In 2021, the wallpaper was carefully restored and prepared for display at the Château de Prangins.
In 2021, the wallpaper was carefully restored and prepared for display at the Château de Prangins. Swiss National Museum

From farmhouse to museum: rescuing a length of wallpaper

It’s only thanks to the efforts of historian Maurice Jaenneret (1887-1961) that a magnificent section of wallpaper from a Jura farmhouse was saved from destruction in 1958.

Helen Bieri Thomson

Helen Bieri Thomson

Helen Bieri Thomson is an art historian and managing director of the Château de Prangins.

In August 1957 Maurice Jeanneret, then Vice-President of the Canton of Neuchâtel Association for History and Archaeology, published an article in the Neuchâtel Museum Review about an extraordinary wall decoration: a section of wallpaper featuring motifs from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. From about 1795 onwards, this wallpaper adorned the walls of a salon on the first floor of a farmhouse in the Jura – more precisely, in La Cibourg – and miraculously survived in situ. Jeanneret used the article to make an appeal: “This work is now threatened with destruction. The building has changed hands and we are told that the new owner is planning changes in which there is no longer any place for the enchanting salon of the Metamorphoses. Is it possible to save this treasure and give it a new home?” He also enumerated the difficulties associated with removing this type of wall decoration, and named the institutions he had in mind as a new location for the piece.
Postcard showing the farm in La Cibourg, where the wallpaper adorned the walls of a salon on the first floor of the building on the left.
Postcard showing the farm in La Cibourg, where the wallpaper adorned the walls of a salon on the first floor of the building on the left. Swiss National Museum. Photo: Manel Guedri
In an exchange of letters with Mariette Schaetzel, a descendant of the Robert family, comprising around 60 letters, Maurice Jeanneret set out his detailed thoughts on preserving the section of wallpaper. These letters from the Neuchâtel State Archive reveal Maurice Jeanneret’s enormous commitment to saving this extraordinary work. They also tell the story of the furore surrounding the removal of the wallpaper. After the death of his father Frédéric Robert, a descendant of the Charles-François Robert who had the wallpaper installed in the 1790s, inherited the family farm in 1952. Three years later he decided to sell it, having realised that maintaining the country house from his home in Geneva was quite difficult. Mariette Schaetzel, his cousin, was deeply attached to La Cibourg and especially to the wall decoration in the salon, and asked him to donate the wallpaper to a Neuchâtel museum. Frédéric Robert acceded to this request, and included a reservation regarding the wall decoration in the deed of sale.
Mariette Schaetzel’s notes.
Mariette Schaetzel’s notes. Swiss National Museum. Photo: Manel Guedri
Surveying the room dimensions of the salon in situ. Dimensional sketch by Maurice Jeanneret, with added notes by another person, 29 March 1957.
Surveying the room dimensions of the salon in situ. Dimensional sketch by Maurice Jeanneret, with added notes by another person, 29 March 1957. Archives de l’État de Neuchâtel
After Mariette Schaetzel had studied the iconography of the wallpaper and her family’s ancestry, she passed her notes on to Maurice Jeanneret. He prepared a talk on the wallpaper salon, which he delivered in February 1957 and on which the article published in the Neuchâtel Museum Review in August of the same year was based. In March 1957, the Association of History and Archaeology decided – most likely as a result of this talk – to take charge of conserving the wallpaper, and appointed Jeanneret to handle the process. Jeanneret set about finding a suitable institution to display the work. Since he didn’t know how big the item was, he went to the site to get an idea for himself. Maurice Jeanneret considered a number of options, including the châteaux of Boudry, Môtiers and des Monts in Le Locle, and Château Valangin. At first, the Château des Monts seemed particularly well suited to the purpose, since the municipality of Le Locle was in the process of setting up the future watch museum there. The wallpaper could have decorated the castle’s main salon. Much to the regret of Maurice Jeanneret and Mariette Schaetzel, the municipal council revised its provisional undertaking on the grounds that “the transport of this wallpaper requires a sum that is too high compared to the interest that it represents for our municipality.”
Maurice Jeanneret delivering a talk on the wallpaper in February 1957. Extract from the comic l’Histoire du papier peint de La Cibourg by Fanny Vaucher.
Maurice Jeanneret delivering a talk on the wallpaper in February 1957. Extract from the comic l’Histoire du papier peint de La Cibourg by Fanny Vaucher. Swiss National Museum
In the meantime, Jeanneret’s article had appeared and apparently aroused a great deal of interest. There were rumours that the new owner of La Cibourg wanted to keep the wallpaper himself instead of handing it over to a museum. Slightly alarmed, Maurice Jeanneret decided to hustle things along, and asked Mariette Schaetzel for permission to transport the wallpaper to Valangin Castle. This operation was carried out on 9 July 1958, almost a year after the article was published. The wall decoration was disassembled into several sections, removed and taken to Valangin. Difficulties included reaching an agreement with the new owner, who demanded that the Association cover the cost of replacing the property’s wood panelling. Since the wallpaper had been affixed directly to the wood, it wasn’t possible to detach it from its substrate. The cost of this work far exceeded the planned sum and led to a dispute between Paul Grandjean, then cantonal curator of monuments, and the owner, who eventually engaged a lawyer. The case nearly ended up in court, but in the end the cantonal authorities seem to have prevailed. As a little aside: the amount that the historical monuments preservation agency paid for the removal and replacement of the wood panelling represented a quarter of their annual budget at the time.
Valangin Castle in winter, 2009.
Valangin Castle in winter, 2009. Wikimedia / Marie-Rose Python
Two or three panels would occasionally be put on display at Valangin Castle, but the main body of the wall decoration spent more than 60 years stored in the attic. The Society for History and Archaeology was aware that this solution was not optimal. The aim was to make the wallpaper accessible to the public, while ensuring the best possible level of conservation. So in 2011, the Association gifted the entire wall decoration to the Swiss National Museum. The exhibition “Wallpaper. Walls speak volumes”, which had been on view at the Château de Prangins a year earlier, had persuaded the Association that the Swiss National Museum was the most appropriate institution to take this impressive interior into its collection and to preserve it for future generations.
The wallpaper in the exhibition “Ovid in the Jura” (2022) at the Château de Prangins.
The wallpaper in the exhibition “Ovid in the Jura” (2022) at the Château de Prangins. Swiss National Museum

Ovid in the Jura. The Extraordinary Story of a Wallpape

18.02.2022 30.10.2022 / Château de Prangins
How did a decor fit for the Tuileries Palace find its way into a farm in the Bernese Jura? The exhibition at Château de Prangins explores a luxurious parlour decorated with wallpaper from the late 18th century – a masterpiece from the Swiss National Museum that is being shown in public for the first time – and tells the fascinating story of its colourful owner. This is a tale of wine, wallpaper, countryside and contraband!

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