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.
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.
“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.