Château de La Napoule, Mandelieu-La-Napoule - Treasures of Provence

Château de La Napoule, Mandelieu-La-Napoule

Château de La Napoule in Mandelieu-La Napoule, once the home of American artists Henry and Marie Clews, is today a high table for the arts and aspiring painters. In 1917, while searching for a home on the Riviera, they are shown an abandoned sea-front brown stone castle. It is love at first sight. The Clews were to spend the rest of their lives restoring it to its former glory and dedicating themselves to Art.

Situated on the edge of the Estérel coastline, it is indeed an enchanting place. As the sun touches the giant Estérel porphyry boulders they turn deep ochre and enhance the greens and purple veins that coarse through the rocks. This amazing colour is offset by the joyous play of light on a mesmerising blue Mediterranean Sea, itself studded with the white sails of sleek yachts. It is all extremely breath-taking.

Parking is best done by the harbour as it’s then a short walk to the Château. In summer the sheltered beach is much favoured by sunbathers and swimmers enjoying the crystal clear waters and sandy beach.

The Château can be appreciated a number of different ways depending on how much time you have and on your interests. For example, it’s quite possible to visit the Château for a spot of lunch or just to partake in afternoon tea and enjoy the sea views from the terrace while doing so.

Alternatively, you may want to linger and stroll through the gardens, admiring the architecture and sculptures that are quite exceptional and intriguing. While the gardens hold their own fascination, without doubt it is a tour of the Château and viewing the Clew’s final resting place that is quite moving. Once inside, you’ll find yourself stepping back in time and following in the steps of a way of life that, I think, must have been utterly absorbing.

But let’s begin at the beginning by entering through the Château’s arched porch way. This is a busy area with people queuing up to pay their entrance fee, visiting the tiny gift shop to the left or the small cinema room to the right that shows a charming film of the life and times of the Clews. If it’s possible, try to blank out the hustle and bustle around you, for this is the perfect spot to absorb the Château and its gardens and to let its magic take hold.

Tempting though it is, begin your journey of discovery by first visiting the gardens rather than heading straight down the long gravel Allen to the Courtyard and Château beyond. Skilfully designed by Marie Clews they remain, still today, as she created them: the geometry of a formal French garden softened by plants typical of English gardens of that period and intertwined with heady Mediterranean essences and colour. Separated by tall hedgerows, topiary and pencil-thin Tuscany fir trees are tranquil havens with cooling pools and fountains, enhanced by decorative stone urns, statues and sculptures.

Set amongst these different garden areas, and depending upon the time of year you visit, the world of art greets you with exhibits of well known artists. When we visited, the extraordinary bronze sculptures by the Columbian artist Milthon were on display and blended so perfectly with their surroundings that I thought they had been there forever.

Everywhere you look, something catches your eye: a plant, a decorative ornament or feature or another charming haven. Viewing points are everywhere and are delicious moments to linger still further.

One such marvellous view, through windowless arches, overlooks La Napoule’s sandy beach and marina. Indeed, this portion of beach once belonged to the Clews and made up part of their property.

Today it is called “Fishermen’s Park” and was donated by Marie Clews to the fishermen of La Napoule in a gesture of gratitude. Many years earlier, some local fishermen had saved the life of the Clews’ young son, Mancha, when an unexpected storm overpowered him and blew his tiny rowing-boat out to sea. When she learnt they had no sheltered place to store their nets or tie up their boats she designed and built a safe harbour for them by way of thank you. It is this beach that you pass when approaching the Château from the east.

As you continue your walk, you are bound to notice a recurring element: the Clews’s monogram and an important part of their legacy. Evolved from the fusion of the signatures of each spouse it adorns everything they created both together or separately. When the “H” (Henry) and the “M” (Marie) are intertwined between two “C”’s (the Clews) it means a mutual collaboration. However, “H” or “M” alone indicates an individual contribution to that particular aspect of the Château, sculpture or design element. The three “M”’s on either side of the central monogram represent: “Mirth, Myth and Mystery” Henry’s play at black humour and irony. Understanding the monogram goes a long way towards understanding their world.

