Château de l'Anglais, Nice - Treasures of Provence

Château de l’Anglais, Nice

Château de l'Anglais as seen from the Promenade des Anglais

Now a co-property split into apartments, the Château de l’Anglais and Colonel Robert Smith were once the talk of Nice.

The Château de l’Anglais, a rather ‘insolite’ and dusky pink property can be found on Mont-Boron opposite the port of Nice. On a bright, clear day you have a good view of it by standing on Quai Rauba Capeu (facing Villefranche-sur-Mer). Alternatively if you take the Open Top Tourist Bus you will be able to see it closer as the bus passes it as it goes along Boulevard Franck Pilatte located next to the Club Nautique de Nice.

Château de l'Anglais Turrets

Otherwise if you want to get up “close & personal” you’ll need to walk along Avenue Jean Lorrain which gives you a view looking up at the Château, or you can drive around the Port, taking Boulevard Carnot until it meets the angle of Boulevard du Mont Boron. Park inside the new Casino supermarket’s underground parking and then cross over the road where you can see it properly.

Colonel Robert Smith
The owner and architect of this fascinating property was an English gentleman named Colonel Robert N. Smith. To better understand how the Château came into being one needs to understand the man and the circumstances that brought him to create such a building.

Robert Smith, whose family originated in Bideford (North Devon), was born in 1787. He enlisted as a Field Engineer in the Bengal Division of the Indian Army (India was then part of the British Empire until 1947) for active duty. In 1808 and aged only twenty-one, he assisted in the construction of the Kedgeree lighthouse (also known as Kedgeree or Cowcolly Light), which was to be India’s first British-built lighthouse. Located on the west side of the mouth of the river Hooghly, in the Bay of Bengal just south of Calcutta, this 88ft white tower took two years to build and came into service in 1810. It stayed active until the 1920s.

Five years later and now a lieutenant, Smith accompanied his commanding officer on a tour of India. This tour would involve a variety of engineering inspection work, administrative duties, certain specific military observations as well as the creation of an inventory listing of all known Indian archaeological sites. Lack of any photography equipment meant that Smith would sketch, paint and write down everything he saw. His information and drawings were sent to the Ministry of War for analysis.

These informative years only went to increase his appreciation of Indian architecture. In 1818, with the assistance of Rev. Robert Sparke Hutchins (and the use of convict labour), he channelled his growing passion by designing St George’s Church (modelled after a larger church in Madras), in Penang, Malaysia. Today it is one of the oldest landmarks in the city of George Town, and the oldest Anglican Church in Malaysia. In 2007 the church was declared one of the 50 National Treasures of Malaysia by the Malaysian government.

Following the completion of the church, Smith returned to England (1819-1822) although it’s difficult to know whether it was by personal choice or standard army practice. Whatever the cause, it seems that three years there was enough as he returned to India and entered a very creative period. Settling in Delhi he designed and built not just his own home but St James’ Church too.

In 1829 his remarkable creative energy found him directing the renovation work on the famous Qutub Minar, a 72m/239ft fluted red sandstone tower (and the tallest minaret in the world) that was seriously damaged, as was its cupolo, by an earthquake a few years earlier in 1803. The chattri was removed in 1848 by the Viceroy Lord Hardinge as it was criticized as not in keeping with the architectural style of the rest of the minar; it presently stands to the left of the entry path and is known as Smith’s folly.

Ranked a Colonel, Robert Smith returned to Europe, but this time it was for good and he lived first in Italy and then England where he settled in Paignton, Devon to be close to his sister who lived on Waldon Hill, Torquay. Finding a plot of land to his liking he designed and had built his first “gothic-mogul” style chateau, called Redcliffe Towers which he flanked by two minarets. It was completed in 1855.

On a trip through Nice the following year, he came across a very enviable plot of land located close to the port of Nice with panoramic views of the Mediterranean Sea. Realising its immense potential, Colonel Smith purchased 35,000m² of this Niçoise coast line and decided to build a second castle there, a project that would take over four years to complete.

Château de l'Anglais - early photoThe Building of the Château
Building work started in 1858 and began with dynamiting the enormous rocks and boulders that made up the bulk of the rugged terrain. Once completed, tonnes of earth were brought in by several horse-drawn carts to enrich the extremely poor soil. Slowly but surely the enormous structure took form as did fountains, arches and ornamental ponds, and various shrubs and trees were planted. During the entire building phase Colonel Smith divided his time between Paignton, Rome, and Nice. Here he rented a whole floor at the Hotel Royal as from its windows he had a direct line of vision to watch the progress of his fifty or so builders.

