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Postman who built himself a palace.. one pebble at a time

Hidden away in a sleepy village in southern France lies the Palais Ideal, one of Europe’s most remarkable structures. With a new film about it in production, JULIAN SHEA tells the story behind this amazing construction and the man who built it

From small acorns grow might oaks; and from a single stone grew one of the strangest, most astonishing works of art and architecture ever to emerge in western Europe.

Ferdinand Cheval, postman of the village of Hauterives, in south eastern France, was on his round one day in 1879 when he almost tripped up on a small rock. He picked it up and found its shape so fascinating that it triggered in him the start of a creative process.

Over the following three decades, in the course of his rounds, he picked up more and more stones and took them back to his home in the village where – with no artistic, architectural or construction training – Cheval fashioned them into a vast, ornate building, unlike anything the world has ever seen: Le Palais Ideal.

Rarely has any creative endeavour of any kind blended together such wildly diverse features into such a remarkable whole. Columns, a tomb, Pacific Island-style statues, temples of all faiths, galleries, staircases, animal carvings – all are represented here in the inspired lifetime’s work of one utterly unique imagination, which has gone on to inspire many more.

Le Palais was championed by the likes of Picasso and the Surrealists and is now regarded as one of the finest examples of naïve art – the term applied to artwork created by those lacking formal training – and listed as one of France’s historic monuments.

But lying well off the beaten track (the nearest train station from the tiny, otherwise unremarkable village is half an hour away), this treasure is hardly one of the country’s, let alone Europe’s, most high profile visitor attractions. Its creator remains, therefore, a relatively obscure figure in the story of European art and architecture.

As such an eccentric, anomalous character, there is a danger he could stumble to being little more than bizarre, forgotten footnote. He deserves more. The announcement, then, that a new film is being made, starring the actor Jacques Gamblin and telling the story of Cheval is therefore encouraging news.

This postman who became an artist and builder had not even started out as a postman. Born in the village of Charmes-sur-l’Herbasse, about 100km south of Lyon in the department of Drome, into a life of respectable poverty which he never escaped (nor sought to), Cheval left school at the age of 13 to become a baker’s apprentice.

As a young man, he avoided military service, possibly because of his small size, and married a woman, Rosalie Revol. Their first child, Victorin Joseph Fernand, died as an infant but a second son, Ferdinand Cyril, was born shortly afterwards. Rosalie herself died in 1873, by which time Cheval had joined the postal service, and their surviving son was entrusted to the care of his godparents.

Cheval was then transferred to a route of around 28km a day, centred on Hauterives, and met Claire-Philomène-Richaud, who would become his second wife.

In 1879, at the age of 43, Cheval’s life entered a new chapter when their daughter Alice-Marie-Philomène was born. That same year, the postman had his artistic epiphany on his round. A routine existence which had long been unremarkable was about to become a life less ordinary.

Cheval later said that the incident had prompted in him a memory of a dream he had had about 15 years earlier. In the dream, he had stumbling while out walking and, inquisitive about what had tripped him up, set about building a palace, a castle, or caves. ‘I told no one about [the dream] for fear of being ridiculed and I felt ridiculous myself,’ he recalled.

But when the first part of the dream almost happened, while out on that fateful round, he set about making the second part come true too. ‘A stone almost tripped me up,’ he wrote. ‘I wanted to know what it was and saw a stumbling block of such a strange shape that I dropped it into my pocket to admire at my leisure. I went back to the same place and found even more beautiful stones, and said to myself ‘since nature wants me to sculpt, I will produce masonry and architecture.”

The inspiration and motivation for the building – initially called the Temple of Nature – came in visions seen in a ‘trance-like state’ Cheval could never explain, but he recorded them and built them into his monument.

He also drew ideas from the nature he encountered on his rounds, as well as images from the postcards and illustrated magazines he delivered. These were new innovations at the time and, with the spread of lithography and photography, helped stimulate Cheval’s imagination and bring images from around the world to this secluded corner of France. There is also a school of thought that at some point he left the village to travel to North Africa, gaining first hand knowledge of some of the Islamic-style features which appeared in his Palais.

His methodology was slow – unsurprising since he had to fit his project in around the demands of his day job. Over the next 33 years, he assembled more stones on his mail round and carried them back with him to use in the construction. Crucially for the finished work, the fact Hauterives had at some point in its history been beneath the sea meant the areas where he walked were rich in porous limestone and fossils.

For the first 20 years, he built the outer walls. At first he carried the stones in his pockets, then switched to a basket. Eventually, he used a wheelbarrow. He would think nothing of adding 20km onto his daily route in search of the right material.

Back at the site, he often worked at night, by the light of an oil lamp, binding the stones together with lime, mortar and cement.

During the course of its construction, the highs and lows of everyday life continued. In 1894, at the age of 15, his daughter Alice, died. Two years later, he retired from the postal service.

Meanwhile, the ongoing project started to attract attention beyond the bewildered circle of fellow villagers. A first national press article appeared in La Vie Illustrée in 1905 and two years later, Cheval hired a local woman, Julia Micoud to co-ordinate visits of the sites. When a photographer began selling postcards of his work, he successfully sued to retain the monopoly and issued his own postcards.

