A precious piece of art recently found its way back to Bellevue. In the curious way that one thing leads to another, especially in small French towns, the great-grandnephew of the man who built our home recently gifted me the original drawing of our front door.
The giant slab of walnut has garnered its own attention over the years. Recessed into blocks of limestone, its face is elegantly panelled and at its crown, carved skillfully into its solid transom, is a cherubic face, its pudgy cheeks and button nose flanked by a pair of feathery wings. In one instance, a passerby offered to purchase the door – just the door – right off its iron hinges.
Long-time readers of this blog may recall how I’ve researched our home at the mouth of the Cap d’Antibes, and so when the great-grandnephew discovered the door’s sketch in the dusty files of his carpentry business, and he offered it to me, I was overjoyed. The drawing hadn’t weathered the test of time as well as the actual door has. The paper was stained, blotched, and covered in a film of grime when I first held it. Small holes penetrated its surface, and the edges had begun to tear. Left alone, the sketch might have deteriorated further – but I knew we had to do something more with this relic than stuff it into another folder for someone else to discover someday. And I knew just who to call.
“C’est très élégant,” Caroline says, gazing at the finished artwork on her studio’s presentation table. Tools that measure and cut are scattered over other workspaces in her atelier, and framing inventory lies in long, organised clusters on wall shelving. The petite, artisanal framer is complimenting my choice of an ivory matte to offset the ecru sketch and a black-and-burnished gold frame.
I’m delighted by the piece but am under no illusions about my artistic eye. Normally I rely on the rest of my household – on my husband Philippe and our teen Lolo – when it comes to choices with visual art, but the fate of this project fell to me. First came the question of cleaning the sullied page, so off Caroline sent it to a conservator. Next came the frame, for which Caroline offered me no bad choices, followed by decisions over a matte and glass. She sought my advice with each step in the creative process, but I could sense her wisdom and gladly followed every ounce of it.
L’encadreuse de Fersen, as Caroline is known here in Antibes, has recently moved into a new workshop, and this one has lofty ceilings with exposed wooden beams. I compliment her on the new, airy atelier.
“C’est en mesurant la hauteur du plafond que l’on mesure l’élévation de l’esprit,” she says. Her blue eyes are even more striking with the streak of coral lipstick. I ask her to say the line again, and she offers to jot it down for me, attributing the quote to the actor André Dussollier: It’s by measuring the height of the ceiling that we measure the elevation of the spirit.
The move from her cramped quarters on Antibes’ rue de Fersen clearly agrees with l’encadreuse de Fersen – but a name is a name, and it travels more easily than the tools, tables, and substantial inventory did when she carted them through the old town to her new atelier. As she moves through her workshop wearing a paint-splattered apron, I wonder how her delicate form manages the bulk of her chosen trade.
I found Caroline over a dozen years ago. I’d purchased a 19th-century aquatint of Antibes from a local print shop run by an English fellow. (The business has since disappeared.) His nationality was fortunate for me, especially back then, because it allowed us more than a couple sentences of conversation.
“You must get the print framed by l’encadreuse de Fersen,” he’d said and scratched the title on a piece of paper. The Englishman insisted she was a real artisan, and her atelier was the only appropriate spot to frame such a beautiful piece.
I took his advice. Shortly Philippe and I had crammed into l’encadreuse’s old workshop on rue de Fersen. We debated over mattes and frames with her while she reinforced bits of French culture for us because we were new to town – oui, we français smoke a lot more than you Américains do, she said, and non, the new coffee takeaway shop in town doesn’t make any sense. In France, coffee is about socializing, not about drinking it. Philippe and I had much to learn.
L’encadreuse de Fersen had arrived in Antibes only a handful of years before we did. She had grown up in the North of France and moved to Paris for her studies. The city became too expensive, so she moved to the suburbs, but that lifestyle didn’t suit her. Then she had two choices: Lille or Antibes. Lille, also in the North, already had an established set of artisanal framers, so Caroline journeyed south. She would become the best encadreuse in Antibes.
