Peter Joseph Schiffer - CAP74024
Annett had told me of a wonderful man living in his castle surrounded by art he collected from all over the world amongst his own paintings. Instantly I was curious to meet Peter and photograph him and his art collection at his home.
I am absolutely in awe of older gay men who experienced and persevered with the major hurdles in their lives to be able to live open and happily. Having become an adult during the Aids crisis meant there were not many older gay men around, to learn from their experiences and making my own even more fulfilling.
Meeting Peter was magical. I took a train from Paris to Annett’s house in Germany and together we drove across the border to Peter’s place.
I am at approximately the same age as when Peter originally bought his château. Now I think of how I am trying to declutter my life with a minimalist approach,
if I compare myself to Peter and his place, where every inch was covered with art. Everywhere I looked there were arrangements of paintings, sculptures, dishes, swords, jade and ivory. Endless experiences of colors, shapes and memories. The marble bathroom was awesome and inspiring, spacious and sexy.
Peter himself was loving and generous. I do not speak German but somehow I could understand or certainly sense what he was telling me. He did not think twice when
I asked him to pose nude, with his carefree outlook I could only imagine all his past delightful life adventures. At some point he mentioned a porn movie he shot in India and I wished the world could see it. He told me about his lovers, and I am positive
they had a fabulous time together.
Günther and Karin, who lived with him, took care of Peter and the property. They were both lovingly welcoming and nurturing. We ended the day having a meal at an Italian restaurant before I took another train back to Paris.
It was sad to hear of Peter’s passing just months after that day. I wish I could meet him again and learn much more of his grand life. But I am honored and lucky to have had the opportunity to meet him, his friends, and to witness his work and art collection.
«An old mansion behind the Belgian border, filled with antiques, collections and an older German gentleman, who lives there and paints. You have to see this!».
This is what my friend Marius first told me about Peter Joseph Schiffer and his unique universe.
It made me curious. I had just moved back from New York to that part of
Germany which borders the Netherlands and Belgium, to my small hometown Aachen, and I was looking for inspiring stories and locations.
On a rainy day in September 2017 we drove up to Château de Vreuschemen for the first time. The house was located on a country road behind Eupen, a small town in
the Belgian countryside, 10 km away from the border, hidden from the road by a white gate and wall. After ringing the old bell hanging next to the gate, we were welcomed
by the enthusiastic barks of two beautiful white dogs and by Günther and Karin, an artist couple in their late seventies who had moved in with Peter 2 years ago, to help and to keep him company in the big house where he had lived by himself - with various animals - for the last 34 years.
The place behind the gate turned out to be magical: a big park with wild growing trees, a large pond with ducks and swans, and the house: an elegant small mansion originally built in the 17th. century by the German architect Couven, then refurbished in the ’60s. Peter bought it in 1985 and redecorated it with the help of Günther: the grand master bathroom with marble from Carrara and Brazil is his masterpiece. In 1995 a fire on the first floor sadly destroyed the beautiful antique silk wall coverings, the old stucco and the great lead glass windows Peter had designed.
Peter was 84 when I met him. A tall strong man with light blue eyes, silver-grey hair and a wide sensuous mouth - mostly dressed in white: slacks, loafers, sweater, button down shirt and laying heavy on his chest a big Tibetan Jade pendant on a heavy silver chain.
I never saw him without this beautiful piece. Casual with an old-world elegance and
a touch of bohemian, unusual for a German man, specially of his age. He had lost his hearing aid that day, so our communication was quite limited, but that did not matter.
I liked him immediately. He lounged comfortably on a leather couch in the big room on
the first floor surrounded by his beautiful dogs and lots of art books.
This is where he spent most of his time since he had finally stopped driving every day to his accounting firm, which he had owned for the last 50 years - known as the longest privately-owned accounting firm in Germany.
He did not seem like a typical accountant to me, but then he told me that most of his clients were successful Sicilian and Sardinian Restaurant owners in Aachen and they had taught him the balance between work and pleasure.
He had earned good money in the Eighties and Nineties and had spend a big part
of them on his vast collections of antiques: life-size marble and alabaster buddhas from India, Ivory figurines, Delft porcelain, crystal glasses, French silver and lots and lots
of paintings - his own and friends’. He had traveled often to India and China and brought always back something special. Auctions and flea markets brought more
and more things into the house so that it almost seemed like a private museum.
Peter and most of his four siblings turned out to be quite free spirits, maybe as
a natural reaction to a very strict, catholic upbringing.
There was a dominant mother, the father died early, and Peter, being the second-born son and quite spoiled by his mother, developed the position of the helpless, charming but demanding prince among his brothers and sisters.
Günther told me more: he had met Peter when they were both students at the same University in Jülich (Germany) during the ’60s. Peter had studied accounting, but was interested in the arts, and Günther, being trained in engineering and physics, was part of an artists group who became friends of the Schiffer family.
