Last day in Lille


Old Bourse, built 1652-53

304A6141-C710-485A-89AC-5907198B98B1A walk around Lille this morning to take a photograph of the fish restaurant (sadly now closed) with wonderful mosaics, and the truncated cathedral. Also the Flemish-style Old Bourse, in whose courtyard I was delighted to discover plaques commemorating French scientists and technologists who contributed to industrial development (with particular reference to Lille’s textiles). The heroic style was an odd choice to mark feats such as the improved production of sugar beet . . . but actually that’s of far more use than winning a battle thousands of miles away, so why not? What I really liked was the cartouche for Jacquart (that was their spelling); yes, there were the punch cards, displayed like a Roman cornucopia.BA7C2A68-D633-420C-AD31-C9F59D5E0713

I walked out to the star-shaped Vauban fort, which is still used by the French military. It was there that I discovered a war memorial with a difference. At first I laughed at the “travelling pigeon” inscription and the overblown symbolism (yes, I know pigeons were “war heroes” in that they carried messages across enemy lines, but they did it involuntarily so I’m not raising my chapeau to them). However, having read the side panels I changed my tune and began to see the pigeon – if not direct from Ararat – at least as a sign of reconciliation. The memorial, erected in 1936, is dedicated to colombophiles who were shot by the Germans for sheltering messenger pigeons.


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Louvre-Lens, designed by SANAA firm of Japanese architects, opened in 2012

The Louvre-Lens museum is barely there: almost transparent and treading very lightly on the ground (that fear of subsidence again). It rests on the site of a former pithead and is now surrounded by landscaped gardens. It’s all very clean.

There were no temporary exhibitions (phew!) and I liked  the Galerie du Temps permanent exhibition. The vast space (which is very disorienting at first) allows for scores of objects to be presented to you all at once. From the earliest Cycladic figurine to Napoleon crossing the Alps by Delacroix, you can wander among them as if in a 3D timeline of European and Middle Eastern history. You can also “chunk” several artefacts at once and notice similarities and influences.  (Obviously the ones that the curators intended you to notice.) I imagine it can be an excellent teaching/learning tool.

Two things I particularly liked:

Their simplicity stood out all the more when, out of the corner of my eye, I could catch a glimpse of the over-blingged-up table that the prince-elector of Saxony presented to someone in the 18th century.

It’s a great building and a lovely idea to reinvigorate Lens, but its success or otherwise will be for the next generation to judge. Meanwhile, the row of miners’ cottages between the museum and the slagheaps is being turned into an hotel.


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Lille’s old slagheaps (terrils) – awaiting UNESCO world heritage status. What happened to Britain’s? Did they all get used for road building?

I had an upstairs seat on the Lille-Lens train this morning – almost as satisfying as sitting at the front upstairs on a bus. It didn’t make the scenery any more inspiring, though. It’s not just the flatness: there’s something lowering about the thought of First World War slaughter combined with my Germinal-and-pneumoconiosis-inflected view of coal-mining. (In 1906 1,099 miners were killed in an explosion just outside Lens. I realised afterwards that I had passed through that railway station.)

Lens was occupied and shelled for the full four years of the war. Its inhabitants fled then returned after the war – because coal needed to be mined once again – to a town that was more than 90% destroyed. It was a fate suffered by many northern French and Flemish towns. Some, like Ypres, chose to recreate the pre-war town; others, like Lens, were receptive to newer styles. Nothing was prescribed or proscribed in Lens.

The 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris was significant in spreading Art Deco ideas . . . but by the time they got to Lens they must have collided with existing tastes, so here it makes for a very eclectic bunch of buildings. You arrive at the railway station and are charmed by the barrel vault and locomotive outline of the building, mistakenly thinking you’ve hit a rich pure Art Deco seam:


Lens railway station, designed by Urbain Cassan, inaugurated in 1927. Concrete and single storey in order to spread the weight of the building. With so many mine workings, subsidence is a perennial fear.

The mosaics inside announce that you have entered a mining town x 4:


Mosaics by Auguste Labouret

Two of the grandest buildings in town are the former offices of the Société des Mines de Lens and the trade union headquarters:


Miners’ union HQ, completed in 1911, destroyed during WWI, rebuilt in almost identical style 1922-23. Workers get their tongues round the architectural language of power.


The Great Offices of the mining company. Designed 1928-30 by Louis- Marie Cordonnier. At first sight, it’s very Flemish (i.e. emphasising independence from Parisian influence), but the structure of the balcony and bay windows have Art Deco touches (a more international style less burdened with history). The interior – judging from the brochure I got from the tourist office – is much more Art Deco. Some of the furniture was made by the Majorelle factory and the glass by Daum in Nancy, whom I first encountered in the context of Art Nouveau. They obviously moved with the times.

As for the rest of Lens, there are plenty of decorative ceramics, mosaics/tesserae and fruit/floral/foliage plasterwork on façades. The reconstruction of the town must have kept local builders and artisans very busy.

The last coal mine closed in 1990. I can’t think of what that does to a single-industry town. Like many eastern German towns that I have passed through, Lens (and Roubaix too) teamed up with another struggling municipality to form a larger agglomeration, and is reinventing itself – or being reinvented by central government – as a cultural tourist destination.

