In Calais, a surprise adventure with Jeanne Thil and much more on the way

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Jeanne Thil,” The Gagès Oasis, late 1930’s – early 1940’s, Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac

Many of us drive through the north of France to reach Southern England through the Chunnel and why do we never stop on the way? Calais has two museums which are worth looking at. To reach this sadly famous city, in perfect temperatures, I drove around the Baie de Somme, admired its lovely pré salé lambs, raised on salted grass fields, and stopped in Noyelles-sur-Mer, to visit the Chinese cemetery designed in 1921 by Edwin Lutyens. 842 Chinese helpers are buried there, who came during the First World War, to help in agricultural and industrial venues. This Chinese Labour Corps included 150 000 Chinese, who were paid to carry the wounded and de-mine the fields. They stayed on after the armistice and many of them caught the Spanish influenza. The cemetery sits in the middle of the fields with beautiful trees and is not to be missed as Art Historian Emmanuel Ducamp had tipped me on.

The cemetery of Nolette in Noyelles- sur-Mer was designed by Britsh architect Lutyens for 842 Chinese men who died in 1919

This visit naturally led us to lunch, a few miles away, at Raymond de Nicolay‘s beautiful castle of Regnière-Ecluse and its very large park, which is one to the public. The property has been in the same family since the 11 th century, attached to the monastery of Saint Riquier, and the 15 th century castle was enlarged in Neo gothic and Tudor style in 1838 and 1847 by its then owner Comte Herman d’Hinnisdal. Nicolay, a Parisian auctioneer, spent the last fifty years furnishing and decorating the house which had been turned into a children’s vacation home after the war. He also planted tens of thousands of ornemental trees in the park, inspired by 18 th century landscape architect, Capability Brown and surrounded by 1 000 acres of woodland.

The castle of Regnière-Ecluse seen from the park, photo Hélène d’Amécourt

After lunch in a perfect English dining room with portraits of ancestors on the wall, we were toured around the house and forest and four hours were hardly long enough to get the history of every piece of furniture, suspension, staircase and decors some of which are reminiscent of Duban’s in Chantilly. One of the pieces which fascinated me, was a series of large paintings on cotton of the owner’s different family trees. The park, forest and house are listed and are now part of the Conservatoire du Littoral. They can be visited until September 18 th from Wednesdays to Saturdays and the host is often there touring the visitors himself.

One of the ravishing drawing rooms decorated by Raymond de Nicolay

We then went on north east to visit Saint Omer, an interesting little town with a beautiful cathedral and a museum very rich in china and ceramics, Musée Sandelin. I discovered the industry of clay pipes from the 18 th and 19 th centuries, which started when the industry of tobacco became successful here, in the north of france! There was also a fabric of faïence which often copied more famous makers like Creil. The collection is very amusing and I particularly fancied a strawberry dish from Delft.

A group of clay pipes from St Omer

After visiting the cathedral and enjoying the charm of the market town, we went to have lunch at the Saint Omer Golf course, fifteen minutes away by car. The restaurant has a beautiful view over the rich fields which used to be a farm run by Jean Jacques Durand, whose family owned Cristal d’Arques, nearby. He founded the golf course thirty years ago and it is very successful, an inland course near le Touquet and Hardelot which are both links. Don’t bother to go to Arques where the local glass shop has become a supermarket of low level plates and glasses.

The view from the restaurant of the Saint Omer golf club is very uplifting and it is open to all

Our last stop was in Calais to visit the Museum of Arts built in the 1960’s under André Malraux’s reign. Of course the most famous museum is Cité de la Dentelle, which houses the most amazing collection of lace, but I had seen it twice before and there was no particular exhibition. If you have not been, I highly recommend it and the different techniques of lace are perfectly explained by actual artisans. An exhibition of a lady adventurer Jeanne Thil (1887-1968) attracted us to the Beaux Arts which houses Auguste Rodin’s projects for Les Bourgeois de Calais, one of his most famous group sculpture.

Jeanne Thil, A caravan in front of Kairouan, 1929-1930, private collection

Born in Calais, Jeanne Thil travelled extensively between the two wars and contributed to the quest for orientalism from the colonies. Curated by Sarah Ligner from Musée du quai Branly Jacques Chirac, the show includes part of the 170 works bequeathed by her great nephew, François Olland, to the museum, in 2016. She spent forty years painting in Tunisia and all around the Mediterranean, in Corsica, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, but at the beginning of her career, she painted many sketches in gouache of the war and its ambulances, the Exode, and large frescoes for the town hall of Calais.

Jeanne Thil, Ca 1928

What is interesting in her art is that she never goes for the touristic image but depicts the people and their wildness. She illustrated posters and menus for the Transatlantic boats such as “Le France” and painted a large fresco at Lille’s University. At the end of the exhibition, a section mentions all her contemporaries, ladies who travelled and painted, photographed and wrote about exotic countries such as Marguerite Delorme who spent time in Morocco and Tunisia and Henriette Damart, who travelled to Algeria. Yvonne Mariotte also, was awarded a travel grant by the Conseil Supérieur des Beaux-Arts in 1936, enabling her to travel to Morocco.

Musée des Beaux Arts de Calais until February 2, 2021,, no booking necessary.

