The Weird World of Henry and Marie Clews

There is a pretty, formal garden at the Chateau de la Napoule near Cannes.


IMG_6497 IMG_6495I want to tell you the story of how it came to be created and although this has nothing to do with gardening I hope it will intrigue you as much as it intrigued me.


Henry Clews was the eccentric son of a rich Wall Street banker. His first wife divorced him when she realised that he was never going to follow in his father’s footsteps. He wanted to be an artist. When he met the beautiful and wealthy Elsie Whelen Goelet they fell in love and she divorced her husband and left her 2 children behind in New York. Henry and Elsie went to Paris so that Henry could start a new life as an artist and sculptor with Elsie as his muse. She had to have a new name to do this; Elsie was the name of his sister who was a feminist and an intellectual and despised on both counts by Henry. Marie was a much better name for his Madonna- like wife.

Henry’s grandfather had been a Staffordshire potter and he made blue and white plates featuring  Cervante’s Don Quixote. This is the persona Henry decided to adopt. His servant was named Sancha and had to dress up in a specially designed outfit.


When Henry and Maria discovered the ruined fort at La Napoule  near Cannes they moved into the villa on the site and devoted themselves to turning it into a crenellated fantasy castle.


The result looks like a cross between a Disneyland and Harry Potter film set with Alice in Wonderland thrown in for good measure. They built their own world here and lived according to the rules of Henry’s strange philosophy which he called humormystics.  On the huge doors of his medieval looking dining hall he carved a scene showing the terrible effects of a ‘Gynocracy’ (his word for a world where women rule.)  Here all is disorder. On the other door is ‘Androcracy’ where all is harmony because men rule. One feels this is a gibe aimed at his sister, the feminist.  The rich and famous were invited to dinner here  and Henry and Maria would entertain them dressed up in specially designed medieval outfits.  Exotic birds such as ibis, cranes and flamingos roamed the grounds.

This kingdom which was called Mancha, as was their unfortunate son, was filled with monsters and grotesques carved by Henry who was clearly a very talented sculptor. He had his own private quarry in the nearby Esterel where 12 stonecutters made sure that he had a constant supply of the beautiful porphyry and serpentine of the area.

Everywhere in the castle you find Henry and Marie’s entwined initials. Strange beasts stare at you from columns some with cryptic inscriptions. You would think that it was a magical world to grow up in but Mancha was a lonely child who spent his life with servants. His father was too self- obsessed to take any notice of him and his mother dedicated her life to her husband’s art. She was also very much involved in designing and overseeing the building of their castle and the garden.

There is a Roman tower standing on the site and a Saracen one. Henry and Maria had a third tower built to house their tombs. These faced each other and the doors were left ajar so that their spirits could escape. On the top of the tower there is a sealed room with no access to it where there spirits could frolic. Clews designed his own tomb and wrote his epitaph:

Grand Knight of La Mancha Supreme Master Humormystic Castellan of Once Upon a Time Chevalier de Marie

He should perhaps have added Certifiable Loony.  He seemed to have a persecution complex and suffered from periods of deep depression. He felt that: ‘Gymnocrats, scientists, democrats and burghers’ were all to be dreaded. He also hated communists and feminists. I’m not entirely sure what a ‘gymnocrat’  is, but clearly it was something undesirable .

Caricatures of despised 'burghers'

Caricatures of despised ‘burghers’

Henry’s studio which he kept locked throughout his life is full of his amazing work and can be visited by the public. After an exhibition of his work in America was panned by the critics he vowed never to exhibit again and he withdrew more and more into his own fantasy world. He satirised critics and intellectuals of all kinds. Because of his enormous wealth he never had to try to sell his work and struggle to become known.


Henry's studio with a photograph and his jacket over the back of the chair. ( A total stranger taking a photo. I didn't notice him.)

Henry’s studio with a photograph and his jacket over the back of the chair. ( A total stranger taking a photo. I didn’t notice him.)

After Henry’s death Marie looked after the castle during the war and buried and hid all his work so that they would be preserved from the Nazis. She died in 1959 having set up a foundation at the castle where American and French artists can come and work.

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24 Responses to The Weird World of Henry and Marie Clews

  1. Quite a strange tale! It seems as though he was a very sad person – talented no doubt, but somewhat grotesque subject matter at times. Did like the garden – formal, but still soft and pretty!

