Every summer, Chaumont-sur-Loire hosts a garden festival, and this year we have finally managed to visit. It takes place in the grounds of the splendid fairytale château at Chaumont, all chubby turreted towers and wooden drawbridges. The building rears up into view from time to time, a wonderfully enduring, medieval presence among the transient modern gardens of the festival.
The theme for 2010 is “corps et âme” (body and soul), which has been interpreted widely by the thirty or so participants to include sensory designs, plantings of herbs and other medicinal plants, and gardens designed for relaxation, contemplation or just plain fun. Landscape architects of course are well represented among the designers, but other gardens were produced by graphic artists, photographers, dancers, philosophers, even dentists!
This is not the Chelsea Flower Show: there is none of that absurd primping and preening for a single moment of glory. Instead the Chaumont show gardens have to last from April to October and so have a more relaxed, natural feel, with the plants flowering seasonally, and occasional signs of wear and tear visible on paths and lawns.
Of course some designs work better than others. My least favourite was a garden (from a design team led by Didier Courant) with a surfeit of bright pink poles, distorting mirrors and an unfortunate smell of rotten cabbage. Some are rather ordinary. Many, however, have charming features or novel ideas, from chairs that seem to float on water (in a garden by Christophe Marchalot and Félicia Fortuna)…
and a Japanese-inspired retreat by Juliette Berny, Fanny Cassat and Renaud Le Creff, with simple strips of slate sloping into a pool…
…to a labyrinth by Anne and Patrick Poirier, inspired by a 16th century plan found at the château, but made contemporary by the use of vines and multi-coloured supports.
The best designs were lovely – distinctive, inspiring and memorable. My favourite (from Olivier Hostiou, Marie Forêt and Laurent Weiss, and apparently inspired by the idea of a return to the womb) was explored along a circular path sheltered by a mass of tall willow canes, curving overhead. On reaching the centre you suddenly found yourself in a bright, enclosed, round space, the willows now curving dramatically away. It was filled by an abundance of scented chamomile, with wicker seats laid low among the flowers.
Given this year’s theme, the gardens were sensuous, encouraging visitors to listen and feel and smell. One asked us to remove our shoes to experience the differing textures underfoot; another actively encouraged us to rub the leaves of the plants and enjoy their fragrance; a third was full of bird song. One (designed by choreographer Benjamin Millepied) produced more laughter than I have ever heard in a show garden, through a simple pair of stepping stone paths to be followed by two people holding hands, who were required to balance and stretch and almost topple as they wove their way along.
Chaumont is a highly successfully event, showcasing conceptual designs and attracting some 150,000 visitors each summer. Next year the château will host its twentieth annual garden festival, with designs on the theme of “the happy art of biodiversity” already being invited. It is a shame that the Chaumont-inspired Festival of the Garden at Westonbirt in the UK proved so short-lived and has, since 2005, been seeking a new home. Perhaps that says something about the attitude of us Brits to contemporary garden design…
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