Finally, in 1912 – the year his last surviving child, the now adult Cyril, died – he declared his labour of love completed. Twenty six metres in length and 12 metres high, Le Palais represents a mix of different styles. Gaudi and Dali’s works are often cited in comparison for guidance, but even they are not quite adequate preparation. The first part to be built was the eastern face, including such diverse features as a Hindu temple, statues of Julius Caesar, Archimedes and leader of ancient Gaul, Vercingetorix, and on a more human scale, an enclosure featuring Cheval’s own wheelbarrow and building tools.

On its western side, a medieval castle, Swiss chalet and Algerian-inspired house can be found, together with a mosque-type feature in the south-western corner, giving access to the building’s terrace. The northern and southern facades celebrate nature rather than humankind, featuring animal and plant designs.

Amongst the building’s many inscriptions, some profound, some personal, are ‘this monument was built by a peasant’, ‘remember that believing is achieving’ and ‘10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of struggle. Let those who think they can do better try’.

He had hoped he could be buried inside his creation, but when permission for this was denied by the authorities, in 1914 – the year his wife died and the rest of Europe fell to an all-consuming war – this restless creator went back on the road with his trusty wheelbarrow to start work on a mausoleum in Hauterives’ cemetery, close to his Palais. He completed the Tomb of Silence and Endless Peace in 1922, two years before his death, aged 88, after which he was laid to rest inside it.

By then, and despite his lack of training – and to the bemusement of neighbours – the outsider’s work had been discovered and embraced by some of the era’s most highly-regarded artists.

Although his creation was an intensely personal expression, Cheval had clearly always felt he had produced something for more than just himself, something of worth, for others to appreciate. ‘I want to prove… there are geniuses and energetic men in my class too,’ he had said.

Picasso filled a notebook with 12 sketches of the building. André Breton, the founding father of surrealism, was another admirer, and the Palais featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s 1936 exhibition ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’. Anaïs Nin wrote about it, Lee Miller photographed it and Max Ernst made a collage in its honour. The outsider was most definitely in.

The fact such a fantastical monument, combining so many styles and covered in inscriptions and words of inspiration and wisdom, was hidden in the countryside made it all the more striking.

But in truth, bemusement was felt not just by the residents of Hauterives watching a steady procession of rarified visitors making their way to their village, but also by some of those who made the trek.

The mishmash of styles and incongruous setting provoked unsettling reactions among many of the artistic-minded folk who went to see the Palais. Many did not quite know what to make of it. The American poet John Ashbery, who went there in 1950s, found it weird but not unpleasing: ‘a memory which is also a dream.’ British writer Lawrence Durrell, who had arrived expecting to find be amused by the untrained arwork, found himself moved by it.

But gradually, reaction seemed to slide towards sneering and snobbery at the artistic pretensions of a rural postman. The judgement of those official custodians of France’s artistic integrity, at the Ministry of Culture seems to have been scathing: ‘The whole thing is absolutely hideous. Appalling bunch of insanity that is clouded in a boorish brain’.

By the 1960s, Cheval’s work was at best forgotten, and at worst, actively hated. One critic described it as ‘absolutely hideous. A deplorable stack of insanities that are scrambled in an uncouth man’s brain,’ and as the years passed, the building fell into an increasing state of disrepair.

This decline was stopped by a 1968 editorial in Le Figaro, decrying the flickering flame of what had once been such a bright artistic light. The French government, previously sniffy, was admirably quick to react, and in 1969 culture minister Andre Malraux declared the building a national monument, saying: ‘In a time where Naïve Art has come significantly true it would be childish to not classify, when it’s us, the French People, who are lucky to own the only naïve architecture in the world and wait for it to destroy itself.’

A unique structure was saved for a new generation, and a legend was reborn. In 1986, the postman received the ultimate professional honour – his picture on a stamp – and in 1994 the town of Hauterives took over ownership from Cheval’s descendents.

Since 2010 Le Palais’ reputation as a source of creative inspiration has embraced music, with concerts staged in front of one of the most distinctive backdrops anywhere in the world. But while it is cherished locally, and enjoyed by the intrepid visitor, it is hard to claim it the building, or its story, have the attention they deserve. The new film, scheduled for release next year, will hopefully address that. Directed by Nils Tavernier, it will feature Jacques Gamblin as Cheval and Laetitia Casta as his second wife and should allow the story of the humble postman and his remarkable life’s work to be told to a wider global audience and inspire a new generation of visitors.

Facteur (Postman) Cheval may not be one of the world’s most famous builders – or even most famous postmen – but he was one with an imagination like no other, who produced a building like no other, and perhaps deserves to share the epitaph of one of the craft’s greats, Sir Christopher Wren: ‘If you seek his monument, look around you.’ Cheval wanted his Palais Ideal to be his tomb. Instead, it has kept the name and memory of its creator alive forever. And to those critics who remain, one of his slogans on the building has the right riposte: ‘Let those who think they can do better try’.

Julian Shea is a freelance writer and broadcast and print journalist, and an associate lecturer at St Mary’s University, Twickenham

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