Lille Study Tour 2016 Report

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For those who in past years, southward bound, traversed  this then run-down, polluted industrial city, Lille might not  sound the most obvious destination for a Friend’s Study Tour.   But this September a group of Friends boarded a coach bound for the Channel Tunnel and a four night’s stay in a regenerated city now recognised as the cultural hub and financial capital of its region.   Lille has much to offer both in its wealth of noble historic architecture and in its cultural life and our busy programme encompassed the narrow cobbled streets of its Flemish past, the grandeur of Beaux Arts public buildings and museums, Vaubin’s great masterpiece, the fortified Citadelle, and much more including elegant shopping and a splendid local cuisine.   We journeyed out of town to Villeneuve to view the Modern Art Museum and to  Roubaix, once a flourishing textile town and now home to the André Diligent Museum of Art and Industry, a delightful conversion of an art deco swimming pool into a sculpture and textile museum.   Then on to the Villa Cavrois, newly restored at a cost of 23million and an outstanding example of early 20th century architectural innovation.   Our final destination, breaking our return journey, proved to be the ‘show stopper’ – the stunning new outpost of the Louvre in the former mining town of Lens.  Its exterior an essay in glass and brushed stainless steel merging magically into the landscape, its interior a treasure trove of paintings and sculpture arranged chronologically in a cavernous shimmering silver space.  Among those who enriched our experience was our Bourton based French driver Chris, Stan the gentle American who ‘tagged along’, and who could ever forget Aurora, her eccentric appearance and bubbling over enthusiasm leading us on an exhilarating journey through the centuries in  the Louvre-Lens.

Douglas Ogle, Tour Leader

The Study Tour to Lille proved to be a great way of seeing a lesser known region of France.   Lille is a lovely city and the location of our hotel could not have been bettered.   For us the highlights were the visits to the Métrope Musée d’Art Moderne at Villeneuve and to the wonderful Art Deco “La Piscine” at Roubaix.  In particular we enjoyed the paintings by Fernand Leger and by  lesser known Belgian/French artists such as Remy Cogghe and the surprising examples of Art Brut, often disregarded by the art establishment.  Our last visit to the Musée Louvre-Lens was inspirational being built in a deprived ex mining area.  The building, designed by Japanese architect firm SANAA, of glass and steel with its spacious natural light filled gallery left a lasting impression, as did our amazing young guide Aurora, a miner’s granddaughter.  Her knowledge and passion for the works of art and their place in history was as striking as her flaming red hair and high-heeled boots!  What an inspiration the gallery was providing for the constant stream of small groups of young children.   Our thanks to Douglas and Jenny  for organising such a well planned, researched and enriching five days in and around Lille.

Bob and Pat Joice

Yet another memorable trip.  I knew I would find Lille interesting but wasn’t prepared for the extent and character of the old town with its charming buildings and irregular street pattern.  The segregation of pedestrians and traffic by light bollards was particularly effective and gave a ‘human feel’ to the centre.   Outside the centre, again I was surprised by the architecture and contents of the galleries we visited.  At the earliest of these, the old Piscine at Roubaix from the 30’s  now converted into the Museum of Art and Industry, I was fascinated by the fabric pattern books harking back to the days when the industry of the region was weaving.    The later Museum of Modern Art, set in a park, houses a good selection of 20th century and later works, including a number of impressive sculptures in the park itself, those by Alexander Calder being my favourites with the Picasso coming a close second.   Finally the Musee Louvre-Lens, on the site of an old coal mine, visited on the last day was quite breathtaking.    Huge walls of glass and a cavernous interior.  The works on show, in chronological order, are all from the Louvre in  Paris  and are of the highest quality with, for example, works by the likes of Rubens, Botticelli and Raphael.  The museum includes a substantial store to house works previously in store in Paris where they were in danger from rising waters in the basements earlier this year.   It is planned to change the exhibits every few years.   The present works have been on display for about four years since the gallery opened.  The excellent and most entertaining young lady guiding us was confused that, although the number of visitors is high, there are very few from the U.K..  On a more general note,  I enjoyed the experience of going through the tunnel on the coach and having the convivial company of my fellow travellers during the day and at meals in the evening.