Since our first encounter, Caroline and I have only waved to one another on occasion through the glass of her old workshop on rue de Fersen. Life in a small French town works on personal connection, and the best shop owners never forget a face. When I ended up inside her atelier again last August, the dingy sketch of Bellevue’s front door in hand, I was already an established customer.
Could we tackle the project over the winter months when my family and I were back in Canada? I wondered. Efficiency was key to me. Antibes is hot and cramped in the summer, and l’encadreuse would surely take her own holidays. I didn’t want to bother with the job when we returned this summer because surely, when not trying to be on our own holidays, we’d be fixing the air-conditioning or Wi-Fi. In my mind, the artwork would be cleaned, framed, and with the helpful hand of our housekeeper, mounted on Bellevue’s wall by the time we returned in June this year.
The folly of my North American thinking. Caroline oversaw the restoration work in the autumn, and together we managed the choice of a frame over WhatsApp, but I soon discerned that framing a beautiful piece of art was like taking coffee. One does it in person. Supply chain issues provided an easy excuse over the ensuing six months, and anyway, there was nothing like choosing the right matte in person, standing the luminosity of the Antibes’ ever-present sunlight. So in addition to dealing with the Wi-Fi on our return to Bellevue – the details about how we reconnected the service with a cash tip to an off-duty telecoms employee probably merits a post of its own – so in addition to this early-summer task, I also found myself standing in the bright alleyway of Caroline’s new atelier. Again I sensed her hand and opted for the lightest of three preselected mattes to best show off the beloved sketch.
As we finalized the price during our next-to-last consultation, she jotted down figures. “Vous êtes très gentille,” I said, calling her “kind” as I watched her fee mount and come down again.
“C’est mon deuxième nom,” she said playfully. “Kind” was her middle name.
I laughed, delighted with the outcome of everything, and paused. Now was the right time, if ever. I trembled at how the notion of being the object of a blog post would strike the French artisan, much less how she’d respond to the idea of answering a series of quick, Colbert-esque questions.
L’encadreuse hovered between being intrigued and too busy. Indeed, my penultimate appointment was sandwiched between two others, the following one completely unforeseen, but Caroline had ushered the elderly women into her studio, and as I asked my curious question, the woman sat behind me clutching a broken frame. On my final visit to the atelier, though, as Caroline and I stand together over the beautifully cleaned, mounted, and framed sketch of Bellevue’s front door, she is ready to give me and my American-style questions a go. So, l’encadreuse de Fersen:
Peaches or figs? Figs.
Cats or dogs? Neither.
Jet ski or paddleboard? Paddleboard.
Croissant or pain au chocolat? Neither.
Haute couture or haute cuisine? Les deux! Both of them!
Favourite smell? Jasmine.
Worst smell? Burnt plastic.
Sunshine or thunderstorm? Sunshine, I guess, but neither really.
Morning or nighttime? Morning.
Johnny Halliday or Céline Dion? Neither.
Baguette or saucisson (a dried French sausage)? Baguette. I don’t eat meat.
Sandy beach or pebbly beach? Sandy. I’m too old for la plage de galets! It hurts your feet.
Red wine or rosé piscine? Ça dépend du contexte. If I was a purist, I’d say red wine, but I don’t want to be a hypocrite, so I’ll say rosé. It’s easy in the summer. If the question was white wine or rosé, now that would be a dilemma!
Favourite French word? Magnifique.
Favourite English word? Primavera. I can only think of a favourite word in Spanish!
Favourite place you’ve visited? Un bon bistrot, une bonne table with fresh, authentic products.
Place you want to visit? She searches her mind. Une auberge. I want to sleep on a farm.
I push her. What about other places to visit, like when you go en vacances?
“I don’t want to make a trip of foreign capitals. I like culture with authenticité. La France est magnifique.”
I like the way she uses her favourite word to describe her favourite place. I also realize that once again l’encadreuse has pinpointed our cross-cultural thinking. We must remember the beauty of our own backyards.
Still, for those of us with some degree of wanderlust, I offer comfort: There’s a reason France always tops the list of the world’s best holiday destinations.
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