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A taste for history: the interior designer Jacques Garcia, currently refurbishing the 17th- and 18th-century period rooms at the Louvre, shares his obsessive passion for collecting with Apollo.

For many, Jacques Garcia is the ultimate decorator: his mix of rich colours, strong references to the past, reinvented French grand gout and assumed anti-minimalism are immediately recognisable trademarks sought after by an international clientele. But what most of his clients don't know--unless they have had the privilege of being received in his home, the Chateau du Champ de Bataille--is that Mr Garcia is moreover a supremely knowledgeable and passionate collector.

For most of his life, Mr Garcia has treated every day as an occasion for finding new treasures for his collection. He once wrote that objects seem to 'come' to him, and that he goes to sleep much better at night having contemplated his acquisitions of the day. A holiday with Mr Garcia--in Rajasthan, Syria, Rome, Naples or perhaps some lost and unwelcoming French village where he has heard of a promising local auction--invariably becomes a source of unlikely and enthusiastic discoveries. Antique textiles, Japanese lacquer, French royal furniture, bronzes, armour, Roman mosaics, Mughal silver--for Mr Garcia, these quickly become living things that can be combined to evoke particular moments in history.

I ask Mr Garcia when and how it all began. 'What made a collector of me,' he replies, 'is the Jekyll and Hyde nature of my character: my two legs are firmly grounded, one in modernity, the other in history.' His first two acquisitions--at the age of just 16--were a painting by Yves Klein (still hanging in his bedroom) and a pair of silver candlesticks made by Thomas Germain for Louis XV.

Those candlesticks were to have a major influence on his life. When he spotted them in a small shop in an eastern suburb of Paris, his father had recently given him a book on French silver marks, which, rather than reading comics at night, he had decided to learn by heart. He immediately recognised the mark of Germain, probably the greatest French silversmith of his time, and didn't hesitate to hand over all the pocket money he had been saving for a beach holiday. He ended up spending the summer in Paris, but never forgot the lesson: knowledge and research are the keys to fabulous discoveries. Several years later, thanks to the sale of those candlesticks, he was able to purchase his first abode, in the Marais district of Paris.

When I first met Mr Garcia, almost 30 years ago, he had recently embarked on the restoration and furnishing of the piano nobile of a majestic stone mansion near the Place des Vosges that was the second property he bought in the Marais--the Hotel Mansart de Sagonne, built between 1667 and 1670 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Louis XIV's chief architect, for his own family.

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In the Hotel's central antechamber, Mr Garcia hung a series of blue silk panels woven with large gold fleurs-de-lys, originally commissioned for the coronation of Louis XVIII and formerly housed in the Throne Room of the Tuileries Palace, which he had bought from Mademoiselle Niclausse--an elderly Parisian spinster who had inherited them from her antique-dealer father. (Today, Mr Garcia recalls that when he first uncovered the rolls of blue silk, the smell of smoke filled the room--smoke, that is, from the Communard-lit fire that destroyed the Palace in 1871. For him, this was a 'Proustian' moment, of an intensity never equalled.) In the adjoining salon, a spectacular original painted ceiling by Charles Le Brun, Louis XIV's Premier Peintre, provided the perfect accompaniment to Mr Garcia's latest acquisition: a set of four superbly preserved Brussels tapestries, woven around 1680 and once belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch, illustrating the months of the year coupled with the signs of the zodiac. Finally, the third room of the apartment was arranged as a Louis XVI-style bedchamber, with figures in biscuit de Sevres, an ormolu clock delivered by Pierre-Philippe Thomire in 1790 for the king's use at the Tuileries, tare mahogany chairs by Georges Jacob and a screen from Marie Antoinette's bedroom at the Chateau de Saint-Cloud. All these pieces are today at Champ de Bataille.

Then as now, one of Mr Garcia's obsessions was looking for a tangible sign of provenance--a stamp on a piece of furniture, an inventory number, a pencil scribbling, a hallmark, a letter-date on the back of a piece of porcelain. This obsession inspired his vast collection of Sevres porcelain: given the Manufacture de Sevres' comprehensive archives, it has always been relatively easy to find out for whom a piece was made, and indeed several of his vases and biscuit groups have been identified as royal commissions for Versailles. Furthermore, at that time Sevres was one of the few fields where one could still buy masterpieces cheaply. 'Sevres marks a unique moment when technical performance and innovative modernity allied to produce perfection,' he explains. 'I like it when modernity employs technical prowess to end up in aestheticism.'

After 10 years' work at the Hotel Mansart de Sagonne, Mr Garcia knew that he was destined, personally and professionally, to swim against the tide--to choose 'history' over the prevailing trend for 'modernity'. Furthermore, the confines of his Hotel and a desire for 'always more' militated toward undertaking a new project. The Chateau du Champ de Bataille, a large Louis XIV ducal mansion near Rouen in Normandy, was up for sale, and Mr Garcia instantly fell in love: 'I couldn't afford the house I wanted in Paris, and here it was--a town house with the perfect architecture in the middle of nowhere, rather than just a big castle in the countryside. The Comte de Crequi had been exiled from Court by Mazarin as a frondeur, and so, as revenge, decided to build for himself a regal palace with two triumphal arches, one through which to enter and one to leave. It is truly an English idea and quite unique in France: two wings of equal size, one for receiving and one for the stables, linked by two arches!'

