Christmas in Limoges. Part two.

Posted on February 5, 2014 by

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Auguste Renoir, the Impressionist painter, was born in Limoges. This is where he learned his craft. Not that you’d know it, there’s nothing on him in the Tourist Board. In vain we hunted for his birthplace. In desperation we approached state of the art Media Centre. The employee at Information was embarrassed. She couldn’t find it either and kept muttering ‘bizarre’. When we finally found his house, we were shocked to see washing drying in one of the windows. Why is this not a museum?

Renoir, one of seven children, was apprenticed at thirteen to a local porcelain factory where he decorated plates. When his father, a tailor, moved with his family to Paris, Renoir took classes in drawing and anatomy at the École des Beaux-Arts. He took painting lessons at the studio of Charles Gleyre, one time student of Ingres, where he became friendly with fellow students Sisley and Monet. Renoir painted The Painter Sisley and His Wife and Monet Painting in His Garden. In another workshop were the young Cézanne and Pissarro, They, like Renoir, wanted to try a new type of art, a non-studio based genre of painting. It became known as Impressionism.

During WWII, Limoges was in Vichy, called Free France run by Marshall Pétain who signed an armistice with Hitler. It gave Germany control over the north and west of the country, including Paris but left two-fifths of France unoccupied. Pétain replaced the Republican motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité with Travail, Famille, Patrie. He escaped to Switzerland after the Normandy landings but returned to face a charge of treason. Found guilty he was sentenced to death for collaborating with the enemy. Because he was in his eighties, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He died in prison in 1951.

Free’ or not that didn’t stop a very active Resistance movement helped by agents in Britain’s SOE ‘F’ Section and SAS although in the Museum of the Resistance in Limoges, Britain has a walk on part. Nothing is provided in English. The receptionist verged on hostile when asked. However, Limoges did name a Square after Winston Churchill.

It’s an important museum, a very good museum but is of course hardly uplifting. We were particularly interested in visiting because SOE agent Violette Szabo was air lifted from Tempsford near our home in Hertfordshire by the husband of a friend, Flight Engineer John Devenish DFC of RAF 161 Squadron. I write about this in my book Hertfordshire Secrets and Spies.

Violette grew up in London, the daughter of an English taxi-driver. SOE ‘F’’ Section sent her to Limoges in 1944 following D-Day where she co-ordinated the activities of the local Maquis sabotaging communication lines during German attempts to stop the Normandy landings.

Violette was captured by the Germans near Limoges, tortured, then sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp where she was executed. She was twenty-three. She was the first woman to be awarded the George Cross (posthumously). She was awarded The Croix de Guerre in 1947.

In the museum is an account of the massacre of nearby Oradour. On 19 June 1944 the SS wiped out the village and murdered its 642 inhabitants. Men were shot in barns. Five survived to tell of the atrocity. Women and children were locked in the church which was set on fire. They were machine gunned as they tried to escape through doors and windows. 47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche managed to crawl into bushes behind the church and was rescued the next day.

On 8 January 2014, an 88 year old former SS member was charged by the state court in Cologne with murder in connection with the massacre.

We went to Limoges to look at enamels and porcelain. We discovered to our surprise that the city has many faces, We had no idea that Renoir was borne there and worked in a porcelain factory. We had no idea it’s on the Tour de France route, no idea it was part of Vichy France and did not know about Oradour. We had an inkling that Limoges would be laid back but no idea it’s such an interesting place. Every day we walked for hours before hobbling back to our apartment loaded down with goodies for supper from Carrefour and Monoprix to flop in front of the telly with a box set of Lewis. Bliss. Best Christmas and New Year ever.

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