Search the internet for Elie Lainé and you’ll readily find that he was a once-celebrated nineteenth century French landscape designer. You’ll learn that he worked on big projects in at least three countries, with illustrious clients (including the Rothschilds and Léopold II, king of the Belgians) and top-notch collaborators such as the architect Hippolyte Destailleur.
Yet try to find out more, and Monsieur Lainé seems to slip into the shadows. I was delighted to see some of his plans and letters in the royal archives in Belgium, but no-one has been able to find original papers for any of his designs in England or France. His personal and professional life seem a complete blank. French sources now regularly describe him as méconnu - little known or forgotten.
It is proving fascinating and often frustrating to attempt to piece together his work and life (especially when I am thousands of miles away from most potential sources of information). Many people have been more than kind in providing their time and sharing their knowledge. In particular, one family member (despite speaking no French) used her genealogical expertise to trawl through hundreds of actes d’état civil and track down Lainé’s date and place of birth, and the names of his immediate family.
So what progress have I made? I certainly now have enough information for an article on Elie Lainé, the first one ever, it seems, dedicated to this important designer. The article should appear in a forthcoming edition of Historic Gardens Review, and will give a good sense of many of his projects, with some plans and information from letters he wrote about his designs for the king of Belgium. I can also give at least a glimpse of his early life in the Loire valley and his time in Paris – and some hints about his character.
But there is so much more to learn about him. I still have no idea where he trained or how he became the landscape designer of choice for many rich clients; I have found no photograph of him; his place and exact date of death remain a mystery.
If anyone reading this has any information on the mysterious Monsieur Lainé, no matter how small, please do get in touch. I suspect that I will continue this research long after the article appears…