On 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.But 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.
Similarly, 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.Critics 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.