Archive for January, 2011

Villandry has been called ‘the finest potager in the world.’ For much of the year its beds are a mass of vegetables, from soft herbs and jewelled beetroot to blowsy purple cabbages and bright chubby pumpkins, all edged by long, low lines of trained apples and pears. It is a kitchen garden like no other, planted out with 60,000 colour co-ordinated vegetable plants, and then primped and tweaked by a team of eight full-time gardeners.

Empty PotagerBut it has its charms in winter too. We first visited one February, when we enjoyed the drama of the empty potager beds and the almost alien knobbliness of the pollarded limes (tilia). In the jardin d’amour, we admired the box hedging, tightly clipped into shapes that symbolise four different kinds of love. The low winter sun lit up the pièce d’eau (an elevated water garden). Almost the only visitors, we strolled along the terraces that surround the gardens, enjoying the vistas, and the early signs of Spring in the surrounding woods.

Pollarded limesJardin d'AmourPièce d'eau

early bluebells

For me as a landscape historian, Villandry is a magical place, a combination of very different eras and influences. The gardens were first created in the 1530s around a chateau built by Jean Le Breton, finance minister to the king, on the site of an earlier Loire Valley castle. This was over one hundred years before André Le Nôtre introduced the grand vistas and perspectives that we now associate with classical French gardens. Instead, the gardens at Villandry developed from the enclosed geometric forms of medieval monastery gardens, and showed the influence of the Italian Renaissance (Le Breton had been French Ambassador to Rome).

The chateau and gardens at Villandry passed through various hands including, at one point, those of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother. Fashions changed and, in the early nineteenth century, the gardens were replaced by what one visitor in 1854 called “a vast and delicious English-style park.”

As happened to so many great gardens in France, by the end of the nineteenth century Villandry was virtually abandoned, and the chateau threatened with demolition.

Villandry 1869

Villandry’s English park, from Casimir Chevalier, Promenades Pittoresques en Torraine, 1869.

Abandoned park

The abandoned gardens, c.1900. Image from Ministère de la Culture (France) – Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine.

It was saved by Spanish doctor Joachim Carvallo and his American heiress wife Anne Coleman, who bought Villandry in 1906. Carvallo recalled that when they first saw the property, “the park was in the English style, with dales and hillocks … thickly planted with newly imported exotic species: cedars, pines, thuyas, magnolias, all massed together on the sides of artificial little hills. The chateau itself was hidden in the middle of a forest of trees and greenery.”

Tuileries plan

Cerceau’s Engraving of the Tuileries garden (detail), c.1570s.

Sadly no records existed of how the gardens at Villandry had originally been laid out, and so Carvallo and Coleman turned for inspiration to the detailed engravings in Jacques Androuet du Cerceau’s Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France 1576 and 1579.

Armed with Cerceau’s engravings of many French gardens, including the jardin des Tuileries, the couple designed and laid out a new garden for Villandry. It echoed the late sixteenth century styles that Cerceau had so carefully recorded, but could not fail to include more contemporary influences, including some Art Nouveau curves and more modern choices of plant.

Villandry continues to be run by the descendants of Carvallo and Coleman, and today is one of the most beautiful and most visited gardens in the Loire.

Aerial photo of gardens

Aerial photograph of Villandry gardens (detail), 1950. © Inventaire général, ADAGP

And that’s why I like Villandry so much. Yes, it has a dazzling potager. But it is also quietly beautiful in winter, and stands as a perfect reminder that historic gardens never simply refer back to a single point in time. As at Villandry, you can always scrape back the layers to find hints and glimpses of many different periods and influences.

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Signage. It sounds the most boring of topics. But in public parks and gardens, signs can make such a difference. Good ones make us feel welcome, confident, wanted. Bad ones leave us confused and irritated, sensing that our presence is merely tolerated.

I’ve been noticing some examples in Parisian landscapes.

Tuileries TuileriesFirst, some new signs in the jardin des Tuileries. Located in sensible places and frequently consulted, they are sleek and modern, with a map of the whole garden, and some arrows showing you the direction of the main features. To me they say: We don’t want you to see this as a fusty historic park: it’s a contemporary place. And we want you to stroll around and enjoy it all.

My only complaint about the Tuileries signs would be about this one at an entrance on the rue de Rivoli. Same simple design, but way too much information on some pretty complex opening times. It’s telling me: We don’t care if you feel welcome. We have our own elaborate systems and you just need to fit in with them. That panel along the bottom is also slightly discomfiting: We have already thought of two things you can’t do here, but we have left lots of room to list other forbidden activities when we think of them.