And what a building it was to be! Apart from the main property there were also two circular buildings annexed to it: one positioned close to the new road leading to Villefranche-sur-Mer (today called Boulevard Carnot), the other located at the far end of the Château. This was positioned just above an ornamental pond that was fed by a spring which also went to irrigate the whole of the domain. The enormous size of the Château allowed for the creation of numerous different rooms: living rooms, boudoirs, smoking rooms, billard rooms and various dining rooms, to name a few. In the hall a wide marble staircase led the way up to 12 bedrooms and a theatre capable of seating 500 people.

In the castle’s park several footpaths were traced along the hillside, while to counteract the steep terracing two hundred steps were built which connected the Château to the sea. Marble benches were positioned at regular intervals along the steps so that guests could sit and admire the panoramic views afforded from such advantage points. Another series of steps led down to a small private port, a boat shed and several changing rooms.

Like an earlier building he had helped renovate, this latest creation was also dubbed “Smith’s folly” though it engendered much more debate. While some thought it splendid, others found it deplorable and grotesque and harshly critised it, notably Stephen Liégeard (the inventor of the name Côte d’Azur).

Apart from a few close friends, even with such a magnificent property Colonel Smith did not entertain much, preferring instead to spend most of his time alone either reading, painting or writing. His subject matter was of course India and his paintings, like his homes, were notably larger than life, some measuring as much as 20 metres wide. His Pictorial journals of travels in Hindustan is in the Victoria & Albert Museum (in London) and shows that he was an outstanding artist. While he may not have been a great entertainer and somewhat of a reclusive, he did have an Indian companion who bore him a son, though it appears the father/son relationship was not a happy one.

Sadly, not more is known about the last few years of Colonel Smith’s life. After his death his son left India, where he’d been working as a waiter in a hotel, and moved into his father’s home in Paignton (today a luxury hotel). After a few rare visits to the Château he put it up for sale and a little while later Redcliffe suffered the same fate.

It remained empty for two years before being bought in 1875 by the Austrian-Hungarian Consul to Nice, Count Melchior Gurowski de Wczele who already owned vast tracts of land on either side of the Château. Once purchased he instigated a series of anachronistic alterations and conversions that were totally out of character and context to the whole building: increasing the height of the second floor, thus completely obliterating the two lateral towers as well as reshaping the crenallations to give a more theatrical effect.

Rebaptised “Le Château du Mont-Boron” and somewhat less introverted than Colonel Smith, the Count enjoyed organising numerous sumptuous receptions many of which were fancy dress parties. The most regular visitor seems to have been his brother Ignace, brother-in-law to Queen Isabel, uncle to the King of Spain and a good friend of Lord Suffield’s (then Admiral of the Royal Navy and himself a close friend of the Prince of Wales) who would moor his yacht, the Bulldog, at the foot of Count Melchior Gurowski de Wczele’s Château.

Prior to his death in 1908, the Count had toyed with the idea of bequeathing the Château to the town of Nice as a Museum of Peace. To this end he’d already transformed several of the rooms into a museum and placed some of the prized marble statues he had in his Villa Borghèse collection in Rome. However, for some unknown reason, this project never materialised and the Château passed into the hands of the Count’s son who kept it for a couple of years before deserting it in 1920.

And so the Château remained abandoned for ten years and nearly razed to the ground in the 1930s to make way for a more modern building. The advent of the Second World War saw the Château turned into a luxury hotel-restaurant though this was short-lived; after the Liberation it fell under the heavy hand of real estate investors who divided and sold up little parcels of land, some of them turning into Boulevard Jean-Lorrain, others as building plots. During this period the Château too went through another round of transformations notably with the addition of balconies, terraces and various other misplaced artefacts.

Today, all that remains of the original building is the rotunda-music hall located below the Château and the old keeper’s lodge. In 1949 the Château became a co-property and split into various different apartments and found itself being remodelled yet again to the whims of its new owners.

Although Colonel Smith’s Château and his love of India may now be but fleeting memories of a time long past at least the Château is protected as an Historic Monument since 20th June, 2000.