The walk to the terrace and subsequent ramparts is truly delightful as glimpses of the sea and surrounding Mediterranean countryside come into view at every turn. But it is from the terrace, now arranged for lunch or afternoon tea with its teak furniture and green parasols, that the views are the most spectacular, as before you lies the bay of Théoule, enclosed by the Estérel mountain curving round to the west, Cannes to the east, and across the bay of La Napoule the Isles des Lérins.

So exemplary has been the construction of the Château that it is difficult to imagine that the ramparts were never part of the original building. In fact it is a remarkable piece of engineering, for when Henry and Marie first bought the Château in June 1919 they simply did not exist. To fully enjoy the magnificent views of the coastline, the Clews conceived the bold scheme of adding a grand terrace garden running the full length of the seafront. To realize this massive project they relied on the genius of their Russian engineer who devised a miniature railway system to carry the enormous stones to each of the 15 majestic arches that support the terrace. A present-day walkway makes it possible to view this construction from below and which today links the two beaches that lie either side of the Château.

From the terrace you’ll need to retrace your steps and return to the central allée that will take you to the main courtyard and the Château Now is a good time to explain more about this fascinating building, for what stands there so proudly today was not always so.

Origins of Château La Napoule
Turning back the clock, we find that some 2,000 years ago, the site was once a Roman settlement. Like elsewhere along the coastline, the Romans would establish themselves along strategic positions, and that of La Napoule was certainly one. We hear no more about this site until the Counts of Villeneuve were forced to flee from their ancestral home, Château d’Avignonnet following its destruction by the war-prone lord, Raymond de Turenne, in 1347.

Making their way to La Napoule they constructed a new castle upon the remains of the antique Roman fortifications. But these were difficult times and outbreaks of war not uncommon in the region, and the château was soon pillaged by the Austrians and later the Piémontais. Though it would be partly dismantled by the troops of the Duke of Savoy it was practically demolished during the French Revolution. All in all it would be destroyed and rebuilt eight times. What little remained would be purchased much later by traditional glass workers who reconstructed the central part of the Château in order to install ovens and workshops.

We then journey forward to the First World War to find that the Château is now in the possession of the noted Irish-English society beauty, Mary Theresa Olivia Cornwallis-West, better known as Daisy, Princess of Pless. Her fortunate situation in life brought her into endless contact with royalty and engendered travels around the worlds such as India, Egypt, Germany, Switzerland and Southern France. One can only presume that it must have been on one of her journeys to this region that she found and fell in love with the ramshackle remains and exquisite sea views, and decided to make them her own.

So it was that when Henry and Marie Clews needed to escape from Paris and the harsh rigours of the War (I shall explain more about this episode of their life later in the article), they decided to journey south for peace, warmth and rest. They stayed first in the Hotel du Cap d’Antibes for one month but, upon finding a land of sunshine, clear blue skies and orange blossoms, they contacted an estate agent and started house-hunting along the coast. Through him they hear about the château, though now abandoned by the princess with only a guardian left to manage the estate, and they set off to visit it.

One can only imagine what La Napoule was like in 1917, but from all accounts it was a desolate village with only sand dunes, umbrella-pines and rugged coastline; a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Paris. Yet, stepping out of their horse-drawn carriage and viewing the property for the first time, they both knew it was something special and would change their lives forever.

They rented the Château for the summer with an option to buy if they really liked it; they bought it a year later. Once they had done so they longed to restore it to its former medieval style and so, no sooner had they moved in than they began their massive reconstruction. While Marie assumed the role of architectural designer, Henry created his own style of imaginative sculpture for every new element of the renovation. The first stone laid was for Henry’s studio which would eventually lead to the construction of a new west wing connecting the central house to the Saracen Tower. A stone cutting facility was set up in the gardens and twenty stonemasons were hired to shape the red and green porphyry mined from the Clews’ quarry in the nearby Estérel Mountains.

Activity teemed around the courtyard between the old Saracen towers as Italian stonecutters set up their workshop under a shed to shelter themselves from rain and sun. Stones were piled all about and a narrow-gauge railway was set up to help transport them from place to place. The Château and courtyard became one giant studio workshop, which horrified the Clews’ family, friends and occasional visitors from America who had expected to find them surrounded by green lawns, marble fountains, butlers and cordon-bleu chefs in keeping with their status in life.

