Archive for the ‘France outside Paris’ Category

Field Trip

Posts from landscapelover now feature on Google’s new app Field Trip.

This seems to me a nifty concept that allows information about local places to pop up on your phone when you are nearby. Content includes cafés, bars, shops, buildings, heritage sites and, of course, interesting landscapes.

Reviews suggest Field Trip is an app with lots of potential, although rather patchy coverage so far. So I was pleased to be invited by Google to be one of the first ‘content providers’ for France, and I look forward to seeing how it develops. It is intriguing to think that in the not-too-distant future people may stroll around a landscape while reading my post on the subject through Google Glass

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Tuileries signThis year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of André Le Nôtre, and the great designer is being honoured with an exhibition at the Tuileries in Paris and at events throughout France.

I am pleased to be celebrating the anniversary with an article in the Journal of the Garden History Society.

ghsTitled “Recollections and Hopes,” the article explores the history of the Le Nôtre gardens at Vaux le Vicomte, southeast of Paris – not through plans and layouts and analysis of physical changes, but through people’s personal memories and impressions of the gardens over time.

The article argues that preserving people’s recollections of a garden is just as important as conserving its physical properties; indeed, as John Dixon Hunt has declared, given the propensity of all gardens to change and ultimately disappear, chronicling our responses to them “becomes the only true form of historic preservation.”

For those who have not been to Vaux, I would urge you to go – and add to the memories and associations of this magical place.

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The splendid website ThinkinGardens hosted a discussion a while ago on sculpture in the garden. One commenter argued that a garden setting can enhance a sculpture, but that she had never seen sculpture enhance a garden. Instead  “as you drop a sculpture into a garden setting, it takes centre stage shouting ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ … The garden becomes a backdrop.”

It’s an interesting notion, and I decided to test it by an entirely unscientific trawl through my photo archives, looking for images of sculptures in gardens. These are not sculptures designed and installed at the same time as the garden, where you might expect a thoughtful balance between the two; they are pieces added subsequently, most of them as temporary exhibitions in established gardens.

First, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 16-day display The Gates in New York’s Central Park in 2005 (OK, it’s not a garden, but it’s a good match in other ways). I was lucky enough to discuss the project with its creators shortly before installation (see photo of the duo with their plans). They intended the 7,500 saffron-coloured structures weaving through the park to encourage people to look at this iconic landscape in a new way. Sadly it seemed to me not really to work. The boxy shape of the gates did offer an interesting mirror of the rectangular skyscrapers around the park, but the thousands of structures somehow seemed like they had just been plonked in the park, shouting “Look at me!” without adding any new perspectives.The GatesThe Gates 2 The Gates 3Here’s a more successful example from summer 2011: woven willow and chestnut structures by the American Patrick Dougherty at the chateau of Trévarez in Brittany, northwest France. Some of Dougherty’s works do undoubtedly overwhelm their surroundings, but at Trévarez it seemed to me the organic structures helped you look afresh at the garden.The shape of this temporary shelter offered a sinuous modern version of the adjacent stone building, and the windows framed surprising and pleasing views of the sumptuous planting.

Trevarez 2

Trevarez 3

Trevarez 1

Another set of willow structures, this time by Tom Hare, was installed at Kew Gardens as part of its 250th anniversary celebrations. They represent seeds – some of them more interesting than this one of a devil’s claw – and they have a nice sinuous quality. But for me they don’t really enhance our appreciation of the surrounding garden, especially with that rather naff little barrier to keep the sculpture decidedly separate from its setting.

Kew1Another temporary display in a botanical garden, with another intrusive barrier, is this 2012 example of dancing figures by Zadok Ben-David, in Singapore. The figures are smaller than you might think, much smaller than actual size, and seem somehow fiddly, and disengaged from their surroundings by that distracting chain barrier.

