Le Petit Trianon


The restoration of Le Petit Trianon is a story set in motion by the relations between a French king and his mistresses and, most of all, the story of a French queen, a Swiss master watchmaker and the legendary timepiece he created for her. It all began in 1749, when King Louis XV of France decided to build himself a small private estate west of the Trianon Palace (today Grand Trianon), where he regularly resided, enjoying the change of atmosphere close to Versailles itself but without the Court’s cumbersome rituals. Urged on by his mistress Madame de Pompadour, the King began by laying out the gardens, to be gradually enhanced with small buildings. The royal gardeners Claude and Antoine Richard first laid out a vegetable garden, a flower garden, a stand of fig trees and heated greenhouses for exotic flowers and fruit. From 1759 on, the naturalist Bernard de Jussieu continued his plant classification work and carried out botanical experiments in the gardens. In 1750, Ange-jacques Gabriel, chief architect to the king, built the Pavillon Francais. Designed for games and enjoying light refreshments, it was situated next to the new French-style garden. A year later a small dining room protected by a trellis and shrubbery was built; it was dubbed the Pavillon Frais. The garden’s charm led Louis XV to consider building a small palace that would allow him to reside in the heart of his domain. The influence of the powerful Madame de Pompadour was again the driving force.

Details of the rose-trellis-work that led to the ‘Small Theatre of Marie-Antoinette’

By the mid-1750s her place in the King’s life as official mistress was unassailable, after the challenge of the much younger Marie-Louise O’Murphy de Boisfaily had been seen off. Madame de Pompadour still had enemies at court and the projected new palace would offer her a retreat from the stifling atmosphere of Versailles. It was to be a more private retreat, enabling the monarch to leave the main Versailles building without going too far away. The result was the Petit Trianon, an unquestioned masterpiece of French neo-classical architecture and decoration, which, incidentally, was the inspiration for the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion, in Frankfort, Kentucky (built between 1912-1914). Naturally the project took on a life of its own and in 1772, some eight years after Madame de Pompadour’s death, Louis XV chose to build a chapel. Extremely simple in design, it opens on the French garden. The chapel features a royal box with balustrade, facing the altar, and accessible from the chapel’s outer porch, overlooking the French garden. Its simple grey interior, as understated as its exterior, contains a main altar with arched pediment decorated with a radiant motif sculpted by Prevot. The altarpiece carries a painting executed in 1774 by Joseph-Marie Vien representing Saint-Louis et Marguerite de Provence rend et visite Saint Thibault, the latter is depicted presenting the royal couple with a stem of lilies whose eleven flowers symbolise their future descendants. Originally designed in part as a gift for Madame de Pompadour, the Petit Trianon estate was subsequently occupied by her successor as royal mistress, Madame du Barry, until the death of Louis XV in 1774. However, the Petit Trianon’s history is largely associated with Marie-Antoinette, who upon the accession of Louis XVI took possession of the residence. Wanting something she could call her own – the young Queen found Versailles’ bustle and incestuous court life difficult to endure – Marie-Antoinette turned the Petit Trianon into her personal retreat and stamped it with her own character and taste.

‘The Queen’s Hamlet’, one of the features of the Petit Trianon estate particularly associated with Marie-Antoinette.

The restoration project, undertaken by The State Corporation of the Versailles Museum and National Estate has acknowledged Marie-Antoinette’s unique connection to the Petit Trianon and visitors will be able to share in the experience. On July 1, 2006 ‘The Domaine of Marie-Antoinette’ was inaugurated. The estate is made up of the Petit Trianon; the Theatre de la Reine (Queen’s Theatre); the Jardin Francais (French Garden) and its pavillon; the Jardin Anglais (English Garden) and its structures Temple de l’Amour, Grotte, Rocher, Belvédère; plus the Hameau de la Reine (Queen’s Hamlet). All are closely associated with the person and destiny of Marie-Antoinette, evoking refinement and femininity, a yearning for nature and an enchanted atmosphere, long ignored or forgotten, which the current Versailles authorities wished to bring back to mind and to life. The entire domain is imbued both with a Rousseauist spirit of return to nature and the Queen’s own impeccable taste, brought to life by her principal overseers: Richard Mique, the architect, Claude Richard, her gardener and the painter Hubert Robert. While she did retain the Jardin Francais and its two pavillon (Pavillon Francais and Pavillon Frais) inherited from Louis XV, as soon as she received the Petit Trianon, the Queen decided to build another garden in the Anglo-Chinese style then very popular throughout Europe. Taking her cue from the Marquis de Girardin’s Ermenonville Palace and the Duc d’Orleans’ Pare Monceau, Marie-Antoinette dotted her garden with fabriques. She ordered major earthworks, plantations and construction projects, turning the Jardin Anglais into a vast area featuring clusters of trees interspersed with fields and covered by a dense network of footpaths where The Temple de l’Amour, the Grotte, the Belvédère and the Rocher (Rock) were erected in succession (1778-1779). These constructions were built on rocks and artificial islands overlooking a man-made river. Marie-Antoinette’s idyll was shattered with the outbreak of the French revolution in 1789. Following the King and Queen’s execution in January 1793, the estate began to lose its bed linen, silverware, mirrors and marble artefacts; whilst iron, lead and copper were seized and turned over to the national arsenals and the Mint. Further indigity followed as from 1795 to 1805 the Petit Trianon housed a restaurant and was a popular dance venue. Status, if not perhaps legitimacy, was restored in 1805 when Emperor Napoleon I (who had been crowned in December 1804) decided to refurbish the Petit Trianon and turn it into lodgings for his sister, Princess Pauline Borghese. He paid off and evicted the tenants, enabling renovation work to get underway. Paintings were replaced, wallpaper laid, the panelling spruced up and the woodwork repainted to the Emperor’s taste, mostly grey and white. But it was not until 1809 that the Petit Trianon was entirely re-furnished. After Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce in 1810, the Petit Trianon building remained his only ‘country house’ as he had left Château de Malmaison to Josephine. In 1810 more work was effected on the property, where the Emperor regularly stayed with his second wife, Empress Marie-Louise (a niece of Marie-Antoinette). After Napoleon’s fall at the Battle of Waterloo, the Bourbons were restored to the throne but they rarely made use of the Petit Trianon save for a few official receptions. No renovation work was undertaken and the furniture remained where it was, only a few painting and sculptures being added. It took another revolution, that of 1830, and the accession of King Louis Phillipe to see the royal family return to the Petit Trianon. Louis Phillipe gave the estate to his eldest son. The Duke and Duchess of Orleans moved there in 1836. The Empire-style furniture was retained and the building was equipped with the latest modem facilities and conveniences. But after the final fall of the Bourbons in 1848 it proved to be the last time the Petit Trianon was lived in.