After the discovery of the foundations of an inner courtyard wall, the couple recreated a new wall, two meters wide, exactly in its place. A new tower inspired by the two medieval towers was added to the western sea-front. The mansard roof and tall chimneys were removed and crenellated turrets built in their place. A new east wing hosting a grand exhibition space was added, and eventually horse stables along the eastern perimeter were converted into new galleries with glass and steel skylights imported from New York.

The Château’s restoration continued for the remaining years of Henry’s life until he died in 1937. Yet for another twenty-two years Marie continued guiding the restoration until her own death in 1959.

Before we set foot in the courtyard and, further still, inside the Château, we need to better understand the force that drove the Clews to make the Château such a centre-piece of their life and the creative art it would inspire. Inscribed above the castle’s front door are the words “Once Upon a Time”. These symbolic words were not just chiselled out of stone by Henry for Marie Clews but intended for all those who passed under it: a return to another time and another world. By believing in that world you also believed in them.

Life & Times of the Clews
Henry’s father, a Wall Street banker, had won his way to success as a self-made man and attained a comfortable station in life. His father before him, James Clews, had originally founded a pottery business in Cobridge, England, and had equally made a name for himself and his brothers, but in blue-and-white china. They lived in a large country house called Oxleasows in Hilderstone, Staffordshire, near Stoke. In the 1830s James Clews left England and attempted to set up business in Kentucky and then Indiana, but both ventures failed and he and his wife returned to England while Henry Sr. remained behind.

After some years of apprenticeship at various trades Henry Sr began to learn about the stock market and found he had a flair for the business. By 1856 he was heavily involved in the stock market and had set up his own company, Livermore, Clews & Co. He associated with the De Puysters, the Van Courtlands, the Astors, and the Belmonts. Because he had successfully sold government issues of war bonds during the Civil War he was also a frequent visitor at the White House and often dined with President Ulysses S. Grant.And it was during a White House ball that Henry Sr met his future wife, Lucy Madison Worthington, a descendent of the American President, James Madison. They married in 1874 and soon their family began to grow: first a daughter in 1874 whom they named Elsie, then Henry Jr. in 1876 and Robert in 1877.

Henry was a strong and healthy boy but his hands and feet were unusually small and his forehead remarkably high and broad. As a child, his grandmother (Worthington) gave him a gift of a rocking chair. For some unknown reason, Henry became exceedingly attached to it and took it wherever he travelled; it remained with him his entire life.

As a schoolboy he attended a number of schools: Cutler’s ,Westminster and finally Groton. In those days, one had to be “written down” almost from birth in order to be “received” at the proper time. Groton was the destination of boys whose parents were among the guiding spirits of the United States but who were also prosperous enough to pay the high tuition fees. So when Henry informed the school’s headmaster, Dr George Peabody, that he wanted to leave this institution because he was unhappy, all hell broke loose. The headmaster was stunned, his father outraged, his mother wept.

So began a series of tutors and for a while Henry was happy and content. Later, he went to Amherst College, Columbia University, then Lausanne in Switzerland and finally Hanover in Germany. It was here that he first participated in sword matches and became a skilful fencer with foils. He also fell head over heels in love with a vivacious French girl called Aimée and courted her day and night to the detriment of his studies. As Aimé lived in Evian (France) Henry found himself spending a great deal of time on the steamer between Ouchy and Evian, on Lake Geneva, and decided to rent a small cottage by the lake. Here they lived together in total bliss.

That is, until news of their affair reached his parents who were absolutely appalled. Henry was forcibly dragged back to New York by his mother to begin a career on Wall Street under the stern eye of his father. Aimée remained behind.

While Henry may have been heart-broken by such beautiful love lost, he was also acutely aware that he was not happy working in Wall Street. Each night he would sit in his rocking chair and ponder his future, for in Lausanne he had discovered his passion for art and wanted, more than anything, to direct his energies in becoming either a painter, sculptor, or writer.

