A Visit with Jean Michel Renard

It’s now mid-morning on Wednesday, May 8th, the final full day of my France tour…

After saying goodbye to Francoise and Daniel (Sinier de Ridder) in Saint-Chartier, I was off for a drive to Bellenaves, another out-of-the-way little town smack in the middle of France, to pay a visit to rare instrument dealer Jean Michel Renard.  I was dying to see in person the many incredible instruments (and many more) from his web site, and, who knows?…maybe a little window shopping!  I had become acquainted with Jean Michel at the couple of AMIS meetings I’ve been to (he attends each one), and he had extended an open invitation.  Who knew I might actually one day “be in the area”?!

The 2-hour drive was the most pastoral I had yet undertaken, through many small and winding roads through charming farm country.

As Jean Michel’s street address did not appear to exist in the navigator, I had to ask a couple of town locals if they knew of him.  My complete ignorance of their language notwithstanding, I managed to convey my trouble, and they kindly led me to an unmarked lane that led to his estate.

I had heard he had “a nice home,” and boy, they were not kidding!   His (and his wife’s) “small castle manor” was started in 1350, then renovated in the 17th century.  He’s been here for over 25 years now, and is still only partially done restoring it.

The living room

Jean Michel pointed out how the top of the stone fireplace was from the Renaissance, while the bottom portion was from the Medieval period 2 centuries prior.  Meanwhile in the States, my 21st century laminate wood floors are already deteriorating!

In the corner of a tower stairwell, I had to duck through the barely 5 foot opening to the charming pantry (and Jean Michel’s over 6 feet!)

Halfway up these stone steps, a leftover Medieval window…Jean Michel can still safely shoot arrows at his enemies!

On the top floor of this wing, a tenant has a dance studio and use of these incredible built-in beds (delightful, and perfect for a “fort”!..but I need my modern air bed)

In one of the several outbuildings, I entered to find this view (sweeping right and left):

This must be what that expression “like a kid in a candy store” refers to…

(Above and below) Jean Michel has done a fascinating and incredible job setting up his instrument stock in these dramatically-lit tableaux.  In 2-dimensional photographs, they look like oil paintings, don’t they?!

Yes, that’s a violin made from what appears to be a woman’s shoe…! (Jean Michel has more photos of this “surrealist violin” here)

As you can see, each display is themed; this one features all the metal instruments.

I had been very anxious to see this extremely strange and elaborate one-off harp guitar.  (I don’t think I’ve added it to the site yet; Jean Michel’s had it awhile, after finding it in my own Los Angeles!)  It has a solid brass body, with an internal wood soundboard (stained red).  Expand the image and you’ll see the 8 sympathetic strings inside, tuned via the machines on the tail block section (below).

The 4 tuner mounting blocks are covered in nickel.  The strange short harp strings (6 and 4) appear on both sides, a la Altpeter.  JMR has more photos of this fascinating c.1900 home-made instrument here.

(Above and below) I was thrilled to see some other harp guitars I had known about as well.   This is an original (and extremely rare) theorboed guitar with six single strings on the neck (when others had 5).  Jean Michel is not sure that “F. Fievez, luthier” was the builder (he may have been the dealer or repairman); it may have been built by Renault.

It has a very square and deep body.  More photos.

Not only in fantastic condition (in original case), this Lacote heptacorde may be the earliest surviving specimen now known (recently added to my Lacote page).  More photos.

Something not on his web site, and something I’ve seen but never handled, this is an original c. 1815 Mollenberg Swedish lute (not to be confused with the common guitar-configuration version from a century later).

Having been a harpist in another life, I remain utterly captivated by them, new and ancient…

An interesting chromatic harp

It naturally follows that I am drawn to harp-forms of pianos.  This is actually an unusual “keyboard-harp” with plucking mechanism.  The backside and insides are way cooler than the front, as seen in these other photos.

I would kill for this giraffe piano (and Jaci would kill me if I dared bring it up) – not for sale yet, as he’s still cleaning it up.  Just fantastic.  Speaking of fantastic…

Yes!  It’s another Bugatti banjo – this one a huge 6-string.  One of only 5 (or 6?) known to have been built by the elder Bugatti (furniture maker Carlo), c.1900.  Closeups reveal its bizarre combination of Oriental, Moorish and Art Nouveau influences.  More photos from JMR.

More banjos, including the odd harp-banjo I’ve had on the site awhile.  JMR’s listing.

Neither Jean Michel nor I have every heard of another banjo-balalaika…you?!

One would be very hard pressed to choose between these gorgeous hurdy-gurdies…

…and still another…with matching painting.  Too much!

