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Flowers or gravel?

How flowery were 17th century French parterres?

That was the question put to me last week by the head gardener in charge of one of Le Nôtre’s most beautiful designs. He had read lots of experts on the subject, and still couldn’t get a real sense of how far flowers embellished those wonderful scrolled patterns of clipped box that are such an important part of classical French garden design. (Le Nôtre himself is said to have tired of designing them, and thought them only valued by the nursemaids who, tied all day to the babies in their care, would look longingly out of their upper storey windows onto the gardens below.)

Latona parterre

One of the flower-filled Latona parterres in Le Nôtre’s gardens at Versailles, photographed in 2008.

View of a Le Nôtre parterre

View of a Le Nôtre parterre from an upper window of the chateau of Vaux le Vicomte, photographed in 2011.

Sadly Le Nôtre wrote very little about his garden designs, and images from the time usually show grand sweeps of the vast grounds, rather than plant details; and in any event, some 17th century engravings are famously fanciful and utterly unreliable for the garden historian.

Versailles parterre 1688

Detail from a 1688 image by Etienne Allegrain of the parterre du nord at Versailles (above), filled with grass and edged with clipped shrubs, narrow paths and stone vases; the same landscape today (below), with more substantial box hedges and flowers.

Parterre du nord today

So both the head gardener and I spent time reading and re-reading Antoine Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville, who in 1709 produced a book that codified Le Nôtre’s style – although one source says rather sniffily that he did so “without always fully understanding it.”

The book has a whole chapter on parterres and plates-bandes (those narrow decorative strips around parterres, lawns or other features). Yet it does not help answer the question: yes, the chapter carefully categorises and describes four different type of parterre, and has some gorgeous drawings of the various styles. And it talks of the different materials that could be laid out between the low box hedges, from coloured sand, clinker and grass to dark earth, clipped evergreen shrubs, and porcelain vases. But the book also spends much time celebrating the variety of decorative possibilities that seasonal flowers could bring to parterres, and encourages its readers to replant three times every year, so that each Spring, Summer and Autumn the garden would take on a different aspect as a result of the style and colours of the flowering plants chosen.

Other sources are similarly unclear on how widespread was the use of flowers and, based on the lack of definitive information, some modern experts (such as Franklin Hamilton Hazlehurst, Tom Turner and Jan Woudstra) believe that most 17th century parterres would have been patterned sand or gravel, with flowers confined to the helpfully titled parterres de fleurs; while others (Michel Baridon, Elizabeth Hyde) describe all or most of Le Nôtre’s parterres and plates-bandes as highly floriferous.

Vaux le Vicomte 2011

Two parterres de broderie at Le Nôtre’s Vaux le Vicomte photographed last year, with patterns of red and grey gravel separated by box hedging, and the parterre de fleurs to the right, awaiting planting with summer bedding (above); below is the same view from Silvestre’s 1660s engraving.

Silvestre engraving of Vaux

And, in any event, in the intervening three hundred years, fashions have come and gone and parterres that may once have had flowers are now simple grass and gravel, and those that were probably plain are sometimes highly floriferous.

Le Nôtre parterre

Anonymous 1683 painting of Le Nôtre’s water parterre at Chantilly (above), seemingly edged with flowers; and (below) the same parterre today, with simple paths and grass. Both images from http://www.domainedechantilly.com/

Le Nôtre parterre

So I had to confirm the head gardener’s suspicions that there simply was no clear answer to the question about the floweriness of Le Nôtre’s parterres. You pays your money, as I wish my French had been good enough to say, and you takes your choice.

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10 comments on “Flowers or gravel?

  1. sequoiagardens
    August 12, 2012

    Now if I could choose one person’s career in the whole world, would it be yours? ;) My impression of the parterre de fldjrs tl the righg at Vaux was that it was a little incongruous, the scale simply not working…
    Thanks for a lovely post!

  2. sequoiagardens
    August 12, 2012

    Let me repeat that, not on blackberry :( : ….the parterre de fleurs to the right at Vaux…

  3. Donna@Gardens Eye View
    August 13, 2012

    I love the historical aspect of all this and how some of these gardens have evolved or have remained very much the same…they are works of art using changeable mediums.

  4. landscapelover
    August 13, 2012

    Thanks for the comments (and the Blackberry-induced nonsense, which made me smile!). It is interesting to see how the details of these gardens have changed over the centuries, and how sometimes incongruous-seeming features are probably original.

    I am not a fan of slavish reproduction of historical detail, even when it is possible to identify – but it is good to know what the original design would have looked like, so you can make an informed choice on current layout. Of course, especially for privately-owned gardens (such as Vaux), there is a need to produce displays that appeal to contemporary visitors, rather than something that may be historically accurate but is widely perceived as dull…

  5. maggie
    August 14, 2012

    I like your philosophy that displays in the gardens today have to appeal to an audience with different tastes. I recall reading about a tulip collector during the 17th century mania adding mirrors around his scarce selection of tulips within his formal garden to suggest that there were more of them. The novelty and importance of displaying a few specimens of tulips would most likely look skimpy and underdone to a visitor today.

  6. chad
    September 15, 2012

    some amazing landscape architecture.

  7. Catherine Stewart
    September 21, 2012

    Very interesting. In my landscape design studies in Australia, I read how restrained French 17th cent gardens were – just clipped green plants and gravel/sand and somehow found that a little unbelievable; that the wealthy who funded those gardens would not also have wanted, & required, flowers. If we’re into ostentatious wealth, then isn’t exhibiting the latest collected plants from Asia quite likely to have been part of that?

    • landscapelover
      October 22, 2012

      Catherine,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for the interesting comment. I would not have described grand siècle gardens as ‘restrained’ in any sense – they are full of all that Baroque pomp and theatre! The effect is largely achieved of course through scale and perspective, although there was sometimes a wish to show off particular plants (exotic sweet orange trees, for instance, or the newly introduced tulip).

  8. Pingback: GRAPEVINE: Flower Production, Katrina Rose, Seed Plants, Switch Grass, Gravity Glue, Portland Japanese Garden, Perennial Foxgloves, Linwood Arboretum, Stinging Nettle, Germination Techniques, Le Notre, Roman Cats « My Education of a Gardener

  9. Pingback: GRAPEVINE: Daniel Rabel, Flower Production, Katrina Rose, Seed Plants, Switch Grass, Gravity Glue, Portland Japanese Garden, Perennial Foxgloves, Linwood Arboretum, Stinging Nettle, Germination Techniques, Le Notre, Roman Cats « My Education of a Ga

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This entry was posted on August 12, 2012 by in France outside Paris, Gardens, History and tagged , , , , .

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