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Mount Fuji is celebrated at Musée Guimet and contemporary artist Ru Xiao Fan enchanted me

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View of Ushibori in the province of Hitachi, Series of 36 views of Mount Fuji, Katsuchika Hokusai, 1830-1832 © RMN-Grand Palais, Thierry Ollivier

It was a lovely relief to visit Musée Guimet this week in the middle of the heat wave. Not only because, like all museums, it is air conditioned, but mostly because the present exhibition is devoted to Mount Fuji and snow! The seventy amazing prints by Kawabata, Kawase, Utagawa and the famous Katsuchika Hokusai , were selected in the collection of 1100 prints of the museum. Mount Fuji, the Eiffel Tower of Japan, is a perfect iconic volcano, 3 776 m high, which is always covered in snow. Listed by Unesco in 2013, the volcano is sometimes hard to see through the fog. The craft of these 18 th and 19 th century artists is outstanding and it is particularly soothing in our times of uncertainty, to contemplate these snowy prints.

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Emile Simon is amazing in Quimper

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Emile Simon, “Prosper reading his newspaper”, 1939

There is a famous Simon painter in Brittany and he is called Lucien. He was the object of an exhibition last year in Quimper and his family is still very present in nearby Sainte Marine where they own the semaphore. But this time, it is Emile Simon (1890-1976), a modest art professor from Rennes, winner of the Prix de Rome, and arts teacher in Cairo in 1913, who is exhibited at the delightful Musée Breton. With his student Madeleine Fié-Fieux, he developed a huge corpus of work which was never sold and is kept at Manoir de Squividan, in Clohars Fouesnant, where they lived for thirty years with her husband, a keen art lover. A Jules and Jim trio? The show in Quimper, which includes both artists, is particularly moving for the realism of all portraits.Read More

Driving North into Flanders

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Abel Grimmer, “Interior of a cathedral with a mass for churching (relevailles) of a young mother”, 1589

After my successful tour of Brittany I decided to join a friend in Abbeville and explore the multiple museums of the north. Lille is well known for its Arts Museum and diverse peripheral curiosities like Robert Mallet Stevens’ Villa Cavrois,  La Piscine in Roubaix and Villeneuve d’Ascq’s Museum of Modern Art. But I have a weakness for Cassel, a little known town near the Belgian border, where big battles were won by Louis XIV and Napoléon. The pretty village sits on a hill with a view over the whole agricultural area. Wheat was being harvested and part of the joy on the road was to be stuck behind a moissonneuse-batteuse (combine harvester) and share the slow life of farmers. Read More

A priest brings glass sculptors to Heaven at MusVerre

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Bong Chull Shin, “I woke up with your name on my lips”, 2014, loan of the artist

It is a true expedition to reach MusVerre, near Maubeuge on the Belgian border, a half hour from Château de Chimay, three hours from Paris, an hour and a half from Brussels. The museum is dedicated to contemporary glass sculpture and was designed by W architectures and architect Raphaël Voinchet in 2016. It houses collections of “bousillés”, free works from the glassworkers of Sars-Poteries, which were collected by the local priest Louis Mériaux since 1958. This was the start of the museum, where he organized an International Glass symposium in 1982 and a Colloquium in 1984 which recognized contemporary glasswork worldwide. The collection of the museum is made of works given by the International group of sculptors who attended, from America and Japan,  Holland, Germany, Belgium, Spain and Italy, from Eastern Europe. Under the artistic leadership of Anne Vanlatum, who started her professional life at Musée des Arts Décoratifs,  Gigi and Marcel Burg  gave 86 works from their collection. She is the soul of the museum with a huge knowledge of the artists and their glass techniques.Read More

In Rennes, an exceptional museum with initiative

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Antoine Coysevox, “Triumph of France over the seas”, 1692-1693, (detail)

Visiting Rennes’s Musée des Beaux Arts had been on my mind for a long time, but for some reason, one never stops in the capital of Brittany and it is a major mistake. This time, the opportunity of meeting Guillaume Kazerouni, the man in charge of its ancient arts collections, convinced me. This impish hyperactive scholar, has a reputation of positively upsetting the art world and I was not disappointed! He is one of the rare exceptions in France to be running an art department in a major museum, without being a titled curator. Born in Iran, he emigrated at 11 and has worked in multiple arts venues, at the Louvre and at the Sorbonne, editing books and writing many scholarly articles. He has started a communication campaign called “Et si on parlait d’art” (why not talk about art) where he picked 34 shops in Rennes and asked their owner to choose an artwork in the museum. It’s a winner/winner project, especially since entrance to the Museum is free.

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Wandering around precious Brittany

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The citadel in Port Louis near Lorient, where the Musée de la Compagnie des Indes is housed

There is nothing I love more than getting into my small car and driving around France, stopping over at dear friend’s houses. The Bottin Mondain (social register) started a new addition of castles listed by area, and it would be tempting to just try and tour France according to this list but I have not dared it yet. I just spent ten days in Brittany and it was enchanting. Not only because the sun was setting at 10 pm allowing for long dinners outside, but also because of the brisk air, the fabulous shellfish and pancakes, and the huge sense of hospitality of Bretons, which make it a real holiday. So here is the itinerary I recommend.Read More

Do you like pepper? Try it at Bernard du 15…near Beaugrenelle

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Bernard Sellin is obsessed with pepper which he tracks all over the world

If you find yourself near Beaugrenelle, in this dreary area where shopping malls reign supreme, don’t hesitate to stop at Bernard du 15, a restaurant on rue des Entrepreneurs which specializes in pepper. Some cost 240 € a kilo! and they come from all over the world. From Ahom in India, Sarawak in Malaysia, or Likouala in Congo. Kerala, Lampong, Cameroun, Malabar or Madagascar. With a modestly priced menu at 28€, you get to travel all over the world and taste new flavors. Read More