A forest of star-spangled Christmas trees lines the carriageway to the swagged and beribboned entrance of 17th-century Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte which hosts an annual festive extravaganza, finds Jacky Hobbs.
The Baroque château of Vaux-le-Vicomte is situated on a purposefully levelled platform amid 1,235 acres of park and forest, some 34 miles south-east of Paris. It’s fabled for its history, art collection, architecture and, especially, its garden design: Le Nôtre’s first masterpiece was laid out here, 10 years prior to his work at Versailles.
Vaux was conceived by wealthy courtier Nicolas Fouquet (1615–80), Louis XIV’s Superintendent of Finances. In 1656, the art lover began constructing the ultimate château, employing elite masters in design – architect Louis Le Vau, the King’s painter and decorator Charles Le Brun and landscape architect Andre Le Nôtre – to work together on his ambitious project.
From the entrance gateway, an uninterrupted vista stretching southwards for more than a mile and a half was created on a central axis, passing through the heart of the château, exiting via the open-ended rotunda, in the process coursing through Le Nôtre’s geometry of parterres and pools, finally slipping away into the countryside beyond.
Water was vital to the design, the 36 original pools, (only 20 remain) mirrored and joined the château and garden as the many fountains provided music and movement.
Sadly, before Vaux could be completed, the King arrested Fouquet, accusing him of embezzlement, and imprisoned him until his death in 1680. He plundered both Fouquet’s treasures and his design team, who were commissioned to build the King an even greater palace at Versailles.
Vaux-le-Vicomte slipped through careless hands until 1875, when its dilapidated bones were bought by the businessman Alfred Sommier. He restored and replenished the château and re-established the gardens (the latter works are attributed to Achille Duchêne). In 1968, his great-grandson opened Vaux to the public, to help finance its upkeep, moving his young family to rooms in the stable buildings. Since 2006, Sommier’s three great-great-grandchildren, the de Vogüé brothers, have continued this respectful stewardship and the entrepreneurial brothers have extended the visitor season, creating lavishly themed Christmas decorations, in pursuit of their goal ‘to preserve and transmit Vaux to future generations’.
The original layout, organised around the pivotal Grand Salon, arranged the King’s quarters to the east and Fouquet’s chambers to the west. From these elevated ground-floor rooms, Le Nôtre’s symmetrical garden was best admired, its symmetry broken only to accommodate the sunken Crown Parterre and fountain and flower-filled parterres.
The Grand Salon, hub of the château, is an oval, pared-back space, some 60ft wide and tall. This grey state room is one of two that Le Brun was unable to complete before Fouquet’s untimely arrest and it is here that the de Vogüés have installed a 100-tree temporary forest. Stag, roe deer, wild boar, fox, badger, rabbit and hare (poached from the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris) inhabit the magically lit forest and birdsong fills the scented air.
In Christmas 2015, the Grand Salon held a working 1930s ferris wheel. ‘The rides were incredible, soaring up into the dome – one could almost touch the ceiling,’ declares the youngest brother, Ascanio who’s responsible for masterminding the attractions.
In contrast, the adjoining King’s Ante-chamber, richly embellished with trompe l’oeil ceilings and gilded relief stucco, hosts a theatrical setting from the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale and the adjacent, lavishly gilded King’s Bedchamber is further illuminated for the season by a 16ft Christmas tree, weighed down with decoration, loosely depicting the fairy story of the Little Violin Player.
Adjacent is the corner-piece King’s Former Study, more of a junction than a room. The panels and the stucco ceiling are pallid grey, the second unfinished work by painter Le Brun. Pass through to the front of the double-depth château, to encounter one of the first dedicated dining rooms in France.
Le Brun painted the panelled rooms with imagery from the four seasons and the four elements. The gift-bearing Three Kings are perfectly in keeping with the decor, resplendent in a shimmering forest wrapped in twinkling starlight, bedecked with frosted stars, roses and ferny fronds.
Fouquet’s own lavishly decorated quarters lie to the west of the oval hallway. They incorporate the Hercules Antechamber, the walls of which, originally decorated with a series of tapestries, are now covered by red damask. Two gigantic tables, draped in damask, create a fairytale boat, with lollipop-tree sails, decorated in red, gold and green to complement the room’s decor.
Fouquet’s more intimate, heavily shuttered, painted and mirrored corner-end Games Parlour is sumptuously set for a French festive tea.
These were the highlights of last Dec-ember’s festivities at Vaux-le-Vicomte; this Christmas, new schemes will be unveiled, on the theme of ‘delicacies and greed’; it sounds as if fruits could be gainfully employed and gingerbread will make a reappearance somewhere.
Vaux-le-Vicomte will be open for its 2017 Christmas event on December 16 and 17 and then daily from December 23 to January 7, 2018 (closed December 25 and January 1). For more information, visit www.vaux-le-vicomte.com
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