Here’s a terrible example. It’s the entrance to the historic cemetery at Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. Those forbidding stone walls have a tiny brass plaque with opening times, and then some random interdictions: no dogs; no parking because the firefighters need access; oh, and no parking anyway. With that forlorn rubbish bin and the glimpse of a barrier beyond the walls, it must be one of the most unwelcoming entrances in Paris. It says: We never give a moment’s thought to our visitors. Except when they do something annoying, and then we tell them to stop.

MontparnasseHere’s another poor one, this time in the newly restored glasshouses at the jardin des Plantes in the 5th. Each glasshouse has lots of these obtrusive, multi-coloured information signs, set on twiddly metal frames. To me they mutter: We don’t really think our plants are interesting enough. We don’t trust them to hold your attention. We hope to distract you with these signs.

Jardin des Plantes

Disneyland ParisOne final example for now, at Disneyland Paris.

Generally the signage there is woeful, but here’s a good one, from the Alice in Wonderful labyrinth. It’s fun, appropriate, and shows you the way to something you may otherwise have missed. It says: We think a lot about your enjoyment. Have some more fun over here!

The next time you see a sign in a public park, think what it tells you – not about opening times or toilet locations – but about the attitude to visitors of that place.

I am going to look out for more examples too.

Post script: If you’re interested in signage, you might like to visit my gallery of other wonderful and woeful examples.

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Gardening Gone Wild is running one of its monthly photography competitions. The rules are here – but basically, as the name suggests, the competition encourages people to take close-up garden-related images using a glass mason jar, and thus to experiment with composition, background and light.

Not having a garden or a mason jar, or indeed a camera (hubby having taken ours on a jaunt to Helsinki), the odds were rather against me. But I foraged in the local park for beech leaves and in our kitchen cupboards for walnuts. Then I borrowed the little point-and-shoot that Santa has just brought our daughter, and dug out a Bonne Maman jam jar…

The exercise proved to be great fun, and I ended up taking about a hundred photos, examining each batch closely for successes and flaws, and then trying to learn and apply the lessons they offered.

And the results?

walnutsbeech leavesbeech leavesbeech leaves and light flashWell, the ancient, knobbly walnuts had seemed a good idea, but they proved too big and unwieldy for such a close-up shot; the tawny beech leaves were much better, even though they were rather recalcitrant and insisted on twisting and curling into unwanted shapes. The images worked best with something interesting outside the jar to distort and blur in the glass, but it was all too easy to leave unwanted glimpses of the table below. In the end though, my biggest problem was the light. Taking the shots inside near a window, in dull daylight, I found that, no matter what I tried, light seemed to bounce off the glass and create unwanted flashes and reflections.

So in frustration I tried some frosted glass – actually a tall thin drinking tumbler with an inconvenient polar bear etched on the side. And that gave a very different, rather pleasing effect. The beech leaves looked crisp and distinct against the blurry glass, but I realised that something more circular would work better in the bottom of the narrow container. So those walnuts came back out of the cupboard, I floated one on a little puddle of water and – snap – the best shot of the day.walnut in tumbler

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From time to time, I get comments about my avatar (the icon attached to this blog). Most recently, fellow blogger Diana of Elephant’s Eye wondered if it was a startled Green Man.

In fact, the little mask can be found in the glorious Villa d’Este, the sixteenth century “garden of marvels” in Tivoli, just outside Rome.Villa d'Este

It’s in the Avenue of the Hundred Fountains, where three levels of water gush and spray and spill in a dazzling spectacle. The upper level of the fountains has some fine sculptures of  birds and flowers; the lower row has dozens of little animal faces or masks, all spurting forth water into a trough below. There are anthropomorphic lions and rabbits, wolves and monkeys.

As was common in Renaissance gardens, the water feature was designed to have a specific meaning: it represents the relationship between nature and humanity, with the three levels of water a reminder of Tivoli’s three rivers, and the eagles and fleur-de-lys symbolising the gardens’ creators, the Este family. Originally the animal masks were interspersed with carved panels showing scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, but these are now hidden beneath blankets of maidenhair fern. Ironically, it is probably the wild, overgrown feel of the garden today that is one of the main reasons for its popularity.

