An 18th-century manor house renovation in Normandy
It’s no surprise that Peter Gabrielse, the owner of this romantic French manor, used to work as a set designer. Using brocante finds, curious artwork and raw paint effects, each of the crumbling rooms has been injected with atmosphere and intrigue. Feature Wilma Custers / Features & More. Photographs Renee Frinking
'When I walked into the entrance hall I knew within 11 seconds that I wanted to buy this property,’ Peter Gabrielse remarks of the manor house he owns in Normandy. As a Dutchman living in the Netherlands, this swift and confident reaction is all the more startling. In fact, when the estate agent recommended a second viewing, Peter was adamant that this wouldn’t be necessary. He sent his offer by fax machine and the next day the deal was done. ‘At this point it suddenly struck me – I’d just bought a large property and had no idea what to do with it!’
Built in 1727, the house was still very much in its original state when Peter took it on. After carrying out some research on the building, Peter discovered that, during the French Revolution, revolutionaries threatened to burn it down, but were dissuaded by the local priest. Instead they looted it, burning all personal belongings next to the church. ‘Sadly we never found anything belonging to the former family,’ he says.
Peter perhaps has his parents to thank for his attraction to this romantic, tumbledown dwelling. Both antiques dealers, they chose an old house in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen (Zeelandic Flanders) as the family home. Bordered to the south by Belgium, Peter jokes that, ‘My front door was Dutch and my back door was Belgian!’
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After studying art at college, Peter worked in theatre and television set design for 30 years. It was during this time that he began creating his three-dimensional architectural ‘box’ sculptures – enchanting vignettes in miniature – which he has exhibited in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Brussels, Paris and New York.
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Despite appearing to be living a pretty charmed existence, 18 years ago Peter began to grow tired of the Netherlands, finding it much too crowded and noisy. ‘I wanted to live somewhere surrounded by peace, away from the sound of other humans,’ he recalls. His objective was to buy a small chateau or a manor house in the Netherlands, Belgium or France. ‘I was used to travelling to France, about once a month, to find materials for my box sculptures, and already had a strong connection with the country. I have always liked the lifestyle of the French,’ he explains.
During his search, Peter’s attention was consistently drawn to Normandy but he decided it was too far away. Just a mere month later, when a French estate agent offered him photos of this manor house, Peter was so entranced that he simply forgot about the geography. ‘I instantly liked the property from the images he showed me and wanted to take a look.’
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Now settled in France, Peter spends most of his time and energy renovating the interior of his 18th-century manor house. In many ways his home has much in common with the three-dimensional interiors of his box sculptures – they all achieve a sense of the past with a theatrical crumbling elegance. ‘Buying materials in France is so much more fun and so much more inspiring. Now that my studio is larger, I have found the perfect excuse to buy so many more materials!’ he says.
Being so drawn to the past and the building’s heritage, Peter has naturally decided to keep the original state and atmosphere of the place as much as possible. ‘This was one of the reasons I instantly liked this property – the authentic style.’ He moved in with his entire belongings from Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, but soon realised the new house was a great deal larger. A fact that has resulted in many treasure hunts to obtain additional furniture.
‘I soon got to know all the brocanteurs of the region,’ he says. He thoroughly enjoyed this process of seeking out pieces for his home and the process continued for years. But, these days, he spends less time finding things for his home: he’s content with what he lives with, although he’s always sourcing extra material for his sculptures.
Peter has only made two necessary changes to make the manor house habitable – he designed a kitchen and two bathrooms and even assisted on the build with a handful of local professionals. Everything else was all left in its original state, including the layout. As for the extensive gardens and the surrounding grounds, Peter maintains them himself. ‘When I take time off from my workshop, you’ll find me in the garden. There is always something to do.’
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