Yes, Jean Michel also has much musical instrument-themed original artwork available, including this lyre-guitar player

A German Stoessel-laute, with very strange tuners

I’d never heard of this strange instrument in the corner…

…a Fuxel (a sort of “cello for beginners” made by Fuchs) – not on JMR’s site, nor anything from Google…what the heck is it?

I’ve always wanted a serpent for the collection…Jean Michel had three, the bum!

(Above and below) Jean Michel explained how he loves putting together complete sets – like these rare violin forms.  If and when he completes the violin/viola/cello sets of either the guitar-shaped form, that corrugated-looking style or the trapezoid shape, he’ll then put them up for sale.

Well, as you can see, I’ve got some major budget problems to contemplate!  Meanwhile, it’s always fun just to window shop…I’m like a junkie with this stuff!

I spent another hour or two with Jean Michel, eating, drinking, talking about mutual friends and interests…after which I asked to see more of the grounds.

He had me look through a small hole in the door of one of the several ancient out-buildings, flipping on the light to reveal:

So that’s where all the great French wine had gone!

The property overlooks a lovely etang – one of the thousands of small, underground spring-fed mini-lakes that dot much of France

In his back yard (bordering an endless field, all his property), a tiny garden shed nestled by a very tiny etang.  I could see the water gurgling up from its perpetual underground source; his then feeds the large one out front.

Looking back towards the rear of the manor…

…and now time to go.  I wanted to get back to Paris – a 4-hour drive – before dark.  Another heartfelt farewell to a special friend – thanks for the hospitality, Jean Michel!

I would soon be on the main highway, so tried to really soak in the last bit of mood and scenery as I randomly aimed the camera through the window for potential posterity…

A beautiful day, as I thought back on all the incredible adventures, new sites and new friends I had seen these last 11 days.  I was now on the last battery of my 2nd camera, which was now warning me with every barely-finishing shot.  I managed one last shutter click before it totally gave up the ghost, but it summed up my mood:

I hope you’ve enjoyed this personal tour and photographic scrapbook of my latest travels.  It was great to re-live through the blog – but there’s nothing like being there!

The End

(for now)

If you missed any of it, you can start back at the beginning.

  1. Michael Schreiner Says:

    Yes I did enjoy the ride. I looked at every expanded picture. I can’t wait until the video of your trip is available (I could only wish). I’d like to know more about the very strange Stoessel-laute tuners. I wonder if the harp guitars I build will wind up in someone’s collection 200 years from now…Hmmm. Thank you for sharing Sir Gregg.

  2. Gregg Miner Says:

    Thanks, Michael. I’ll take this opportunity to remind occasional Internet users that 99% of my photos link to larger images (simply moving your mouse over them will show the “hand” symbol – you click and it’ll fill the screen [sometime more, with the magnifier], then Back button to resume the story). It gives one the option of quickly perusing the blog, or savoring all the cherry-picked and Photoshopped images I have carefully captured for your entertainment and/or research. And of course I have the raw images on my computer for anyone obsessed. No video (someday!). Stoessel-lute? You’d have to buy it and disassemble it, I think – they were new to me…all mine (and all I’ve seen) have zither pins: http://www.minermusic.com/stoessellute.htm

  3. Gregg Says:

    A very interesting addendum to my visit with both Francoise & Daniel and Jean Michel was when Frank Doucette and I went yesterday to the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard. Mullin’s specialty is European cars of the Art Deco period, and he compliments this with the distinctive Art Nouveau furniture of Carlo Bugatti – including one of the rare banjos! This one is similar to Jean Michel’s: 75″ long with a 20″ head. It was made for Carlo’s grandson Roland. I was able to study it up close and remain mesmerized! I’ve now seen half of the Bugatti banjos built! It’s modeled after his c.1900 (and later) furniture: a mash-up of Moorish and Oriental influences, made of unusual materials – neck inlaid with pewter, painted vellum head, wrought copper rim, strange custom tuners, outlandish size and turned wood. Just a riot!
    Some quick pics:
    Frank
    The most valuable Bugatti in the world (1936 Type 57SC Atlantic)
    Carlo Bugatti
    His furniture room
    The banjo hanging right in front
    To give you a sense of its size
    Closeups (this one expands quite a bit)
    Mullins’ upstairs private lounge, fully decked out in Bugatti
    Console table/hat rack
    Typical furniture with Moorish and Japanese influences includes wrought copper, pewter inlay, tassles and painted vellum
    Besides a couple dozen Bugatti automobiles, the collection includes many dozens of pieces of Bugatti furniture, plus numerous sculptures of Rembrandt Bugatti

  4. francoise et daniel sinier de ridder Says:

    Hello Gregg

    Since your visite we bought another banjo-guitar (6strings) by Bugatti, i will send a photo when restored!
    good continuation
    best regards
    Françoise

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