Villa D'Este

The Avenue of the Hundred Fountains, as originally laid out. Image from http://giardinaggioirregolare.wordpress.com

So one of the animal masks felt a good choice of image to illustrate my blog: it is a detail in an iconic garden, part of a feature that symbolises the balance between art and nature, as well as bearing witness to the changing character of historic gardens.

Villa d'EsteMost of all, I just found the little monkey face to be quirky yet appealing, which is my wish for this blog.

I’ve also just stumbled on an Italian verse that pleasingly suggests the Hundred Fountains are like a female voice:

Parlan fra le non tocche verzure le Cento Fontane,
Parlan soavi e piane come femminee bocche,
Mentre sui lor fastigi che il sole di porpora veste,
Splendono (oh Gloria d’Este) l’aquile e i fiordiligi.

The Hundred Fountains speak in the midst of that untouched greenery, / they speak gently and sweetly like the mouths of women, / while at the highest point, clothed in purple by the sun, / shine those glories of the Este, the eagle and the fleur-de-lys.Villa d'Este

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A recent post praised the January drabness of two Paris gardens. It seemed to strike something of a chord, so today I offer another place where winter is at her unassuming best.

The musée Albert Kahn is a trove of early films and photographs from around the world. Named after the wealthy French banker who commissioned the images, the museum sits on the edge of four hectares of gardens in Boulogne-Billancourt, just to the southwest of Paris. It is easily reachable from the city centre by metro or bus.

Of the museum’s distinct garden areas, the most visited is the contemporary Japanese garden. In late Spring (when I shall write more), it is dazzlingly luscious, bursting with greenery and vibrant flower colour. Later, in summer, the adjacent classical French garden is lovely, with its trained roses and fruit trees.

spruce and beechBut, in winter, it is the woodland that beckons. Inspired by forests in the Vosges, where Kahn grew up, this tiny (third of a hectare) space is a mixture of spruce, hornbeam, oak, beech and hazel. It is all mossy softness and quiet in the low January sun. While the museum’s website may trumpet the area as a mass of daffodils and foxgloves in the Spring, now everywhere is drab green and brown. The little forest is resting and waiting.


As a careful abstraction of nature, it is less dishevelled than the other two gardens I praised. There is little evidence here of decay or abandon. But in its dappled stillness, this small woodland is still a fine place to visit in mid-winter.

wooded slope

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A friend who sells vintage accessories has just sent me an old postcard of parc Monceau that she bought in the northeast of England. Postmarked 1905, it shows the rotunda designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in the 1780s as a tollgate for a deeply unpopular customs duty. Now, as in 1905, the splendid neoclassical building sits at the main entrance to the park.


Parc Monceau 1905


Parc Monceau 2011

Comparing the postcard with a photograph taken this morning in much the same spot, what is interesting is the similarities between the two. Apart from the obvious seasonal differences, not much has changed at this grand Paris park in 106 years. The fine ladies promenading with their children have become scurrying commuters dashing across the park. The building looks rather cleaner, and there are the distracting features of a modern city parks department, including wheelbarrow, empty terracotta pot and bright green rubbish sacks. But the essential layout and feel remain the same: a wide, inviting pathway, shaded by large trees, leading to the rotunda and the gilded entrance gates, backed by two stately Haussmannian apartment blocks.

You would need to go back another fifty years to see real change at Monceau, and indeed throughout the capital. In the 1850s and 1860s Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann thrust grand boulevards through the old medieval city, in the first example of major urban planning. Haussmann is frequently reviled today as a destroyer of the charming byways and old buildings of Paris, and it is easy to forget that one of his aims was to introduce light and air into filthy slum districts.

book jacketA new book, Paris avant – après: 19e siècle, 21è siècle by Charles Marville and Patrice de Moncan (Editions du Mécène, 2010), shows the impact of Haussmann’s work, taking nearly four hundred photographs of the city from 1865, which capture old Paris in the midst of its transformation, and pairing each one with a photograph taken from the same place today. It is fascinating. Fellow blogger Adam has an interview with author Patrice de Moncan, who defends Haussmann’s legacy and wonders what future Parisians will think of today’s city.

As well as new boulevards, sewage systems, aqueducts, grand civic buildings and uniform apartment blocks, Haussmann also created a network of public parks and squares around the city ‘where the working classes could beneficially spend their leisure time… and all families, whether rich or poor, could reliably find healthy places for their children to play.’

