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garden tales from a Brit abroad

Vaux le Vicomte

View of chateauOn Saturday I led a guided tour of the fabulous estate at Vaux le Vicomte, southeast of Paris, which was the first commission for André Le Nôtre. These are possibly my favourite gardens in France. What I tried to convey to the visitors was the extraordinary drama and theatre of the design, with its vast, bold gestures on the land. It is a near-perfect example of a baroque landscape, its ostentatious display combined with a wonderful sense of movement, with that main axis pulling the eye through the grounds to the distant statue of Hercules and on to infinity. Perhaps that much is fairly obvious.View from terraceBut there is a second, less apparent, element to the gardens at Vaux, which I hope my group of visitors also came to appreciate – and that is the playful nature of the design. These are gardens of illusions and surprises. The view from the entrance gate gives no hint of the landscape features contained inside the elaborate fences. Only as the visitor moves along the path towards the chateau does a water-filled moat and impressive large inner courtyard become visible.

Front viewMoatSimilarly, from the south terrace at the rear of the chateau, visitors are led to believe that the view now gives them a complete grasp of the vast gardens with their terraces, parterres and pools near the house and then, fanning away into the distance, grand pathways, lawns, water features, sculptures, and surrounding clipped hedges and trees, all laid out symmetrically before them. But further movement through the gardens reveals that the seeming symmetry is in fact balanced and playful asymmetry; and that the gardens contain major features, including the transverse canal and the thunderous cascades, which are not visible from the initial prospect. As visitors progress through the space, subtle changes in topography mean that features advance then recede, are reflected and mirrored, revealed and then hidden again. Sounds, such as the rushing water of the cascades, are often the first clue that a dramatic new feature is about to be encountered.CascadesCanal and grottoCritics of French baroque gardens argue that they offer only static geometry; but Vaux is designed to be a garden of constant movement and change, intended to surprise and delight its visitors. It certainly did that for us on Saturday.

Foutain and pelagoniums

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10 comments on “Vaux le Vicomte

  1. Stacy
    May 16, 2011

    I wish I’d had you around when I toured Versailles many years ago (I didn’t make it to Vaux, alas)! Knowing the “script” written into the garden design (and following it) would have made for a much richer experience. (We just wandered around at random and thought, in essence, “Wow, these are big.”)

    Thinking about the ballets and operas from the time–the kinds where Louis XIV himself would dance the role of Apollo–in the context of the gardens, it’s astonishing how pervasive that sense of theatre was. Everything from personal appearance to who danced with whom to vast gardens like these–they all seem to have been designed with spectacle and display and multiple layers of meaning (and entertainment) in mind.

    I can’t help but wonder–was there a little out of the way garden somewhere with a big, shady tree and a comfortable bench where the Fouquets could just, you know, relax?

    • landscapelover
      May 17, 2011

      thanks for the comment. I think it can be helpful to have an overview of gardens like these, in order to appreciate them more. But to be honest, one of the joys of Vaux is that it is so much more ‘graspable’ than Versailles. The chateau and gardens at Vaux have a wonderful unity of design and are explicitly maintained in the 17th century style, whereas Versailles is so vast and was created in a more haphazard, almost piecemeal, way over many years, that it’s much harder to comprehend.
      You’re absolutely right about the way the gardens were used as places for show and theatre. But poor M. Fouquet (the owner of Vaux) didn’t get much chance to relax in his creation: his fabulously lavish house-warming party in August 1661 was the final straw for Louis XIV, already suspicious of Fouquet’s wealth and ambitions. Poor Fouquet was arrested just three weeks later, spent the remaining 19 years of his life in prison, and never saw Vaux again.

  2. theclothshed
    May 16, 2011

    What a fabulous place Jill, your photographs are stunning…love the moat and the cascades…..
    Great post!
    Julie x

  3. Jill, I so wish I could have been on your tour. It seems to me that Longwood Gardens in PA (one of the premier gardens in America) must have been modeled after this garden. The backdrop to the fountain display at Longwood is very similar to the fourth photo from the bottom of your post. How interesting! Carolyn

    • landscapelover
      May 17, 2011

      Hi. From the little I know about Longwood, its water features were created by someone of French descent who travelled extensively in Europe and took his inspiration from Italian and French gardens. I found an account this morning that said he did indeed visit Vaux during his travels, so you may be right that the fountain display was modelled in part on this garden. I shall have to come back to PA and have a look!

  4. Kerry Hand
    May 17, 2011

    I’ve looked at a lot of photos of Vaux. And yes, it is tricky. There are all those hidden features which only emerge as you look at it in different ways.
    Have to organise myself to get there !

  5. lifeshighway
    May 17, 2011

    Oh how I would have loved to been on this tour. The sights you have presented are amazing. I am sure I would need an experience guide to appreciate all the hidden joys and beauty.

  6. Jan
    May 18, 2011

    Vaux le voyage!

  7. Flâneur Gardener
    September 5, 2011

    I’ve always been attracted to Vaux le Vicomte, perhaps mainly because of the compelling story of a man who builds himself a dream palace and only gets to spend a few months there.

    I’m not sure Versailles as we know it could have existed without Vaux le Vicomte; it seems more than coincidence that the expansion of Versailles began more or less at the time Vaux le Vicomte was finished, and the parallels in the gardens are so many, from the axial prospect to the “balanced asymmetry” (what an apt way to describe it!). They serve as the perfect extension of the floor plans of the great baroque chateaux, though perhaps to many the ostentation seems a bit less in your face in the gardens than in the grand rooms.

    • landscapelover
      September 8, 2011

      Soren, thanks for the comment. I think Louis XIV was both infuriated and greatly impressed by what Fouquet had achieved at Vaux, and so he commanded the same design team (including Le Nôtre) to come and work for him at Versailles. As you say, the parallels are unmistakable, although I think Vaux has a greater sense of cohesion than the vast and sprawling gardens at Versailles.

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This entry was posted on May 16, 2011 by in France outside Paris, Gardens, Ile de France and tagged , .

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