Singapore Botanical Garden3 Singapore Botanical Garden2 Singapore Botanical Garden1Here’s another figurative set of sculptures, but I think these work much more cohesively in their surroundings. These are some fine Rodin figures, installed as a temporary display in the square outside the CaixaForum art gallery in Madrid. The building is a striking mix of oxidised cast iron and brick, set off by a large Patrick Blanc vertical garden to one side. The traditional figures provided a lovely counterpoint to their contemporary setting and make us admire both the building and the green wall all the more.



A very simple example next, from Le Nôtre’s vast gardens at Sceaux, south of Paris. The sculpture by René Letourneur is not temporary, but it is a late addition – being installed around 1950 in this seventeenth century landscape. Called L’Aurore (dawn), it is positioned carefully to catch the morning light in a shady corner, and makes us notice and admire a quiet space that otherwise would get lost among the grandeur and dazzle of the rest of Sceaux.

Sceaux1Here’s a very different use of sculpture in a Le Nôtre garden, this one by Takashi Murakami at Versailles in 2010. I wrote at the time how much I loved the juxtaposition between the obscene extravagance of the Sun King’s palace and the mad plastic manga creations displayed incongruously in its midst. The snarling Oval Buddha in the gardens offered wonderful visual links with the gilded fountains and gates of Le Nôtre’s great design, and a thought-provoking contrast with its many baroque statues. Not many places could stand up to that vast gleaming sculpture, but it makes us admire Versailles anew that these gardens definitely could.


Versailles 3  Versailles1Versailles 4Le Notre gardens

Here’s my final example: it’s a temporary exhibition in a traditional display space, not a garden at all. But for me it illustrates perfectly how even the most enormous, preposterous installation that shrieks “Look at me!” can still profoundly enhance its surroundings. This is Anish Kapoor’s bonkers Leviathan sculpture that filled the Grand Palais in Paris for five weeks in 2011. It was a vast purple rubber cathedral swelling up into the belle époque exhibition hall, making the visitor gasp at its size and audacity. But it did not overwhelm the setting; instead its mad shape and size drew equal attention to the beautiful ironwork and glass of this most majestic of spaces.

Monumenta3 Monumenta2 Monumenta1These are personal choices and views of course. I’d be interested to know what others think.

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I wrote here about the fascinating experience of working on a television history of French gardens, presented by Monty Don.

The programme, called Gardens of Power and Passion, will air this evening on BBC2 for UK viewers. I’d love to hear what people think.


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One of my more exciting projects over the past few months has been providing consultancy advice to a forthcoming BBC TV programme on the history of French gardens, presented by Monty Don.

Monty Don filming at the Jardin Plume for his French Gardens series. Photograph by Historic Gardens Review editor, Gillian Mawrey, who worked with me as consultant on the programme.

As a writer and lecturer on historic gardens, it has been fascinating to work on familiar topics in an utterly different medium. I’ve come (grudgingly) to accept that the BBC understands what looks good on screen. They had pressed for more flowers, more colour, more prettiness, and I had resisted, thinking that the sumptuousness and scale of Vaux or Versailles did not not need tulips to enliven it. But then seeing the first cut of the film, I suddenly understood how the camera loves detail – how single roses and fountain spouts and statues and potted orange trees just play so much better than mile-long vistas and vast canals that, however much they dazzle in real life, seem flat and unimpressive on screen.

I’ve come to appreciate the luxury of writing a book or an article where, if at any point you find a gap in your narrative or a fact that starts to seem questionable, you can undertake more research and expand or amend your material. But for television, once the visits are complete, the filming done, that’s it. If, as you edit the film, you realise that an important trend is not sufficiently captured, or a mistake occurs in a key piece to camera, or indeed if spectacular monsoon-style rain has all but scuppered your efforts at outdoor shots of Versailles, there is little prospect of supplementing or correcting the material. You have what you have, and the programme has to emerge from that.

