The strange story of the Rethore brothers who created their own “little Versailles” is being rediscovered during a mammoth restoration. Diana Streak visits the intriguing Château de la Mercerie in south-west France.
“Bonjour!” said Jean Claude, his friendly pink face welcoming us as we bought tickets to explore the Château de la Mercerie, described as the “little Versailles Charentais” near the town of Angoulême, in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France (Charente is its major river). Jean Claude is one of hundreds of dedicated locals who are slowly restoring the château, which fell into terrible disrepair over decades of wanton neglect.
One of the most rewarding things about visiting friends in foreign parts is getting to explore places one wouldn’t usually visit as a tourist. So it was while visiting Charlotte and Julian, who live in nearby Villebois-Lavalette, that we were introduced to the curious Château de la Mercerie.
Our tour was conducted in French but we managed to follow most of the narrative thanks to English cheat sheets and Charlotte, who could translate our questions. And, from the reaction of the French visitors, we could tell if they were being told something shocking, wonderful or amusing!
The original château was sold in 1924 to the Rethore family and two of the brothers – Raymond (1901-1986), who went into politics and had spells as a mayor and member of parliament, and Alphonse (1905-1983), who studied medicine and architecture – started restoration in 1939, again in 1947, and in 1975 Raymond added his personal wing and office.
Their ambitions were not matched by their finances and much of the project was never finished. The magnificent 220-metre facade remains incomplete.
The brothers spent a fortune on the restoration and an extensive collection of antique furniture, paintings, sculpture, statues of Greek and Roman gods, chandeliers and 6000 books,
While on holiday in Portugal, Raymond discovered “azulejos” (ceramic tiles) and decided to create an enormous Versailles-type gallery but instead of being lined with mirrors, its towering walls are covered by 32 reproductions of masterpieces by artists such as Joseph Vernet and Claude Lorrain made of azulejos.
The ceramic tiles were hand-painted with cobalt and made in Aleluia and Aveiro in Portugal in the 1960s.
Neither of the brothers married and dedicated their lives to the château where they apparently held some risqué gatherings. Alphonse died after falling down a stairway and Raymond, who was ill, wished to bequeath the château to local authorities but they declined the offer. He left it to his secretary, Solange, who died in a car accident, and it was inherited by her brother Bernard, who had to pay significant inheritance fees and the debts of the Rethore brothers, who had not paid bills and income tax for years.
Thus, the château was put up for sale by auction and was bought by a Parisian art dealer whose modus operandi was to dismantle buildings and collections and export them to the United States and other countries. However, the county had classified the façade of the château, so he was not able to remove any of the building. He abandoned the place and it fell foul of storms and was left open to the elements as he refused to do any repairs. It was taken over by the local municipality in 2011 and the restoration project has been embraced by locals, both volunteers and professional craftsmen, and the château has become a popular venue for fundraising events.
The restoration work is painfully slow, but some rooms are complete, such as Raymond’s office, which features some of the 80 quotations by 40 authors in different languages placed on various walls. Old photos displayed in the rooms show their wrecked state before the restoration began.
What some might consider a piece de resistance lies in the master bedroom, the last chamber of our tour. Our guide discreetly asks parents to send their children out, and opens a cupboard revealing some unusual paintings – basically old-fashioned pornography which is also being carefully restored.
So, dear reader, this being a family friendly travel website, we won’t show the pictures, but rest assured if you visit Château de la Mercerie, your kindly guide will be sure to open the secret cupboard for you. TTW
Diana Streak travelled at her own expense. More at Château de la Mercerie. Photos © Diana Streak