Pont-aux-Choux in Paris. The cane was easily cleaned after the heavy applications of silvery powder used on aristocrats’ hair.

  • Fig. 11. Detail of the hand-printed and painted eighteenth-century Indian wallpaper that survives in one of the first-floor rooms. Author’s photograph.

  • Fig. 12. The preferred eighteenth-century decorating style for French bedrooms was the use of the same colorful cotton textile on the bed,
    walls, and for window hangings and upholstery. The fabrics in use in Montgeoffroy’s bedrooms today are all reproductions by Pierre Frey/Braquenié of originals made in India for the French market.

  • Fig. 13. Numerous original bergères, a favorite seating form of eighteenth-century Frenchwomen, survive throughout the château.

  • Fig. 14. Montgeoffroy’s grand staircase.

  • Fig. 15. This kind of bed with a flying tester is variously called a lit d’ange or, later, a lit à la duchesse.

I first visited the château de Montgeoffroy in the summer of 2006 when I was researching a book about the eighteenth-century French home. I found there something I would not have thought possible: an eighteenth-century residence so perfectly preserved that, as you walk through its rooms, you have the feeling of stepping right into what is often regarded as the golden age of French architecture, interior decoration, and decorative arts.

The story of Montgeoffroy is bound up with the individual for whom it was built: Louis Georges Érasme, marquis de Contades. Great military man (as maréchal de France, he led the French army during most of the Seven Years’ War); bon vivant (pâté de foie gras was invented by his chef and was originally known as “pâté à la Contades”); and, something exceedingly rare among French aristocrats in the decades preceding the Revolution of 1789, a man who managed his affairs with such care that his income always far exceeded his expenditures.

The extraordinary stylistic unity that characterizes Montgeoffroy is a direct result of the maréchal’s sound business practices. In 1772, when he decided to tear down and rebuild the central part of a family château in the Loire Valley near Angers, he had the funds available to plan his new residence, down to the smallest detail, and to pay for everything all at once. He chose a fashionable Parisian architect, Jean-Benôit-Vincent (sometimes called Nicolas) Barré, who had recently completed the plans for the Royal Square in Brussels, as well as the grand Parisian residence of the renowned gourmand Grimod de La Reynière. The maréchal ordered his furniture from equally fashionable menuisiers and ébénistes: Jean-Baptiste Gourdin was responsible for the vast majority of the seat furniture; Pierre Garnier (1725–1800), personal cabinetmaker of the marquis de Marigny (1727–1781), produced most of the commodes in his workshop on the rue Neuve des Petits-Champs near the Louvre.

The maréchal knew how to command troops. As a result, the work on his château proceeded with military efficiency. In just four years everything—even the château’s interior decoration—had been completed. Its furnishings—down to the copper pots in the kitchen and the call bells to summon servants—had all been delivered. The château de Montgeoffroy is thus a perfectly unified ensemble, a textbook example of eighteenth-century French architecture and decorative arts from a moment when French supremacy over those domains was recognized all over Europe.

For Montgeoffroy, the maréchal de Contades clearly sought a look with the easy charm of the familiar rather than the jolt of the cutting-edge. In France the 1770s were marked by the reign of the so-called goût grec, the neoclassical furniture designs whose sharp angles and rectilinear forms are sometimes seen as the beginning of an English influence in French decorative arts. There is the occasional glimpse of the new geometry at Montgeoffroy, but for the most part the maréchal preferred the sinuous lines of the Louis XV period. This was a characteristically French look, one whose gentle curves were perfectly suited to the relaxed interiors at Montgeoffroy.

Today, nearly two and a half centuries after its completion, Montgeoffroy remains almost exactly as in 1777. Its preservation is the result of several remarkable developments. To begin with, it was among the few great houses in France to survive the Revolution of 1789 unscathed. Unlike many aristocrats, the maréchal de Contades refused to emigrate. (Had he done so, the château would have become state property.) Family members lived at Montgeoffroy throughout the Revolution and thereby helped to protect it.

Moreover, Montgeoffroy has remained in the maréchal’s family. The current marquis de Contades is a direct descendant, and he and his wife are often in residence. Finally, every successive generation has taken its role as caretaker of a great house with utmost seriousness.

A room-by-room inventory of the château’s contents, drawn up in 1775, provides eloquent testimony to the scrupulousness with which the family has preserved its architectural inheritance. The inventory shows that almost every object a visitor sees today was not only designed for Montgeoffroy in the 1770s but is still found in the room for which it was originally destined. The only major concession to the passage of time is one that visitors do not see: in the family’s living quarters on the second floor, several small bedrooms intended for servants have been made into modern bathrooms.

Throughout the house, photographs of members of the family’s current generation are displayed on tables while paintings and pastels of the château’s first inhabitants hang on the walls. This juxtaposition seems a perfect reflection of the experience of visiting Montgeoffroy: that of walking simultaneously into two different moments in the life of the same house. And that sensation underscores the modernity of the eighteenth-century French home—the way in which the great residences of the final decades before the Revolution were adapted to the basic activities of everyday life with quiet elegance.

