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Inside the French Restoration Chateau of designer Tim Gosling
Known globally for his bespoken interiors and yacht furniture, Tim Gosling is now reviving forgotten French chateau, discovers Tory Kingdon.
For those in the superyacht industry, Tim Gosling needs no introduction. Formerly design director at Linley for 18 years, he founded his own studio in 2005 and now boasts an impressive portfolio of clients, from leading London hotels to luxury brands and private clients around the world. He is currently working on three yacht projects, the details of which he is keeping under wraps, but insists that his move into this area of design was entirely by accident.
“When I started working on yachts more than a decade ago, there wasn’t really an industry, as it’s now described. There was just Simon [Rowell], Andrew [Winch] and Dickie [Bannenburg] – I’d grown up with these guys and we were all just doing creative things, aiming to produce things that were of great quality and pushed boundaries. Superyachts did this, and still do,” he says. After noticing that there wasn’t enough good-quality exterior furniture for yachts on the market, he designed a range himself, launching Gosling Marine and the first-ever carbon-fibre range of deck furniture in 2013.
While undoubtedly an innovator, he is also perhaps best known for his commitment to preserving the treasures of the past – one only need visit the designer’s London home and studio, Sycamore House, to understand his passion for restoration.
The Georgian property and its extraordinary collection of antiques and ephemera was the result of a ten-year restoration project, but Gosling’s most recent endeavour is perhaps one of an even more ambitious nature. For the past two years, Gosling and his fiancé, Steve, have been breathing life back into an early 20th century, 57-room chateau in Normandy, France. The property, dubbed Restoration Chateau, had been so entirely neglected that most of the local villagers didn’t even know it existed.
“I can’t say it was planned,” says Gosling. “We knew we wanted a country home but originally we were looking in the UK. The problem was that everything had been totally hacked around, with former owners taking out so much of the original character and not putting anything back of the right period. I kept saying, no, why bother, it’s got no character.” A trip to Italy was no more fruitful. “The grand palazzos are stunning but largely in the cities; we already had the London residence and wanted something more rural.”
It was only then that they tried France, a place where there are countless large properties on offer but few that had the requisite wow-factor. As Gosling says, “the majority of chateaus look beautiful from the outside and then you walk in and it’s essentially a farmhouse. But Restoration Chateau was different. The minute we walked in we fell completely and utterly in love with it. It was stunning, so ahead of its time. Firstly, there are en suite bathrooms for all the bedrooms, which is just staggering, but the detail is also incredible, it could easily have been found in Paris.”
Built in 1910 for the Bon Marché family and designed by Georges Farcy, a Parisian who worked on the 1900 Paris Exposition and parts of the Paris Ritz Hotel, the chateau’s grand interiors still feature gilded plaster Capitals framing the front door, an Ormolu staircase that is almost identical to the one in the Ritz, ornate plasterwork ceilings and original paint colours on the walls. “It was entirely untouched, although certainly past its prime,” says Gosling. “The grand salon was painted a beautiful arsenic green, with the original paint and the plasterwork. I said to Steve ‘Gosh, this is an amazing colour. Look at the paint effect, it’s perfect’, and he said ‘Er, Tim, that’s mould!’”
They might have had their work cut out but the potential was huge. And then, as serendipity would have it, a friend turned out to own the chateau next door. “When we left, we drove past another tree-lined avenue and I turned to Steve and said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s where I used to go and stay.’ It was Château de Balleroy, owned by a friend of mine, Kip Forbes. Kip encouraged us to buy Restoration Chateau. His father had tried in the 1970s, but the family wouldn’t sell. He also kindly let us stay at his place in the early stages of doing up ours.”
The first step after purchase, a process that took eight months, was to tackle the grounds – an 11-hectare parkland that Gosling refers to as “like having Hyde Park to yourself”. They reinstalled the driveways so construction vehicles could reach the house and began landscaping the chateau’s long-neglected surroundings. “Kip immediately sent over his head gardener and team. The formal gardens at Balloire had been destroyed by the great storm of 1987 but, miraculously, ours was untouched. All the specimen trees – cedars, tulip trees, sequoias – remained. The gardeners had never seen anything like it,” says Gosling.
Then, critically, there was the roof, which needed to be entirely removed and refitted to make it watertight. “We did it on the same day that the roof of the Notre-Dame Cathedral set fire and it was such a strange moment because we discovered a wonderful piece of lead signed by one of the craftsmen that actually worked on the Notre-Dame roof back in 1911,” Gosling recalls. Then came the installation of new electrical systems, not a small task, rendering the exterior of the house and repainting the countless windows – a year’s worth of work – all while working on restoring the internal plasterwork and staircases. “The scale of the building is so big. I keep telling myself it’s not but when you’ve got 57 rooms, you can’t deny it. Everything takes so much longer to do just by the sheer scale of it,” he adds.