  2. Robbie says:

    Thank you for posting this story:-) What a creative spirit. Very talented + their poor child. What ever happened to their child? Did he have any artistic talent? Some of his sculptures make me a bit uncomfortable, for example, ‘burghers’ , but the last picture in your series seems to be a mythical bird that I find stunning. The busts are of people he knew?, what an interesting family. The garden above is magical and a place I would love to linger! Beautiful home:-)

    • Chloris says:

      Their son lived most of his life in Pennsylvania. He wrote the forward for his Mother’s memoirs and he sounds a very kind and understanding man. He had a long and happy marriage and a successful boat building business. So he turned out fine despite his lonely and unconventional childhood. He died in 2006.
      Some of the sculptures are of people he knew. Others are weird fantasies and grotesques.

      • Robbie says:

        really interesting:-) thank you for answering all my questions. Some of his weird fantasies are quite beautiful + others would give me nightmares if I had them in my garden/home-lol…very talented people.

  3. Alain says:

    Poor Henry, it sounds as if he was indeed certifiable. The garden seems very restful.Thank you for telling us about his history and showing us the pictures. He had talent.

    • Chloris says:

      It is a lovely garden.I think Henry Clews was very talented but more than a little strange. The story of their life at Last Napoule is fascinating. So many of the really rich in the South of France have little imagination what to do with their wealth beyond bigger and bigger gin palaces and designer goods. These two had the money and the imagination to create their own fantasy world.It was a weird world but they spent many happy and creative years working on it. Marie even taught herself how to do architectural drawings so that she could design new parts of the castle.

  4. Fascinating and entertaining story. As you say Henry was more than a little loony, talented but apparently not all that lovable. Maybe a gymnocrat is a physical education teacher? If so, I share his dislike, or at least I did when I was a youth.

  5. Chloris says:

    A physical education teacher you think? Well in that case I am with you and Henry on that.
    Henry was clearly very talented. Marie considered him to be a genius and made it her life’s work to care for him and encourage him. I think it was a great love story, at least that is how they represented it to the world.

  6. Annette says:

    Sounds like they were jolly good company – guess, Oscar Wilde would have loved Henry’s odd sense of humour! Never heard of this place so thanks for sharing it. Googling gymnocrat brought me to Carex gymnocrates among other things – we never stop learning, do we?!

  7. Chloris says:

    Funnily enough Oscar Wilde spent some time living In La Napoule after his release from Reading Gaol. His friend Frank Harris funded him hoping he would find peace and quiet here to write again. He spent his time pursuing fisher boys instead of writing. Wilde died in 1910 and Henry and Marie Clews bought the chateau in 1919 so they just missed each other.

  8. Julie says:

    Great post Chloris, an intriguing but jolly odd pair.

  9. Chloris says:

    Thank you, Julie. I do try to stick to gardening and plants on this blog but the story and the amazing chateau captured my imagination.

  10. Flighty says:

    What a fascinating, and strange, story. xx

  11. Chloris says:

    It fascinated me, I couldn’t resist writing about it. I should have taken more photos of the garden but I got taken up with the weird and wonderful sculptures.

  12. Anna says:

    A most intriguing tale Chloris. Henry and his wife do not sound the ‘nicest’ of people but certainly left a rich legacy!

  13. Cathy says:

    Other people may have thought them odd but they were clearly very taken with each other – and so creative. Nowt so strange as folk – but vive la différence! (and the garden looks lovely)

  14. Chloris says:

    Indeed Cathy, vive la difference! And once again you’ve amazed me, this time by knowing how to put the accute accent in because as you see I don’t.

  15. Kris P says:

    I find it strange that any woman could stand Henry’s behavior for long but perhaps the trade-off was that Marie had the freedom to express her own interests, or perhaps she was a little crazy in her own right – I’ll have to look up her memoirs. It’s probably a good thing that Henry was able to exercise his preoccupations and passions in art rather than in some destructive form. It’s good to hear that the son survived his childhood with his own sanity intact.

  16. Hollis says:

    wow, what a story! and nicely illustrated with your photos.

  17. targetsailor says:

    Chloris, I hope this reaches you after so long. I just found this and really enjoyed your post about Henry and Marie. You mentioned Henry and Marie’s initials being intertwined, but how about the three “M”s for Mirth, Mystery and Magic, I believe it was. Those letters were also scattered around as well. I visited the Chateau in ’74 while in the Navy and somewhere around here, still have the souvenir pamphlets and artwork I got while there. Thank you again for your post and photos.

    • Chloris says:

      How nice to hear from you, thank you for commenting on my blog. I found the château and the story of Henry and Marie Clewes fascinating. You are right I should have mentioned the three M’ s. It is nice to hear from somebody else who was intrigued by the story.

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