walnut transom with cherub

L’encadreuse de fersen: the art of the frame

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.

original and cleaned sketch
A bit of a scrub: The before-and-after is striking.

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.

rue de Fersen, Antibes
Only a sign remains to mark l’encadreuse de Fersen’s former workshop on rue de Fersen.

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.

aquatint, Antibes
We first found l’encadreuse through this aquatint.

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. 

framed work
The dingy old sketch is ready for Bellevue’s wall.

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.

walnut door
You can spot the differences between the idea and the implementation.

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 piscineÇa 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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40 thoughts on “L’encadreuse de fersen: the art of the frame

  1. Quelle joie! I could immediately feel how your heart leapt when you were presented with the treasure of the original drawing! And to think it might never have come to light. L’encadreuse de Fersen and you have honoured the drawing to perfection. Magnifique … as she might say! I look forward to seeing it in person one of these years! (Bonne fête nationale … wherever you are!)

    1. Merci, Patricia, and bonne fète nationale back to you! I know how you are drawn to French doors with your camera – and with des résultats magnifiques – and recall your appreciation of history and story. Thank you for this lovely comment.

  2. Oh my! What a wonderful old find. A precious gift as well as the perfect artist to bring it back to life. Thank you for sharing.
    I too have a love of old doors. I have an old, narrow, paint chipped, somewhat splintered door hanging in my great room. It was found in a dusty antique shop in Glendale, AZ. The proprietor told me that due to its size and age, it was probably a kitchen door into the cellar of an old farmhouse or possibly an early 1900s new built home “in town”. I feel a wonder and relationship with the many people, times and reason it was opened and closed. It seems to emit its own history. Its strength and charm add to my daily life.
    May joy and blessings fill your life. Love to you and family. Aunt Nancy

    1. Merci for sharing this story about your door, Aunt Nancy. And you’ve gone a step beyond by hanging a door as a piece of art – but yes, that is what they are.

  3. I just spent such an enjoyable time with a morning coffee and your lovely story. Always wonderful things to learn from French Lessons!

  4. Loved to read the story of your new treasure. I find the answers to the Colbert questions very revealing of personality. The difference between Caroline and Christelle is obvious and striking in their responses. A clever way to add colour to their and your stories.

    1. Thank you for voting on the Colbert questions, Electa. I’m a fan myself but am really glad to hear from you and other readers. It was honestly a whim, and the questions themselves came together in a single blush, but so far, so good, I think.

  5. Enjoyed this read and the door! Beautiful. Thank you. And it is a delight to think of you enjoying your summer in France again. Joyous summer to you and family.

      1. Yes. Just came off of a 12 day theology retreat in Oregon. Soul, heart, and mind feast with a group a Trinitarian theologians I have been following for over a decade. Such a gift to be there in person. In Vancouver now and driving to Summerland BC today for a couple weeks with four of my dear kids and their three dogs! It is currently hot there now…in the low 30’s. Grateful the house is on Okanagan Lake.

  6. What a great story about the sketch and the door. Truly special to have both. I’m assuming the sketch and door are in close proximity?

    1. Good question, Barb! We have yet to hang this gem, but yes, I’m thinking beside the front door – but actually in the adjacent (open plan) room, so that visitors have an ah-ha moment on the way out!

  7. The magic of a well trained conservator!! Great story (but who doesn’t eat *either* a croissant or a pain au chocolat? My reply would be BOTH lol) xoxo

  8. Thank you for another French Lesson. Your delightful writing transported me while enjoying morning café. I am all the more ready to return this year to l’Institut de Francais in Villefranche. Merci!

    1. You must do so, Kathy. I was just having lunch in Villefranche earlier this week – is it sad to say I think it was my first time? – and it was such a delicious little town, right there beside the water. Then gazing back down on its red-tiled rooftops from neighbouring Mount Boron . . . well, I think you know. You need no more convincing! A delight to hear from you.

