Ten years ago, while on holiday with her husband and three children in Provence, Vicki Archer, an Australian, fell in love with Mas de Berard, a ramshackle 17th-century farmhouse in St. Remy. Yep, you know the rest: Vicki and David bought and then set out to restore the house, transforming it, over three years, into an exquisite showcase of Provencale style, all country-chic elegance and ease...farmhouse meets formal in the French countryside. Vicki first shared her journey and its joys in a book called My French Life, which came out in 2006. And now you can peek over the Archer’s gate once again with French Essence: Ambience, Beauty and Style in Provence (Viking Studio, New York), which came out in the U.S. a few weeks ago. The book was first published in Australia in 2009.
OMG, what a book!
Weighing in at just under five pounds, the 239-page hardcover is like an all-access, behind-the-scenes pass welcoming you—come in! come in!--to snoop around the Archer's beautifully restored home, where Vicki's love of French architecture, art and decor is evident down to the tiniest detail. "Ambience is the single ingredient that distinguishes and infuses life here," she writes. "French Essence is a written and photographic celebration of this."
But the book is so much more than a house-and-garden tour. Through gorgeous full-page photos and Vicki’s well-researched and pretty prose, French Essence explores many important facets of life in Provence including food, wine, gardening, design, the emphasis on family, seasonality, the beauty of the countryside, the energy of Aix, Avignon and Marseille—even the circus. Vicki has a practiced eye, an historian’s sensibility and a crazy all-consuming passion for her adopted home—it comes through on every oversized page.
And Vicki is nothing if not grateful…her sense of good fortune infuses every book page and blog post. "Beautiful surroundings have always fuelled my creative soul,” she writes, “and to live life here with such an abundance of nature and loveliness is a gift."
If you've spent any time on Vicki's blog, also called French Essence, you're familiar with Carla Coulson’s exquisite and dreamy images. The Paris-based photographer has her own distinctive sensibility and the two women have clearly forged a powerful creative connection. Turning the pages of French Essence, it struck me once again how viewing photos online so often pales compared to experiencing them full bleed (to the edges of the page), on heavy, semi-gloss stock, by a traditional and talented (and I’m sure very-expensive) printer. Carla deserves an award for these images and the art director deserves one too, for beautifully balancing lots of images and lots of text. Please do not read this book on your Nook or Kindle or iPad—you’ll miss so much.
Surprisingly, French Essence doesn't cost a fortune: Amazon (US) has it for $30 plus shipping. This is going to be my default gift for all my stylish, artsy, decorating-crazy, green-thumbed, photography-loving, Francophile, foodie, house-renovating, party-throwing, macaron-chomping, olive-farming, wanna-be-French friends.
Maybe I love this book so much because there are so many similarities between my life and Vicki's (except, of course, for her huge amazing house and its staff, the devoted husband and gorgeous children, the garden with its 2,000 olive trees and her impeccable sense of style.) We're both expats of course, who came here on vacation and felt an irresistible pull. We both took apart our previous lives—hers in Sydney, mine in New York--in order to start over in Provence. We’re both writers who find great pleasure in beautiful things, love the outdoors, love to entertain. Speaking of which, now that Vicki has welcomed me into her world, I wonder if I’ll have the guts to invite the Archers to dinner in my 70-square-meter, flea-market-furnished, wrong-side-of-St. Remy home. As if!
Photos: The US edition of French Essence is now available on Amazon; the Archers' sitting room in winter; the 17th-century St. Remy farmhouse at Christmas; Vicki's daughter Venetia in the garden at Mas de Berard. Photos by Carla Coulson.