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The history of the Bois des Moutiers

from Solange Louvet and Jacques de Givry

“Persicaria, have you forgotten that park?” …
“I’m certain that I went walking there one evening, with you. It went right down to the sea” …

“It was, Persicaria, a huge estate, at dusk : the dawn of a night. We couldn’t hear the sea. We were going through, if I remember rightly, four small walled gardens like Italianate cloisters. … Wait ! We were turning right …a garden filled with convolvulus and heliotrope.
… I count seven steps. We could hear a piano playing.”

Who would not feel, on simply reading these lines, an impression of escaping towards what a former era used to call the Supernatural, towards the magic land of legends and fairy tales ?
This evocation was written by a young poet, Jean Cocteau, a great friend of his elders Picasso and Stravinsky, in 1913 – the date of “The Rite of Spring” – after a visit in the company of André Gide (Persicaria) and Jacques-Emile Blanche. But he imagined and invented none of it: neither the privileged place, with its mystery enhanced by the coming nightfall, nor the invisible and silent sea – so near yet so discreet – nor the harmony reigning between the gardens, the internal courtyards, the terraces, the echoes of a piano, the trees and the flowers: in fact the story of the Bois des Moutiers is itself a fairy tale.

Imagine a huge plot of land, partially planted with pines and oaks, on which various buildings, very unequal in quality, could be found, the overall impression being one of regret that such a large area – over ten hectares – had not been put to better use. At first sight, it offered the advantage of excellent accessibility despite a varied relief, and the attraction of admirable views over the sea and countryside. Such a site could not fail sooner or later to awake the curiosity, then the admiration and interest, of a well-informed connoisseur, able to imagine the many ways in which it could be used.

In 1897, a man fell in love with this site: the very man who possessed the qualities and who had sufficient means to exploit the potential beauty of this landscape in the way it deserved. In order to do this he needed also - or above all - to be gifted with the good taste to make sure that the work done on the natural landscape could, while respecting its character, make it even more welcoming and beautiful.

It was on Guillaume Mallet, 38 years old at the time, that the initiative and honour fell of taking on and organising all the work that would lead in a few years to the architectural and natural site that we can still admire today. A stay on the Isle of Wight at the age of 11 had familiarised him very early on with a certain English style of gardening, designed to produce a result that is ornamental and aesthetic, while at the same time exalting nature. He would never forget this experience. It was certainly one of the elements which inspired, some twenty years later, his decision to create the Bois des Moutiers.

A former cavalry officer, and member of the great French Protestant banking family – although he had no involvement in financial speculation, which held little attraction for him – with a large circle of friends in artistic and literary circles, as much in Britain as in France, he could count on the collaboration of personalities who were well worthy of his confidence, while at the same time he himself never ceased to have overall charge of the project.

In 1898 he became acquainted with the young British architect Edwin Lutyens – nine years younger than him – who had come to Paris to present the plans for the British Pavilion at the future 1900 Universal Exhibition. Sensing his exceptional abilities (which would soon be crowned by a brilliant career), Mallet commissioned him to build the house and the architectural structure of the various gardens (terraces, arcades, interior courtyards and staircases).
According to the ideas of William Morris (1838-1896), founder of the British “Arts and Crafts” movement, of which Lutyens was one of the main representatives, the house, which had much more in common with a manor house or cottage than with a stately home or palace, was designed to be the common work of the architect and the artist, but also of the craftsman, with interior fittings (fireplaces with coloured plaster tiles by the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Robert Anning Bell, woodwork and furniture by Ambrose Heal and Morris & Co., tapestry by Burne-Jones, etc.) harmoniously matched together. And the rather formal character of the gardens surrounding the house was tempered by the variety, originality and sometimes exoticism of the plant species they contained.

When making the plans, the architect also endeavoured to group around him the best landscape gardeners and gardening specialists of the time (British, like him, notably William Robinson; and Gertrude Jekyll for the rigorous choice of species, the arrangement of plants and flowers and the harmony of colours, softening the geometric spatial structure with abundant vegetation inspired by the “cottage garden” idea.

Tasks were divided up in this way, but co-ordination was of course Guillaume Mallet’s responsibility. Less than a year after buying the land, he therefore began working towards the objective he had decided on, that of converting a group of woods and brush land into an estate where house, gardens and park were integrated into a landscape which had been renewed, but with respect for its contours and its original character, taking full advantage of the three exceptional natural characteristics of the location : an incomparable site; acid soil ; and a climate eminently suitable for growing and planting the widest variety of species, and thus allowing these three characteristics to give to their full capacity.

