Saturday, May 6, 2017

Belle Fountaine - "The Chalk Garden" House

Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and Love Letters to Old Hollywood have teamed up to host The Favorite Film and TV Homes Blogathon ( great idea Phyllis! ) which is taking place today and tomorrow. This brilliant event gives architecture enthusiasts a chance to gush about their favorite sets. Hopefully this will turn into an annual event because there are too many great film and TV homes to cover in one blogathon. 

Belle Fountaine, the cliff-side mansion of Mrs. St. Maugham in Universal's The Chalk Garden ( 1964 ) is my selection for this event for several reasons. First off, it is not a house that I would particularly wish to move into, but it has a number of great architectural and interior design features that I would love to adapt to my own home....when I eventually get one. This includes plenty of greenery, thick hardwood floors, bright walls, an open inviting floor plan, and lots of sunlight. The second reason is the location of this estate - the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs on the southern coast of England, near Brighton. Even today, the area surrounding these pearly white cliffs is devoid of housing communities ( thank goodness! ) and so, perhaps because this is an "ancestral" home, it is perched quite near the cliff. From within, one can see a view of the channel and the cliffs. 

Belle Fountaine, as seen from the back side

For those not familiar with the film, The Chalk Garden was a Technicolor production produced by Ross Hunter in 1964. Like most Ross Hunter films ( such as All that Heaven Allows and Portrait in Black ) it features lush settings and a cheerful color palette to offset all the emotional drama going on in the script. 

The film is based upon a marvelously clever Enid Bagnold play that tells the story of a bratty love-starved teenage girl, Laurel ( Hayley Mills ), who takes pleasure in "exposing" the governesses that her grandmother, Mrs. St. Maugham ( Dame Edith Evans ), selects for her. She does this to get rid of them. Her and the manservant Maitland ( John Mills ) are British crime enthusiasts and Laurel delights in exposing people's faults. However, when the new governess Miss Madrigal ( Deborah Kerr ) arrives, she finds her greatest challenge yet. This woman is enshrouded in mystery, and what Laurel does uncover about her turns out to be more sinister than she imagined. As Laurel penetrates deeper into Miss Madrigal's past she unintentionally opens a wound that should have been left to heal, and comes to regret hurting the one person who truly cared for her. 

Like many stage dramas, the actions of The Chalk Garden were confined to several rooms in the original play. For the film, much of the story is still confined to the house ( to keep the claustrophobic tension intact ) but audiences get to glimpse some lovely location scenes as well, including the village of Beachy Head where most of the film was made. 
The front of Belle Fountaine, as seen from the walkway

Thanks to this confinement, studying Belle Fountaine is fairly easy and I took numerous blurry screenshots from my well-worn DVD copy, so you can take the house tour as well. 

The Chalk Garden could have easily been made into a somber black-and-white melodrama, but thanks to Ross Hunter's elegant taste, it is surprisingly colorful. Now that you have caught a glimpse of the exterior of Belle Fountaine, let's take a closer look at the inside. We follow Miss Madrigal as she arrives and one of the first scenes is of Maitland descending the staircase to answer the front door. The color scheme of this beautiful foyer reminds me of Mary Poppins ( 1964 ) with light-toned walls and light-colored furniture offset by dark wood-paneled doors and lots of greenery. ( Simply click on the images to view them larger. )

The Foyer
Maitland ushers the first applicant for the governess position, as well as Miss Madrigal, into the conservatory, which is connected to the living room and acts as a sun-room and breakfast room for the St. Maughams. 

Having breakfast in the conservatory

Miss Madrigal arrives with a indifferent demeanor and no references and Mrs. St. Maugham initially intends to decline her application, until she mentions that she was once put in charge of a garden. Mrs. St. Maugham's delight is her garden, but she does not have a green thumb and her plants are suffocating in the overly chalky soil that they were planted in. This proves to be reference enough and Miss Madrigal is hired for the job, of not only caring for Laurel but the garden as well which are "similar in many ways" ( both are malnourished ).
Unfortunately, we do not get to see much of this garden but, as Miss Madrigal puts it, the garden itself and the grounds of the estate could be made into a place so full of life that "people would come from everywhere to see it". A worthy ambition. With its old ivy-covered brick walls it certainly resembles one of those house/gardens that are opened to the public. 

Miss Madrigal's bedroom
Miss Madrigal is given the "governess" room which is a beautiful bedroom painted in light blue with white accents. In addition to two standard dressers there is also a large armoire ( evidently the St. Maughams thought their governesses dressed for balls ). 

Laurel's bedroom is directly across the hall from Miss Madrigal's making it convenient for Laurel to spy on her. Miss Madrigal even helps her in this endeavor by leaving her door open and Laurel sees her pace the floor every night "like a caged animal". Laurel's room is primarily white and is not decorated at all like you would expect a teenage girl's room to be. The pictures on the wall and decorations are mainly botanical related and her few feminine possessions ( her fairy-tale books and doll ) are kept hidden away in the closet, for she is ashamed to admit that she likes them. 

