Posts Tagged ‘Le Nôtre’

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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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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I’m grateful to fellow blogger Garden History Girl for alerting me to a splendid new way of wasting hours on the internet, while claiming to be researching important trends in landscape history.

A couple of days ago Google launched their Ngram Viewer. It is an oddly-uninspiring name for a nifty gadget that lets you trace the appearance of particular words or phrases in books over time. Garden History Girl writes amusingly of the 18th century fad for shrubbery, and uses the Ngram to show how for a while the word shrubbery was actually more popular than plain old shrubs.

Playing around with the gadget this morning, I have traced the dramatic rise and slow fall of the usage of picturesque and sublime, concepts painfully fashionable of course in the late eighteenth century; confirmed that the term jardin à la francaise is a nineteenth-century construct which would have had no meaning for Le Nôtre and his contemporaries; and discovered that parc de la Villette is the most discussed of the three great new parks created in Paris in the late twentieth century.

Google Ngram result

picturesque, sublime, in English 1600-2008

It is quickly clear that the gadget has all sorts of shortcomings: it is case and accent sensitive, so Jardin des Tuileries for instance will not find references to jardin des Tuileries, nor will Pere Lachaise find mentions of Père Lachaise; any pre-1800 results are pretty suspect, given the frequent lack of publication dates, non-uniform spelling and poor printing quality of many early books; and there is no way of verifying context, so mentions of Dan Kiley could equally refer to the master American landscape designer or to his pop-psychologist namesake.

Unlike Google Maps, there is no organised way of disseminating the results, except apparently as a ‘tweet’, and many of the graphs already appearing on blogs and online newspapers are blurry and difficult to read. It is also all too easy to search for the obvious, as I did, and get unsurprising results.

But the Ngram is great fun, and endlessly addictive. Its real value will come when unexpected patterns lead to fresh understandings and new avenues for research.

Postscript: A quick scout round the internet shows that I am far from the only one playing with Google’s new text miner. It is generating a lot of pretty unthinking coverage: see for example the gleeful US headline ‘Pants up, trousers down’ (non-American anglophones will quickly spot an omission in the writer’s analysis of the results).

But thoughtful and erudite posts are also appearing. This one explains the technical shortcomings of the Ngram, and argues that the gadget needs perfecting before it will be of any use. While this accepts its imperfections and welcomes the Ngram as another tool that can help us explore the past.

I remain on the fence. Try something seemingly simple like plotting the popularity of landscape designers over time. You can show that in British English in the twentieth century, Le Nôtre appeared more than Frederick Law Olmsted, and that poor old unfashionable Capability Brown barely merited a mention:

Ngram viewer

‘Capability’ Brown, Frederick Law Olmstead, Andre Le Notre, in British English, 1900-2000

Or you can show the opposite, with Brown easily more popular than Olmsted, and Le Nôtre relegated to a distant third:

Google Ngram

Capability Brown, Frederick Law Olmsted, André Le Nôtre, in British English 1900-2000

If you look closely, you’ll see that the results are completely skewed by spelling variations. ‘Capability’ Brown yields no results at all in the first graph (the gadget doesn’t seem to like the quotation marks, even though they are commonly used). Without the quotation marks there are suddenly lots of results (but there is no obvious way to combine them with those for his real name Lancelot [sometimes Launcelot] Brown). Olmstead in the first graph is a surprisingly frequent misspelling of Olmsted, the correct spelling of which produced the second set of results. Trickier still in the English canon is André Le Nôtre, whose name most commonly seems to appear in English books without any accent marks (at least according to Google’s OCR), producing the results in the first graph. Add both diacritics and you get the second graph. Originally spelled Le Nostre, his name is still sometimes rendered that way, although none of those results show up here.

So it is almost impossible to trace any meaningful trend in the appearance of their names in books over time. Hmmm…

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Google image

Image from Google maps

In the 8th arrondissement is a street called rue de la Pépinière, literally the street of the plant nursery. Today it is a busy commercial thoroughfare, with a dedicated Hello Kitty store and a big Starbucks. But that name suggests its previous history.

rue de la pépinièreFor centuries this area to the northeast of Paris was open land outside the city walls. Between 1640 and 1720, a Royal Nursery (la pépinière du roi) was established near the hamlet of Roule, to provide trees, shrubs and flowers for the king’s gardens, which were being laid out by Le Nôtre and others at the Tuileries and Versailles. The grand new nursery was popular with visitors, including English doctor Martin Lister, who came to France in 1698 and wrote in his Journey to Paris that:

I was to see the Pipinerie, or Royal Nursery of Plants, in the Fauxbourgh of St. Honorie; where I met the Master or Controuler of it, Monsieur Morley, one of the Ushers of the Bed-Chamber to the King….

This Ground inclosed with high Walls, is vastly big, as it ought to be, to supply the King’s Gardens; Here are several acres of young pines, Cypresses, Vues, &c. also vast Beds of Stock July-Flowers, of all sorts of Bulbes, as Tulips, Daffadills, Crocus’s, &c. and therefore I could easily believe him, when he told me, he had sent from hence to Marli alone, in four years time, eighteen Millions of Tulips, and other Bulbous Flowers…. He further told me, that the furnishing the Trianon (a peculiar House of Pleasure, with its Parterres at the end of the Gardens at Versailles) with Flower-Pots in season, every 14 days in the Summer, took up no less than 92 000 Pots from hence. Also from hence he could plant and furnish in 14 days time, any new Garden the King should cause to be made….