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The design of the Chateau, built between 1654 and 1665, is unique indeed, and although its architect remains unknown, many details bring forth the name Louis Le Vau. On the other hand, during this period Le Vau was building at Vincennes and Vaux-le-Vicomte, while his brother, Francois, was in charge of the Chateau de Bercy, and it is unlikely that a local mason would have built the house on plans sent from Paris.

Sixteen years into his work at Champ de Bataille, Mr Garcia has now fully realised his idea of creating, 'ex-nihilo, a family home with centuries of stratifications, as at Chatsworth or the Palazzo Doria, where each generation has added different tastes, the combination of which makes le grand gout.' As at the Hotel Mansart de Sagonne, he has retained the rooms' beautiful proportions and some of their original elements, while restoring, redecorating and filling them with treasures. The first floor is divided into two parts: on one side is a classic French apartment with its own Salon d'Hercule followed by a second salon, library, chambre de parade (state bedchamber) and, at the very end, chapel, which the Duc de Beuvron--who inherited the property from his uncle, the Marquis de Mailloc, himself the nephew of the Comte de Crequi --redecorated in the Neoclassical style during the late 18th century; opposite is an apartment, similarly modernised by the Duc, featuring a dining room, salon de compagnie (sitting room) and billiard room, the latter of which perfectly accommodates Mr Garcia's Buccleuch tapestries.

Following the installation of both an antique multi-coloured marble stone floor and a painted allegorical ceiling, the Salon d'Hercule is now an ideal setting for numerous works in stone (Fig. 2). These include a large white marble Roman crater carved with acanthus leaves and a phoenix; two urns in porphyry and serpentine, one of them from Cardinal Richelieu; a recently acquired porphyry tazza with the arms of the Colonna family; and a monumental porphyry table-top, mounted on a giltwood base by Luigi Valadier for Napoleon at the Villa Borghese.

But the real treasure of this room, and indeed of the entire collection, is the porphyry bust draped in a white marble mantle that sits between the windows (Fig. 4). It is part of the discovery of a lifetime: two Roman emperors' busts, the heads in Egyptian porphyry bur with different mantles, one white and the other onyx. They appeared, with an imprecise Talleyrand provenance, in the early 1980s (before the current fashion for works in stone) at an anonymous sale in Monaco where they were left unsold. After the auction, Mr Garcia made a successful offer. Serendipitously, a close friend who worked at Versailles later noticed the number 21 engraved on the base of the onyx bust, and after lengthy research they were identified as belonging to two--of a total of three--series of antique busts bequeathed by Mazarin to Louis XIV. One of these series comprised eight emperors' busts with onyx or jasper mantles, seven of which, at the rime of Mr Garcia's purchase, were in the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles. Only the bust of Neto was missing--in other words, Mr Garcia had rediscovered Nero.

Still, doubts persisted as to the busts' provenance. They were initially barred for display at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris as modern Italian copies, and only eventually accepted as 'late-19th-century replicas'. Likewise in 1990, at a New York auction organised by Mr Garcia to raise funds for Champ de Bataille, scurrilous rumours caused the busts, notwithstanding a very high written bid from a client, to be withdrawn from sale. But Mr Garcia got his revenge. Soon afterward, Versailles purchased Nero for its Galerie des Glaces.

In the chambre de parade sits a marble bust of Louis XV at the age of nine by Antoine Coysevox. Elsewhere is a pair of Boulle cabinets, stamped by Jacques Dubois, made around 1760 for Francois-Michel Harenc de Presle, the Parisian banker and collector who, with the aid of marchand-mercier Claude-Francois Julliot, brought Boulle furniture back into fashion during the late 18th century. On another Boulle piece--an ebony desk--sits a sumptuous Jacques Buirette bronze reprensenting the Nile, modelled after the marble statue in the Vatican's Museo Chiaramonti. It is probably the same 'small size bronze' that figured in Francois Giradon's sculpture gallery at the Louvre, clearly represented in a 1709 engraving by Nicolas Chevallier.

Moving through to the dining room, Mr Garcia's collection of Sevres porcelain has gradually filled up every available shelf and cabinet. The large dinner service, dated 1792-93, bearing the arms of the Sudell family, depicts birds in a landscape setting against a beau bleu background; each bird is carefully described on the underside (Fig. 6).