  9. Such a delight to read your musings J. Look forward to a visit to your summer town again soon. You bring such a sense of charm and whimsy to everyone and thing.

  10. Hi Jemma, Another interesting story that proves that when quality prevails, History and Modernity can certainly live together and be a fantastic match. And one day after its National Day, we still can say «Vive la France»

    1. Yes, Vive la France, Andy, and I think one day soon you might get a personal look at the framed masterpiece. Travel safely.

  11. What a wonderful “find!” Thanks for letting us visualize this process; I felt like I was part of it!
    Now a great memory everytime time you look at on your wall!

  12. I loved this “episode” and was fascinated that the drawing still existed. You do have the most fascinating experiences and I love reading about them. Thank You.

    1. Thank you, Mary! I think there are fascinating episodes in a lot of life, but yes, this particular one did take a while to create in many ways. J’aime writing these vignettes, and j’aime knowing there are people like you who appreciate them.

  13. Magnifique! Such a wonderful story and how incredible to have found this drawing.

    It would t be summer without “French Lessons”!! Wishing you all a wonderful time in Antibes.

    1. Merci, Leslea. That’s the beauty of this small world here. Everyone seems to be part of the story! It’s quite something.

  14. Thank you for sharing. This is another inspiring story.
    It seems your beautiful home is full of surprises, yet to be discovered.

    1. Bonjour, Aimée! Well that’s a great question. We have decided on a place. If you walked into the front door, you wouldn’t see it. But heading out, if you glanced at the exterior wall of the neighbouring room (that very visible from the entryway), you would soon be able to glimpse the door’s origins. For the last 16 years, there has been an ugly, white plastic disk on that wall to cover a potential outlet for a display light. Miracles never cease, the electrician confirmed this week that electricity still runs to that spot! So we will install a display light and hang the framed relic there – and hope that guests are half as amused by this whole ordeal as we are! 🙂

  15. I often ponder if things that find their way back home, where your story opens, are not more a function of ‘design’ as they are inclination or inspiration. Maybe ours is to fill in the detail; not as taking coffee to go, but ‘in person under the full luminosity of Antibes’ ever-present sunlight.’ Is there any other way.

    1. As thoughtful as ever, Donna. What an interesting comment. With regard to our home Bellevue, it does feel as though pieces of it have come together by virtue of the open door offered by this blog site. Sure, at first I had to play an active role – doing some research, opening the conversation – but the number of folks who have contributed to this understanding, simply by happening on the site or hearing of the interest, honestly boggles my mind. Together we continue to paint a fuller picture. And yet, if collaboration is fruitful in the example of Bellevue, a quirky old house on the Côte d’Azur seaside, how common is it over stories in everyone else’s lives too?

  16. I loved reading this story while enjoying my cafe au lait and almond croissant. You have done a beautiful restoration and now I am curious about the history of the house. Who was the artist/architect? I hope that will be an episode one day!

    1. Bonjour, Suzanne, and I appreciate this question. The challenge of learning Bellevue’s history planted itself in me many years ago – and I’d never been a history buff! There is something about this place that exudes story – perhaps it was the snippets fed to me by the locals at the neighbouring port – but in any case, I began the research long ago, and in the Summer of 2011, I began blogging the experiences as they unfolded. The first in that summer’s five-part series is called Bellevue: What’s Her Story (linked here). Soon former occupants began to present themselves. Bellevue became such a central character in our lives here that I included the house as a “Theme” in the right-hand column of the website’s home screen. Feel free to tick the box and follow the story as you wish – though you’ll have to head into the Archives for stories prior to 2016. There’s a particularly interesting story from a former occupant dated August 9, 2013. (And merci encore fois, Suzanne, for sharing my interest!)

      1. Thank you so much for the link, I found it fascinating! Did you solve the mystery of the ‘RC’ initials? Is there an episode on Anthea? Perhaps I need to search the Archives….

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