The Hôtel Lambert, A Novel

The Hôtel Lambert, A Novel

W hen the hammer falls for the first lot on 11 October 2022, another chapter in the endless fiction that is the Hôtel Lambert will close.

Patrick Mauriès portrait by Guillaume de Sardes

There are few places in Paris with so flamboyant a history, that is so precisely documented, whose architecture is so admired and whose central characters have been so famous from one century to the next. Moored at the south-eastern tip of the Ile Saint-Louis, it is, so to speak, the epitome of a mighty ship: constrained in its space, caught in the geometric straitjacket of narrow streets and quays, and yet exemplary in its admirable ingenuity.

Like the island beneath it, the Hôtel Lambert can be compared not only to a ship at rest, but also to a theatrical stage to which painters, architects, musicians, writers, actors and the great and good of their day are summoned in their turn; and the transition from one act of its story to the next offers the perfect opportunity to look back and remind ourselves of some of those who played leading roles in its unfolding drama.

Optical Illusions

Commissioned by Jean-Baptiste Lambert (1607-1644), Seigneur of Sucy and Thorigny, advisor and secretary to the king, the mansion that bears his name rose from the ground in the mid-17th century, as if fully formed and complete with the network of buildings and arched bays with which we are familiar. It was previously an area of grazing land through which the river flowed where the Rue Le Regrattier now runs. The Ile aux vaches (Cow island) was the focus of one of the capital’s first real estate development schemes, which were encouraged by the authorities following the success of the Place des Vosges development completed in 1612, and then known as the Place Royale.

Begun two years later, and delayed by decades of intricate legal complications and reversals of alliances, the developer nevertheless eventually arrived at the master plan for the island as we know it today, clearing the Rue Traversante (today the Rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile) that bisects the island longitudinally, and building an impressive group of private mansions including - in addition to the Hôtel Lambert - the Hôtel de Bretonvilliers, the Hôtel de Lauzun (originally the Gruyn des Bordes), the Hôtel de Gillier and the Hôtel Hesselin. The Île Notre-Dame - the name was changed to Saint-Louis in the 18th century - became the must-have swanky new address for the upper and lower middle classes, lawyers and nouveau riche speculators, while the nobility kept faith with their customary quarters nearer the Louvre.

Jean-Baptiste Lambert had met Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) in the milieux of young upwardly mobile men who - like himself - were in a hurry and gravitated around Marie de Médici. Despite the fact that the architect was only twenty-seven at the time, Lambert commissioned him to design and build his mansion. Work began at the end of 1639, and although the building was complete two years later, it was not until the spring of 1644 that the owner took possession of it, following completion of its lavish interiors.

The project was a major challenge not only in terms of time, but also of space: with its limited footprint (half the size of the neighbouring Bretonvilliers mansion), the “damned” plot - vaguely trapezoid, flanked on one side by adjacent buildings and on the other by the banks of the Seine - proved unsuitable for the previously accepted format of what a private mansion should be, with the entrance gate opening onto a formal forecourt in front of the the main building, behind which would be a garden. What Le Vau achieved was an impressive trick worthy of an illusionist: the entrance gate opens onto a courtyard, at the end of which the axial main body of the building is flanked by two side wings, and is linked to the road by a third wing lower in height. However, the courtyard and garden no longer share the same perspectival axis: they are dissociated, dislocated and juxtaposed, separated by the large apartments that still stretch from the courtyard to the garden, but laterally to the right. There is also an angled wing of two superimposed galleries.

Alexandre Sérébriakoff, La cour de l’hôtel Lambert le soir du Bal Oriental du 5 juillet 1969

Instead of the horizontal hierarchy of functions and spaces previously seen as essential to this type of construction, Le Vau introduced a vertical hierarchy, requiring another visual illusion. Confining the service spaces - kitchen, pantries, assembly room, servants' bedrooms - to the ground floor at courtyard level, he raised the garden on the other side of the right-hand wing, bounded it with high retaining walls, and matched its level to that of the first floor on the courtyard side. The resulting asymmetry has the double advantage of sparing the main floors from the risks of nuisance from the communal areas, and bringing natural light into the formal apartments and galleries, at the same time as giving them views over the Seine.

Continuing to work his magic on visual appearance and space definition, Le Vau introduced a succession of screens: the high arched portal with its gates carved with lions, palm trees and masks marking the Rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Île entrance to the mansion follows the traditional model of grand entrances, but the formal forecourt onto which it opens does not, as previously described, lead to a central grand house, but rather to an impressive set of steps branching into two opposing staircases. The visitor is therefore presented with a kind of frons scenae, whose theatrical appearance is accentuated by a grisaille by Le Sueur, bordered by two concave sections to soften the corners of the courtyard: as if constrained by the lack of space, they create a dynamic tension reminiscent of that used to enliven a number of Borromini façades.