For me, one of the most fascinating images from the book is a site in the 19th arrondissement. Previously a limestone and gypsum quarry, a rubbish dump, an outlet for the city’s sewage and – for many centuries – a gallows, the place had become a barren industrial scar until Haussmann and his team turned it into the city’s most dramatic park, Buttes-Chaumont. You can see from the two photos here that the steep, entirely artificial topography of the quarry was retained, but softened with extensive vegetation, including fine trees such as beech, chestnut and cedar of Lebanon. The arched viaduct is also still present (now known as the ‘suicide bridge’) and leads to the romantic Temple of Sybille, added in 1869. It was designed by Gabriel Davioud, who also created the beautiful gilded entrance gates at Monceau, visible in the postcard above.

Paris avant - après

Buttes Chaumont, 1865, photograph by Charles Marville

Paris avant - après

Buttes Chaumont, 2010, photograph by Patrice de Moncan

The mairie has some of the book’s images on its website and there is an exhibition to accompany its publication at the Académie d’architecture (in place des Vosges), from 4 to 24 February.

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Fashion dictates that gardens should offer year round interest. In particular, winter needs to be forced to play its part with evergreen shrubs, coloured bark, late-flowering perennials, quirkily-shaped stems, early bulbs. All must be colourful and bright and perky.

But increasingly I am inclined towards gardens that reflect the reality of nature, in its disorder, decay and death. Such places help us grasp the reproductive purpose and ready mortality of plants. In the end, perhaps, they remind us of our own mortality. The iconic essay “Systems, Signs, Sensibilities” by Catherine Howett makes the case for such an approach on ecological grounds, arguing that we need to celebrate the beauty of natural cycles and processes in designed landscapes, rather than continuing to create bland ornamental images.

Certainly I am not much interested in lurid forced flowers and shiny alien evergreens at this time of year. January feels wan and cold to me; it is bleak, lifeless, the colour of straw and trodden snow.

Gilles Clément garden

Gilles Clément gardenIt feels suitably like mid-winter in the garden at the musée du Quai Branly in the 7th. Designed by Gilles Clément, the undulating garden is apparently meant to be experienced as a contemplative journey. At this time of year (these photos are from last February) it is full of ghostly miscanthus stems, oaks with their fine tawny leaves still attached, bare soil, twiggy shrubs. The contrast between the pale wintry plants and the bravura coloured forms of Jean Nouvel’s architecture is striking.

Gilles Clément gardenThe parc de Bercy in the 12th is not one of my favourite landscapes, but the eastern end at the moment also has a charmingly quiet, slightly desolate, January feel about it. Frost has turned some exotic pink camellia flowers into a pleasing brown mush. You can also see tatty, straw-coloured miscanthus, brown buddleia seedheads, little clusters of snowberries amid rotting autumn leaves, and signs of damage by snow and wind.seedheads

Buddleia and miscanthussnowberriesWe know Spring will come, in all its brazen colour and exuberance. For now, I’m savouring the quieter charms of slumbering January.

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Most people think about climate change with either skepticism or despair. In a new campaign, the mairie de Paris is trying to introduce a third response: optimism.

Paris s'invente !

Vegetable plots in rue la Boëtie, designed by collectif et alors. Image from http://www.paris.fr

A group of architects, collectif et alors, has imagined how Paris would respond to a rise in temperatures of 2 degrees. The results, presented as twenty postcards, show how courage and investment could transform the city into a slower, calmer, greener place. An old canal near Bastille is exposed again after years of being diverted underground. The walls, roofs and passageways of tower blocks in the 13th are thickly planted with greenery. Private cars have vanished (a common theme in most plans by mayor Bernard Delanöe) to be replaced by tramways and barges, which bring deliveries to the grands magasins. Vegetable gardens spring up in the fertile soil currently buried under the concrete of rue la Boëtie in the 8th (recalling the royal nurseries that once were cultivated there). Green, shady spaces welcome pedestrians and cyclists around the Hotel de Ville. Everywhere from the Seine to the Tour Montparnasse is redesigned to provide renewable energy for the city’s inhabitants.

As my husband remarked, the images are so deliberately Utopian that you almost want the climate to change more quickly.

You can learn more about the campaign +2°C… Paris s’invente ! on the city’s website, or in an open-air exhibition in the parc de Bercy, until 31 January.

Parc de Bercy exhibition

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