Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A little history and a few watercolors

My bicycle bell

The little person who holds
up the shutters of
La Vignette

Saturday night I attended a lecture at the castle about the evolution of cartography and geographic knowledge.  On display (plainly on the table, no glass case!) was a beautiful Portuguese world map on parchment, made in 1632.  It was remarkably accurate and had lovely illustrations.  There was a little demon on North America.

I painted on Sunday, and I did enjoy spending the day outside in the garden, but I didn’t like my paintings at all.  So I didn’t enter them in the contest.  But I got to be a judge!  I was the only woman juror, along with the minister of culture, other old men in the arts, and two young men curators.  The president of ‘Couleurs de Bretagne’ who organized the event, was a very mischievous and funny, and he kept calling on me, “Mademoiselle!”, to make the final decisions.  I had so much fun.

Temple de Mars
 Monday, the curator Frederic was kind enough to take me to do some site-seeing.  We saw the ruins of a Roman temple to Mars, and Le Chateau fort du Guildo, whose foundation was built in 1000 AD.  The Chateau is now in ruins, but it was very exciting to walk around and take the steps up to the top of the tower overlooking the Arguenon Estuary.  Then we went to a nearby beach strewn with big black volcanic boulders known as the ringing rocks because when you tap them they sound the same as when you hit a cast iron skillet with a wooden spoon.  And then in the evening, sitting in Frederic’s back yard next to his potato patch, not only did we hear a cuckoo bird calling, but we saw an owl alight on a telephone pole and we watched it swooping for prey until it disappeared.
Arguenon Estuary when the tide is out

Le Chateau Fort du Guildo

A painting by Mme Jean-Haffen
of La Maison de la Grande Vigne and the Vignette

And another painting of the grounds by Mme Jean-Haffen

And now, as promised, a little bit of history surrounding La Maison de la Grande Vigne and its gardens.  I know it might look dreary to read all the italics, but I didn't think I could summarize it any better than Mme Jean-Haffen said it herself.  If you read it, I think it will make you happy.

La Grande Vigne means ‘the great vineyard’ and the name is due to the fact that 300 years ago, there were vineyards all over the slopes that rise up from the river, stretching as far as the site where the house is now. The house wasn’t built until 1830.   According to Mme Jean-Haffen, “its construction is probably connected with the major work carried out on the Ille-et-Rance Canal, opened in 1833.  This huge site with its quays, slipways and locks would have needed building materials and the construction of the lime-kiln is probably related to this period.” (See a picture of the lime kiln, which butts the back wall of La Vignette, in the previous post).

The house had a few different owners and tenants, and one of the tenants was a Scottish woman named Miss MacCallum, who ran the house as a finishing school.  Madame Jean-Haffen said:

Miss MacCallum knew how to bring the house to life and vitalized it by receiving young English ladies who wished to improve their French and introducing them to the young people of Dinan.  Gaiety and exuberance reigned.  English residents in Dinan were also invited for tea-parties, bridge, and Shakespeare evenings.  Science and astronomy were not forgotten.  At the house sale I recovered a microscope and an astronomical telescope, both well-used.  Dances were held in the evenings.  Miss MacCallum’s brother, well known in London as an author and lyric actor under his stage name of Charles Coburn, sometimes came to entertain these gatherings.  Miss MacCallum became so attached to the house that when it came up for sale in 1924 she wanted to buy it at all costs.  This she did, with the help of her brother Alexander and a Mr. Granger.  Alexander, a retired accountant with a practical mind, couldn’t get used to La Grande Vigne and didn’t get on with Mr. Granger.  He went back to London, where he died.  Mr. Granger on the other hand, who was an artist and a bit of a poet, shared Miss MacCallum’s passion for her home.  He lovingly tended the gardens, building paths and rockeries which we were to uncover later.

Mme Jean-Haffen's self-portrait
I can't say I like it much...

Mme Jean-Haffen and her husband purchased the house in 1937. 

I still wonder by what mysterious chance or secret inspiration my husband and I were guided to this spot…I shall never forget that Whitsun eve in 1937, walking along the little track on the way out of Dinan with an employee from the agency.  We had to climb over the boundary wall as the key had been mislaid, and landed in the most overgrown and unexpected domain.  We finally made our way to the big house on the crag overlooking the Rance valley.  It was in a pitiful state, covered in leprous rough-cast.  The ground floor was still garnished with old English furniture and smelt of damp and dust.  Upstairs, in the huge lofts, you could see the sky through the gaping holes in the roof.  I didn’t stay long inside the house, drawn outside by the mysteries of the garden brambles, nettles and weeks were spreading everywhere, but in the midst of the undergrowth some surviving roses were peeping through the greenery.  At the bottom of the garden great ancient elms formed a mysterious and attractive little wood.  Alas, as they were dead and had to be chopped down.  And then the view of the viaduct and the steeples of Dinan, the river, the old bridge, the quays, the farm, the mill, and the singing of the valley of the Argenteel.  I was literally enchanted.

During that summer, Mme Jean-Haffen and her family members would visit the house. 

Our major occupation was tidying up this extraordinary garden.  As in a virgin forest we advanced hacking through the brambles and creepers to discover, hidden by the undergrowth, walls and towers which we took for fortifications, a well, stone troughs… How happy we were with our discoveries!  And then we came upon the traces of the paths which had once been so well-kept, with their little box hedges and steps leading from one terrace to another.  What an exciting game those holidays were!
I came on my own to supervise the [structural] work [on the house] and spent several sinister stormy nights in Winter.  The rain got in everywhere, the wind howled through the bare rafters, and the mice and rats led a merry dance.  One would have thought the house was haunted! I didn’t let myself be frightened by the ghosts, and the work continued.

And now the house is a lovely public museum with rotating exhibits of Madame Jean-Haffen’s work, and anyone can climb the steep winding paths and ramble through the gardens.  Frederic the curator says he thinks Madame Jean-Haffen’s ghost is still in the house… and I think I agree with him… there is a strong spirit here... you can really feel the presence of years of love and creativity.  Frederic also told me that Mme Jean-Haffen was one of the few people who could speak English in Dinan during World War II, and so she went to meet the American soldiers when they first came to liberate the village.  It gives me the shivers!

And I wish I had been more careful when I took the pictures so they wouldn't be so dark, but here are a few of the paintings I've done here:

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