At the Bois des Moutiers, the house, gardens and park were never designed to form three separate entities; it would actually be impossible to evoke, or even imagine, one of these elements without the two others. The house is obviously designed to be lived in, but would hardly be adequate without the gardens which frame it, hemming it in and entering its interior. The house, garden and park are thus intimately linked, as intended by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, who here invented what was later to be called the “Surrey style”. The effect was, moreover, also completed by providing musical performances with an ideal natural setting: one where, for example, the famous Capet Quartet sometimes came to perform in the open air, surrounded by terraces, flowers, and silence.

With its vast proportions and its enormous variety of different species of plants and trees, often from exotic, distant places, and the cleverly designed layout of the pathways ; lanes and tracks that criss-cross it in a spirit of discovery and mystery, leading either to a woodland clearing or a view over the sea or the countryside; with its capricious and unexpected contours, which nevertheless lead gently down to the sea; a relief marked with mounds and valleys, often hollowed out by streams whose sources can be seen close by, the park firstly offers the charm – with sights, perfumes and freshness – of frequent changes of scenery. But for anybody who wants to escape from the bustle of the world and seek the way of peace and consolation, it becomes, particularly in the evening (the time when Cocteau discovered it) a series of huge cloisters of vegetation where one finds oneself, plunged into the natural world, taking part in a silent and luxuriant festival of trees, plants and flowers.

As their natural disposition inclined Guillaume Mallet and his wife towards beauty in all its forms of expression, particularly music, they never intended the Bois des Moutiers estate as just an ideal place for a family to come to stay and relax. Both of them had rich and demanding personalities, inclined towards contemplation, austerity, and the inner life, even mystical reflection, and, from the beginning, dreamt that the setting they were to create could become a place welcoming men and women like themselves, and even encourage meditation by them in a search for self-knowledge and inner progress.

It was in this spirit of solidarity and tolerance, shunning any inclination to proselytise and giving everybody the chance to engage in their own personal meditation according to their own tendencies and aspirations, that Guillaume Mallet and his wife, during the few years leading up to the First World War, became interested in the theosophical movement. Founded in the United States in 1875 and transferring to India in 1900, the Theosophical Society had a certain success during the first twenty years of the century, notably in Europe, among artists and thinkers who saw it as a reaction against the materialist tendencies of an era which had been seduced by economic and industrial progress, but which had forgotten basic moral and philosophical values. This was how the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner and the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky became members for a time. As for Guillaume Mallet and his wife, they also considered Theosophy not as a new and exclusive religion, but as one of the ways of access open to anybody animated by the primordial desire for their own spiritual perfection.

Emily Lutyens, converted to Theosophy by Madame Guillaume Mallet and by the President of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant, stayed at the Bois des Moutiers several times, and at the “Maison des Communes”, also designed by Edwin Lutyens, for Guillaume Mallet’s daughter. The Indian mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), considered by many to be the World Teacher and great Indian philosopher, also came to stay here on several occasions.

The 1939 War was to drastically change living conditions at the Bois des Moutiers. The property was requisitioned. A few years later Guillaume Mallet, the creator of the estate, died at the age of 85. His son André, and Mary his wife, moved back into the Bois des Moutiers in 1954.
The complexity and immensity of the work needed to complete the restoration of the buildings and the park after so long an absence can easily be imagined. Just like a painting, a sculpture or a musical composition, the Bois des Moutiers is a work of art; but this is a living work of art. It is notably a celebration of plant life, with its power of creation and growth, of renewal and adaptation to the seasons, and so it is also vulnerable to the ever-threatening risks presented by the unpredictable forces of nature. These can take the form of a period of rain followed by several months of drought, or of a devastating storm that decimates an entire wood.
The upkeep of the Bois des Moutiers was the daily task to which its creator devoted himself from the beginning, and which was taken over by his descendants with fidelity to the principles and methods which have been applied for over a century.

Apart from constant work on the repair and upkeep of the estate and the addition of various new features, much important conservation, adaptation and improvement work has been undertaken by the family over the years.

In 1975 the park was given official listed status, and the exterior of the house was entered in the inventory of French historical monuments. Members of the general public, whether French or foreign (notably British) have been admitted since 1970, to not only admire this exceptional combination of architecture and natural beauty, but also, wandering around the many pathways in the park, to enjoy the calm, the beauty of the constant changes of scene, and the incomparable atmosphere; this is the greatest tribute of admiration and recognition that can be paid to the estate’s creators.


Le Bois des Moutiers - Route de l'Eglise - 76119 Varengeville sur Mer - Mentions légales