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