Lille to my mind is a well kept secret and I could have had longer there.  I am telling anyone who knows I have been there that they should go too.

Greg Worth

All aboard with our outstanding French driver, Chris, we arrived effortlessly to the channel tunnel, and it was a breeze into Lille.. originally a Flemish city of great antiquity, and despite  severe bombing in WW1 and occupation in WW2, looked remarkably together, with lively bars and restaurants in every direction. Tourism was drawing in the visitors, as well as the university. A lively dinner in an atmospheric restaurant in the old quarter allowed us to get to know each other.  Based at a very centrally placed converted old hotel, we were well served all the way though. After a tour of the city and learning to quickly read the dating by their architectural facades, we hit our first museum of modern art, from Picasso on, together with a fascinating collection of “Art Brut”, self-trained artists, sometimes with mental conditions.  Their famous Modigliani’s alas, were visiting Budapest.  Day 2 we were off to Roubaix, once the centre of textile production, where in 1932 a magnificent Art Deco swimming pool, rest area, bar etc was built for the workers.  It has retained the pool which is now  surrounded  with a sculpture collection, art works, Picasso ceramiques, and examples of  historical textiles and many  famous designers’ works. Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier. The town of Roubaix itself, with its 1913 monumental Hotel de Ville  from the glory days, felt rather run down.     Nearby was the 1932 Robert Mallet-Stevens’ masterpiece villa for M. Cavrois. The French government had just completed a 23 million euro immaculate restoration, but without more furnishings it felt more like a stage set, waiting for the props and actors. Watching the brilliant film revealed the enormous effort that had gone into saving it.   Day 3  was jam packed.. first Lille’s Beaux Arts museum .. again a Beaux Arts  building of 1913 to show off their civic pride.. the V&A would almost fit inside it and a scooter was almost needed to get around;  we also saw a new French style of animating a museum.. a naked statue  of a man had graffiti shone on to his face  to show off his various states of    mind, ending up being totally tattooed!   Next was the mediaeval hospital, l’Hospice Comtesse, founded by a royal Nun, for the poor, sick and destitute. The Flemish linen fold panelling and early furniture, Dutch tiled staircases, and exhibits of the period all stood out.   After lunch we walked to the river which once fed the many canals into the very centre of Lille, and now surrounds the Vauban fortifications under Louis 14th instructions of 1667. Owing to heightened security by the French government, two burly  soldiers prevented us from getting closer to the heart of the citadel. Statues to those who had been executed in 1914 for passing messages, and also to the breeders of carrier pigeons, who helped to keep the allies aware, were particularly poignant.   Day 4:  Many thought the best was kept to last.. the amazing outstation of the Louvre, opened in 2014, on a exhausted coal mine, had a revolutionary way of presenting the history of art from 3000 BC to Napoleon; each piece of sculpture, painting or artifice summarised its age, from front to back of the hall, going forward in time, and simultaneously, correlated sideways with two contemporary civilisations from side to side, eg Italy, Byzantium and Islam. It was truly remarkable, and the selection outstanding. The eager and attentive children groups were also a wonder to behold.  All the way round the Ogle’s attention to every last detail, the engaging quality of the guides, and Chris’s manoeuvring though the narrowest of openings were exemplary.  With an Indian summer all the way through, we were richly  blessed in every sense.

