The Portrait of Esther The Black Notebook

Castle life: children’s games amongst the art

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Episode II - page 78

The Château de Brissac is situated in Maine-et-Loire, close to Angers. The children seen running amongst the crates are Elvire and Gilles de Brissac. They lived in the castle throughout the war, amongst the artworks that were stored here, and the constant visits of museum personnel. Later, Elvire de Brissac, a novelist, would relate her memories from the period.

Souvenir d’Elvire de Brissac
Account by Elvire de Brissac (Source : La suite des temps, Duc de Brissac, Grasset, 1974)

Château de Brissac
© Photo, Manfred Heyde

Brissac, 1943: The main drawing room of the castle was transformed into a Noah’s Ark. Hidden in immense crates were a two-headed dragon, a giant turtle, a coiled serpent, and a man with ears of crystal. Only my brother Gilles and I were aware of this marvellous zoo. It only came to life for the two small children who snuck into every nook and cranny they were supposed not to: under the furniture, into cubby holes, or rooms that were meant to be locked at all times. But there were no keys or locks strong enough to keep out the heroes that we were: attacking these mastodons, with sabres in the air, protecting ourselves from their venomous breath, our pockets full of apples.

When we returned to the real world, we would be covered in dust, smelling of a strange mix of odours and decorated with spiders’ webs. We knew every inch of the splendid wooden floors; all of the dust mites, the flies, spiders and bugs; we knew the cold flagstones; the creaking floorboards; the large wardrobe that would quiver for no reason; the soft wool of the tapestries, and the chandelier that would tinkle when we coughed. We would return from the land of the crates, the country of sheets, of masses of rolled rugs, boxes of archives: it was is if we had been washed ashore with a remarkable cargo.

Château de Brissac
© Photo, Manfred Heyde

In 1939, my father had been asked by Fine Arts officials to use the castle as a storage site for art objects, which the government sought to protect from the bomb attacks on the cities. He set aside certain rooms for this purpose: the gallery, the large drawing room, the dining room. For six years, for example, Brissac housed the archives of the Comédie Française1, some of the furniture from the Elysée Palace2 and the British Embassy in Paris, as well as the collection given in 1914 by Isaac de Camondo to the Louvre, and later from nearby Angers, the Apocalypse Tapestries woven between 1375 and 1380 for Louis I of Anjou. These tapestries were over 600 years old, we were four!

1Comédie française : french cultural and theatrical institution

2Palais de l’Elysée : private mansion where sit the french presidency