One other thought. It is easy to criticise such programmes as simplistic, as not offering enough detail or background. But I saw how television requires you to sum up complicated ideas and concepts in a sentence or two. It is a skill I struggled to acquire. How to explain the gradual, late eighteenth century shift from Le Nôtre’s structural and geometric gardens to the quirky French interpretations of informal English style? In a book, you could linger over the impact of pre-revolutionary fervour, discuss Republicanism and Romanticism, muse on Rousseau and Ermenonville, describe and display the influence of chinoiserie, and in this and other ways slowly tease out the gradual evolution of those characteristic jardins à l’anglaise. But, in an television programme that needs to cover 500 years of gardening history in an hour, you have only a few seconds of voice-over to make the link. I admired the production team’s willingness to work and rework such moments until we all felt comfortable with what was being said.

It’s not the programme I would have made – and doubtless no worse for that. It’s prettier, and simpler, and occasionally missing information that might have been useful. But it’s also an admirable attempt to capture the history of some of the finest gardens ever made, and I look forward to seeing the final version broadcast next Spring.

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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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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.

Image of the Le Nôtre gardens at Vaux le Vicomte, during the time Elie Laîné was in charge of their restoration; Destailleur restored the château. From an album of photographs dated 1894-1898 in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

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.

Versailles sketch by Laîné

Sketch signed & dated in Lainé’s hand. From the royal archives in Brussels.

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…

garden creation c.1875

New planting to the north of the entrance drive at Waddesdon Manor in England c.1875, to a design by Elie Lainé. From the Rothschild Archive.

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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.

parterresCascade detail

Foutain and pelagoniums

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Here’s another off-the-beaten-track park to enjoy in this glorious spring sunshine. It’s almost the antithesis of yesterday’s recommendation, which was a small, naturalistic, nineteenth century park in the northwest of Paris. Today’s post is about parc de Sceaux, a vast, geometric, seventeenth century-style landscape, actually just outside the city’s southern perimeter. Laid out in the late 1600s by André Le Nôtre, Sceaux was originally a private garden for Louis XIV’s finance minister.

Jacques Rigaud c1736 engraving

View of the parterres and grand canal at Sceaux c.1736 by Jacques Rigaud. From http://www.collections.chateau-sceaux.fr

The original chateau was destroyed during the French revolution and the gardens given over to agriculture. During the nineteenth century a new chateau was built in the grounds, and the gardens restored on similar lines to the original. In the 1930s new features were added to the gardens, including a cubist cascade, and Sceaux became the property of its département (regional government). The chateau was turned into a museum for the Ile-de-France, and the gardens opened as a public park.

As the aerial view here shows, the layout of the gardens has an unusual double perspective. One long vista of parterres, circular water features and stepped turf terraces runs from the chateau, while a second, perpendicular, axis is formed by Le Nôtre’s tree-lined grand canal and the adjacent octagonal pool.

Aerial view of Sceaux. From http://www.domaine-de-sceaux.fr

Sceaux is glorious at any time of year but particularly so in the spring, when the clipped hedges of horse chestnut are lush with bright green new growth and, around the orangerie (designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart), the box-edged parterres are thickly planted with tulips, forget-me-nots and wallflowers.Sceaux is carefully managed to balance its historic importance with its role as a popular public park. It is also increasingly being maintained on ecological grounds, with more native plants being introduced to improve biodiversity, regular surveys of bats and birds found in the park, and the banning of chemical fertilisers and weedkiller. This week (20-30 March) is la semaine “zéro phyto” when no chemical pesticides will be used at Sceaux or in any of the parks in the area.

Although just outside Paris, the park is easily reachable by train from the city centre. Also worth a visit nearby is the summer rose garden, La Roseraie de l’Haÿ, and the parc de la vallée aux loups, formerly the house and grounds of romantic writer François-René de Chateaubriand.

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Sometimes the most poignant qualities of a site come not from what is actually there, but from what is connected to it, through time and space, by our recollections and hopes.

The Poetics of Gardens

It is all too easy to think of gardens as consisting simply of physical stuff — of plants and paths, walls and terraces.

But increasingly landscape historians are focusing not on the fabric of a historic garden, but on its essence. Some call this value, or genius loci, or sense of place, or character; Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter talks about atmosphere or spirit. I’d define it as the distinctive elements that make a garden special.

