French Architecture for Armchair Travellers – the éolienne Bollée and Clovis Normand

Tracing and unravelling all the routes by which France exerted an influence on Victorian architecture is such an enormous task that it would more than suffice to keep an architectural historian busy for the whole of an academic career. Some of the influence is very obvious, such as the enormous interest excited by the restoration of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and the imitations that it produced (notably G.G. Scott’s Exeter College Chapel in Oxford of 1856-1859, although there are numerous other variations on the theme). Some of it is less so, although in its way even more pervasive, such as the theoretical writings of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879). I can already foresee these claims sparking all sorts of lively argument and counter-argument from people well-versed in these matters. Instead, therefore, I would like to look at a fascinating site where French influence is incontrovertible because, though barely 50 miles from central London, this is in fact effectively a bit of France on English soil.

The éolienne Bollée at the château de Breuil in Chédigny (Indre et Loire), France (Wikipedia Commons)

The splendid contraption pictured above rusting away in a Corot-esque glade, which looks at first sight like a World War II searchlight as it might have been conceived by Rowland Emett, is in fact a wind pump. In essence, it is the same thing that you might have seen twirling away in the background in films set in the Australian Outback or the Mid-West. But it has been completely rethought and (to reach for an obvious cliché) a fair bit of Gallic refinement and sophistication has been applied – Gallic, because this is what is known as an éolienne Bollée, named after its designer, the French engineer and inventor Ernest-Sylvain Bollée (1814-1891).

St Hugh’s Charterhouse at Parkminster in West Sussex, aerial view from east: the éolienne which survived until 2003 stood at Mockford Farm, just out of range of this shot, a little way beyond the bottom edge of the photograph. (A. Jeremy Shapiro)

He was born into a family of bell founders, which produced a number of gifted inventors, and in 1842 set up a foundry not far from Le Mans. His design for a wind pump was first patented in 1868, although the prototype probably only saw the light of day as a model and seems to have undergone a fair amount of research and development before it eventually went into production. What makes it unique? Firstly, instead of a latticework tower, the wind turbine is supported on a tall, cast iron column. This is hollow in the middle to take the drive shaft and incorporates a spiral staircase to provide access to a platform at the top for maintenance. The column is made up of modular components so could be constructed to any required height and is guyed to ensure stability. The turbine itself is enclosed in a casing which pivots on the axis of the column. It follows the configuration of a water turbine in being composed of a rotor (i.e. the fan-like wheel that is actually driven by the wind) enclosed by a stator (i.e. a ring of fixed blades directing the currents of air towards it, which thereby increases efficiency), a unique arrangement not employed for any other form of wind engine.

The éolienne Bollée at Le Clône in Pons, Charente-Maritime, France

A diminutively scaled fantail turns the whole assembly back into the wind when that changes direction. Cardinal points are fixed to the supports for the handrail running around the platform at the top for the wind vane crowning the turbine assembly. The output shaft of the rotor is linked to a governor and, if the speed at which it revolved goes above a certain limit, the fantail will turn the whole turbine assembly through 90 degrees out of the direction of the wind to stop it from running away. At the bottom, the shaft is connected to a reciprocating pump, often housed in a small brick structure, as seen here. Four firms manufactured the éolienne Bollée in a range of models with the rotors varying in size from 2.5 to 7 meters (approx. 8ft to approx. 23ft) and production seems to have carried on until the early 1930s.

Notre-Dame-des-Ardents in Arras, France by Clovis Normand, 1869-1876
Notre-Dame-des-Ardents in Arras: general view of interior

Although the original intention seems to have been that they would be used for irrigation or public water supplies in rural areas, most of them in fact were purchased by aristocratic landowners, such as the two examples pictured here. The elegant design of the éolienne Bollée in several cases inspired equally gracious treatment of the pumphouse and the one at Le Clône in Pons, Charente-Maritime was mounted on a castellated stone tower, which accommodated a water tank. Two éoliennes Bollée were erected in England and it can hardly be a coincidence that they both served a building by a French architect – St Hugh’s Carthusian Monastery at Parkminster south of Horsham, which was designed by Clovis Normand (1830-1909) and built in 1877-1883. One was a machine of the No. 1 type, with 2.5m-diameter rotor, while the other was of the No. 3 type with a 5m-diameter rotor (16ft 4in), and they were supplied in 1881 to supply water from a reservoir in the nearby hamlet of Littleworth to a tank within the monastery grounds, apparently working in series. Alas, neither is currently extant, which is why I have had to illustrate this post with photographs of éoliennes Bollée in their native land.

