The early-1700s north façade of —the recently restored Burgundy home of French collector and television producer Jean-Louis Remilleux—is framed by an English-style landscape.
Resting beneath a mirror in the same room is a gilt-wood canapé that belonged to the 18th-century hostess Madame Geoffrin; the antique Sèvres statuettes depict literary figures.
Show Jean-Louis Remilleux a fine European antique—in particular one made during the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, a period he calls “the apogee of l’age d’or”—and neither value nor rarity enters the conversation. Instead what rivets the French television producer is the way such pieces bear eloquent witness to a moment in time: how an ormolu mount evidences the touch of a master craftsman’s chisel or how the covered boxes stored inside a centuries-old Chinese-lacquer cartonnier recall the documents a courtier would have kept in them, reflecting a relationship far more refined than that between a modern-day executive and her metal file cabinet. “Antiques are not dead things,” he insists. “They have a lot to teach us about how we lived and thought.”
The grandeur of days gone by has long beguiled the suave Remilleux, and it has influenced his career as well. Once a journalist known for high-profile interviews with the likes of actress Brigitte Bardot and African dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, he now produces documentaries with an archival slant, notably his prime-time television series Secrets d’Histoire, which explores the eventful lives—and the opulent domains—of past movers and shakers ranging from America’s Gilded Age millionaires to the Sun King’s sister-in-law the Princess Palatine. “We shoot their furniture and decorative arts, too, to help explain, for instance, why certain armchairs look the way they do,” he says. “The show is all about love, glory, and beauty.”
Remilleux’s private life is similarly dedicated. Over the last decade and a half he has become an impassioned collector: enthusiastic, self-taught, and entranced by the sorts of treasures that the subjects of his programs would have lived with (such as equestrian paintings by John Wootton and Eugène Delacroix) and sometimes actually did (like the mahogany library tables that belonged to Emperor Napoléon, the focus of a forthcoming episode of Secrets d’Histoire). Acquiring exceptional antiques and the buildings to house them—he is presently restoring a rococo Sicilian palace “right out of the movie The Leopard”—is an addiction, Remilleux cheerfully admits, but one “that’s cheaper than cocaine and better for my health.” His first objets d’art, picked up at a flea market when he was a teenager growing up in modest circumstances in Lyon, were two 19th-century terra-cotta baboons (he still has them), and his first country home, purchased in 1987, was a small late-18th-century manor in central France. “It was simple but beautiful,” Remilleux says of the latter, describing its careful rehabilitation as a brouillon, “a rough draft, something you do as a test to see if you want to continue.” And so he did.Twelve years later Remilleux deaccessioned the manor and soon procured Château de Groussay, 20th-century aesthete Carlos de Beistegui’s renowned neoclassical pleasure dome in posh Montfort-l’Amaury, southwest of Paris. Commuters eventually converted that area into a busy suburb, Remilleux says, so in 2011 he sold that estate and went in search of new primary digs. The goal was a property far enough from Paris to relax in wooded isolation but close enough to the TGV to meet colleagues in the city and to entice frequent weekend guests.
In 2012 the perfect place fell into his expert hands: Château de Digoine, a French national heritage site in southern Burgundy wrapped by nearly 250 acres of fields and forest and located 70 minutes by train from the capital. Its architecture spans almost the entire age d’or: the early-1700s north façade, mirrored in a meandering lake, is lusciously Baroque, while the circa-1770 south side exemplifies the neoclassical restraint of the Burgundian architect Edme Verniquet. There were a few later amendments made by the aristocratic Chabrillan family, its longtime owners, such as the evocative 1842 private theater where, in 1900, Sarah Bernhardt rehearsed her cross-dressing star turn as Napoléon’s son in the Edmond Rostand play L’Aiglon. But for the most part Digoine was dans son gôut, or in its original state, embodying all the glories of the ancien régime as well as many of its drawbacks.
“My first night, in winter, was horrible, like sleeping in a freezer,” the producer recalls, wincing in remembrance and noting that previous owners tended to use Digoine only in the summer. Six months later the 15-bedroom château was fit for modern living. “I prefer the essential things done fast but well,” Remilleux says of a renovation that included the discreet installation of 150 radiators as well as new baths tucked into existing alcoves and small chambers to conserve the original floor plan. “I love history,” he says, “but I want a nice shower, too.”
Furnishing Digoine was also unusually swift, taking less than a year. “As long as you buy an object or a painting in the style of the château,” Remilleux observes, “even if you have no idea where you can put it, it finds its place.” Scouring auctions and shops, cherry-picking some of Digoine’s original contents, and adding prized possessions from Groussay, he transformed the empty, echoing interior into a period paradise replete with provenances that put Remilleux and his guests—many of them equally ardent when it comes to design, decoration, art, and society—one step away from some of the world’s most alluring characters.
The central salon’s Beauvais-tapestry-clad canapé belonged to the learned 18th-century hostess Madame Geoffrin. A Louis XVI–style oyeuse from the Neuilly-sur-Seine mansion of the flamboyant 20th-century collector Arturo Lopez-Willshaw nestles in Remilleux’s office, alongside a Louis XV cartonnier that bears the BVRB stamp of the great ébéniste Bernard II van Risenburgh. One of the rooms in the first-floor enfilade is an apricot chamber devoted to Marie Antoinette, where paintings of the tragic royal—including an Alexandre Kucharsky image of her mourning her guillotined husband—gaze down on signed Jacob chairs and a candy-color Robert Adam demilune cabinet. And in the tower salon looms a 1665 Nicasius Bernaerts portrait of a melancholy mastiff named Tambon, who belonged to a duc de Vendôme.
“I have a nostalgia for a time I have never experienced,” Remilleux remarks with an amused smile, as he walks through the château’s sunlit ground floor, which is open to the public from May through October (appointments are recommended), often with the producer himself as tour guide. His time-traveling reverie, though, befuddles some people, among them his late mother, who, plainly perplexed by her son’s decorative-arts obsession, once told him, “I don’t know why you live like this or where this all started—of course, you’re completely crazy.”
Visitors to Digoine sometimes have similar reactions. “Oh, it’s lovely, but where do you live?” one tourist asked earlier this year. “I live here!” Remilleux said, spreading his arms to embrace the splendor, from the Chabrillans’ late-19th-century porcelain on which he serves Charolais beef that a local farmer raises on the estate (“I produce television programs, I don’t produce cows”) to the dignified yet startlingly comfortable Louis XVI fauteuils where his friends spend weekends relaxing and conversing. “All these things are not just to be admired,” Remilleux explains. “You can sit in that chair, and you can place a drink on that table. This is not a museum—it is alive.”