In this Ground are several Houses to lodge the tender Winter Greens; amongst the rest there is one very large, which I may call the Infirmary of sick Orange-Trees.

As well as acclimatising and tending exotic species, the royal nursery was known for its training of trees and shrubs, including espalier peaches and apricots; it was also the home of one of the first two cedars of Lebanon introduced into France.

Jardin des Plantes 'twin'

One of the first cedars of Lebanon to be grown in France, at the Jardin des Plantes. Its ‘twin’ was planted in the Pépinière du Roi. Image from http://www.paris-pittoresque.com/jardins/2.htm

Rue de la Pépinière ran to the nursery and along its eastern edge as far as Roule. The other nursery borders were formed by rue du Faubourg St Honoré to the north, the Champs Elysées to the south, and the present-day rue du Berri to the west.

The original nursery was closed down in 1720, to make way for a proposed Mint, and the land was subsequently sold to the duc d’Artois (later Charles X) who planned ‘costly fantasies’ on the site, including a grand stable block (les écuries du roi), built  in 1781. The stables were demolished in the 1860s to make way for the hotel de Talhouët-Roy.

Ecuries d'Artois

A 1929 image of the écuries du roi, built on the site of the pépiniere and long-since demolished, by Paul Signac, from Christies.com

The royal gardens still needed vast quantities of plants, and so a new royal nursery (la pépinière du roule) was established further along rue de la Pépinière to the northeast. From the 1760s, the director of the nursery lived in a purpose-built house just across rue de Clichi (the present-day rue de Courcelles), and his team of gardeners made up much of the local population.

The role of the second royal nursery in supplying plants for the king ended with the Revolution and, despite desperate campaigning for its retention by the nursery director, it had disappeared completely by 1826.

The location of both nurseries can be seen on this detail from a wonderful 1761 map by Jean De La Grive, which is available along with many other old maps of Paris here.

1761 map of Paris (detail)

Most of the original rue de la Pépinière is today called rue la Boëtie. Only the little strip from St Augustin to St Lazare retains the original name.

Today it is almost impossible to imagine this busy part of Paris as a vast royal plant nursery, but that street name remains as the clue.

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Tomorrow, October 2nd, is Nuit Blanche in Paris, a city-wide contemporary arts festival that takes place over the course of a single night. Installations, performances and videos will spring up around the city, often outdoors, from Saturday evening, and all will be gone by early Sunday morning. Organised by the mayor’s office, the entire event is free to the public.

For me, the most memorable installation was in 2007, when the artists collective Compagnie Carabosse lit the Jardin des Tuileries in an event they called Nuit ardente aux Tuileries (literally, a burning night…).

As you can see from my photographs, this was far from a traditional candlelit display: two thousand fat wax tapers and torches swung crazily in the air and hunkered together on the ground to turn Le Nôtre’s gardens into an unsettling, hallucinogenic world of red and black, flame and darkness.       

It was magical, although us Brits couldn’t help muttering about health and safety laws – I am not sure the Mayor of London would be persuaded of the merits of suspending a massive ball of flame over St James’s Park from a crane, or allowing kids to dance round pots of burning wax…

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From tomorrow, the chateau of Versailles is hosting an exhibition by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. He describes himself as like the Cheshire Cat, guiding the visitor through the wonderland of Versailles with a cheerful smile and a devilish twinkle in his eye. The juxtaposition between the baroque extravagance of Louis XIV’s palace and the bright plastic and metal Manga-inspired sculptures is indeed eye-popping, and has led to strong objections from some of the cultural elite. But for me it works – more so than the much-criticised Jeff Koons show at Versailles eighteen months ago. Somehow the clash of these two ages, these two cultures, makes us look at both with more care.

Pom and MeMiss KO2Among my favourite moments are the deprecating self-portrait Pom and Me nestled next to the fine bust of the young Sun King; the Japanese waitress, Miss Ko2, tottering on the edge between sexy and grotesque, beckoning us into the obscene extravagance of the Hall of Mirrors.

For more of a garden theme, there are the tendrils of the crazy plastic globe Flower Matango curling up almost to touch a pair of gilded cherubs half-hidden on a ceiling, as well as a vast, snarling Oval Buddha presiding over the Le Nôtre gardens, its colour echoing the dazzlingly bright gilded gates at the front of the chateau.

Flower Matango

Oval Buddha

The Murakami exhibition will be at Versailles until 12th December.

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I have just written an article for Gardens and People on the extraordinary 1990 proposals by Bernard Lassus to reinvent the Jardin des Tuileries. They were an entry in a state-run competition and, sadly, a less adventurous plan by Louis Benech and Pascal Cribier was chosen for implementation. My article is part of a series on Gardens That Were Never Built.

So, last Sunday I spent an hour walking through the Tuileries, taking photographs for the article. It struck me how poorly they are currently being maintained. Many of the ancient horse chestnuts and plane trees are unpruned and sprawling.
Unclipped treesbox bedThe box bed near the Jeu de Paume was unclipped and full of bindweed and large thistles.

Oddly planted with a mass of variegated perennials and grasses, the two exedras are similarly infested with weeds and look sad and neglected. Some of the trees planted as part of the Benech / Cribier plan are struggling to survive. Much of the gardeners’ attention seems to go on the narrow little flower beds, with their high maintenance mix of annuals and tender perennials, all planted at a rather domestic scale.flower bed The Tuileries is of course still a magnificent processional space. But it would be sad if it is allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that another major overhaul is needed so soon after the 1990 concours that produced the remarkable Lassus proposals.

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