Things came to a head when there was a minor panic on Wall Street and stocks came crashing down. While Henry Sr held fast and steered his company through the crisis, his son went to pieces and disappeared. After the closing of the market, his father realised his son was not in the office and sent his staff to search for him. He was found in a small private room reading Shakespeare. After such an incident there could only be one outcome: Henry never returned to Wall Street.

While a grave matter for his father, to Henry it was like a breath of fresh air and he would say later “Life would teach me its lessons, but not from behind bars. I decided that I must choose for myself. Choice is, after all, the greatest freedom in the world. Choice to make mistakes, to work, to become utterly and entirely oneself”. His choice was to seriously pursue the life of creating art.

And so he created a small studio for himself in his parents’ luxurious home and into this arranged his beloved rocking chair, an easel, canvases and a paint box. His first model was the Clews’ housemaid and then, one by one, the rest of the household. But his mother found him and his painting too messy and disruptive and went off to rent him a studio away from the house. Enjoying this sense of freedom, Henry also rented a studio in Paris, once occupied by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.

Throughout all this Henry managed to fall in love again and pursued not just his art but now also Louise Morris Gebhard whom he had met in Newport. They married in 1901 and went to live in Paris. Initially the marriage was a happy one and produced two children, Henry Clews III and Louise (who later became the Duchess of Argyll). However, as the years passed Louise became more and more disenchanted, finding herself alone more often than not, as Henry squirrelled himself away in his studio or with his arty friends and writers.

They divorced in 1910. Henry returned to New York but suffered a nervous breakdown and his first attack of depression, which was to periodically pursue him for the rest of his life.

Yet out of these bleak, miserable days life threw him a lifeline: Marie.

Destiny: Elsie Whelen
Though it seems quite an improbable and unromantic place, Henry met Marie at a dog show in Newport. For both of them it was love at first sight. Marie’s real name then was in fact Elsie Whelen. Her father was the treasurer and later the president of the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He loved arts and passed this passion on to his daughter. Elsie’s grandfather on her maternal side was William Spohn Baker, a scholar and a writer who passed his life in art galleries and museums, but mainly in the Historical Society of Philadelphia where he put together a series of books and studies on the life of George Washington.

Elsie was a great beauty and became a very popular débutante. During one summer her parents took her to Narragansett Pier and later rented a small cottage in Newport for two months. There she met her future husband, Robert Goelet, one of the most eligible, wealthy bachelors in the country, whom she married in 1904. Their wedding was a beautiful affair with eight bridesmaids, among whom was Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.

She had an extraordinary life taking trips to Japan, China, Scotland, Paris, and Rome. Under the guidance of her Aunt Grace Vanderbilt, she became one of the pivots of New York social life, yet fretted at the futility of the repetitious round of activities that characterized her young married life. And then she met Henry Clews and Elsie was spellbound by the man and felt she had met her destiny.

After much hesitation, heartbreak and misgivings, especially her feelings for her sons Ogden and Peter, Elsie took the momentous decision to leave New York, her husband Robert and family and friends to be with Henry. Divorce proceedings were set in motion and, once sanctioned, Henry and Marie married in December 1914 in New York and restricted the ceremony to close family. Henry rechristened Elsie and she became Marie, and remained Marie her whole life.

Some weeks later, Henry and Marie arrived in Paris, followed by Marie’s twenty-six trunks; they squeezed themselves into Henry’s little apartment. During the day Henry would work in his studio while Marie would sit in a corner close by reading or sewing. They would stroll sometimes for hours together, talking, laughing, dining and even dancing. They were in love. In October 1915 a son was borne to them, whom they named Mancha Madison Clews. They moved into a large apartment in Montparnasse and finally Marie was able to open up her twenty-six trunks.

After a brief trip to America and England, the couple returned to war-torn Paris. By now the Germans were only 70 km away and trying hard to break through the French defences in order to storm Paris. Towards the end of the war, night-time bombing raids were common and the Clews, along with their entire household, would find themselves heading, nearly night after night, across the street into the cellars of a ten-storey apartment building to escape the danger.

During those four years of war they lacked many things and suffered much from the cold. A terrible influenza fell like the plague on Paris and Marie feared for the life of her baby son as she fell prey to the illness herself. They managed a short break to Lausanne and stayed in the Hotel Beaurivage. When they needed a second short break from Paris – they headed south and the Mediterranean.

