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Posts Tagged ‘Vaux le Vicomte’

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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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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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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