In the region of Normandy in France people trace their ancestry to the invasions of the Vikings in 911.
They are often compared with their Scandinavian ancestors who were just as stoic, stubborn and reserved as the Norman French.
The Vikings although having a reputation for being bloodthirsty raiders, were in fact good farmers as well as sailors and they cultivated the rich and fertile land of Normandy.
They also developed trade routes that ensured it became a flourishing province.
For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value*
Sited on the northwestern tip of France with a view to England across the English Channel, since time has been recorded the Norman’s have been going back and forth across this amazing strip of water that has managed to keep many invaders at bay.
Between Dieppe and Etretat a small fishing village in upper Normandy there is an eighty mile stretch of sheer cliffs that mirror the white cliffs on the English coast of Dover, reflecting their shared geological origins.
Etretat gained renown during the eighteenth century because its oysters were appreciated by members of the court of the French Kings at Versailles.
Then during the 19th century sea bathing became a craze and Etretat became a haunt of rich celebrities, including painters and writers such as Claude Monet, Victor Hugo and Guy de Maupassant, who spent much of his childhood there.
Attracted by the light and the spectacular natural landscape French Impressionist painter and gardener Claude Monet (1840 – 1926), who lived not too far away at the ancient town of Giverny, came to Etretat on the coast of Normandy to paint.
Seated high up on the cliffs endeavouring to capture impressions of the scenery it is said that he became irritated by the regular influx of Parisian society when all he wanted to do was paint in peace.
Annoyingly they arrived in their droves, all dressed up to the nines wanting to view the spectacular rock formations and scenery just on his part of the cliff.
Dear Monet, it probably would haver never occurred to him that he was part of the main attraction.
A sublime ‘poet of nature’ Monet cultivated the beauty of its flowers and trees quite literally in his own backyard. At Giverny in Normandy his spectacular garden, is now restored. It was, and is today a poem of breathtaking beauty – a timeless expression of man’s relationship with nature.
“Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.” said Monet
Viewing the French countryside is an uplifting experience, strewn as it is with a rich inheritance of handmade weathered buildings.
Perhaps the fascination is in its country style architecture, which is built from local materials to please the ‘eye’ and keep faith with the diverse and dramatic rural landscape, which is all at once a captivating array of beauty and timelessness. None is more captivating than the province of Normandy.
The French coined the phrase vive la différence and made it a hallmark of their houses and gardens. The natural colours of the landscape and the elusive light of its fertile countryside are rich in their diversity.
They maintain a physical presence of ‘la différence’ that is palatable.
Each region of France has its own unique sense of art, design, cuisine, wines and style and each have evolved gradually. Normandy holds its own legends and it, and its peoples have had a continuing, and profound influence on English history and its design and style. It has intriguing contrasts in both textures and moods and a leisurely walk through some of the villages of Normandy can be a lesson on English history.
The story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is written in the great stone vault of the Minster at Caen, which still covers the tomb of William the Conqueror, William the 1 of England who invaded England in 1066. This historic event is recorded pictorially on a superb linen document is held in one of its most picturesque towns Bayeaux. Worked in the 11th century and over 70 feet long, the tapestry is an embroidery, despite being known as the Bayeux tapestry. Its colours originally obtained from nature sealed with mordants still remain fresh and vibrant.
The very look of the countryside of Normandy and its people can also seem familiar. A tiny village preserves the English noble name of Percy. Fields throughout the region are surrounded with dense hedgerows and rows of trees as in England.
Built from the 11th century onward the town of Le Bec Hellouin in the Risle Valley is a tranquil peaceful town with a great Benedictine abbey as its main draw card. It is a role model for many English villages with its wattle and daub style half timbered buildings with their pitched roofs to repel the snow.
One of the great anomalies of French life is that just before the Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century when Louis XVI’s nobles were busy admiring the splendor that was the Chateau Versailles, his consort, Marie Antoinette was playing at milkmaids with her ladies in her country village in the gardens at Versailles.
Her architect Richard Mique, between 1783 and 1785, built her La Hameau, a charming working hamlet containing twelve houses inspired by the thatched wattle and daub houses of the coastal towns of Normandy.
She would not have realized it at the time, but she could have been said to, by her actions, awarded rural life with the royal seal of approval. And yet they still cut off her pretty head.
Since then a combination of fashionable pride and rural conservatism has led to the French regional style being preserved. Louis XV and XVI styles of furniture and furnishings have been retained or re interpreted and are found in many of the regions houses and gardens.
