High art

A de­sire for more free­dom led artists Stephen and Lau­rence Clary to start a new life in France. Scheenagh Har­ring­ton finds out why the hill­top vil­lage of Cordes-sur-Ciel in Tarn pro­vides the per­fect artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion

Living France - - Contents - face­book.com/ ate­lierdela-bar­ba­cane

Why the hill­top vil­lage of Cordessur-Ciel pro­vides an artis­tic cou­ple with all the in­spi­ra­tion they need

In 1947, writer and poet Jeanne Ramel-Cals coined the name ‘Cordes-sur-Ciel’ to de­scribe the for­ti­fied me­dieval vil­lage in the south-western Tarn de­part­ment, which sits atop a steep hill. The name means ‘Cordes in the sky’ and evokes the sea of clouds that sur­round the out­crop in au­tumn and spring. The vil­lage – un­til then known as Cordes – of­fi­cially adopted the longer name in 1993, and it’s with a smile that for­mer drama teacher Lau­rence Clary, (45) re­vealed the author once lived in the build­ing next door.

She and her artist hus­band Stephen (60), a for­mer art teacher, have lived in one of the town’s most pho­tographed build­ings, the Bar­bican, since July 2015.

Lau­rence points out that the ex­posed stone of their home’s back wall dates back to the 13th cen­tury and the front of the house dates from the 17th cen­tury, while Stephen adds: “Fran­cis Me­u­nier, the sur­re­al­ist artist, bought this in 1960 and be­fore him, the house had be­longed to a weaver who had his loom in our gallery.”

The cou­ple’s jour­ney to France has been long and slow, as Brit­tany-born Lau­rence ex­plains: “I had lived in the UK for 22 years and my par­ents, who were still in Fin­istère, were get­ting older. I felt more and more that I needed the free­dom to be with them, but teach­ing in a state school, it wasn’t al­ways easy to get the time off.

“I was get­ting in­creas­ingly wor­ried, and I had felt for a few years that we needed to find a way to come back and be free – or freer – in our lives.”

While she re­garded a move to France as the so­lu­tion, Stephen wasn’t so sure. “My lack of com­mand of the lan­guage and aware­ness of cul­tural dif­fer­ences made me re­luc­tant,” he ad­mits. “I never had the so-called French dream.”

But grow­ing con­cerns over the health of Lau­rence’s fa­ther prompted the cou­ple to take a se­ries of ex­ploratory tours, first in Dor­dogne, then Provence and

fi­nally in Tarn.


“If there was a mo­ment, it was when we were stay­ing with a Dutch cou­ple who had a cham­bres d’hôtes in the Tarn val­ley,” says Stephen. They per­suaded the Clarys to visit the nearby town of Albi, and both Lau­rence and Stephen were charmed.

“From this vague con­sid­er­a­tion, sud­denly it was like a switch went on in my head, so I said to Lau­rence ‘let’s have a look at some es­tate agents’. It started from there,” says Stephen.

Trawl­ing the in­ter­net, they found sev­eral prop­er­ties, in­clud­ing one in Cordes, and the vil­lage at­tracted Stephen in par­tic­u­lar.

“We had read up a bit on Cordes, found it had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a bit arty, and that it had a mix of na­tion­al­i­ties – which for me, with my lack of lan­guage, was good. I felt that I wouldn’t like to be in an ex­clu­sively French vil­lage. I didn’t want that feel­ing of be­ing iso­lated.”

Un­for­tu­nately, the house they ini­tially found wasn’t suit­able, but luck was on their side. “We saw a sign in a win­dow about an ar­chi­tect’s house, rang up for an ap­point­ment, and came in here and saw this,” re­mem­bers Lau­rence.

“We fell in love as soon as we en­tered the liv­ing room. We thought ‘wow, this has been done up so well!’, and it’s ex­actly the kind of style we like – it’s old with touches of mod­ern. The fea­tures have been kept but it’s not dark. It’s very rare to find a house with a lot of light in Cordes, as lots of the houses have got small win­dows and win­dow­panes.

“The light in par­tic­u­lar re­ally did it for Stephen; we just couldn’t have a bet­ter ate­lier space. It’s ab­so­lutely ex­cel­lent for that.”

Back in the UK, the race was on to sell their Nor­folk Broads home, and jug­gle the last few days of the school term with pack­ing up the house. The Clarys were pushed to the wire, as the house sold on a Wed­nes­day, school fin­ished the same week and the re­moval men were com­ing the fol­low­ing Mon­day. “It was manic! Luck­ily, we had friends who gave up their week­end for us. In the end it was re­ally quite rushed. We thought we’d have enough time to say good­bye to Eng­land prop­erly but as it hap­pened we didn’t,” re­mem­bers Lau­rence.

The jour­ney from Calais to Cordes took longer than ex­pected, too, thanks to farm­ers’ block­ades, but even­tu­ally the weary cou­ple and their beloved dog made it to their new home.


But, as the cou­ple re­vealed, there was a new ob­sta­cle to be met, in the form of Cordes’ nar­row, me­dieval streets.

Lau­rence ex­plained their re­movers had had the fore­sight to hire a smaller lorry, but when they tried to get past the vil­lage’s me­dieval gates, they re­alised it was still too big – and their new neigh­bours were not shy about let­ting them know it. Again, luck was on Stephen and Lau­rence’s side, as a lo­cal builder was kind enough to help out, and af­ter 22 trips in 32-de­gree heat, the Clarys had moved in.