Richard Paice

The Hotel (Mercure centre Grand Place) was an excellent choice as it was in the old Lille city centre and therefore within a few paces of many of the fine buildings. Lille is a vibrant, charming and stylish city.  Walking through the city with our guide we saw examples of Flemish, French, neo gothic, art nouveau and art deco architecture.   Our first museum was the Metropole Musée d’Art Moderne in its own sculpture park. We saw cubist work such as that of George Braque and Picasso but most thought provoking was the section on Art brut or “outsider art”. The amazing examples made us start to consider what art is and who are to be recognised as artists; a theme that recurred throughout the week.  A highlight was in nearby Roubaix where “La Piscine”, the Andre Diligent Museum of Art and Industry demonstrated the cultural changes in this region associated with the textile industry. The building housing the original swimming pool was built in 1932 by the architect Albert Baert and was an art deco masterpiece. The extensive refurbishment in 2001 has created an inspirational place for exhibitions of paintings, sculpture and even textiles and examples from iconic fashion designers placed in the old changing cubicles.  The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille gave us the opportunity to see works by Rodin, Rubens, El Greco and Goya amongst many others in this splendid collection.   For us another special place was to found on our last day in Lens. The Musée Louvre-Lens has only been opened for about three years. The selected exhibits from the Louvre in Paris have been arranged to show the development of art from prehistoric times but also across eastern and western cultures from classical times to the 17th and 18th century. Our brilliant guide, Aurora gave us a lively run through of art history.

John and Rowena Hope

Well, what a marvellous time we had.  Thank you for organising it so well.  There were so many highlights, but the Villa Cavrois was very special as was the Piscine.  And of course Aurora at the end – what a way to finish!  And then the meals too, and the hotel, and the coach – all very good.   I was particularly impressed with the fact that the galleries were for everyone, not at all exclusive but accessible and, for the most part, containing approachable art:  in Roubaix, a  swimming pool once used by the whole town and now  an internationally famous gallery.   As Ingrid our guide said, people used to be ashamed that they came from a run-down ex-industrial area.  Now they are proud (“It’s like Liverpool” she said).   And this applied to all the galleries, including of course to the Louvre-Lens and to Aurora, who is a local girl.   I thought that Douglas’s words to her at the end were just right.    The others were easy to get on with, and I had a good chat with them all, except for two (not a couple) with whom I only passed the time of day.  So: well done the Friends and thank you both.

Cecil Sanderson

Firstly may I say I thank you for organising such an interesting few days in Lille.   Once again it was all so varied and unexpected.   The company was good thanks to you.   I am aware I caused a few headaches but have to say the eventual mix of people was good and Pam and I enjoyed each other’s company.   Well I did anyway!  We even managed a game of bridge with Cecil and Irene which was an added bonus.   My lasting memories will be of the architecture during our visits both inside and out:  the mix of old Lille buildings, the Piscine, the private home reminding me of Chicago visits, the strange but beautiful Louvre-Lens with the gentle flow of other visitors.   No rushing, no noise but movement round static displays strategically placed.   All well worth visiting and adding up to a great trip.

Anne Davis                                     .

Many thanks for organising such an enjoyable Study Tour to Lille. You asked for a brief resume of our experiences of the trip, I don’t do brief but here goes.    My overall impressions are of a happy group of “Friends” setting off on an adventure together, meeting pleasant obliging French folk – including our driver Chris – and getting by on French learnt fifty years ago or more at school.   Whether we experienced sunshine or the occasional light drizzle the weather was mild with a hint of autumn in the air.   Our hotel was central in Vieux Lille so it was  easy to explore the area in our free time and sample their varied cuisine, which ranged from ice creams by the fountain or savoury crepes  to our two group meals when we all gathered together for delicious food and to share our experiences.    We also had a couple of guided walks where I was interested to discover how deep the street cobbles were when we came across some roadworks, and to realise that the reason for some very narrow fronts to some of the properties was for economy.

