Pictures of the visit are here.
Fancy a cool day with a blue sky, nearly 40 cheerful BBC visitors and a couple of smiling, learned lady guides for a private visit: the ideal set-up for an outing at the Château de La Brède. There were so many of us that we had to split into two groups.
The château stands proudly in the midst of the valley of a little tributary of the Garonne. What makes it known is that it is a well-preserved mediaeval fortress with a wide moat in a pleasant expanse of meadows, but mostly that it was the family seat of Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu et de La Brède.
We enjoyed a detailed visit of the apartments, where Montesquieu and his wife and 3 children lived, and then a tour of the grounds.
Though Montesquieu was a senior magistrate at the Bordeaux law courts, he spent time in Paris every year and went on a grand tour of Italy, Germany and England thanks to a rich uncle’s bequest… which was not so common then among the French as among the English aristocracy. Meanwhile Mme de Montesquieu, who was NOT a beauty but had an excellent head for business, stayed home and managed the numerous family estates. Montesquieu was in constant contact with the best brains of Europe and became a member of the academies of the towns he visited as well as of the Académie des Sciences et Arts de Bordeaux. He had a keen interest in sciences, agricultural improvement… and the selling of his wine in northern Europe. He has made a name for himself as the author of L’Esprit des Lois (1748), which carried on from Locke’s Treatises on Government, theorized the separation of the three estates as a cornerstone of a well-balanced government and directly influenced the Declaration of Independence (1774) and the Constitution of the United States (1791).
Next to the château he created a model farm integrating 3 adjoining sections for farm workers’ quarters, dairy production and wine production. He also created a French garden with a major vista along a strip of meadow and a “love garden” to the side, curtained off from view by a wooded strip. Was it for his own private flirtations away from Mme de Montesquieu’s eyes? Being handicapped, she could hardly follow him around.
The garden is currently being recreated after an 18th century plan discovered among the Montesquieu archives. These and over 3000 of his books were donated in 1994 to the Bordeaux metropolitan library by the last descendant of the family, the Comtesse Jacqueline de Chabannes, who left the house and estate to the foundation that now runs the place.
The love garden is inscribed in a diamond-shaped plot, with eight grass roundels surrounding a central space. The overall design is an 8-pointed star inscribed in 3 triangles, which illustrates Montesquieu’s character by suggesting faith in man first and then in some sort of deity (the two 4-pointed stars jump to the eye at once, 4 being the figure of the human element, while the 3 triangles -3 for the holy trinity or the godly element- appear at second sight) and a concern for economy with NO round ponds and water spouts (expensive plumbing, etc.) but rounds of cheaper grass though the garden was laid down in marshy soil with plenty of water.
Quite some lad, Monsieur Montesquieu had very poor eyesight which, like Milton’s, failed him and his daughter Denise was his secretary for years and wrote down L’Esprit des Lois and Montesquieu’s letters for him. The other daughter, Marie, is undocumented, the son carried on the running of the father’s estates but not his intellectual activity while the grandson fought in the American Independence War (which in a way seems appropriate) and died childless after marrying an English heiress.
The house has kept a sizable collection of furniture, a set of family portraits (NOT in the Reynolds class but interesting), and the 19th century bookcases (now empty) in the large, vaulted library and dark paneling in the dining room, with recesses in the thick mediaeval walls for washrooms, a secretary’s cubby hole, original tiled floors with typical local pink baked clay tiles.
How we then enjoyed a long sit-down and convivial picnic-cum-chat close to the Lac Bleu at Léognan afterwards! With the vendanges almost in full swing around, the only sensible thing was to enjoy the sunshine, the breeze and the good company. Which we all did!
Pictures of the visit are here