Thank­fully the in­ci­dent, which still comes up in con­ver­sa­tion to­day, did not leave a bad im­pres­sion on the Cordes towns­folk. “Cordes is an un­usual place – it’s not typ­i­cally French; there’s such a mix of peo­ple here,” says Stephen.

Af­ter the drama of mov­ing, set­tling in has been rel­a­tively easy, but both have ex­pe­ri­enced cul­ture shocks.

For Bre­ton-born Lau­rence, be­ing able to speak French was her big­gest ad­van­tage, but there were still sev­eral hur­dles to be over­come. “I left Brit­tany when I was in my very early twen­ties; I’d never lived away from home as an adult in France, so I’d never had to deal with my health­care, never filled in a tax form, never done any ad­min be­yond the very ba­sic.

“This is a very dif­fer­ent landscape and a very dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity. Peo­ple very eas­ily say hello here. Where I come from, if you say hello to some­one and they don’t know you, they think you’re weird,” she says.

Stephen’s lan­guage skills have im­proved but he still finds it dif­fi­cult at times. “Hav­ing a wife who is com­pletely bilin­gual means that I tend to rely on her and don’t al­ways try as hard as I might to de­velop my French,” he ad­mits.


Cordes is renowned for its artis­tic com­mu­nity, and Stephen, the only English­man with an ate­lier in the vil­lage, has been warmly wel­comed.

“We had a vernissage (pri­vate view­ing) and we got about 150 peo­ple. We in­vited all the other ate­lier own­ers and busi­ness peo­ple, and it was a lovely evening,” he says.

Lau­rence adds: “Ev­ery­body does dif­fer­ent things. The type of paint­ings Stephen does no­body else does, the kind of jew­ellery and cards I make, no­body else makes, so we’re not tread­ing on any­one’s toes. We are all quite care­ful not to.”

It leads Stephen to an im­por­tant point: “It was some­thing we were quite con­scious of from the be­gin­ning – even Lau­rence. We’re strangers here, we needed to pro­ceed with a de­gree of cau­tion and tact and sen­si­tiv­ity in or­der not to put peo­ple’s noses out of joint. We didn’t want to come in as ‘the big I am’. This place has been here for 800-odd years; we’re just pass­ing through.”

Cordes is one of Tarn’s big­gest draws for tourists, and was voted France’s favourite vil­lage the year be­fore the Clarys ar­rived.

In March 2016, the cou­ple set up Ate­lier de la Bar­ba­cane – a gallery space where visi­tors can watch them paint and cre­ate jew­ellery and cards, as well as browse their shop – and it has led to a sur­prise for Stephen.

“One of the re­ally nice things you get here is that French par­ents in par­tic­u­lar are very keen for their chil­dren to come and watch. They even point me out and leave them to it. I had one par­tic­u­lar lit­tle girl with eyes the size of saucers who said: ‘ c’est ma couleur préférée’ while I was paint­ing the pink lily,” says Stephen.

“Some­times they ask ques­tions and in my re­stricted French I’ll do my best to an­swer, but some­times I ask Lau­rence to trans­late and then we’ll have a con­ver­sa­tion,” he adds.

Although Stephen doesn’t cur­rently of­fer paint­ing lessons, it is some­thing he is con­sid­er­ing, as the pair are look­ing to move to a big­ger prop­erty to ac­com­mo­date Lau­rence’s par­ents. Stephen ex­plains: “We love this place, but we’ve made one move and we can make an­other, and in a way it’s per­haps me be­com­ing a bit more French. I ac­cept that Lau­rence, who is an only child, feels a very strong re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards her par­ents and I agree with that, but for it to hap­pen, we need to be some­where else.” Lau­rence is keen to stay close to Cordes, and with good rea­son. She is heav­ily in­volved with the Friends of English The­atre, a group set up by ac­tor and near-neigh­bour Don­ald Dou­glas. For the for­mer drama teacher, it’s a much-needed out­let for her pas­sion. “We per­form Bri­tish plays, proper pro­fes­sional pro­duc­tions, sev­eral times a year through­out the sum­mer,” she says. As for Stephen, no mat­ter where they go, he will paint. “Be­ing an artist is not re­ally a mat­ter of choice and some­times it can feel more like hav­ing a rope around your neck. But re­ally, hav­ing your own gallery in a beau­ti­ful me­dieval vil­lage, full of flow­ers, above a won­der­ful landscape? It couldn’t get much bet­ter!” He smiles, be­fore adding: “There is one French ex­pres­sion that I’ve picked up for use in the shop. If some­one is buy­ing some­thing, what else can I say, other than ‘ je suis con­tent que vous l’aimiez’.”

“Own­ing a gallery in a beau­ti­ful me­dieval vil­lage – it couldn’t get much bet­ter!”

sur-Ciel The hill­top vil­lage of Cordes-

Stephen and Lau­rence in their stu­dio

The vil­lage’s charm­ing cob­bled lanes are a plea­sure to stroll through

This page, from top: The front of Ate­lier de la Bar­ba­cane – Stephen and Lau­rence’s stu­dio and art gallery; the house has ex­cep­tional views of the coun­try­side; Stephen en­joys paint­ing colour­ful flow­ers Fac­ing page, from top: Stephen hard at work in the stu­dio; a pretty paint­ing of lilies

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