Thursday, 6 October 2011

Ferdinand Cheval and the 'Palais Ideal'

Born in 1836 in the Drome department of France, Ferdinand Cheval seemed fated to have a banal and unremarkable life.
Initially apprenticed to a baker, Cheval went on to become a postman, serving the area of Hauterives in Drome and lived out a mundane existence until 1879 when he would, at the age of 43, have an experience that would affect the rest of his life...
While working on his postal route he tripped over a stone.
Fascinated by the shape of the stone Cheval wrapped it in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket and took it home.
Looking at the stone later Cheval was reminded of a dream he had once had of building a castle made of stone.
Inspired, Cheval returned to the same spot the next day and noticed many other strangely shaped stones scattered about.
He began to collect them each day, bringing them home and started to build a pond in his garden made from the stones he found.
Cheval also decorated the pond with various figures and ornamental designs, all built from the stones that he brought home from his route.
His confidence bolstered by the success of his initial creation, Cheval decided to move onto a project on a slightly larger scale.
He would build his castle...
Cheval continued to collect stones on his route, eventually adding an extra 8 kilometres to his daily trek to allow more chance to gather stones and armed himself with a basket as the sheer mass of stones had long ago moved beyond what his pockets could hold.
His wife also forbade him from using his pockets for storage as she grew tired of having to constantly repair his trousers from the wear and tear of the stone's transportation...
Cheval finally ended up using a wheelbarrow for collecting the stones and bringing them home and extended his search into the night, armed only with an oil lamp for light.
With only rudimentary education let alone any knowledge of architecture or engineering Cheval began to build his castle slowly and with care.
He used lime, mortar and cement to bind the stones and began initially by building the outer walls of the structure in 1879.
Cheval retired from the Post Office in 1896 and began to work on the castle full-time.
He drew upon many different sources of inspiration as the project developed with elements of a Hindu temple blending with a Swiss chalet, an Algerian maison or a Muslim mosque all tied together around the idea of a medieval castle.
There was also a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary and a few Egyptian mummies dotted around for good measure...
Cheval declared the project to be inspired by the spirits of 'Julius Caesar, Archimedes and Vercingetorix.'
Eventually, in 1912, 33 years after beginning, Cheval declared his work to be finished.
It stood 35 feet high, 40 feet wide and was 85 feet long.
Cheval himself estimated that he spent 9,000 days or 65,000 hours working on the project and probably could have finished it sooner but for his reluctance to 'steal God's day' and work on Sundays...
Initially Cheval hoped that he and his wife, now in their 70's, would be entombed in the castle when they died but the local authorities forbade anyone to be buried outside of the regional cemetery.
Not discouraged by this in the least Cheval immediately began work on a mausoleum for himself and his wife in the grounds of the cemetery using the same methods and materials.
He finished that another 8 years later...
His neighbours and many other people in the local area dismissed Cheval as a lunatic or a crank but soon the castle began to attract visitors including Andre Breton, Niki de Saint Phalle, Lee Miller, Pablo Neruda and Pablo Picasso and the work was referenced by luminaries such as Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst.
Andre Lecroix, an archivist in the French Government, wanted to list the building as an official monument and asked Cheval to write the story of its construction and decide what its official name should be. Cheval dutifully delivered the story but insisted that Lecroix should name the building.
Lecroix duly christened it 'Le Palais Ideal de Facteur Cheval' or 'The Ideal Palace of the Postman Cheval.'
Ferdinand Cheval died in 1924 and was interred into the mausoleum he built in the cemetery.
The Palais Ideal lived on, although by 1968 it had began to fall into disrepair.
In 1969 Andre Malreux, the French Minister for Culture, officially declared it a historic monument ensuring its ongoing protection and it now also enjoys status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
However, probably the most fitting tribute came for Cheval in 1986 when the image of the 'facteur' and his work was immortalised by the French Government.
Their medium of choice?
A postage stamp...


  1. Reminds me too of the Chandigar Rock Garden, built in much the same way by much the same sort of personality: (now of course, they're nicking the fittings in all the old Le Corbusier buildings for resale...)

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