Jean-Baptiste Lambert died aged just thirty-seven in December 1644, having lived in the mansion for only a few months; it was his brother and heir Nicolas, who was Grand Master of the Waters and Forests of Normandy at that time and became President of the Court of Accounts in 1646, who was responsible for most of the painted and sculpted decorations that give the interiors their particular aura. They reflect what was nothing less than a revolution in taste in the opening decades of the 17th century: the hitherto traditional decorative elements of tapestry-covered walls and historiated beams and joists disappeared under the influence of Mazarin and the ‘Italian taste’ to be replaced by frescoed or coffered ceilings and wall panelling painted in bright colours and often picked out in gold.

Clockwise from top left:
Vicomtesse de Ribes and Monsieur de Beistegui, Bal de Têtes, 23 June 1957
Douce Francois and Brigitte Bardot, Bal Oriental, 1969
Baron de Redé, Salvador Dalí and Amanda Lear, Bal Oriental, 1969
Yves Saint Laurent, Cecil Beaton and Madame Leonora Cornett. Photographer: André Ostier

Nicolas Lambert engaged the rising young artists of the time: Eustache Le Sueur (1617-1655), Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) and their elder contemporary François Perrier (1590-1650). The first of these began by designing the - since dispersed - collection that decorated the mansion’s Cabinet de l'Amour in 1645. A few years later, he completed the decoration of the Chambre des Muses begun by François Perrier and intended for Marie de l'Aubépine, the wife of the master of the house. He also painted what is perhaps his last work, the vaulted ceiling of the Cabinet des Bains, portraying aspects of the central theme of water and its associated allegorical figures in a Mannerist register.

In addition to these private spaces, there was also the more imposing space of the future Galerie d’Hercule: Nicolas Lambert entrusted it to Charles Le Brun, whose first large-scale work covered the ceiling of the twenty-two metre long vault with a celebration of the mythological hero; the radiant colours and illusion of depth created by this fresco contrasted superbly with the stucco panelling uniformly finished in bronze, with panels by Gerard van Opstal depicting the legend Hercules.

In bringing together the remarkable conjunction of a talented architect and two painters whose careers had barely begun, Nicolas Lambert could certainly never had imagined the fortune that these exceptional decorative achievements would one day be worth, or that he would leave behind him one of the most complete expressions of early French classicism.

A Baron on the Island

These surroundings, which would appear to prefigure the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, would remain in the Lambert family until 1732, when it was sold to Claude Dupin, Seigneur of Chenonceaux and collector of the hated tax farming system, one of whose daughters - Louise - was a leading light of the Enlightenment. Her salons were frequented by all the luminaries of the literary and philosophical world - from Fontenelle to Marivaux and Buffon to Montesquieu (she was also, incidentally, the grandmother of George Sand, who would herself join the dramatis personae of the mansion in the following century).

Louise Dupin was succeeded by another and no less remarkable salonnière Emilie de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749) who, urged on by her lover Voltaire, an aesthete concerned with achieving a certain state of serenity, cajoled her generous husband into buying this “house made for a sovereign who would be a philosopher”; nevertheless, the philosopher did not enjoy its charms for as long as he might have wished, since Madame du Chatelet held court there for only five years.

The mansion then experienced many vicissitudes and reversals in the hands of various owners during the Revolution and the Empire, losing some of its treasures along the way before being reduced to the role of a warehouse for a mattress manufacturer. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that it regained some of its former lustre under new owners the Czartoryski princes, who made it a centre of Polish representation and resistance in Europe, as well as of French romanticism, involving Delacroix and Viollet-le-Duc in its restoration, and inviting Balzac, Lamartine, George Sand, Berlioz, Liszt and Chopin to dinners and balls that were the talk of the town in their day.

The Czartoryskis were to be the only owners to live in the mansion for more than a century, eventually resorting to dividing it into rented apartments to pay for its upkeep. Alexis von Rosenberg, third Baron de Redé (1922-2004), young, penniless and heir to an Austro-Hungarian banking family, had just arrived in Paris and was looking for a place to live when he heard from one of his friends, the interior designer Victor Grandpierre, about a “prestigious apartment in need of refurbishment on the Ile Saint-Louis”.

“There was an apartment for rent at the Hôtel Lambert”, he recalls in his memoirs. “I was keen to see it, and as soon as I set eyes on it, I decided that this was the place I would live from that point onwards. I have never changed my mind since, and it is now fifty-five years since I first walked through the door.”

The life of Alexis de Redé became closely intertwined with that of his apartments which he progressively renovated with minute attention to detail; it was two years before he could finally move in. His relationship with the billionaire socialite Arturo Lòpez-Willshaw, and especially the latter's financial resources, did nothing to dilute his desire for grandeur. “My first task”, he summarises, “was to deal one after another with the problems that beset old houses; problems familiar to anyone who has experienced them... Things then became more interesting: restoring each room to its former glory, finding the most suitable furniture, silverware, finely bound books, bronzes and objets d'art of all kinds. No detail could to be overlooked if I was to achieve the desired effect”.