Normandy boasts one of France’s most majestic landmarks, the tiny island of Mont Saint-Michel. This miracle of man and nature inspired writers for centuries.
On the island its townspeople constructed their homes of Normandy timber built to traditional, local designs within the walls of the incomparable Saint Michel Abbey.
It was built on this granite rock in the sea off the coast as a monument to God, although ultimately it became a monument to man’s ingenuity and brilliant craftsmanship.
A great Gothic extravaganza created between the 11th and 16th centuries it was built of stone quarried from the English coast. It is one of the most visited places in France.
Until the 1960’s the island was only accessible at low tide.
Many a weary or unsuspecting traveler has been caught in lethal surprise by the return of the high tide, which happened at lightning speed and flooded the causeway.
Normandy has always drawn Parisians to the elegance of its countryside with its rich vistas and achingly fertile fields.They nourish the cows and enrich their milk so farmers can produce superb cheeses, as well as that luscious accompaniment to any dessert delicious creme fraiche. In Normandy this is entirely voluptuous.
The colours of nature in Normandy feature in the Impressionist palette – soft, misty greens of the wheat fields in the early morning sun; the lush creamy white and pink of the apple blossoms in Spring.
Then there are the soft mottled blues, mauves and lavenders echoing the azure summer sky. While the gleam of a shimmering golden haze over an orchard at sunset during autumn explodes like ‘floral fireworks’.
However it is the pale iridescent pearl like sky in winter, which provides the final tonal tableau of tints that enchant and linger forever in the memory.
Throughout Normandy apple orchards groan with trees heavily burdened by red, green and golden fruit which is made into a sparkling fermented clear cider, which is a popular accompaniment to the local seafood, chicken or lamb.
The very same apples are also used for making Calvados, the potent apple brandy for which the region is famed.
“Honfleur” wrote Baudelaire, ‘has always been the dearest of my dreams‘.
This quaint seaside village sports tall narrow houses some seven stories high. They are set in winding cobbled streets.
This is where, for more than a century writers and painters flocked to write about or record its wooden fishing barques lining the quay.
Deauville has a glamorous reputation for attracting money and sleek and refined racehorses.
It contains one of Normandy’s landmarks, the flamboyant Villa Strassburger, built during the beautiful era, the Belle Époque, or beautiful ear period of the late nineteenth century. This is the time when grand society from all over Europe and Paris gathered to stroll around the small streets of villages filled with fashionable and chic shops from Paris.
One way to describe Norman houses is as a rich mix of elegance and earthy functionalism. Their style is inspired by Normandy’s agricultural heart. The craftsmanship of its stonemasons, carpenters, and artisans reflect they are deeply committed to regional traditions.
They have a sophisticated creative approach, mindful always of the latest trends at Paris.
Stone villages fashioned in granite or limestone are the most traditional and solid almost to the point of being indestructible. Different in mood and spirit, they have stood the test of time while evolving to suit the needs of the people. Charming rooflines vary, steeply pitched to facilitate good drainage and frequent rains.
They are rustic, made from small thin sheets of slate in the north, which is light and durable, while terra cotta tiles are used in the south.
These vary in size and shape and are said to have been modeled over the thighs of a pretty young woman.
Wood shingled and thatched roofs are rare and a characteristic of many rooflines is the detailing with Faitages or roof ornaments made from ceramics.
They come in an infinite variety of Cats, roosters, vases, fruits, griffins, birds etc. Many are steeped in symbolism, such as the pelican, which reflects the owner’s religious devotion.
Windows of stone or brick houses are usually symmetrically placed, open inwards and are often mullioned, (made of small panes of glass divided by wooden frames).
Some have dormer windows jutting out off the roof originally designed to let light and air into the attic where fodder was stored during the winter, both as an animal feed and as insulation against the cold.
The Norman people are strong individualists. They pride themselves on the originality of their houses and gardens.. There are however, common features throughout the region.
The traditional floor is terracotta tile, using a variety of shades, shapes and sizes, each differing from its neighbour. The black and white floor is less common, but it was favoured by the Dutch and embraced by the English and found its way to Normandy.
Durable and easy to maintain, centuries old tiled floors are still found in fine condition and they suit the climate perfectly where shoes and boots often come in from outdoors wet.
Water ruins rugs or floors made of wooden parquet, which are only found on the first floor of more luxurious dwellings.
Stone floors of flagstones, large granite tiles or hewn paving stones of flint or limestone are found in western Normandy.
Staircases have carved balustrades, banisters made of richly patinated oak. They combine with terracotta to create an atmosphere of warmth and welcome.
