The Queen’s House at Versailles has been renovated and reopened thanks to financial support from Dior. Before the works were carried out, the interior was degraded and the structure was in such bad shape that it was not safe to open it to visitors.
Now it has been restored to its former glory, and is open so that the public can enjoy the deliberately fabricated contrast between the bucolic, dreamy exterior and the glitzy luxurious salons occupied originally by Marie-Antoinette and then later by Empress Marie-Louise, the second wife of Napoleon I.
Jérémie Benoît, the curator of Versailles, says the restoration was very much a discovery of the people who used it.
“We have to put ourselves in the skin of the actors of the past. Our skill is to link the past and the present. We base our work on all the available documents, including archives, engravings and images.”
It was not just a case of restoring the buildings. The furnishings had to be recreated too. “It was a major challenge. We had to research the items mentioned in various accounts, and with the decor recreate the atmosphere designed by Parisian cabinet-maker Jacob-Desmalter, who supplied much of the Empire-style furniture.”
The hamlet was built in the grounds of Versailles, partly as an escape from the strains of court life, partly as a place where the royal children could learn about agriculture, and partly as a must-have accessory.
The entire development was built in carefully landscaped countryside and gardens, following the English model which was the height of fashion when Marie-Antoinette commissioned its construction. The very formal French style of gardens, straight lines of gravel paths, closely clipped hedges, ornamental fountains etc, can be admired at Versailles, but rolling hills, tumbling brooks, ‘natural’ planting schemes and elaborate follies were all the rage when the hamlet was built round a specially-constructed lake.
In the same way, nobles of the time delighted in ‘surprise’ thatched cottages; from the outside they looked thoroughly pastoral and simple but inside they were richly decorated and equipped with all the latest luxuries.
The house was designed to minimise all contact between its owners and their servants. The kitchens for example, are in a separate building called the ‘Warming House’, also now restored.
The hamlet contained a farm and all its outbuildings, working dairy, a mill, a ‘boudoir’, a barn, a dovecot, a games house (containing a billiards table) and accommodation for the Queen’s guards. The paths connecting the various houses were laid out to give the walker the best possible views of the lake, the hamlet and the surrounding landscapes. There were cottage gardens, vegetable patches, espaliered fruit trees, and pots of flowers everywhere.
It was in this hamlet that news was brought to Marie-Antoinette: an armed mob was marching towards Versailles. She and her family were arrested awaiting execution and the hamlet was sequestered as part of the 1789 French Revolution.
The furniture and fittings were auctioned off, and the hamlet rented out for festivals and parties, squatters moved into the cottages, and the Petit Trianon was turned into a hotel and restaurant.
In 1810, when Napoleon 1 had divorced Josephine and married Marie-Louise, Marie-Antoinette’s great niece, he had the Petit Trianon and the hamlet completely refurbished for his second wife’s use.
Some of the cottages were so dilapidated they had to be demolished, but the rest were carefully restored, albeit with much simpler furnishings and interior design. This is the design which has now been recreated according to descriptions and notes left from the time.
The rising damp has been treated, plasterwork renewed, stonework replaced, rotting woodwork replaced, and the whole building strengthened to make it safe for visitors. The gardens and landscaped areas have been replanted, the lake has been cleaned up. The furnishings, furniture and fittings are exquisite, so that the ‘surprise’ element has also been recreated.
Because the contents of the house are so fragile and precious, the Maison de la Reine can only be visited in guided groups, and it is best to book ahead as all the tours have been full since the house opened to the public last May. “I think this shows just how interested the public are in the Maison de la Reine,” says Jérémie Benoît.