Inside Robert Kime's enchanting family house in Provence, La Gonette

As Robert Kime's collection, drawn from his flat on Warwick Square and La Gonette, his country house in France, comes up for sale at Dreweatts, we take a look at the magical atmosphere he and his wife Helen created at the latter
Inside Robert Kime's enchanting family house in Provence La Gonette
Tessa Traeger

If respect for the past was a hallmark of the restoration, so was a respect for the local architectural vernacular of Haute-Provence. “The place is the teacher, and the language of that part of France is amazingly strong and old,” says Mary-Lou. There was much searching through local salvage yards for architectural features; the highlight was her finding a set of ‘exquisitely thin’ stone steps all scattered at random around one yard. It took days of measuring them and studying them, but eventually with the help of an engineer, these became the graceful cantilevered staircase that soars upwards from the entrance hall, one of the anchors of the house. The local builders and tradesmen who worked on La Gonette were very much part of its success, and there was ongoing exchange of expertise and techniques between them and Mary-Lou. “What is so amazing in that region is that the building skills are both strongly tied to the nature of the place and the climate, but they are also extremely well supported technically. These people were at the top of their game, but they also talked to each other and respected each other.”

The staircase painstakingly reconstructed by Mary-Lou, with a simple iron hand rail. A Mughal printed panel hangs to the left above a Romanesque capital, while a 17th-century Caucasian dragon rug hangs to the right

Tessa Traeger

Robert began to collect for the house almost immediately, and continued to do so over the course of the renovation, carrying on that instinctive process of selecting and editing objects that made him so renowned as a decorator. “He had a very clear communication with places,” explains Hannah. “And so the house would talk to him and he would just intrinsically know what was going to feel right there.” “The house had beautiful proportions and beautiful light, and lent itself easily as a structural backdrop to beautiful objects,” says Michael. “The carpets and textiles anchored the spaces; there were exquisite textiles everywhere, and every room had something that anchored it.” The blend of things, from Art Deco fabric and Arts & Crafts furniture to Moroccan needlework and Iznik pottery, sounds typically Kime-ian, but it was peculiarly tailored to the house and environment. “If you took everything from La Gonette and recreated it in England, would it feel the same?” asks Hannah. “No, because the light is different, the colours are different, the feeling is different. And I think that was what made Dad so clever. He could envision an end result from a great distance.” And while there was a period of experimentation and moving things around once the house was finished, it was short, as Hannah recalls. “He did it in one go in the space of a fortnight, and the bones of it did not change ever.”

The orangerie at La Gonette, hung with Japanese paper lanterns

Tessa Traeger

Although the interiors of La Gonette are justly receiving a great deal of attention as the Dreweatts sale approaches, the gardens were equally part of its magic, and a great passion of Robert’s. “There wasn’t much of a garden there to start with,” remembers Hannah, “but there were four distinctly different walled gardens and he created this amazing sanctuary. He wasn’t daunted by it at all.” Robert worked with Michael Trapp add fountains, rills and planted screening. “There were marvellous anchors in that garden, and we just cleaned out what needed to be cleaned in a minimal way,” Michael explains. Just as Mary-Lou relates with the house, the garden, as Michael says, “was allowed to be. It had its soul left intact.”

The south face of the house, where it is possible to see the repairs to the plaster made by Mary-Lou. In the foreground is the field of irises planted by Robert.

Tessa Traeger

The garden was also a productive one, and a source for the endless cooking that went on in the huge double kitchen.. “As a family we love food, and so life at La Gonette centred around the kitchen,” Hannah continues. “One of the first things my mother did in France was plant a Bramley apple tree and a damson trees so that she could make the annual chutney recipes passed down from her own mother.” Everyone agrees that the house was incredibly comfortable, and full of the modern conveniences that Helen insisted on, but without them becoming obtrusive. “It was really a modern house,” remarks Michael. “It didn’t read that way, but you just had to stick out your hand for what you wanted and it would be there.” This set the stage for many years of entertaining, of meals on the terrace, in the orangerie, and around the great marble-topped kitchen table that followed the Kimes around through all their houses. “That table has been the touchstone of our family since 1975,” says Hannah. “Their entertaining wasn't about special occasions or showing off. They were just always seeking to create this feeling of welcome.”

“I think part of my parents’ skill was just in seeing what could be there from the beginning,” Hannah concludes. “It’s in the clearness of the light and the dryness of the air, in the mountains and the colours of the landscape, but also the proportions of the house, and the way it can be comfortable and generous without being cavernous. They recognised all that from the start when it was a ruin. They could see a life there.”

Robert Kime: The Personal Collection is taking place at Dreweatts October 4-6. See the catalogue and find out more at