I am standing in a Rousseau painting of twining branches, exotic flowers, enormous brightly coloured butterflies and sweetly plump birds. Should a tiger come prowling through the thicket of foliage, it would seem entirely natural. In fact, this is the Auvergne studio of sculptor Joy de Rohan Chabot, an artist who over decades has wrought her own enchanted forests and magical kingdoms from painted bronze, steel and glass. She lives up to her name in every sense of the word – a beautiful, bird-like woman who exudes the warmth and delight so evident in her work. The studio was once the orangery of the Château de Jozerand, the country residence of the Comte and Comtesse de Rohan Chabot and a house built on magnificent proportions. While de Rohan Chabot wears her aristocratic title lightly, her lineage has informed her art in subliminal ways.
As the only child of divorced parents, she spent the first seven years of her life in her maternal grandparents’ château at Yonne. She remembers skipping from room to room each morning to say hello to her grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. Her mother, Brenda Balfour (whose father was half Scottish), was one of the beauties of her generation and led a socialite’s life in Paris, eventually marrying again, to the Comte François de Bourbon Busset. Her father, Hubert de Rouvre, was something of a playboy, sentenced to the shadows of de Rohan Chabot’s childhood by her mother, who did not consider him a suitable influence. “He would take me to shops and tell me to choose whatever I wanted,” she recalls. “Of course, that was very nice, but I was also rather spoilt.”
On the occasion of her mother’s new marriage, the seven-year-old de Rohan Chabot left the happy rumpus of her grandmother’s house for the enormous castle of Château de Busset at Allier, the only child in a highly regimented household. Hers was a life of privilege that was rare even half a century or so ago. “When I see Downton Abbey, it feels very familiar,” she says. “Our household staff included butlers, housekeepers, cooks, chauffeur and footmen. I had my own maid as well as a nanny and governess, but my mother and stepfather were often in Paris, so really I had only my cat, Caroline, for company.” A lonely little girl with a big imagination, she took to searching the castle for friendly ghosts (“I never found any”) and looking for solace in the fairytales she devoured. And she drew and she drew and she drew.
Severely dyslexic, she first turned to drawing as her salvation from the academic subjects in which she performed so poorly. When she was 12, it was agreed she could study in Paris, where she later attended the renowned Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs – and flourished. However, her artistic bent was not a cause of celebration within the family. “A family friend once remarked to my mother that I was an artist. My mother was furious and said, ‘Never say that again’. It was the sort of background that would have embraced the idea of a writer or a musician, but definitely not an artist.”
Being protected and cosseted extended into adult life. De Rohan Chabot married a very distant cousin, Jean de Rohan Chabot, when she was not yet 20, leaving the guardianship of her mother for that of her husband. “I was still a minor, so Jean was my legal guardian even though he was barely 22 himself.” By the age of 24, she had two young sons, Emmanuel and Fabrice. Now a grandmother of five, de Rohan Chabot laughs at how naive a mother she was. “Thank God I had such a great nanny – she thought I was such a bad mother that she even took the boys when she went on holiday.”
The young Comte and Comtesse were the couple à la mode, leading a life that flowed seamlessly from one elite social event to another. The great couture houses would lend de Rohan Chabot the clothes to suit each grand occasion, although she was never happier than when in cowboy boots and jeans. “Jean would visit the couturiers each afternoon to choose a dress for me to wear that night and then we would send it back in the morning. It was another world.”
And yet increasingly it was not a world of her own choosing. While she remained shy in company about voicing her artistic aspirations, she never stopped painting. Then, in 1976, she used her connections – a long family friendship with French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing – to acquire an invitation to visit China and learn about the tradition of lacquering. “China was then still very mistrustful of foreigners, so you could not visit as a tourist but had to be invited by the government. Giscard pulled the necessary strings, but I was accompanied everywhere by two women chaperones who were terrified something might happen to me. I was taken around ateliers all over China and shown every part of the process, from the tree to the finished surface – I was away about three months. If Jean had refused, I would never have gone, but his only response was ‘My grandmother would never have done such a thing’. When I came back I felt like a nun returning from a convent – it was all such a culture shock.”
It was her visit to China – and the ensuing press interest – that led to a 15-year commission from Régine Zylberberg, owner of the eponymous Régine nightclubs, to decorate clubs from São Paulo and Santiago to New York, Paris and London with exuberant murals of jungle scenes and other exotica. “I absolutely loved doing that,” says de Rohan Chabot, “because during the day I’d be alone in the dark of the club, up a ladder and covered with paint, with the music playing loud – then back in the club dressed up to the nines in the evening.”