Chapel of the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreuil (Pas-de-Calais), France: late medieval, restored by Clovis Normand in 1872-1875

The larger one of the pair was lost in the 1960s. The other was still extant, albeit in a very derelict state – badly rusted and with only the hub of the rotor surviving from the turbine assembly – as recently as the early noughties. In 2001, a detailed survey of it was carried out by postgraduate students on a conservation course at the University of Brighton in conjunction with the British Engineerium in Hove, a technology museum based at an operational preserved steam pumping station (in itself a most remarkable site). The éolienne was purchased from the monastery in early 2003, dismantled and taken to the Engineerium, where it was stripped down with a view to restoration to working order. Unfortunately, the project was curtailed by the closure of the Engineerium in 2006 and sale of much of the contents. The éolienne was purchased by a new owner supposedly with a view to completing the restoration, but at the time of writing the parts are believed still to be in store, with no word on plans for the future. Fortunately, several examples in France have been restored to working order, such as the example at Esvres-sur-Indre in the Loire Valley, which can be seen in action in a short video here (French only and no subtitles, but I think one can appreciate it without a command of the language).

The belfry of Hesdin (Pas-de-Calais), France: the upper stages were remodelled by Clovis Normand in 1878 (Yann Tierny)
Clovis Normand’s own house on avenue du Général Leclerc in Hesdin of 1870

St Hugh’s Monastery is too remarkable a site just to be mentioned in passing. Catholic heritage tends to get overlooked generally and St Hugh’s Monastery has been especially susceptible to that since it is largely out of bounds to visitors. The Carthusian Order was founded in 1084 when Bishop Hugh of Grenoble offered Bruno, the former Chancellor of the Diocese of Reims, a site for a monastery in the valley of Chartreuse in the French Prealps, which his diocese covered. Now known as Grande Chartreuse, it is the Mother House of the Order, eponymous both for monasteries of the Carthusian Order generally (the English ‘Charterhouse’ is a corruption of it) and the herbal liqueur produced there. The first Carthusian Monastery in England was founded by Henry II as part of his penance for the murder of Archbishop Thomas à Becket. After a hesitant start, it was established permanently as Witham Friary near Frome in Somerset. In 1179 Hugh of Avalon, procurator of the Order at the Grande Chartreuse (subsequently Bishop of Lincoln and canonised after his death) was appointed Prior.

Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette in Wailly-Beaucamp (Pas-de-Calais), France, by Clovis Normand, c. 1869 (Wikipedia Commons)
The interior of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette in Wailly-Beaucamp – its derelict state is the result of a long period of disuse, starting when it was used as a munitions store by occupying German forces during World War II.

What sets apart the Carthusians from other monastic orders is the emphasis on contemplation and, therefore, solitude and silence. One might even say that a charterhouse is a conglomeration of hermitages rather than a religious community, and this is reflected in the architecture. The defining feature of charterhouses is a series of cells grouped around a large cloister. The choir monks, who have taken the strictest vows, live one to a cell, which consists of a small, two-storey dwelling. One floor is occupied by a workshop – all monks engage in some manual labour – while the other houses an oratory and living quarters. There is also a walled garden to the rear for exercise and contemplation. This may also be used for growing produce for the common good of the community, but meals are provided by lay brothers (who are under less strict vows and engage in communal labour), delivered through a ‘turn’, a revolving compartment that allows items to be passed to the occupant of the cell without his having any contact with the bearer. A choir monk prays the minor hours of the Liturgy of the Hours on his own, leaving his cell to join the other brethren in worship only for the nocturnal liturgical hours and on Sundays and feast-days. This takes place in the monastery chapel, which is often more modest in proportions than the church of a coenobitic house.

