Posts Tagged ‘photography’

Feeling at home

Where do I most feel at home in Paris? That was the question put to me by photographer Chloe Lodge, as part of her portrait series on foreign women making new lives for themselves in the French capital.

It didn’t take me long to suggest parc Monceau, the splendid 8-hectare public park that’s just a few minutes walk from our apartment. What is it about Monceau? Well, most obviously, it is our nearest green space, and our daughter goes to school in a building right next to the park, and plays there every day.

Carmontelle image of Monceau

Designer Carmontelle handing the keys for the pleasure grounds at Monceau to the Duc de Chartres, c.1775. Image from the Musée Carnavalet.

But Monceau for me has a magic beyond its mere proximity. As a landscape historian, I find its past pleasingly extraordinary. Much of its history is still apparent, if you know where and how to look: the vestiges of the mad 18th century pleasure grounds with their Disneyesque attractions and rumours of the owner’s debauched behaviour; the 19th century features installed when the site became a public park under Napoleon III; the reminder of the terrible end to the 1871 Commune.

Every path and feature and tree is familiar to me, from the gilded entry gates designed by Gabriel Davioud in the 1850s… Davioud gates…and the traditional pony rides offered for kids on Wednesday afternoons and weekends…

Pony rides

…to the frenzy of picnickers and sunbathers on the lawns when all of Paris tumbles out of doors during the long summer months. summer

I love Monceau slumbering under light snow in the winter, its gates locked whenever bad weather threatens; its fresh bright colours in Spring’s lengthening days; its soft autumnal hues as the ancient trees mellow to brown and gold.


Several of Chloe’s subjects chose public parks as places where they felt most comfortable in the city: the gardens of the Palais Royal, parc des Buttes-Chaumont, the Tuileries, the jardin du Luxembourg. It’s clear that, for many of us as foreigners here, the parks of Paris quickly become proxy gardens, refuges, symbols of the city, and welcoming friends.

Certainly for me in Paris, parc Monceau is where I feel most at home.

Chloe Lodge image

Landscape Lover in parc Monceau. Image © Chloe Lodge

I’d welcome comments from anyone who finds him or herself in a foreign place: have you discovered somewhere there that feels to you like home?

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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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Gardening Gone Wild is running one of its monthly photography competitions. The rules are here – but basically, as the name suggests, the competition encourages people to take close-up garden-related images using a glass mason jar, and thus to experiment with composition, background and light.

Not having a garden or a mason jar, or indeed a camera (hubby having taken ours on a jaunt to Helsinki), the odds were rather against me. But I foraged in the local park for beech leaves and in our kitchen cupboards for walnuts. Then I borrowed the little point-and-shoot that Santa has just brought our daughter, and dug out a Bonne Maman jam jar…

The exercise proved to be great fun, and I ended up taking about a hundred photos, examining each batch closely for successes and flaws, and then trying to learn and apply the lessons they offered.

And the results?

walnutsbeech leavesbeech leavesbeech leaves and light flashWell, the ancient, knobbly walnuts had seemed a good idea, but they proved too big and unwieldy for such a close-up shot; the tawny beech leaves were much better, even though they were rather recalcitrant and insisted on twisting and curling into unwanted shapes. The images worked best with something interesting outside the jar to distort and blur in the glass, but it was all too easy to leave unwanted glimpses of the table below. In the end though, my biggest problem was the light. Taking the shots inside near a window, in dull daylight, I found that, no matter what I tried, light seemed to bounce off the glass and create unwanted flashes and reflections.

So in frustration I tried some frosted glass – actually a tall thin drinking tumbler with an inconvenient polar bear etched on the side. And that gave a very different, rather pleasing effect. The beech leaves looked crisp and distinct against the blurry glass, but I realised that something more circular would work better in the bottom of the narrow container. So those walnuts came back out of the cupboard, I floated one on a little puddle of water and – snap – the best shot of the day.walnut in tumbler

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