By Cynthia Fray
I’ll never forget my first visit to St. Jean Cap Ferrat. I remember it had an almost ethereal feel to it, most likely due to the dizzying effect of the cliffs that precipitously meet the edges of the Moyenne Corniche, the road we took from Nice.
Indeed, I was quite taken with the infinite beauty offered by the views that surprise you as you round the corners en route to the village. My husband (and native Niçois), Austin antiques dealer Jean-Marc Fray, said he wanted to show me one of his favorite villas in the area. He said it contained some great antiques I might like to see. Parking is rare in Cap Ferrat so we parked along one of the neighborhood streets and made our way up a hill to the villa entrance. And there I gasped. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined such a palace hidden there amongst the bougainvillea and the cypress trees, gardens sprawling as far as the eyes could see, with a view over the Bay of Villefranche on one side and the Bay of Beaulieu on the other.
I was stunned. The interior was just as opulent as the exterior. As I made my way through its rooms and walked the gardens of this architectural “folly”, I discovered the remarkable woman behind it all – Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild – an eccentric indeed, with a passion for art and antiques, travel and nature, and all things pink...
The Louis XV Salon
Follies on the Riviera
In the late 19th century, at the onset of the Belle Epoque, the French Riviera was the winter destination for Europe’s international elite. Queen Victoria, the Czar of Russia, the King of Bavaria, the prince of tea Thomas Lipton, and a certain Monsieur Singer (of sewing machine fame) were familiar faces in the area. Between rounds of clay pigeon shooting and roulette at the Casino in Monte Carlo, these affluent travelers moved about on board their private yachts, anchoring in the Bay of Villefranche- Sur-Mer.
In 1907, Belgian King Leopold II, who owned most of Cap Ferrat at the time, decided to expand his domain but was cut short by a Parisian Baroness – Mme Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild – who had just purchased seven hectares of land on the narrowest strip of the isthmus. She had fallen in love with the area after visiting her husband’s cousin, Theodore Reinach, who was building a Grecian-style villa in Beaulieu-Sur-Mer (Villa Kerylos). She decided to build a summer palace inspired by the Italian Renaissance.
From that moment on, enormous projects were put into motion, such as leveling the rocky piece of land and bringing in loads of water and dirt for nine different gardens. Two architects undertook the job: Giraud (of the Petit Palais) and Nenot (of the new Sorbonne). Eight more architects would come and go before the project was finally completed in 1912. The result was ostentatious, but grand nevertheless—a “temple of refinement.”
The Louis XV Salon
An Eccentric Rose
Béatrice de Rothschild, daughter of Baron Alfred de Rothschild (a Regent of the Banque de France), was born in 1864 and raised at the Chateau de Ferrières (one of the most important chateaux of the 19th century, about 30 kilometers east of Paris). At the age of 19 she married Baron Maurice Ephrussi, a banker, art collector, and fifteen years her senior.
The Baroness was a perfectionist who was committed to the success of her imperious villa designs. She had life size canvases painted of the plans and traveled extensively around the globe in search of furniture and art. She ordered trainloads of antiques and rare objects, which she sorted through personally right on the station platforms of Beaulieu. She was passionate about travel, games, art, and pastels. She covered the walls of one of the palace rooms with a rare ensemble of sketches and drafts by Fragonard, others with paintings and sketches by Boucher, polychrome ceramics from Castelli, and terra cotta by Clodion. She had royal taste, demonstrated by a game table created by Dubois for Marie Antoinette—a piece whose historic value did not escape her savvy collector’s eye.
The Baroness lived a life of eccentricity and dressed the part. Pink was her favorite color and she would greet suppliers dressed entirely in pink from the top of her silk parasol down to the tip of her boots; even her crocodile handbag was pink. The villa was built in rose pink and every room had to be pink – even her villa in Monte Carlo was called “Rose de France.” She invited her friends to extravagant receptions reminiscent of Marie Antoinette, transforming her house into an exotic zoo, and haven for her favorite companions: parakeets, monkeys, mongooses, and of course, pink flamingos.