In collaboration with Georges Geffroy, another leading interior designer of the time and rival of Grandpierre, the Baron designed a spectacular bookcase with double broken pediments whose lapis lazuli columns are actually a masterful trompe-l'oeil in stucco, the overall effect of which was to create a perfect unison with the original decoration.

Over the years, Alexis de Redé had a succession of more or less colourful neighbours: Mona Bismarck, who lived in the mansion before moving to the Quai de New-York; Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, who left a series of miniature tombs in the garden containing the remains of her pets; and Michèle Morgan, who lived above the Galerie d'Hercule for twenty years between 1955 and 1975 in small apartments repainted in pearl grey, and left only very reluctantly.

Under the magistery of the Baron, the mansion hosted countless dinners at which an army of footmen served onto gold-plated tableware by candlelight; bouquets of flowers were regularly sprayed with water to appear constantly heavy with dew; a succession of infusions and cocktails were served, and perhaps most spectacularly of all, the courtyards and salons were transformed into theatres for the still-famous balls.

Left to right: Hercules Gallery, Bal Oriental, 1969; Portrait of Baron Alexis de Redé, Bal Oriental, 1969.

The first - the Bal des Têtes - was held on 23 June 1957, with each guest “requested to arrive wearing a special head”, and the Baron being helped by a young assistant of his friend Christian Dior; this first introduction to the talent and inventive genius of Yves Mathieu-Saint-Laurent. However, this ball proved merely to be a discreet curtain raiser to the one that would follow twelve years later on 5 December 1969, and become a fixture in so many memories as the Bal Oriental. For the physical staging of the event Alexis de Redé commissioned a duo of fashionable interior designers. Jean-François Daigre and Valérian Stux-Rybar were often referred to in the press as “the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of decoration”; well known for their appetite for excess and admission that they “rarely worked on low-budget projects”. It was rumoured that the ball cost close to a million dollars...

Two life-size white papier-mâché elephants greeted the four hundred guests in the courtyard, while sixteen bodybuilders dressed as Nubian slaves held torches to guide guests from the entrance steps to the apartments, where an operatic vizir clad entirely in black announced the guests with great theatricality. The Queen of Denmark, Brigitte Bardot, Salvador Dalí, Marie Bell, Liza Minnelli and the Prince of Thurn und Taxis were among the happy few invited, but it was the Vicomtesse de Bonchamps who impressed the Baron the most: disguised as a pagoda, she had to be carried to the Hôtel Lambert on the back of a truck, and could sit down only when she had stepped out out of her cumbersome metal costume. The guests arrived at ten and partied until five the next morning.

A Provisional Epilogue

In 1975, the Czartorisky family, who still owned the mansion, announced that it was to be sold, leaving the Baron destitute, but his lifelong friend Marie-Hélène de Rothschild came to his rescue, persuading her husband Guy to buy the property and enabling the Baron to carry on living in his apartments: when asked to define her idea of happiness, she replied: “to live in a community of the chosen”. With the help of Milanese interior designer Renzo Mongiardino (1916-1998), she endeavoured to free the mansion from the dark neo-Gothic carapace in which it had remained, and succeeded in reconciling the operatic opulence of the Rothschild style with the muted tones and restrained sensuality that characterised the Mongiardino style.

Following the death of Marie-Hélène in March 1996, and that of Alexis de Redé in September 2004, Guy de Rothschild decided to sell a residence which he saw as having outlived its purpose and unsuitable for future generations. So in 2007, it was bought by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani and his immediate family, members of the Qatari royal family. Sheikh Hamad shares with his brothers a passion for architecture and antique furniture, and at that time they had recently acquired Dudley House in London, one the few aristocratic townhouses to have survived the bombing of the capital.

Just as in London, Alberto Pinto was entrusted with the interior design and look of the Hôtel Lambert. The task as he saw it went beyond restoring the building in the most skilful and least visible way possible, but also of turning back the clock by recreating several previously undecorated rooms to return the mansion as closely as possible to a mythical original state, while staying as faithful as possible to the styles of the 17th and 18th centuries.

There followed an extensive process of combing Europe for furniture and objects whose provenance, historical links, sophistication and quality made them worthy of inclusion. Each of the frescoes and every decorative element were also meticulously restored, and in addition to an army of bronze restorers, gilders and upholstery specialists, the most prestigious fabric producers were called upon to produce trimmings, embroideries, silks and damasks identical to those of the period.

So patiently created, these laudable decorations will disappear with the auction that follows the recent sale of the Hôtel Lambert, and these catalogues will serve as testament to the adventurous entrepreneurs to whom we owe the splendour of this building. A new era in the history of this architectural gem exemplary of French good taste - and which nevertheless owed its survival to so many foreigners - is now beginning: a national culture is never better personified than by those who have chosen to adopt it; and so a new chapter of the Hôtel Lambert novel opens.

Hôtel Lambert, Une Collection Princière

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