The cloister at the charterhouse of Notre-Dame-des-Prés in Neuville-sous-Montreuil (Pas-de-Calais), France, remodelled by Clovis Normand in 1872-1875 (Wikipedia Commons)

There were nine charterhouses in England before the Reformation. The London Charterhouse in Smithfield was brutally suppressed at the Dissolution to make an example out of the monks, who resisted closure of their establishment. The complex was substantially rebuilt afterwards, initially as a private dwelling, then to house an almshouse and school. The latter took the name of the original establishment and retained it when, in 1872, it moved out of London to new premises near Godalming in Surrey. The original layout survives mainly through the incorporation of the cloister garth as a quadrangle, now enclosed by post-medieval buildings. But Mount Grace Priory outside Northallerton in North Yorkshire, though ruinous, gives a good impression of the unique layout, thanks in part to the reconstruction of one of the cells by English Heritage, which runs the site, to demonstrate how the monks would have lived. 

The front courtyard at the charterhouse of Notre-Dame-des-Prés in Neuville-sous-Montreuil (Pas-de-Calais), France, remodelled by Clovis Normand in 1872-1875 (Wikipedia Commons)

French charterhouses were unaffected by the Reformation, although not by the Revolution, as a result of which, like all religious houses, their property was nationalised and religious life disrupted. Grande Chartreuse was dissolved in 1792 and monastic life recommenced only in 1816. It was three monks from the Mother House who founded the Parkminster Charterhouse, when in 1872 they came to England in search of a site where they could re-establish Carthusian life. Fearing anti-Catholic sentiment, they did so in disguise, eventually settling on an estate called Picknoll, which provided the seclusion that they sought. Thanks to the commercial success of Chartreuse liqueur, there was a generous budget and architectural ambitions were consequently high.

St Hugh’s Charterhouse at Parkminster in West Sussex: aerial view from northwest (A. Jeremy Shapiro)

There were plenty of English architects capable of doing justice to Catholic triumphalism of the period and the choice of Clovis Normand does not at first sight seem obvious. It makes more sense when one realises that he already had an association with the Order. Born in Hesdin in the Pas-de-Calais, he trained with architect to the Diocese of Arras, Alexandre Grigny (1815-1867), to whose post he acceded after the latter’s premature death. He ventured little outside his native Hauts-de-France region, but had little reason to do so: it provided his practice with plenty of work and by the age of 40 he is said to have had 670 construction projects in progress under his supervision. He did work for the local landed gentry, extending and remodelling stately homes, but ecclesiastical work formed the mainstay of his output.

The entrance front of St Hugh’s Charterhouse (Wikipedia Commons)

He built 45 new churches, some of them on a considerable scale (he participated unsuccessfully in the competition for the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre of 1873) and restored an even greater number of ancient ones. Generally he worked in the free synthesis of Romanesque and early Gothic, well exemplified by the pilgrimage church of Notre-Dame-des-Ardents in Arras (1869-1876). However, he was able to cut his cloth accordingly when dealing with more ancient fabric, such as the late medieval chapel of the Hôtel-Dieu in Montreuil (Pas-de-Calais). When he carried out a drastic restoration – effectively amounting to a complete rebuild – of this much mutilated structure in 1872-1875, he supplied elaborate tracery to the windows, panelled wall surfaces, pinnacles and other trimmings, taking the cue given by the surviving flamboyant Gothic portal in the middle of the lateral elevation. The end bay rising to a towerlet and openwork spire is entirely his work. Then there is the exquisite little chapel of Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette in Wailly-Beaucamp (Pas-de-Calais) of c. 1869, designed in a sort of Aquitaine Romanesque-cum-Byzantine style. Normand’s own house on avenue du Général Leclerc in Hesdin of 1870 is even freer in his treatment of historicising motifs. One of the most memorable features is a raised section of parapet joining together the dormers of the street elevation, which is adorned with patterned ceramic inserts. The openings are divided by Renaissance baluster pilasters typical of the early 16th century, but with flamboyant Gothic tracery in the oval arches above and Greek antefixae running along the cornice!