The Queen’s ‘Salon de compagnie’ where friends would be entertained.

The Queen’s ‘Salon de compagnie’ where friends would be entertained.

It was not until 1867 that the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, ordered the preservation of the estate with a view to returning the property to its Louis XVI condition. The exhibition of the same year devoted to Marie-Antoinette reflected the admiration Eugenie felt for the queen. It was staged in the context of the ‘Paris Universal Exhibition’ in tandem with a similar exhibition at Château de Malmaison devoted to the Empress Josephine. The final blow to France’s dynastic era came with the defeat of the Second Empire by Prussia at the battle of Sedan in 1870. Thereafter the nation would stick with republican governance.The cultural and architectural legacy remains to remind visitors of the era of royal greatness, and to give an insight into the life and times of some of the most famous personalities in French history. But it took a more modern sort of philanthrophy to bring the Petit Trianon back to its full glory. The moving force behind the restoration has been Nicolas G?Hayek, chairman of the Swatch Group, which includes the luxury watchmakers Breguet, a company which has a fascinating history all of its own. Orginally founded by master watchmaker and innovator of genius, Abraham Louis Breguet, in Paris in 1775, it was Breguet’s historic links with Marie-Antoinette that ultimately led to Breguet’s involvement in the Petit Trianon restoration project. Abraham Louis Breguet was a pioneer in his chosen field. Through a series of master strokes he launched his career: the development of the so-called ‘perpetual’ selfwinding watch; the invention of the gong spring for repeater watches; then that of the ‘pare-chute’, the very first shock-protection device. Soon synonymous with beauty, culture and innovation, the Breguet name and brand were sought after by the rich and the famous. Amongst those who have owned a Breguet are literary giants such as Honoré de Balzac, Alexander Pushkin, Stendhal and Victor Hugo. Abraham Louis Breguet himself was soon welcome at Europe’s royal courts, particularly in Versailles where Queen Marie-Antoinette was heard to express great admiration for his timepieces. A series of historic commissions followed. In 1782, for the Queen, Breguet had conceived the selfwinding, repeater watch fitted with a date calendar. It was only one of the many pieces by Breguet that the Queen was to acquire during her lifetime. Then, in 1783, Breguet received a mysterious and astonishing order from an officer of the Queen’s Guards. He was asked to design and make for the Queen a watch incorporating the full range of complications and functions known at the time. The order included neither deadline nor maximum price, and gold was to be used wherever possible. The result was the celebrated watch ‘number 160’, dubbed the ‘Marie-Antoinette,’ despite the fact that the Queen never laid eyes on it. Lengthy interruptions put off its completion until 1827, by which time both the Queen and Breguet himself had died. But the initial contract had been amply honoured. The watch was indeed the most intricate ever built and for over a century remained the most complicated timepiece in the world. It was then that the story took a mysterious turn.

A stunning panoramic view of the approach to the Petit Trianon.