The Baroness' Bedroom
Even the landscape of her newfound Eden was an inspiration to the Baroness. True to her love for travel and in particular to cruising, she decided to give her gardens the shape of a ship’s bow, from which she could contemplate the sea on either side, and where, from her loggia, she could observe her team of more than 30 gardeners, coiffed in French Navy berets with red pompons. She even went so far as to name the villa “Ile de France,” in memory of a cruise taken aboard a ship of the same name.
Nine magnificent themed gardens would take its visitors for a whimsical trip around the world. The French, Florentine, Spanish, Exotic, Stone, Japanese, Provençal, Rose, and Sèvres gardens were individual works of art designed by the most esteemed landscape artists from Europe and the United States (Harold Peto and Achille Duchen, among others). It took seven years to complete.
The French Garden stands above all the other gardens, both literally by virtue of its location, and figuratively by its size and extravagance. Stretching out directly in front of the Villa, it ends with waterfalls and a Temple of Love—a magnificent view from the building. A horseshoe shaped stairway takes you to the Florentine Garden, overhanging the Mediterranean Sea, with cypress lined alleys and white marble statues. The Spanish Garden follows inspired by the gardens of Andalusia, with its grotto, its vine-covered pergola, pink marble colonnades, and tiled fountains. The Baroness loved bas-reliefs and sculptures and collected many during her travels. The sheer size of these objects prohibited their entry into the villa, so the Stone Garden was created to harbor these treasures. She was also seduced by the oriental pavilion at the Exposition Universelle and sent an emissary to Japan to develop plans for the Japanese Garden, a zen-like garden filled with urns, pagodas, a Japanese bridge, and fountain protected by bamboo plants. The Exotic Garden blossomed with a wonderful collection of cacti, agave, and other succulent plants many of which come from cuttings from the exotic garden in Monaco.
Finally, the Rose Garden, home of Béatrice’s favorite flower - with all its thorns and pink petals - filled the sea air with its heavenly fragrance. The beautiful Provençal Garden is located at the eastern edge of the property and the Sèvres Garden is situated in front of the tearoom.
The Baroness' Bedroom
Sophistication, Splendor, and Monkeys Too
Although the villa was decorated with great works of art and fine antiques, the atmosphere within was homey and warm. The splendor and sophistication of its furnishings, testimony to the Baroness’ taste for art and travel, never undermined the inherent coziness of the villa, particularly in the Baroness’ private quarters. The Louis XV salon that opens up to the gardens was filled with furniture from Mme de Pompadour’s era, but personal objects placed here and there remind visitors of the well-traveled woman who arranged it all. Her boudoir was equally tasteful, adorned with 18th century boiserie from the Hotel Crillon, and a floor rug from the Savonnerie of the Royal Chapel in Versailles.
She was an avid collector of porcelain and dedicated an entire room to her collections from Sèvres and Vincennes, royal manufacturers founded by Louis XVI. She had a particular fondness for the 18th century as the Tapestry Room attests with its Jacobean furniture upholstered in tapestries from Beauvais. The Monkey Room, at once an appreciation for the 17th century and an indication of her playful side, is richly decorated with porcelain monkeys by Meissen, and boiseries by Jean-Baptiste Huet. A true homage to these endearing animals she loved so much.
As devoted as she was to every aspect of this architectural feat, Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild never returned to the villa after the death of her husband in 1916, preferring her residence in Monte Carlo. She died at the age of 70 in 1934, bequeathing her property to the Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de France with specific instructions to transform her villa into a museum that would, “retain the feeling of a salon.” A collector’s residence, situated on an idyllic site, showcasing remarkable works of art with spectacular gardens that take us around the world, this place is testimony to art and beauty, accessible by all—just exactly as Béatrice requested.
Every visitor today is her guest.
The French Garden