Collectors

Yesterday I visited a house with the largest collection of books I have ever seen (apart from the larger stately homes).

My friend, Dessa, and I have become part of a small but cosmopolitan group – German, Dutch, American, British and French – who tend to congregate for a drink in our favourite bar on Saturdays. And the German couple, Hans Leo and Doris, had invited us for lunch.

The setting was magnificent – the house is perched on the saddle of a hill near Sumène, with panoramic views of the Cévennes. The first view of the house itself (after a nearly disastrous wrong turn ending up in a neighbour’s onion field) was very Cévenol but deceptively low-key.

The full extent of this rambling three storey old house only became apparent as we were take on a tour and at first sight seems quite modest – a traditional kitchen, dining room and sitting room, and then, along further little passages, some very handsome bedrooms.

Upstairs, however, was a larger sitting room which led onto a massive barn-like library, every wall covered from top to bottom with books. And another surprise: this library led onto a second, equally vast library! Down in the basement, more rooms and more books.

Doris and Hans Leo are voracious readers with catholic tastes. Even so, their rich and varied collections revealed that they are also formidable collectors! I hazarded a guess – at least 10,000 books? Doris nodded.

They have one daughter who lives near Montpellier. She apparently also loves books. But given my family’s experience of disposing of book collections every time someone in the family dies (as the non-reader in the family, I am the exception) I don’t envy her task some time in the future!

Equally impressive are their walls covered with a prolific collection of, mainly modern, paintings. Although I am pretty ignorant about modern art there were quite a lot that I coveted.

Hans Leo and Doris bought their house as a spectacular ruin in the early seventies. Doris continued to work as a psychiatrist in Germany until she found a post in Montpellier and Hans Leo initially worked on the house while also running an art gallery in Montpellier.

In a very thorough, German, way, he learnt the skills of house restoration by watching a local builder, all the time taking extensive notes. The skills he acquired and the years of hard graft he put into this house have produced something which is a wonderful mixture of old, simple Cévenol style and detailed, clever adaptation to make it into a comfortable modern home with (relatively – heating is always a problem in stone houses). Well, I should say rather, they have created a magnificent library and art gallery, with living accommodation attached.

We had a delicious meal (another good cook that I will hesitate to invite chez moi!) and lots of good conversation. I will return – with my drone as well as camera – one day when the weather is not so dreich, a wonderful word I learnt living in Scotland, to describe days when it is grey, damp and generally not inviting.

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