Entertaining was clearly first among those activities. Montgeoffroy features a number of salons of different sizes, all designed to put a visitor at ease. These rooms are surprisingly casual: The grand salon, for example, is flooded with light from the huge French windows that give onto the entrance courtyard (Fig. 1). The décor seems timeless: the purity of the gray-and-white color scheme; the all-white ceilings adorned only with simple stuccowork; the hardwood floors in a parquet that is an intriguing variation on the most common eighteenth-century style, now known as parquet de Versailles.

The château’s furnishings were also clearly designed with comfort in mind. Every room features abundant seating. It is often said that the art of conversation was never as highly valued as in eighteenth-century France. Montgeoffroy’s furnishings are clearly hospitable to that art. The grand salon alone contains thirty-four chairs of different types from the Gourdin workshop, all light enough to be easily shifted about into new groupings so that some guests could pull up to the fire, while others settled into a corner for a more intimate exchange.

Most of the seating is in the comfortably rounded cabriole style (see Fig. 3). Nearly all the chairs are armchairs, and four are capacious bergères (see Fig. 13) with the broad seats that helped women keep their clothes free of wrinkles. (The bergère was the eighteenth-century Frenchwoman’s favorite chair. The marquise de Pompadour had thirty-six in her château in the Loire Valley at Ménars.)

Comfortable seating was especially welcome for those who spent hours at cards and board games. (The bergère’s seat, for example, was also unusually deep, providing extra support for the legs.) Montgeoffroy’s large salon was equipped with three gaming tables, including one designed for trictrac, an ancestor of backgammon. Among the more unusual souvenirs of the château’s past is an ivory scorecard listing players and their winnings and losses (Fig. 7). During the Revolution someone scratched out, with an almost violent emphasis, all the aristocratic names on the card, beginning with the one on top: “le roi.”

Modern visitors are often drawn to the bright cotton textiles on the château’s furniture and on the walls of many of its rooms, designs created in eighteenth-century India for the French market. The maréchal may well have developed a taste for such fabrics after his marriage to the daughter of the president of the French East India Company, but his choice was hardly idiosyncratic. Eighteenth-century Europeans were mad for chintz, hand printed and hand painted in India, but it was only in France that it was used as an upholstery fabric; elsewhere, cotton was considered too fragile. Montgeoffroy can be said to have proved cotton’s critics wrong since the original textiles, albeit a bit worse for wear, still covered many of its chairs until recently when they were replaced with reproductions from Pierre Frey. (Figure 11 shows a surviving rarity that visitors can see in one of the first-floor sitting rooms: eighteenth-century Indian wallpaper still covering the walls on which it has hung since the 1770s. Its multicolored design adds a floral intensity next to which the natural wood or simple gray paint chosen for Montgeoffroy’s furniture seem perfectly logical.)

It is in Montgeoffroy’s second-floor bedrooms that the full decorating impact of Indian cotton textiles can best be measured. The French literally covered their bedrooms with these colorful floral prints: the walls, curtains, bedcovers, and furniture were all decked out in the same fabric. The château’s bedrooms also provide visitors with an overview of the most fashionable beds of the period.

There was to begin the so-called angel bed (lit d’ange or, later, lit à la duchesse), a style invented in the late seventeenth century that remained popular through the eighteenth: the very high tester was said to “fly” because it was attached to the wall rather than resting on posts (see Fig. 15). There was a more traditional bed with a tester and curtains reminiscent of the gigantic four-posters found in medieval and Renaissance houses (see Fig. 12). Finally, there was the niche bed (see Fig. 10). At a time when heating remained primitive at best, these beds were protected from drafts by being tucked sideways into a niche. (Jefferson was so taken with the concept that he added bed niches in many of the bedrooms when he remodeled Monticello upon his return from France.)

Montgeoffroy’s setting is idyllic: Flanked on one side by the family chapel and on the other by elegant stables, it is surrounded by an extensive park and gardens and looks out over a vast expanse of countryside. The château is much more, however, than a lovely country house. The Parisian residences built by Montgeoffroy’s architect, Barré, have been destroyed, as have those of the architect who launched Barré’s career, Antoine Mathieu Le Carpentier. The few great eighteenth-century houses in Paris that have come down to us have long since been remodeled beyond re- cognition. Off on its own in a corner of France where time seems to have stood still, Montgeoffroy remains unchanged. It is our best link to one of the great ages of domestic architecture and design.

The château de Montgeoffroy is open to the public every day between March 28 and November 11. The second-floor bedrooms can be visited by appointment only. From the United States, call: 011 33 2 41 80 60 02.

JOAN DEJEAN is Trustee Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of ten books, most recently The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began, and The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour.