Victor Hugo – Decorator extrordinaire at Hauteville House on Guernsey
Before I visited Guernsey, I only knew Victor Hugo as the storyteller behind Les Misérables, one of my favourite epic musicals – I’m addicted to a rousing chorus of “Can you hear the people sing?”. You may have also watched the Disney cartoon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame without realising that it was based on the Victor Hugo novel, Notre Dame de Paris. In France Victor Hugo was and still is considered a literary superstar and visiting Hauteville House, Hugo’s home on Guernsey opened my eyes to the genius that created this extrordinary house. Hugo himself said, “I missed my vocation, I was born to be an interior decorator”.
In October 1855 Victor Hugo, the celebrated French poet and novelist arrived on Guernsey braving heavy seas, wind and rain. For the three years before he had lived on Jersey, having left Paris in a hurry due to his political satirisation of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in his pamphlet “Napeleon le Petit.” Now, because of his outspoken political views he had been expelled from Jersey too.
Settling on Guernsey, the success of his poetry in Contemplations allowed him the money to purchase this former corsair’s house set high on the hill with views over Castle Cornet and the harbour of St Peter Port. Into Hauteville House he poured his creative energies and over the next couple of years transformed it into a rich and exotic showcase, packed with antiques and gorgeous textiles. Like a magpie he raided all the local antique shops for French tapestries, Turkish carpets, Chinese silks, Delft tiles and old sea chests which were deconstructed and recreated by local craftsment to suit his vision.
Victor Hugo eventually returned to France and after his death Hauteville House was bequeathed to the City of Paris who open it to the public. The house is one of the major attractions of St Peter Port and is especially popular with French visitors. Arriving at 11am I discovered that visits to the house are only as part of a timed tour and as these quickly fill up the next available tour was at 12.30. Entry to the garden is free, but as it was raining heavily, I decided to descend the hill and have a look around Castle Cornet until it was time for the tour. At the start of the tour we gathered in the small hallway, like being in the waiting room with a small kiosk to buy books and postcards, but otherwise not much different to Victor Hugo’s day when a servant would have been at hand to take your hat and coat. The plain, flat fronted house gave no clue to the richness inside, or to the large, country style garden at the back with roses, trees and fountains.
From the dark, oak pannelled hallway we moved into the the billiard room, dominated by a large table where the rich, red walls were covered with family portraits. Two of the portraits were of Victor Hugo’s favourite daughter Leopoldine, who drowned at the age of 19, when her boat overturned on the Seine and was lamented in many of Hugo’s poems.
The next room on the ground floor was covered in Aubusson tapesties combined with more carved wooden pannelling and our guide invited us to count the number of doors in the room. Of course there were those that we entered and left by, but also the central table made out of a door and the door to the concealed photographic dark room that was used by his son, Charles Hugo. Victor Hugo loved these tapestries for their decorative effect and paid no attention to their value, cutting them up to fit the rooms or making deliberate holes in them to let in more light.
On the ground floor was also the dining room, covered with white and blue Delft tiles. Above the fireplace the tiles were arranged in an oversized H motif, signifying both H for Hugo and H for Hauteville House with a carved wooden throne built into the space between the two windows. On the back of the chair are the words, ABSENTES ADSUNT, The Absent are Present and on the wall above the door is found the Latin motif, EXILIUM VITA EST which can be read as either Life is an Exile or Exile is life.
Everwhere in the house are decorative and literary motifs that encapsulate Hugo’s belief system but the significance of which would not be obvious to the casual visitor. The H in the dining room also signifies Hugo’s main preoccupations; Homme, Héros, Humanité, while in the hall are the words AMA. CREDE. which he explained in a letter to his mistress, Juliette Drouet;
“Oh! that our spirit should always return to this: believe; and our heart always to this: love. Love – Believe. This is what I wrote above the door to my house. I am also writing it on the door to my heart, which opens onto love, and on the door of your heart, which opens onto heaven.”
Our tour moved upstairs to the first floor where there are two sumptuous receptions rooms that run together to make one large space for entertaining. The Red room is hung with opulent red damask with enough gilt statues, chandeliers and silk hangings to give the impression of a very expensive tart’s boudoir. The blue reception room was only a little more restrained, but equally beautiful with Chinese silk hangings, covered with gold beading, which covered the walls and the ceiling, as there was a craze for all things oriental in Europe at the time. Hugo wrote in his diary;
“Bought the entire lot of Chinese silks from an English officer who took part in the exhibition and who had taken it from the Summer Palace of the Emperor of China”
Up another floor onto the second floor and the oak gallery was covered with pannelling including the four poster bed of Victor Hugo’s bedroom although he rarely slept there, with the sides and lids of old carved sea chests decorating the walls.
My favourite room was at the very top of the house where Victor Hugo had made a conservatory in the sky, with views across the bay, using some of the same Delft tiles and tapestry covered banquettes that are seen elsewhere in the house. This room was called the Crystal room or Lookout and a circle of glass on the floor lets light down to the floor below. This room, which was freezing in winter and so hot in summer that the silver of the mirrors bubbled, was Victor Hugo’s favourite place to work. He would sit working at a small writing table by the open windows, even in the freezing winter. It was in this small space like a sea captain’s cabin that Hugo wrote some of his great works such as Les Misérables and Les Travailleurs de la mer (Toilers of the Sea). At the other end of the room is a small bench seat covered with embroideries and velvet where Hugo normally slept, with a little hidden cupboard for his basin of water. From up here, Hugo could gaze out to sea but also over to his mistresses house in the same neighbourhood.
Once we had completed our tour of Hauteville House, we were free to explore the large, country-style garden with views over the bay, herbaceous borders, yew hedges, climbing roses and fountains. From the front of the house, you would never guess that this garden lies behind the house and it’s ideal to look around, while waiting for your tour, if the weather is fine.
I really enjoyed discovering Victor Hugo through Hauteville House; his life on Guernsey; the outspoken political views that led to his exile; his marital arrangements with both a wife and mistress who seemed to be very much part of the family and his wonderfully exotic decorating style. He was was in my mind not only a literary giant but a decorator extrordinaire.
More to see on Guernsey
Visitor Information for Guernsey
Hauteville House is managed by the City of Paris and entry is by timed guided tour. The house is open April – September on Monday – Saturday, 10am-4pm. To book your timed tour arrive at the house and reserve the next available tour or contact Hauteville House on +44 (0) 1481 721911 or e-mail [email protected]. The House address is 38 Hauteville St Peter Port GY1 1DG and is a short walk up the hill from St Peter Port harbour.
Accommodation on Guernsey – We stayed at Albany Apartments, a family friendly self catering holiday apartment in St Peter Port and we also stayed at St Pierre Park Hotel, a pleasant, 4 star hotel with golf course set in parkland beside a lake. Check hotel options and compare prices for Guernsey hotels.
Getting to Guernsey and Around – We flew to Guernsey with Aurigny Airlines who fly to Guernsey from Bristol and other UK destinations. You can also book flights with Blue Islands Airlines and take the ferry with Condor Ferries from Poole or Portsmouth. We picked up our hire car from Hertz at the airport, who are also able to deliver your hire car to your holiday accommodation.
Reading for Guernsey – You may like to explore the works of Victor Hugo, such as Les Miserables or the Hunchback of Notre Dame. A good general travel guide to Guernsey is the Landmark Visitor’s Guide to Guernsey, Alderney, Sark & Herm
Photo Credits: Some photos from Guernsey Images by Chris George, others by Heatheronhertravels.com
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