Castle in the sky

Heidi Fuller-love vis­its the splen­did folly of two broth­ers who gave forty years of their lives and a small for­tune to build a replica of Ver­sailles in the wilds of the French coun­try­side.

Provincial Living - - Meander & Muse - Im­ages: Heidi Fuller-love and France-Voy­age

When my neigh­bour told me about The Draughty Castle, I thought he was jok­ing, but my first glimpse of Le château de la Mercerie, a bizarre folly si­t­u­ated an hour’s drive from Limoges, con­firms what he’d told me the night be­fore over a glass of syrupy-sweet Pineau. Like some­thing dreamt up by the Sun King him­self, the 2,200-me­tre- long fa­cade stud­ded with neo­clas­si­cal arches and Doric col­umns is pure Ver­sailles-pas­tiche.

From the out­side I imag­ine ma­hogany floors and fres­coed ceil­ings, but when I get up close I re­alise that Mercerie Castle is a mere fa­cade mask­ing a mess of rusted bi­cy­cles, cor­ru­gated iron and tan­gled weeds, justly earn­ing its lo­cal nick­name: The Draughty Castle.

“Ray­mond Réthoré was the leader; Alphonse his younger brother just fol­lowed suit,” a lo­cal tells me a few hours later in the post of­fice at the nearby vil­lage of Magnac-Lavalette-Vil­lars. “Ray­mond al­ways claimed that he was the il­le­git­i­mate son of a Ger­man princess

– he could never ad­mit that his par­ents were just com­mon pig farm­ers”.

There was ev­i­dently money in pig farm­ing be­cause in 1925, when Ray­mond’s par­ents died in a car ac­ci­dent – a pretty wacky fact in it­self when you con­sider the scarcity of mo­tor trans­port at the time – the Réthoré broth­ers found them­selves at the head of a con­sid­er­able for­tune.

Still con­vinced that he was an il­le­git­i­mate royal, 24-year-old Ray­mond de­cided it was time to build a palace and he or­dered brother Alphonse to de­sign it. A shy, gaunt man with a pen­chant for black fe­do­ras, Alphonse obe­di­ently aban­doned his med­i­cal stud­ies and be­gan to pe­ruse books on ar­chi­tec­ture, while Ray­mond trav­elled the world im­i­tat­ing the cul­tural plun­der­ing made fash­ion­able by swash­buck­ling French states­man An­dré Mal­raux, pick­ing up a lot of ex­otic bric-a-brac to fur­nish the fu­ture chateau.

De­spite the full-time pres­ence of 20 lo­cal ar­ti­sans and a re­storer im­ported spe­cially from Italy, progress on the pro­ject was in­cred­i­bly slow. “The prob­lem was that Alphonse was never sat­is­fied with his plans — he drew them up, scored them out, threw them out and started again, and each time the ar­ti­sans had to change what they’d done. It was a night­mare,” says Do­minique Pin­taud-salle, a history stu­dent who wrote his the­sis about the ec­cen­tric pair.

Back from his trav­els, Ray­mond was elected mayor of Magnac and be­gan to hold what he called his “Sun­days in res­i­dence”. “It was like roy­alty hold­ing court,” one lo­cal politi­cian re­mem­bers. Whether it was a wran­gle over a cow or a bid to buy land, peo­ple came from miles around to ask him to in­ter­cede in their af­fairs and Ray­mond never re­fused to help. In­stead, he would lis­ten solemnly, then pro­duce a sheet of of­fi­cial-look­ing notepa­per and draw up a let­ter with great cer­e­mony, al­ways com­menc­ing with the same elab­o­rate for­mula: “Dear So and So, I beg of you to have the good­ness to con­sider the re­quest of ...”.

Ray­mond’s cer­e­mo­ni­ous letters brought him im­mense public pop­u­lar­ity and in 1958 he at­tained the pin­na­cle of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer when he was elected to the pres­ti­gious French Na­tional Assem­bly.

Mean­while, how­ever, Mercerie Castle was drag­ging him deeper and deeper into debt. “There were mar­ble floors, ma­hogany-pan­elled walls and beau­ti­ful azule­jos tiles ev­ery­where — and there was even a huge Gallery of Mir­rors just like in Ver­sailles Palace – but most of the floors were bare con­crete and very few of the rooms were wired for elec­tric­ity,” re­mem­bers Bernard Charennac, who was the broth­ers’ faith­ful ser­vant for thirty years. “And when the money ran out al­to­gether and Ray­mond told the work­men he couldn’t pay their wages, they just turned up with wheel­bar­rows and helped them­selves to the most valu­able stat­ues and other works of art,” he adds.

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“Dear So and So, I beg of you to have the good­ness to con­sider the re­quest of ...”

By the mid-1980s only two rooms in Ray­mond’s dream castle were hab­it­able and Ray­mond’s younger brother, now a recluse, lived in one of them. In 1983, as he groped his way to the toi­let along a pas­sage­way that hadn’t been wired for elec­tric­ity, Alphonse tripped on the miss­ing steps of a half-built-stair­case, fell head­long into a Greek kouros and frac­tured his skull. When he died a few days later, Ray­mond had his brother’s body in­terred in the wall of the castle that killed him and erected a sim­ple mar­ble plaque, which reads:

“Here lies my brother Alphonse: it is HE who de­signed the chateau.” When Ray­mond died a few years later his own re­mains were sealed in the pil­lar op­po­site Alphonse be­neath a plaque that reads: “Here lies Ray­mond Réthoré. It is HE who fur­nished the castle from his trav­els in Europe.”

In his will Ray­mond left Mercerie Castle to the State, but the State re­fused the poi­soned gift, so the Réthoré’s faith­ful house­keeper Bernard Charennac be­came lega­tee. Bernard ex­pected to be sad­dled with the broth­ers debts’ for the rest of his life but, when the con­tents of the chateau were sold at auc­tion, he was left with a size­able profit, en­abling him to ful­fil his own life­long dream and buy a mod­ern bun­ga­low in the vil­lage of Magnac-Lavalette. The half-built castle with two bod­ies sealed in its walls didn’t tempt buy­ers, how­ever, and was just aban­doned to the weeds.

Bernard has kept a few sou­venirs of his time with the Réthoré broth­ers: two Sphinxes that once guarded the pyra­mids now stand in front of his mod­ern bun­ga­low; an orig­i­nal Rodin print gath­ers dust in the toi­let; and a huge crys­tal chan­de­lier dan­gles from the tongue-and-groove ceil­ing of his formica kitchen. Over lunch Bernard tells me that times have fi­nally changed. Now listed as a his­toric mon­u­ment, The Draughty Castle is be­ing ren­o­vated and will soon open as a con­tem­po­rary art mu­seum. “It’s like all the best fairy­tales – this one has a happy end­ing,” he says.

FROM TOP RIGHT

Ray­mond’s burial place in­side Mercerie Castle; Egyp­tian Sphinxes out­side Bernard’s Charennac’s mod­ern bun­ga­low; colon­nades of Mercerie Castle.

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