Recently I undertook a piece of research on the impact of sustainable practices on the character of historic gardens. As part of this, I sought to identify the essence of four gardens over time — using archives, memoirs, descriptions, images, surveys and interviews.

As you might expect, I learnt that the creation of character in gardens is complex. It does not come simply or quickly from the choice of plants or other materials, or just from the way the garden looks, and it develops through the engagement and appreciation of visitors over time. In my research, I found that a sense of place had been created variously by memories and stories about a garden’s history, by the experience of movement and change, by contrasts and context, by views, by perceptions of refuge or dominion, by sensory qualities (touch, sound, smell), and by an understanding of the garden’s importance and influence. It became clear to me that a sense of place is possible to preserve, despite deliberate change, as can be seen at Great Dixter, and possible to damage — for instance, with the seemingly innocuous substitution of a single tree species at New York’s Lincoln Center. The research left me optimistic that even major, unexpected events and significant alterations to fabric need not destroy a historic garden’s essence.View of gardenOne of the case studies in my research was Vaux le Vicomte, the extraordinary Le Nôtre garden southeast of Paris. Created in the mid-1600s, it was a garden full of wonders and pleasure, launched by its owner (the financial secretary to the king) at a spectacular fête that was to lead directly to his downfall and disgrace. My research showed how visitors can still feel the resonance of the single day in 1661 on which the estate became a legend, all the developments and intrigue that led to the fête, and the political and cultural repercussions that have flowed from it down the centuries. Still strong is the memory of the ambivalent figure of its first owner—misrepresented hero or scurrilous villain—and the myth-making that surrounded him. People also consistently recognise Vaux, not just as a great illustration of the genius of André Le Nôtre, but as the first example of his work, the kernel that went on to produce Versailles and that extraordinary array of classical gardens that so influenced garden-making across Europe.

It was surprisingly easy for me to trace over time the essential components that define the character of this garden: elements of surprise and delight, a powerful feeling of movement, of being drawn though contrasting experiences, a sense of mastery imposed upon the landscape, with its grand views and prospects providing a sense of dominion and power. Yet there is also a strong perception of informality and playfulness among all the geometry, a sense of the heroic, swashbuckling, almost preposterous magic of the place.

Gardening Gone Wild is currently running a photo competition for images that capture the spirit of a garden. It is difficult to imagine one photograph that sums up the essence of Vaux le Vicomte. My image here expresses something of the garden’s dominion over nature: see how the trees on both sides are kept pinned back by the tightly clipped hedges; how the grand terraces are imposed on the undulating land. The photograph also shows something of the wondrous beauty of the garden, with its restrained palette of cream, green, grey and twinkling pale blue, the vastness and geometry of its layout, the perfect relationship between house and garden. But no photo can capture the delight and surprise of moving through this garden, with its almost mischievous changes of perspective and sudden introductions of sounds and sensations. Nor can an image give any sense of the legends and stories that have always swirled around Vaux le Vicomte.

It is hard to think how any photograph might capture a garden’s essence, given that—as my research showed—atmosphere comes not just from visual impact, but from other sensory qualities, from knowledge and feelings, from memories and associations. Looking through images of the many gardens I have visited, I could only find one shot that came close to expressing the atmosphere of a place. It was a photograph of the Villa Madama near Rome, a magical garden I have written about elsewhere in this blog. The image shows something of the early Renaissance style of the garden, with its terraces, water features and little putti statues. But the viewpoint is unusual, with the photograph taken from behind the water feature, as if I was an interloper in this venerable space. And the moss, quiet light and signs of rain on the water’s surface express something of the yearning melancholy of the garden, long abandoned and abused, and now only partly reclaimed. The photograph reminds me vividly, viscerally of my experience of being there.

French garden philosopher Jean-Pierre Le Dantec argues that we should stop ‘embalming’ historic gardens in the bandages of traditional conservation. We should cease the relentless conservation and recreation of physical fabric, and instead let them erode gently into oblivion—their essence perpetuated only in our daydreams, as Vaux le Vicomte and the Villa Madama are in mine…

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