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The salon de compagnie, meanwhile, is home to royal souvenirs and paintings (Fig. 5). It is obvious that Mr Garcia prefers sensual contact to the more removed appreciation of a painting, and his collection largely comprises portraits of historic (preferably royal) figures. One's eye is drawn to a sad Marie Antoinette, depicted as a widow in the Prison du Temple by Alexandre Kucharski. Recently this portrait was joined by the only known depiction of the queen 'in her intimacy', innocently feeding a white goat in her hameau (hamlet) while France stands on the brink of revolution. Mr Garcia jokes, 'What I love about history is the questions it raises: how can you be the most powerful queen in the world and create a slightly kitsch Disneyland farm and pretend you are a milk maid?'

Against the main wall of the salon are two marvellous armchairs, signed by Nicolas-Quinibert Foliot, that were once offered by Louis XV to Madame du Barry, his maitresse-en-titre. Between them stands an impressive Louis XVI ebony console desserte stamped twice by Adam Weisweiler. Its painted role (sheet metal) panels, a most unusual material for the rime, were wrongly considered to be sturdier than the Japanese lacquered surfaces that they imitate. The top of the console, inlaid with squares of specimen marbles and hard-stones, is contained in an ormolu frame. Though little of its provenance is known, this is an exceptional, it not unique, piece of furniture.

Stepping outside, one can only marvel at the magnificent Jardin a la Francaise, created from scratch after designs by Andre Le Notre, Louis XIV's chief gardener (Fig. 3). The three-mile-long perspective--embroidered parterres, a monumental cascade and, at the very end, an overwhelming column--is now fully grown and mature. As with other baroque gardens, the 'metaphysical' layout, concerned with linking the material and spiritual worlds, serves mainly as a pretext for pure fantasy. On the left side of the gardens, a Roman temple--built with antique elements ffom the Middle East --appears as a sort of living painting by Claude (Fig. 7). Nearby, a long alley of boxwood sphinxes and palm trees transports the visitor to a reinvented and slightly twisted Orient, much as 'Canopus', a section of Hadrian's villa at Tibur, must have done for the Emperor.

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Over the years Mr Garcia has received a number of wealthy clients at Champ de Bataille. I ask about their reaction to his home. 'Culture always frightens people,' he replies. 'That's why most collectors choose consensus. If you are the only one to enjoy and admire what you have, you feel you are wasting your time, especially if you are rich! During their visit, my clients like this obvious rapport [with] power and money and feel comforted by the idea that their money, if they choose me, will be well used. But as I am Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I live in Paris in a totally contemporary flat, which allows them to choose between a moment of history and an instant of today.'

Two of his recent clients evince similarly split personalities: a London couple known as major collectors of contemporary art whom Mr Garcia advises on collecting French 18th-century furniture. 'They were totally open and didn't feel they had to do [it] like everyone else,' he says. 'I brought them to the Frick Collection, to Waddesdon and to Buckingham Palace and explained to them that there are maybe less important things available now, but there are also fewer collectors than at the time of the Regent, Hertford, Frick or the Rothschilds. The cultural elite of the 21st century is small, but not numerically smaller than it was 200 years ago--it is just the world population that has increased. Fashion changes, things come and go, some get destroyed, but I am an optimist and believe that the tide turns.'

Mr Garcia's remarks remind me of how some admirers--and some detractors--have compared him to the Sun King, Louis XIV. Indeed, he has jokingly described himself as a mixed reincarnation of Louis XIV, Le Notre and Le Brun. But I also think, somewhat irrepressibly, of Cardinal Mazarin, mentor to Louis XW and another compulsive buyer of things beautiful and rare. Mazarin, a former papal legate, succeeded Cardinal Richelieu as Chief Minister of France. Yet despite his undeniable abilities, Mazarin was despised as a foreigner, schemer and social climber, and once in power he embarked on an obsessive quest for art. As a dying man, he asked to be carried around the galleries of his palace (now the Bibliotheque nationale) one last time, whereupon he was heard to murmur: 'To say that I shall have to leave all that!'

Thus I finally ask Mr Garcia about the vanity of collecting, of creating a palace and a garden, and more generally about the ultimate absurdity of human enterprise. 'I know too well that nothing, absolutely nothing, resists time,' he responds. 'I learnt it very young when I lived next to Les Halles and saw it demolished; and when, at the age of 20, I was invited by the Duchesse de la Rochefoucauld to her Chateau de La Roche-Guyon, where nothing had changed since Louis XV--not a spoon was missing--and only a few years later all of it was sold off at auction. To believe that what I have created and loved could be maintained for generations would be absurd. But the creation of a period in history survives through texts and images--and today images are more present and accessible than ever--which make us dream: the gardens of Babylon, the treasures of Golconda open windows whence other dreams can become reality. It is the perpetual movement of life and of renewed comprehension. I love the idea that one day other people will have my things and create something totally different ... E la nave va!'

PHOTOGRAPHS CHRISTOPHER STURMAN

Sylvain Levy-Alban is a Paris-based dealer specialising in 17th- and 18th-century European decorative arts.
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Author:Levy-Alban, Sylvain
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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