On a whim during my honeymoon, I coerced my husband, the talented comedy director (and funniest man I’ve ever met or, should I say, married) Gary Weis, to buy a house in France’s La Profonde (the deep interior heart of the nation). We took a wrong turn, and, instead of going to stay at a posh hotel in Provence, we ended up in what was then an unfashionable part of the south of France. Le Sud Ouest.
Because of my longing to have a home close to my roots, somewhere between Southwest Scotland and the Tuscan coast, I found a remote, rundown farmhouse (see MILIEU’s Spring 2019 issue) that sat atop a cluster of hills with far-reaching views of the Pyrenees. It was February, and neither of us had any idea that the house we were to call home would be surrounded by sunflowers during the summer months.
Cut to four years later, when we were the proud parents of three boys who were born, I might add, within a period of four years (Irish triplets?). With no renovating or decorating skills to talk about, I taught myself how to decorate—in French. The idea of helping my friends with paint colors and how to dress their windows was a natural next chapter.
My love for shopping at flea markets stemmed from my first money-making venture during my teenage years in London. My great friend Tracy Lerman and I, along with her mother, Jackie Collins, and my mother (two women with a lot of things in their closets), realized that we had an inventory to sell, so off we went to Covent Garden in the early hours of the morning. With very little business acumen, we didn’t realize that we would have to split the booty with our patrons/parents and that the attics would soon run dry. It was to be the birth of my habit of early mornings at flea markets and an incredibly important part of the years to come in France.
This slice of the Tarn Valley, a piece of heaven known as Kensing Tarn by the expats who live in the area, has an amazing number of markets, where typically it’s the French haggling with the French. From Saturday mornings in Albi to the three days in early August at Rabastens, many local dealers spend the winter months looking for the kinds of treasures that will either end up in my clients’ or my homes. Montauban is the birthplace of Ingres, and Albi the native town of Toulouse-Lautrec—and rather like a gambler, I am always hoping for the thrill of finding a forgotten master hidden in the back of some van.
In between these major southern towns lie the Bastide towns of the Quercy: Bruniquel, Castelnau-de-Montmiral, and Puycelsi. The area is steeped in history dating back to the Romans. The Sud Ouest had a flourishing wine trade long before the Bordeaux area was planted. Legend has it that the Romans planted grapes in the area on their way to Great Britain.
Even though I run what most would consider a small hotel out of my house during the summer months, it’s how I unwind. Friends pour in to go antiquing. It’s not that we ever find anything that we are looking for—who needs another pair of brass candlesticks or some nineteenth-century bed linens that will be used to serve dinner on? These are all items that in my mind make your house a home. It’s so extremely French shopping the markets, whether its for local produce, the iconic French woven basket, or a future heirloom. I’m as close to heaven as it gets scouring the markets and finding either the quirkiest pieces or just a door knob that is a match for a door in another part of the house that I’m restoring.
It’s complete bliss to find an oil painting that you know back home would have a “1” at the beginning of the price and a “0” (or several of them) at the end. I insist on telling my guests to buy only what they can take back on the plane with them. I collect eighteenth-century pottery and glass from the region. One of anything is never enough; you need to have at least five of something and then you are on your way to a collection. For me, this was the right place to start mine.
This story appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of MILIEU. To purchase this issue in print, visit the MILIEU Newsstand. To purchase in digital format, visit zinio.com.
WRITTEN BY KATHRYN M. IRELAND
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIM BEDDOW