The Château at La Napoule became their haven and, once it was theirs, they set about its restoration: installing electricity, central heating, modern plumbing and telephones. It also had just one focal point and purpose: to support and enhance Henry’s creation of sculpture and artistic efforts. His studio was sacrosanct and very much Henry’s private domain which he kept locked at all times. I do wonder how he’d react now if he knew about the many thousands of visitors (myself included) who now trek through it, year in and year out, marvelling at his work.

Although busy during the day with their respective schedule, they found time to entertain in the evenings and would very often costume themselves elaborately when doing so. A portrait in the Gothic dining room depicts the couple dressed in medieval attire. Guests included titled families of Europe as well as friends and even one Winston Churchill who visited them during the mid-1930s and postulated loudly about the inevitability of another European war.

Henry did not live to see that war for he died in Lausanne after a long illness in 1937. After his death he was brought back to La Napoule and buried in the town cemetery until his final resting place, a burial chamber in one of the towers of their beloved Château, was ready to receive him. (When Henry and Marie developed their master plan for the reconstruction of the Château, they also envisioned a third great tower, rising straight out of the sea on the western façade.

Completed in 1933, in the style of the two existing Saracen towers, this new tower was christened the Tower of La Mancha in homage to Henry’s lifelong identification with Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote de la Mancha. The Clews planned the tower as their own crypt. Henry designed two sarcophagi befitting the burial of medieval knights and planned them as part of two adjoining alcoves to be adorned with his imaginative carved creatures. Twenty two years later Marie died at the Château and was buried in this same private tomb. The tower includes a secret room at the top where they believed their souls would be reunited and abide forever.) The Clews were clearly held in high regard by the inhabitants of La Napoule as on display is an old photograph of Henry’s funeral cortège which appears to consist of the whole population of the village led by the mayor.

The War Years
Two years after the death of her husband, with war clouds gathering in Europe, Marie was advised by the American Embassy to leave her beloved Château She refused and, with little money and no protection, insisted on staying in the Château to guard her life’s work when the war started. Marie had established a harmonious relationship with the French, so when they designated the Château as a strategic location and occupied it, they allowed her to stay in the gatehouse. She endured hunger and the fear of bombing. But when Italy entered the war, life at the Château became much worse. Due to well connected friends she was able to complete the task of removing and hiding nearly all the valuable furniture as well as the entire Clews collection. The major pieces where buried in the courtyard. The Louvre Museum assisted in finding secure places to preserve the other Clews sculptures.

When the Italians occupied the Château, a war tribunal indicted Marie for her support of the Allies. Only her friendship with Princess Maria of Savoy, daughter of the King of Italy, saved her. After Italy surrendered, the Germans occupied the Château and Marie was forced to relocate but she moved only four miles away to Cannes. Finally, on August 15, 1944, the Allies landed on the coast nearby. To her amazement, the American who actually liberated the Château was Marie’s cousin, Colonel Lewis H. Van Dusen, Jr. Returning to the Château Marie with her son by her first marriage, Ogden Goelet, established the Château as an outpost of the American Red Cross.

In 1951 she founded the La Napoule Art Foundation to preserve and protect the Château and the Clews collection. She dedicated her Foundation to the promotion of international understanding through the arts. This incredible woman died in 1959.

Hopefully, I’ve given you an understanding to the lives and times of the Clews, their passion both for each other and for the world of art. It is a remarkable story and a remarkable place to visit – yet tread carefully and gently for two souls guard their beloved home.

Château de La Napoule, Boulevard Henry Clews, 06210 Mandelieu-La Napoule


Tel.: +33 (0)4 93 49 95 05
Fax: +33 (0)4 92 97 62 71

€6 Adults
€4 reduced rate

Opening Hours
February 7 to November 7
10am to 6pm

Guided Tours
11:30am, 2:30pm, 3:30pm & 4:30pm

November 8 to February 6
Weekends and School Holidays
10am – 5pm

Guided Tours: 11:30am, 2:30pm & 3:30pm

Weekdays: 2pm – 5pm

Guided Tours: 2:30pm & 3:30pm