Gosling is determined to restore the house to its original beauty. “I started with the carpets to get a sense of the colour palette and where to start. I’d previously designed a collaboration with the Rug Company and so thought about creating a series of contemporary rugs, but it just didn’t feel right. I think the way you live in the house can be contemporary but I’m adamant that the pieces need to be of the time.” Instead, he sourced an original Aubusson carpet from an Italian palazzo for the grand saloon, which became a starting point for the design scheme. “We’re slightly terrified about the dog running over it with muddy paws, but it is perfect for the room,” he says.
Upstairs there are Savonnerie carpets for the bedrooms. “They are of such a colossal scale with wool piles so thick that we needed a team of six to move and lay them,” he recalls.
Most incredibly perhaps, they have been able to restore much of the original furniture. In 1980, the house was sold by the Bon Marché family to an American, and although she didn’t want to keep any of the original pieces from the house, the family thankfully kept and stored the majority of it in barns. “We’ve been able to get a lot of it back,” says Gosling, “There is also the most incredible documentation on everything that was designed and bought for the house, so we can even cross-reference where things should be.”
Gosling also owns documentation on the chateau’s storied past. During the Second World War, the property was commandeered by the Nazi Party and used as an SS headquarters. When Gosling and his partner moved in there were still communication lines running up and down the servants’ stairs and bullet holes in the shutters. “We took photographs and then packed up the cables deciding it wasn’t something we wanted to keep there, but we’ve left some of the bullet holes in the shutters as it’s so part of her history.”
As well as leaving their mark, the Nazis also ripped out the entire heating system when they vacated the chateau, leaving radiators but ransacking the boilers and some of the pipes, something that the previous owners never remedied. After the Nazis moved out General Eisenhower moved in, running Operation Overlord from the grounds. “We knew none of this when we were in the process of buying the place but since we’ve been given photographs and film footage of Eisenhower arriving. He used to pace up and down the avenue plotting his next move – it’s since been renamed Eisenhower Avenue.”
The heating system is a complication still to be addressed, not helped by the fact that France intends for the sale of oil central heating systems to be banned in the next five years, suggesting instead a woodchip-based system. “It’s problematic to have a woodchip system for a building of this scale, we’d likely have to have a whole room dedicated to being a hopper, there’s more possibility of blockages and there would also be a huge amount of ash being produced. I’d like to do something green and we’ve looked at solar but it’s difficult in a listed building, and where there are storms. We’re also in the middle of Normandy, so there aren’t that many local people available to service such a system.”
Other issues along the way Gosling has taken in his stride. “The biggest stylistic challenge was the dining room,” he says. “The chateau in general is based on these beautiful classical designs, quite Louis XIV, and then you walk into the dining room and it’s heavy and baronial. It has this exquisite hand-carved oak panelling but it’s a totally different space, which jars against the rest of the interior.” The solution was to commission a series of tapestries printed onto linen by Zadi and Zadi. “I had heard about them when they were restoring the tapestries at Dumfries House, which takes about four years. Zadi and Zadi photographed them and printed them onto linen as a replacement while they were being worked on. We’ve chosen a tapestry of the Arrival of the Gods, which wraps around the whole room. It’s a brilliant concept as I can control the scale and colouring and you honestly cannot tell the difference. Because it’s a classical motif it ties in the other rooms.”
Inevitably, the pandemic has slowed down progress. “Access to materials has been tricky as supply chains have been broken and of course the need to quarantine is now causing further issues, but all things considered we’ve made good headway. It is eight hours door to door so I’ve done a few trips where I’ve just loaded up the car.” He adds that another disruption to deliveries is the property’s secluded nature. “It’s funny – the chateau has been so asleep that most of the local villagers and even the postal service don’t know it exists. We’ve had a few lost deliveries as a result and whenever I introduce myself to the locals as the new owner of the chateau they insist there isn’t one!” While he doesn’t want the property to ever be a commercial venture, he’s considering opening it up at some point. “I think if people are interested we need to allow them to see it, there’s so much history here. It would be wonderful to do drawing classes too perhaps.”
The chateau continues to reveal treasures throughout the project. The bathroom taps for instance, with their Chaud, Froid labelling, might have looked like dirty enamel but when inspected closer were in fact mother of pearl. “It’s certainly been a labour of love and Steve and I are loving getting to know and understand the period.” Gosling’s fiancé also has experience restoring buildings, and worked for Trust and Heritage organisations in his native country of Australia.
It is now just over two years since they began and there is still a long road ahead. “I’ve designed the library so I’m excited about putting that together, and also the Italian garden is next. But it’s going to be a lifetime project. My mother is in her eighties and was out on the scaffolding painting the balconies this summer. Hopefully I can do the same at the same age. That’s the privilege of it.”
This feature is taken from the February 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.