Interior of the church of St Hugh’s Charterhouse
Interior of the church of St Hugh’s Charterhouse, view from the gallery at the (liturgical) west end: the paintings are by Antoine Sublet of Lyons (1821-1897)

One of Normand’s most substantial commissions in France was the restoration of the charterhouse of Notre-Dame-des-Prés in Neuville-sous-Montreuil (Pas-de-Calais). Founded in 1325, it suffered numerous vicissitudes during its long history, being attacked by forces of the Holy Roman Emperor on several occasions in the 16th century, when it was also sacked by Protestants during the Wars of Religion. More destruction was caused in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War and the monks who regained possession of the site that year – it had been dissolved and sold off at the Revolution – decided to undertake a major restoration, carried out in 1872-1875. Irregularities, such as the fact that the front courtyard and cloister are not aligned, suggest that the original layout was followed, but otherwise Normand seems to have carried out a complete rebuild, handled in an 13th century Gothic style. One of the largest charterhouses in France, it has cells for 24 choir monks.

The chapter house at St Hugh’s Charterhouse (Fr Timothy Finigan): the paintings depicting the execution of the Carthusian Martyrs of London are by Antoine Sublet of Lyons (1821-1897)

Parkminster, by contrast, was a greenfield site and there were no such restrictions. The construction was a monumental undertaking, reputedly employing 700 workmen and with on-site kilns to supply the bricks. Despite the style – Normand’s signature free mixture of early Gothic and Romanesque – it is based on a thoroughly classical axial ground plan. The complex is entered through a front range of nine bays with a gatehouse in the centre. This is one of the few features intended to impress the outside world: the remainder of the exterior, naturally enough for the religious house of a closed order, is severely plain, with minimal fenestration. Passing through this takes the visitor into a large entrance courtyard and straight ahead is the main front of the church, which is positioned on the central axis (it is not oriented, so the entrance is in fact at the geographical east end).

The library at St Hugh’s Charterhouse

The entrance front is framed by two narrow towers rising to pinnacles and small spires, rather underscaled for the proportions of the building. The church is a single vessel without aisles or transepts, stone-vaulted internally and terminating in a polygonal apse. Tacked onto the end of this and so also axially positioned is a tall clock tower with a spire rising to 62 m (203ft) in height. A wing extends south from the church, which would seem to house the vaulted chapter house on the ground floor and the library above. The refectory, kitchen, lay brothers’ chapel and relics chapel are also located in this part of the complex. Either side of the church are small courtyards. Beyond is the grand cloister, covering 1.4 ha (3½ acres), part of which is occupied by the brothers’ graveyard. It is 115 m (377ft) from east to west and the total length of the covered passageway running around the perimeter is over a kilometre (around 1,000 yards). Opening off this are 34 cells, each one of which has two rooms, a workshop, an ambulatory and a walled garden. Despite the grand ambitions of its founders, St Hugh’s has remained the only post-Reformation Carthusian house in England. Nevertheless, throughout its history it has come to occupy a vital role in perpetuating the life of the Order. The Waldeck-Rousseau Law of 1901 led to the closure of monasteries in France, including the Carthusian houses of Neuville-sous-Montreuil, Sélignac and Bosserville. Exiled from their native land, the monks took up residence at Parkminster, greatly swelling the numbers there.

The main portal of the church at St Hugh’s Charterhouse viewed from the entrance courtyard

This is a building for 2020 if ever there was one – the work of a Frenchman that can be seen (more or less) without setting foot in France; architecture that facilitates and indeed glorifies isolation, offering a safe haven in an uncertain and turbulent world.

Exterior of St Hugh’s Charterhouse from the south (Wikipedia Commons)

Published by Edmund Harris

Heritage professional and architectural historian residing in Canterbury. All views expressed here are my own and do not represent my employer.

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