Fireplaces made of superbly fine local limestone. Those designed in the seventeenth century and now restored have bold, strong reserved lines. They are a grand statement of status and very desirable still.
During the 18th and 19th centuries Normandy enjoyed real prosperity due to its maritime commerce.
Furniture making flourished. Major centers were around Caen.
The agriculturally rich towns of Fecamp and Yvetot, producing fine furniture made from oak, elm, apple, chestnut or beech and occasionally mahogany brought back from the Caribbean by Norman sailors.
It was prized by cabinetmakers in centers such as Rouen and Fecamp, while other timbers were often stained to resemble this most treasured wood. Pine was also used, but mostly for humbler homes.
Norman furniture was more than often commissioned for the individual or family, so its size, shape and adornment depended upon the client’s resources and needs.
It is distinguished by elaborate carving and symbolic motifs included acanthus leaves, geometric patterns, farm implements, musical instruments and anchors symbolizing the maritime vocations of the many navigators, fishermen and sailors.
Before Louis XIV ascended to the throne in 1643 pieces were small and modestly carve.
His influence both stylistically and for that of luxury, developed the Norman armoire into the imposing and richly carved masterwork it has remained.
Until the eighteenth century armoires were almost entirely the domain of rich merchants or aristocrats.
Normandy as in other provinces, improved techniques and prosperity made them available to lower and middle class families who prized them highly and gave them as wedding gifts.
In Louis XVI’s reign musical instruments and urns were fashionable motifs on elegantly sculpted armoires distinguished by a graceful chapeau de gendarme or policeman’s hat cornice.
By way of contrast in upper Normandy the cornices are flat.
Chairs were always simple, rush seated, reflecting the humble origins of a farming community. In grander homes painted furniture from Paris was popular.
Copperware is an important industry dating from the middle ages, when the metalworking Knights of Saint John arrived home from the crusades they brought pots and pans, urns and pitchers, pails, milk cans and utensils of copper to be used in Norman kitchens. Since then they have been produced continuously for over 900 hundred years in the quaint town of Villedieu-les-Poeles.
The Norman’s loved clocks especially those made from oak, wild cherry or pine with faces of white enamel sporting black Arabic or Roman numerals. Some clock faces were designed in pewter or yellow copper but they are very rare.
Ceramics too have been produced in Normandy from the Middle ages until well into the nineteenth century, with clay from sedimentary riverbanks and plentiful forests to fire the kilns and it has developed a wide reputation for quality faience.
The Norman’s taste for precision and perfection come together in one craft, which also combines a quality of fragility and beauty in a timeless tradition – Lace. Alcenon lace (right) is needlepoint lace, which is characterized by delicate applique. It has intricate designs stitched onto a gossamer fine linen base, which is as fragile as a spiders web.
So fragile is it that it is traditionally ironed with the tip of a lobster claw. A piece smaller than a penny takes 16 hours to create. For this reason, and because there are only about a dozen full time lacemakers working in Alcenon to-day, the needlepoint lace is almost priceless. One exquisite handkerchief can require 1200 hours of work.
Louis XIV was responsible for establishing the lace industry in France. He brought Italian lace makers to France, and they formed the basis of early French designs. These evolved into a light decorative style known as point de France, whose popularity by the eighteenth century threatened the Italian industry.
Bobbin lace, is a specialty of the town of Bayeaux, where only a few lacemakers work today, as opposed to 5,000 in the middle of the nineteenth century. Our image is of a cravat of lace (left) made from bobbin lace and thought to have belonged to Louis XIV. It is a triumph of the craft.
Weaving and twisting 50-600 bobbins around a blindingly intricate cluster of pins outlining the pattern on a velvet board is how bobbin lace is created. It can be black, white or ecru and figurative, or floral, based on designs created originally in the 18th century.
The lace was used in superb curtains, which allowed sunlight to filter through. Also in the elaborate traditional stiffened coifs worn on Sundays and holidays, by the ladies of Normandy. It is the no nonsense embroidered cotton bonnets that were worn on ordinary days that are the most delightful.
American father of freedom, Benjamin Franklin once said ‘everyone has two countries, his own and France’. Its seductive spell is elusive in look, feel, taste and spirit it’s a country like no other. And despite inevitable modernisation, today Normandy still remains unique.
To sojourn in Normandy for a few days or weeks, is a wonderful experience. It is province of remarkable richness, one that has evolved over hundreds of years by adapting well to both its time and its wonderful sense of place.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011-2014
Watch our Video about Claude Monet and his Garden at Giverny in Normandy
*Impressionist artist Claude Monet