So, with my (ahem) cultural tourist hat on, behold me in Lens.

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Gare de Lille Flandres

I’d forgotten that the station façade originally fronted the Gare du Nord in Paris. That accounts for the fact that it’s at an angle to the railway tracks . . . but makes for a perfect view down the rue Faidherbe. The original façade looks as if it was brick.


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La Piscine, Roubaix


Interior of La Piscine, originally built by A Baert, 1927-32yj

91801E45-3911-4CB3-BC6C-07BC10B41C9CAs a swimming pool, La Piscine must have been a haven for workers living and working in Roubaix’s textile factories. It echoed Mallet-Stevens’s call for light, sport and hygiene, but much lower down the social scale. It’s a different kind of spectacle from the Villa Cavrois; despite the Art Deco sunbursts at either end and the restaurant area, part of the original complex is backward-looking, with the Italianate entrance and the cloister-like gardens. The pool was closed in 1985 but the building (and its wonderful interior) have been converted into an art gallery and a textile museum.

I imagine middle-aged French people have their own unfashionable 19th-century favourites that they’ve known forever – the equivalent of Hubert von Herkomer or Ford Maddox Brown for me. Do Jules Bastien-Lepage and Rémy Cogghe fit that bill?  They’re becoming more familiar to me. Cogghe in particular is a crowd-pleaser, but he does it very well.

I can’t decide whether there is more painted naked female flesh in French galleries than in British; I shall have to take my set square and compasses next time I go to one.

After visiting the V&A last week, I found the fabric sample books from the late 19th century interesting: you could see the development of mass-produced fabric and the development of pattern and dyes.

Some paintings I noted. The Kennington is disquieting: what is going on? The Gruber glass (particularly the pine cones in the top corner) reminded me of Nancy. And the Marat – I’ll check when I get home, but I’m sure it’s in Arthur Mee.

Like some eastern German towns, Roubaix has declined from the days of its grandest buildings. Even back streets used as dog toilets have buildings with touches of grandeur. The town hall façade is quite remarkable for the amount of decoration and pride in its wool trade it manages to cram on; I hate to think what colour it must have been when Roubaix really was a working town.


Architects Ernest Thibeau and Victor Laloux , 1907-11

And this is one that I dashed off the tram for (built 1904 by architect Élie Dervaux/Derveaux):

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Villa Cavrois


Designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens, 1929-32, for the Cavrois family. Concrete frame, red brick walls and yellow facing brick.

Hilversum town hall” was my first thought. Indeed, Mallet-Stevens took M. Cavrois to Hilversum before starting work on this family home. It’s a Gesamtkunstwerk again, but on a bigger scale than any of the other Modernist houses I’ve visited. The only other one I can think of on this scale is Eltham Palace (the clue’s in the name).

The villa is built on a slight hill between Lille and Roubaix, where the Cavrois factories were (so well out of range of the dirt and pollution). Strong horizontal planes with a couple of dramatic verticals, and a wonderfully circular tower that looks like a giant wood shaving. In addition to the large garden (and the grounds were more extensive before they were sold off for housing) there is also a narrow swimming pool with a couple of diving boards.

Inside is just as wonderful. My first impression was of space and light. All materials were carefully chosen and were highly luxurious: marble of various shades, zebrawood, velvet. As I recall, the only light bulbs that I saw were in the kitchen and scullery: all other lighting was diffused, hidden behind sconces or mysteriously glowing from cornices. There was a touch of De Stijl/Rietveld in the sons’ bedroom, and the floor-to-ceiling tiles in the kitchen were very practical.

F15FA6A4-F66D-44BC-8273-F4691F52E5E5It was also extremely modern in that it used the latest technology in place of an army of servants. (The shower in the parents’ bathroom had a thermometer dial the size of a dinner plate.) Like the Sonneveld House in Rotterdam, there were two wash basins in each bathroom, but my favourite discovery was the bidet on casters! Perhaps they are commonplace elsewhere, but this is the first I’ve seen. Enormously practical, of course, in terms of stowage . . . but nonetheless amusing. It also fitted in with Mallet-Stevens’s description of the house:

Home for a large family living in 1934: air, light, work, sports, hygiene, comfort, economical.

From 1988-2001 the house was derelict; it could have been quite a different story.

Note to self: it’s good to be exercising my fossilised French again, but I have definitely lost my touch. I’d been asking for le VIL-la Cavrois, whereas – as any fule kno – it’s la vil-LA Cavrois.

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Lille this morning

D19E470C-D950-43E2-BAF8-1959FF4D8872When I arrived yesterday afternoon it was wet and gloomy, and my glimpse of a lighted upper window made me feel that domestic coloured glass brings much-needed brightness to northern streets on winter evenings. The sight of it was enough to confirm that I was in a foreign country, even if the weather was exactly the same as at home.

Today has been a much brighter day, and I had a quick walk around to see places I have visited before. I like Lille’s architecture – Flemish brick and French beaux-arts side by side, together demonstrating a prosperous past in textiles. I particularly like the Voix du Nord newspaper office: it really sets its principles in stone. And I also had a quick look at the Maison Coilliot, an Art Nouveau house which once fronted a ceramics factory and warehouse. The green tiles are of enamelled lava.

Even the basement lights are Art Nouveau:


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