I found it difficult to hear everything the guide said because of noise pollution and other distractions.    Our trip to The Metropole Musee d’Art Moderne was interesting, the buildings very simplistic containing major works of art.   The grounds are pleasant to walk around.    Very much enjoyed the visit to La Piscine in nearby Roubaix.   The history of the buildings and their conversion which our guide told us about was interesting as was her tour around some of the galleries.   It was a joy to wander round the galleries close to the “water feature” enjoying the general ambiance and the colourful stain glass windows.  There was display of some beautiful pots in some of the converted changing rooms.  Having lunch on the terrace was delightful.    In the afternoon we visited The Villa Cavrois which initially I didn’t appreciate.   I recognised that the exterior was remarkably modern for that era.  The interior I thought was rather characterless and sterile, with no rooms set aside for guests to stay.  Maybe it wasn’t part of their lifestyle.   After watching the DVD in the basement I realised the depths to which it had declined and realised what efforts had been put into the restoration and was more appreciative when I went round again.

The Musee des Beaux-Arts, so much to see so little time.

The Musee del’Comtesse.  Parts of this were closed for further work.

The Louvre-Lens.  We had an excellent interesting guide and there was a wonderful system for transmitting what she was saying direct to us via ear phones, an excellent idea for those whose hearing isn’t 100%.   Entering the main gallery was like being in front of a box of chocolates and forbidden to eat them.   After a short introduction our guide led us expertly round various items pointing out connections before letting us loose.    Finally Jenny gave us gold stars for being well behaved and punctual.     A very successful and enjoyable Study Tour.

Janet Smith

The tour was excellent:  interesting places, a very friendly group of people, and lots of good food, not to mention wine.   For me, the high points were the Piscine and the Lens Louvre Museum, but every place and both the walks had great interest.   The only relative disappointment was the fact that half the Hospice was closed.   However, as Janet and I left there a bit early, it allowed us time for a very tasty lunch of galettes.   Many thanks for all the organisation that went into the trip, and maybe my first Study Tour won’t be my last!

Peter Young

Thank you for organising such an enjoyable and interesting trip.  The hotel was fine and so well placed.   For me, the highlight was la Piscine and Villa Cavrois.   La Piscine – such a clever use of space and containing something for everyone.

In the mid 1930s my parents built a house in the Art Deco style so I grew up with it.  Our home was much smaller and not so extreme, but we loved it.    Close second was the Louvre at Lens.   And what a guide, one of the best ever.   I loved her sense of humour and her enthusiasm for her job.   Altogether a well organised trip, as always, with good food and good company.

Brigid Matheison

An American in Lille (on his way to Paris), the Aurora Fantasticalis and the swimming  baths that thought they were an art gallery.   What a lot of experiences we packed in during a few days in Northern France. Two guided tours of the city of Lille and amazing buildings and galleries that appeared to be unknown to many, as we seemed to have them to ourselves at times.    Stan from Seattle fell into conversation with some of the group over breakfast and ended up becoming an honorary Friend for a couple of days. He was on his own in Lille so joined us for some visits and enjoyed having his horizons expanded through our eyes – well, he was a semi- retired optician. I think he considered  himself most fortunate to have met us and he encouraged us to consider a study tour to Seattle. Any takers?     Aurora was the name of our Bette Midler lookalike guide to the Lens Louvre Musée.   Would I like to party with her!   She was without doubt the most enthusiastic guide and history of art interpreter I have ever encountered and all of this in a language that was not her native one.. I learned so much in 90 minutes with her and she brought what was already an amazing building to incredible life in its exhibits. Officially an outpost of the Louvre, it has a real life and energy of its own within a structure so unlike its parent but so very navigable and user friendly. Go if you can (they regret that they do not get more British visitors) and meet Aurora if you want the experience to be truly memorable.   La Piscine is a museum of art and industry housed in a former indoor public swimming pool, with a notable Art Deco interior, in Roubaix. It was designed by Lille architect Albert Baert and completed in 1932. It closed in 1985 but was remodelled as a museum by Jean Paul Philippon, opening in 2000. It houses a collection of sculpture, textiles, ceramics and paintings but it is the building itself that makes a lasting impression. Truly, you had to be there to understand that impression and the vision that led to its reinvention.    Like all of Douglas and Jenny’s trips, it was full of surprises and delightful experience In the most congenial company.

Irene Finlayson