Having mastered lacquering and then gilding, she turned to wood carving, welding and the casting of bronze, metamorphosing slowly from painter to sculptor. She makes every piece herself by hand, preferring the solitude of the studio, where only her cats are invited to join her. Unusually, furniture became the medium through which she began to express her “other universe”, a natural world more poetic and fantastical than the one most of us inhabit. Her friend and great collector of her work, the actress Marisa Berenson, says: “Joy is like a romantic, beautiful fairy – there is a light and a lightness within her that transmits itself to her work. People might try to copy what she does, but they can never succeed because nobody can copy the magic that comes from her putting her heart and soul into everything she does. In her work she creates an entire world of her own – the fairyland of which little girls dream.”
In 1990, her first solo show, La Maison des Illusions, at the Orangerie de Bagatelle in Paris was a sellout: a celebration of trompe l’oeil through her own work and the collaborations she engendered with textile designers, carpet makers and china manufacturers. That in turn led to her first furniture collections, initially for Jansen, the legendary Parisian decor firm, and then for Lanvin. From the outset her signature of branches, flowers, butterflies and birds was in evidence, with the first Lanvin collection entitled Toute la Journée dans les Arbres.
In the late 1990s, she began to paint on glass and later held a show of glassware. It was a sellout and led LVMH’s Delphine Arnault to commission her to paint 700 plates after seeing some at Dior. For the past 10 years, she has continued her collaboration with Dior, which names its painted glassware Joy (price on request). De Rohan Chabot has also created specially decorated champagne flutes for the Fondation Claude Monet in Giverny since 2000.
Today, she is as full of energy and ideas as ever. In 2008, she was given a solo show at the Musée Jacquemart-Andrée in Paris, the first for a living artist, which celebrated her twin passions of nature and the decorative arts. Four years ago, Galerie Matignon in Paris began to represent her – incredibly the first commercial gallery to do so. The gallery’s director of contemporary art and communications Danielle Paquin Jansem says of de Rohan Chabot: “What makes her work so special is the poetry inherent to every piece. Each tells a story of a magical forest, fantastic sea life or butterflies dancing in the air.” No wonder her work seduces in-the-know collectors from all over the world, including Australia, the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Dubai and, of course, Europe. Through the gallery, her prices range from about €100 for a small hand-painted bowl to €19,000 for a four-leaf glass screen, with sheet-steel butterflies from €400, €4,500 for a bronze Elf Leopard stool, €5,000 for a hand-painted gold and bronze Large Pansy 3 chair and €16,000 for a bronze Butterfly table.
While there are obvious parallels with parts of Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne’s oeuvre, de Rohan Chabot would understandably hate anyone to think she has been overtly influenced by them: “I adore their work and am flattered if people compare us, but the artist’s obsession with flowers, animals and birds goes back thousands of years.” In many ways, she is more akin to Sonia Delaunay – another artist not afraid to embrace the decorative arts with as much passion as the fine arts. “Sometimes I worry that I do too many things, but the fact is I need always to be trying something new in order to feel occupied. This mix of painting, sculpting and patina is what makes my work unique. And once I know how to make something, I get bored because then I am only using the hands and not the brain, so I have to keep learning.”
While she has built a significant name in her native France, she is much less well known internationally. This is changing, with her first London show being held until late April as part of the VIP initiative at Joseph’s Brompton Cross store. VIP founder and curator Sophie Tremlett says that from the moment she became aware of de Rohan Chabot’s work, she was determined to show it to a wider public: “When you consider for how many years Joy has been creating work of this quality and originality, it seems incredible that she has so low a profile in the UK. To my mind, she is an exceptional artist who deserves much wider acclaim.”
For de Rohan Chabot, it is as if finally her life is her own. While husband Jean remains party loving, he has always been a practical support – in particular helping her with organisation. De Rohan Chabot herself has stepped back from la vie mondaine to spend more time in the country, not far from the foundry where her work is cast. She still enjoys visits to their Paris home, where she has a second, smaller studio, but the whirlwind of social activities that she was never overly fond of is now a thing of the past. Instead, she is able to concentrate fully on her work, dazzling her loyal following with beds, chairs, tables, mirrors and glassware that would be perfectly at home within the enchanted castles and forests she dreamt of as a child. Perhaps the most magical thing about de Rohan Chabot is that, unlike most of us, she has never really left her childhood behind. The little girl alone in the big house is still using her imagination to rewrite the present to glorious effect.