Carmen Dillon was the art director of The Chalk Garden. This talented woman trained for six years as an architect before she joined Fox Studios in England. Female art directors were a rarity but Ms. Dillon slowly built up a solid reputation of setting the scenes for British films, notably Hamlet ( 1948 ), The Browning Version ( 1951 ), The Importance of Being Earnest ( 1952 ), Richard III ( 1955 ), The Go-Between ( 1971 ), and The Omen ( 1976 ).

The upstairs hall outside Laurel & Miss Madrigal's bedrooms
While credit can be given to Ms. Dillon for the interior design of Belle Fountaine, I think more praise is due to John Jarvis, the set decorator, for Mrs. St. Maugham's character is revealed in the furnishings of her house. Oil paintings adorn the wall, sculptures can be found in just about every corner, and the entire house reveals a woman of class. The house is formal but not overly so. In fact, it is quite comfortable and "lived in". One could imagine a Helen Hayes grandmother-type character living here as well. 

The doors are covered with layers of thick glossy paint ( a British tradition ), the hardwood floors have a rich dark brown shellac, but the walls are light-toned throughout, giving emphasis to the decorative furnishings. 

The Dining Room ( note the large wall tapestry )
John Jarvis knew well how to decorate a house. He dressed a number of films uncredited ( The Wicked Lady, Quartet, The Miniver Story, The Hour of 13 ) and only made a handful of films where he was given full credit as set decorator. But the few sets he dressed were memorable : The Haunting ( 1963 ), The Yellow-Rolls Royce ( 1964 ), Sleuth ( 1972 ) and The Last of Sheila ( 1973 ). 

Views of the Kitchen
Fortunately, we can catch a glimpse of just about every room in the house in The Chalk Garden. In several scenes we are given a view of the kitchen, a fairly large kitchen that has at least three ovens as you can see in this shot ( don't mind the Mills' in the foreground ). Notice the blue and white tiling on the wall behind the stove. This decorative motif also appears around the kitchen sink. 

The Study

Another room we are shown briefly is the study which Maitland claims as his own when Mrs. St. Maugham has gone to bed. It has a well-stocked library ( including a complete set of the True British Crime series ) and a blazing fire in the fireplace. Plenty of bourbon and sherry are stored near by, too. It is here that Mrs. St. Maugham also keeps her photo collection of old beaus ( with "Puppy" earning the center spot ). 
Another room, which is shown only briefly, is the living room. Glass doors lead out from the living room into the conservatory letting in plenty of light. There is a grand piano, a large fireplace, several couches, and a number of armchairs, too. 

The Living Room ( hiding behind the characters )

The exterior of Belle Fountaine is actually Clapham House, located in Litlington, East Sussex. This 18th century estate is situated on 24 acres and was once the residence of Lady Fitzherbert, mistress to King George IV. Only a few playful ghosts remained. In 1978, the son of Elizabeth Brassart, the directrice of the famous cooking school Cordon Bleu de Paris purchased the property and, with his wife, converted it into a French cooking school - L'Ecole de Cuisine Francaise

Clapham House in the 1800s

Today it is a private residence and, like many film locations, few realize that it was featured in The Chalk Garden

This post is our contribution to The Favorite Film and TV Homes Blogathon. Simply click on this link to read more posts about beloved film and TV homes. 


  1. Terrific post highlighting the sets of one of my favorite movies. You're right about the colorful palette offsetting the emotional drama (it's interesting to note that Madrigal and Lauren share a love for painting). The house, the rooms, and the seaside setting all enhance this underrated winner featuring fine performances from the leads.

    1. I'm glad you, too, appreciate this film. I think the set design did quite a bit to enhance the atmosphere of The Chalk Garden and make it really memorable.

  2. Beautiful choice and a wonderful article full of insights and information. I was enthralled.

  3. I adore Deborah Kerr and Hayley Mills, but I haven't seen this film yet. Regardless, your post was wonderful -- so many interesting little details! Thanks for joining us!

    1. It's well worth watching, Michaela. I wrote an article about the film itself a few years ago. After you watch it I'd like to hear your thoughts about the movie. Thanks for hosting this event. It's a grand idea!

    2. You superlucky thing, you! Wish I could say the same, as it's one of my favourite flicks ever. All I get to do is rewatch, and enjoy.

  4. I've only seen a few minutes of this movie and it definitely had a Haley Mills I wasn't familiar with!!! This looks like a lovely home (and yes, we may have to make this an annual affair). Thanks for both of your posts!! :)

  5. Wanted to learn more about the house rather than just the movie plot. I've run this DVD a lot to figure out the seemingly inconsistent floor plan (at least to me). Is it the real floor plan or just a movie set, manipulated to get good camera angles? Still working on it...

    1. I use to do a TV/Movie Set series on this blog where I sketched out floorplans from films ( it was a hobby my sister and I did ). You've challenged me, so the Chalk Garden set will now have to be sketched! I'm sure the floor plan in the film was not the real floor plan of Clapham House - movie sets rarely resemble the exteriors.