With no trace of a sale to be found in Breguet’s very complete archives, the watch was known only to have left the workshop in 1827, only to return in 1838 for repairs, seemingly the property of the Marquis de la Groye. The mystery then deepened: its apparent owner never returned to pick up the watch, later dying heirless. Since no one claimed the watch, it remained in Breguet’s custody until 1887 when it was purchased by Sir Spencer Bruntun, a British collector, later passing to his brother and later still to a Mr. Murray Mark. By the early 20th century, it had entered Sir David Lionel Salomons’ celebrated collection. In 1925, upon Salomons’ death, the ‘Marie-Antoinette’ passed to his daughter, Vera Salomons – a prelude to new developments. During various trips to Israel, Vera developed a close friendship with a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Leo Arie Mayer, an enthusiastic admirer of Islamic art. She thereupon decided to establish a museum of Islamic art in honour of her learned mentor and friend. Donating to the new museum every collection of Islamic art she owned, for good measure she added the collections of Western horological objects she had inherited from her father. And so, a masterpiece of watchmaking conceived in Paris by a Swiss watchmaker for an Austrian archduchess who had become queen of France ended up in 1974 in the collections of a museum in Jerusalem. Nine years later, on Saturday April 16,1983, deserted and badly protected, the museum was broken into and robbed of its watch collections, naturally including the ‘Marie-Antoinette’.

The years passed. Despite Interpol’s best efforts, the loot was never recovered. The disappearance of the legendary timepiece occasionally came up in articles and investigations, but all concluded that there was very little hope of ever seeing it again. Eager for the opportunity to pay homage to this fabled but absent marvel in his museums, Nicolas G. Hayek decided in 2004 to build a new ‘Marie-Antoinette’ to replace the lost masterpiece. However, despite a well documented history, there were only a few descriptions and rough plans that the company happened to have on file to work from. But Hayek’s determination would now open another chapter in the long story of Marie-Antoinette and Breguet. The ‘Marie-Antoinette’ had by then been lost for over two decades and the company had only dug up partial and incomplete documents from its archives including brief descriptions of various operations, a few photos dating from the years before the theft, to which were added studies of other period movements corresponding in some areas and parts to the ‘Marie-Antoinette’. But, by dint of ingeniousness and sheer tenacity, Breguet engineers and specialists gradually managed to produce usable plans for the watch, signalling the start of the ‘Marie-Antoinette’s’ second life. Concurrently, two Breguet representavies learned that a 322-year-old oak tree, linked to Marie-Antoinette herself, located on the grounds at Versailles, had succumbed to countless storms and finally to 2003’s blistering summer heat wave. Planted in 1683, it had grown to 35 meters and its trunk measured up to 167 centimetres – but it had to be felled. Nicolas G. Hayek lost no time dispatching a delegation to Versailles to see if the chief gardener would consider parting with a piece of the Marie-Antoinette oak, for which Breguet was planning a second life – as a majestic presentation case for the new ‘Marie-Antoinette’. The Versailles authorities accepted, giving Breguet part of the tree. In return, they suggested that the company underwrite the restoration of a statue on the Versailles grounds. Studying a document detailing contributions and sponsorship opportunities at Versailles, Nicolas G. Hayek decided to forgo statues, choosing instead to finance the rehabilitation of the Petit Trianon and the Pavillon Francais, formerly beloved haunts of Marie-Antoinette herself, for five million euros. Breguet’s decision amounted to a double homage to the Queen, bringing both her watch and her favourite retreat back to their former glory. The wood made its way to Switzerland and work now got under way on all fronts: cabinetmakers went to work on the presentation case; builders and restorers on the Versailles structures and master watchmakers on the new ‘Marie-Antoinette’.

The Oak presentation case from a 322 year-old tree from Versailles, made especially to house the ‘Marie-Antoinette’.

By 2007, the watch’s escapement sprang to life, signalling its resurrection. As soon as the media got wind of the matter, the saga of the ‘Marie-Antoinette’ roared back to life. At the same time Nicolas G. Hayek received an anonymous message offering to sell him a mysteriously rediscovered original. After a series of letters between the parties, the usual verifications and discussions with the police, Hayek refused to enter into an illegal transaction. However, some months later it transpired that the watch was back in the Jerusalem museum. In the meantime, however, Breguet had completed its second ‘Marie-Antoinette’. And in April 2008 it was publicly displayed for the first time at the Baselworld Show in its regal presentation case. The case’s exterior is an accurate reproduction of a typical parquetry pattern at the Petit Trianon. Inside, more inlay work hides the watch, this time of the Queen’s hand as rendered in Elizabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun’s celebrated 1785 portrait of Marie-Antoinette holding a rose. Made up of over one thousand tiny pieces of various species of wood, this masterpiece is the work of a Swiss cabinetmaker from the Vallee de Joux. After four eventful years a fabulous story fraught with countless surprises has been concluded. Nicolas G. Hayek is happy to return the Petit Trianon to the public’s enjoyment after its thorough restoration made possible by his patronage. Adding to the event, the new ‘Marie-Antoinette’ is on hand, displayed in the Queen’s own premises in its superb presentation case made from the wood of her celebrated oak tree. The historic circle has been closed – the story of an historic treasure has led to the creation of a new marvel – a final gift from the legacy of Marie-Antoinette. (Royalty Magazine Vol. 21/04)

Comments are closed.