One of them gave Peter art classes. He had started painting as a teenager and continued it passionately his whole life. Günther had built him an airy pavilion studio in the garden, and he showed me a room full of Peter’s art - hundreds of pictures from his trips, Buddha’s, self-portraits, lots of tigers and panthers and lots of beautiful naked, mostly male bodies, a touch of Kirchner, Soutine, Beckman.
Already his early drawings showed beautiful nude men. He must have felt like art was
a safe place to indulge in his phantasies. Homosexuality was still a crime in Germany when Peter grew up in the sixties.
He had always been a generous host and gave great dinner parties for years for his friends and family. It was really a very special place. I spent quite a few days during that sunny summer driving up to visit them. My idea was to do a photo story about the house and Peter, and how those three old friends lived together at this time of their lives in such a beautiful set up, everybody following his/ her interests. Peter finally retiring, talking about the next trip to China he was planning and the two black swans he wanted to buy, Günther working on a new version
of his wind energy invention in the back part of the park, and Karin trying to find a place to do her big abstract art pieces somewhere on the property.
I thought immediately of my friend Marcelo to take some photos of all this beauty and it happened magically in May. Marcelo had a job in Paris and could come over
for a day to take the pictures.
It was a special day.
In October Peter got very sick and passed away soon after. I am very thankful to have met Peter and been able to get to know him a little in that short time. As much through his paintings than through actual conversations, which were often made impossible because of the habitually lost hearing aid.
When I met Peter in the ’80s he was already a legendary figure. Noticeable, firstly by his collection of fancy cars - Bentley, Rolls Royce and Porsche - as well as for food and drink trips with friends to places like Paris, London and the Alsace. In this period he already could boast a vast art collection.
This is how normal people, like me, perceived him. His homosexuality was no secret.
In 1984, by chance Peter had the opportunity to purchase a property in Belgium, the Château de Vreuschemen, and could use my help as a renovator, decorator and artist. It was instantly clear that we worked well together. We were both fascinated by the castle and its grand history.
Matthias Esser was also part of the team, a fine artist working in metal from Jülich, Peter’s hometown.
It was a wonderful time for me, I had just quit my career in the Nuclear industry, in the hope of occupying my days with more interesting things.
Working together we learned a lot from each other, as well as planning and creating many beautiful things together. Peter, most of the time was a motor and a financial producer. He earned well as a tax accountant, although his financial position was never stable. A lot of his money were spent on the renovation, long journeys to faraway places and investments in expensive art pieces. Sometimes there were not enough money to eat, then sometimes there were festivities filled with guests, champagne, whiskey and fine food.
For me it was a very interesting chapter of my life. Gradually I got to know Peter, I learned that most of his clients were Italian restaurant owners in Aachen and its surrounding areas. He felt at home in their company
and enjoyed their way of life.
He also worked with some shady characters and lost huge sums of money, fortunately his loyal Italian friends helped him salvage the damage.
Sadly, at the age of 80 he lost many of his clients through death or the closure of businesses meaning, he could not keep up his usual lifestyle. I decided then to move in with my partner Karin to help him out. Up until his passing in 2018 we lived more or less close together in the Château de Vreuschemen, learning much more about Peter and his life than before I had met him. He talked about his perception of the war and society during the ’50s and ’60s regarding their problematic stand towards homosexuality. He reflected and expressed his experiences through painting, and Matthias Esser became his teacher.
Peter created hundreds of big-format paintings, mostly homoerotic images. Almost nobody ever had the chance
to see these art pieces, so me I think of them fondly as a precious treasure.
Last summer some of his closest friends got together in order to help his financial situation and planned to present these hidden treasures to a wider public. To do this some rooms had to be transformed into gallery spaces,
which took few time to complete and unfortunately Peter could not see the finished results.
What stays is the intense memory of a truly remarkable person. It would do our society good to still have such unique characters.
The first time I met Peter was when he visited my studio in Aachen in the ’80s along with some of my friends. From then he started coming to most of my exhibitions, he was very interested in my art - he would ask me lots of questions about technique, materials, etc. He especially favored my blue paintings.
We met sometimes at friends and at common parties.
Peter traveled frequently and usually for long periods of time, especially to Asia: Bali, India, China and Japan. His collection is impressive.
He kept everything in his house and lived with his art. In his last 3 years when I lived with him, I got to know him well, he was a very pleasant, polite man, who paid a lot of attention to his appearance, and always looked well-groomed and dressed.
He loved his home with the big park around it and the old trees, as well as the lake with his swans, geese, ducks, peasants and pigeons.
He took special care of them, feeding them daily, up until he passed away.
Characteristically he was very human. Humble, non-demanding and humorous yet sad, if one of his animals died.
We would converse about all things like God and the world or books he had read and lent me afterwards.
Every morning habitually, he would come downstairs singing, always his two dogs by his side.
Every visitor could sense this light mood he had.
I miss him very much.