By MADELEINE JARRY; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January 1980.
The charming village of Bouges is situated in the center of France, between Chateauroux and Valencay. Grouped around the chateau in the village are several low houses with slate roofs, where those who once served the chatelains lived. The last private owners of the chateau, M. and Mme. Henry Viguier, gave the property in 1967 to the Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites, which has opened it to the public.
The present chateau dates from the eighteenth century, but the estate itself has a long history. Among the illustrious former owners is a queen of France, Catherine de Medicis (1519-1589), who gave it in 1547 to Jean Baptiste Seghizo, her steward. An ancient document in the Bouges archives states that the property, “placed in the choicest part of the Berry region,” included “seven to eight leagues of hunting grounds in beautiful countryside.” A medieval chateau on the site presented the appearance “of a fortified house surrounded by walls and moats with a drawbridge.” In 1759 the ironmaster of Clavieres, Leblanc de Marnaval (b.c. 1720), bought the estate.
He was very enterprising in undertaking architectural projects, as were many of his contemporaries, particularly manufacturers and industrialists of the latter part of the eighteenth century. About 1765 he razed the fortified chateau and on the site built a new and expensive chateau in the current style. But Marnaval had not made his fortune without awakening ill will and jealousy. Augustin Henri Cochin, the national tax collector, sent one of his agents to Chateauroux and succeeded in 1773 in evicting Marnaval from the forge at Clavieres. Marnaval’s consequent bankruptcy forced him to sell Bouges in 1781. The marquis de la Roche-Dragon acquired the estate and lived there quietly with his wife and four children. The French Revolution did not affect Bouges, which belonged to De la Roche-Dragon’s children until 1818. The next owner of the chateau de Bouges was Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, prince et duc de Benevent (1754-1838), famous for his role as the French representative at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), who had also recently bought the nearby magnificent chateau de Valencay. In 1824 Talleyrand sold the chateau de Bouges to a family named Masson. A wealthy Tunisian, Mahmoud Benaiad, acquired the property in 1853 and sold it three years later to the Dufour family. Henry Viguier, owner of the large Paris department store Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville, bought Bouges in 1917. The chateau was completely unfurnished, and most of its paneling had disappeared as well. During the next half-century the new owner dedicated himself to bringing the estate back to life. His wife, too, devoted all her efforts to decorating the interior of the chateau, and assembled a very fine collection of eighteenth-century furniture. Through her enlightened choices she gave new life to Marnaval’s elegant residence.
An impressive avenue, nearly a mile and a half long and lined with chestnut trees, leads to the main entrance. Access on the courtyard side of the chateau is through a monumental wrought-iron gate made at the Clavieres forge (see Pl.I). Conceived as an Italian pavilion, the building gives the impression of a stone chest placed on a terrace surrounded by a balustrade. The ground floor, slightly raised, supports a single story; the roof is hidden by a balustrade. Each side of the building incorporates a central section that projects slightly, breaking the monotony of what would otherwise be a continuous flat façade. Across the front of the projecting section of the entrance façade is a wrought-iron balcony supported by four handsome consoles (see Pl. I). The central projecting section is surmounted by a pediment in which Marnaval had his coat of arms carved together with that of his wife, Marie Anne Gaugard de La Verdine, an heiress of a noble family of the Berry region. On the garden façade, various motifs related to gardening and work in the fields are represented in the pediment.
The name of Marnaval’s architect is not known. Two names, however, are cut into the back of the pediment on the entrance façade: Fayetti and Gabriel. It is very tempting to attribute the design of the chateau to Jacques Ange Gabriel (1698-1782), Louis XV’s architect, for, in spite of such differences as the absence of columns, pilasters, and attic and the presence of pediments, the chateau incontestably evokes the Petit Trianon at Versailles, built in the 1760’s by Gabriel. But to my knowledge there is no signature on any building designed by Gabriel. In the absence of bills, contracts, or other documents concerning the construction of Bouges, it is safer not to attempt a firm attribution.
As is the custom in the great French houses of the eighteenth century, the main reception rooms at Bouges are on the ground floor. The rooms are distributed around a central axis consisting of the main hall (hall d’honneur,Pl. VI), the stair hall and what was originally an antechamber and is now a gaming room (pl. VII). The floors of these three rooms are paved with squares of pierre de liais (limestone) and slate, which are original to the house. The flooring of the other salons is parquet of the type called a la Versailles.
Adjoining the main hall is the room now arranged as a gaming room, which opens onto the lawn in front of a large ornamental pool known as the Watering Trough (Pl. III). The furniture in that room, which creates a harmonious Louis XVI décor, is among the most valuable in the chateau (see Pl. VII). In the room, but not visible in Plate VII, are a large tricktrack table surrounded by six painted chairs with cabriolet backs stamped by Pierre Othon (master 1760) and covered with their original upholstery; a smaller traveling tricktrack table with folding legs, signed by Jean Jacques Pafrat (master 1785); and a small refreshment table made by Joseph Gengenbach, better known as Canabas (1712-1797; master 1766). The cabinetmaker Canabas made a specialty of small, occasionally somewhat whimsical pieces of furniture which were not commissioned for specific houses but were sold in the luxury shops of the marchand merciers (who were roughly equivalent to a combination of present-day antiques dealers and interior decorators; they influenced taste and fashion through the innovative furniture and objets d’art made by craftsmen whose work they directed).
Toward the end of Louis XV’s reign (1715-1774) it became the general custom in France to devote one room exclusively to dining. The Polish king Stanislas Leszczynski (1677-1766), Louis XV’s father-in-law and a great bon vivant, seems to have played a role in introducing the custom of setting aside a particular room exclusively for dining. But one must invoke the influence of English fashions to explain the greation of the round or oval table, which could be extended with additional leaves. This type is the model for the mahogany dining table at Bouges (see Pl. VIII).
No discussion of Bouges is complete without drawing attention to its admirable gardens and park (Pls. III, IV). The present design of the gardens “a la francaise” dates from the nineteenth century. In them low boxwood hedges and shaped yew trees create elegant formal patterns, enclosed by linden trees. The stone balustrade that surrounds the terrace on which the chateau is built separates the garden from the park. The sixty-acre English-style park contains a man-made pond and a great variety of trees—including American red oaks, tulip trees, and sweet gums (Liquidambar styraciflua, native to North America). The balance between the greenery and the stone makes for a very harmonious ensemble.