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Posts Tagged ‘Versailles’

As you might expect, the British Library has an extraordinary wealth of archive material, including much that is essential study for the serious landscape historian. Its strap line, with some justification, is “The World’s Knowledge.” Yet it is far from my favourite repository, partly for its dreadful website, and partly for what might charitably be called its rather high-end charges for image reproduction and permission to publish.

But it has just done something to gladden the heart of every researcher. It has published a Flickr photostream of over a million images from some of the books in its collection. Examples include this lovely 1881 drawing of the gardens at Versailles, entitled “Plan des Bosquets à l’Epoque actuelle” [contemporary plan of the groves] from page 529 of Le Château de Versailles. Histoire et Description by Louis Dussieux.

11143880845_c44f5db04d_kAll the images are in the public domain (the books are from the nineteenth century or earlier) but for most of them this is the first time they have been available online at such high resolution – or indeed at all. Many are of good enough quality for print publication, a rare occurrence for images on the internet. And the British Library makes clear that the images are available for anyone to “use, remix and repurpose” as they see fit. There is no charge; the Library would just appreciate an attribution.

The purpose of releasing them – and there are delightful hints that many more are to follow – is to explore ways of navigating, finding and displaying these currently rather hidden images. At the moment, finding them is hard, even now they are on Flickr. Only the books’ titles and authors are tagged in the photostream. So search for “Taj Mahal” for instance, and there are no results. But search for “India” and – among hundreds of other images – are ones like this, from Our Life and Travels in India by William Wakefield, which shows how very different were the gardens around the tomb in the 1870s:

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and this even more detailed one from the following decade, which appeared in Sir Edwin Arnold’s “India Revisited … Reprinted, with additions … from the “Daily Telegraph:””

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Searching in this way, by broad geographical sweep or topical area, produces all sorts of splendid surprises. So among the many India images, I found this one from the 1860s of Chandni Chowk, the main street through Old Delhi, labelled interestingly “Main Native Street” and utterly different from the chaotic thoroughfare of today:

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and this one of Humayun’s Tomb and its gardens from a Pictorial tour round India; with remarks on India past and present, alleged and true causes of Indian poverty, supposed or real, twelve means available for promoting the wealth of the country, etc. by John Murdoch, p47, published in Madras in 1890, seemingly available nowhere else on the web, and certainly new to me:

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But searching (as researchers tend to do) for a specific subject is frustrating. None of the visible text in the images is indexed, so even clear image titles (such as “Humayun’s Tomb” above) are not found in searches – you simply have to wade through books with possibly relevant titles and know what you are looking for. And even more frustratingly, the details of the source volume do not seem to be stored with the image: so if you download a picture without keeping a proper note of its source at the time (as I did with the Chandni Chowk image above) it can be all but impossible to find it again afterwards, or know where it came from.

All to be played for, then. The British Library is planning a “crowdsourcing application” in early 2014 better to identify and describe these million images. It is an exciting, potentially hugely important project for researchers, and the Library is to be applauded for embarking upon it.

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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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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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When Louis XIV decided in 1678 that he wanted a potager (kitchen garden) near his palace in Versailles, where he could bring visitors to admire the abundant produce, the site chosen was unpromising marshland, known as l’étang puant, or the stinking pond. Five years of work and perhaps a million francs later, the plot had been drained and new fertile soil brought in by means of an ingenious machine from the nearby Satory hills.

Potager du Roi 9

Master architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart constructed imposing walls and terraces on the site. Then royal gardener Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie laid out the potager in a classically geometric pattern, with a grand circular fountain surrounded by 16 square vegetable beds. Arranged around this central area were 29 separate fruit tree gardens. A gilded gate provided access directly from the palace gardens.

Potager du Roi 2The royal gardeners experimented with new varieties of fruit and vegetables, and the latest flavours were much discussed at court. In 1696, Mme de Sévigné was to write that “the craze for peas shows no sign of abating; the impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the joy of eating them again; for the last four days these have been our princes’ only topics of conversation.”Potager du Roi 8

Presided over by the eighteenth century Saint Louis cathedral, the garden is today part of the National School of Landscape Architecture, and remains recognisably the potager created for the Sun King.

Potager du Roi 1Last weekend was a celebration of the Saveurs du Potager (“Flavours of the Kitchen Garden”), with guided tours, tasting games for children, stalls selling fruit and vegetables from the gardens and artisanal produce, and displays of traditional juice pressing and bee-keeping.

Potager du Roi 3

Potager du Roi 4The gardens are lovely, with some 5000 trained pear and apple trees providing beautiful divisions between the various sections.

There were late summer perennials in full flower, a fun maze made of sweetcorn and sunflowers for the kids, and much evidence of a respect for wildlife, from this lovely insect house to a sign explaining that a path was closed off because of the presence of a solitary bee colony.

Potager du Roi 5

Be warned that the potager is not primped and perfect like the one at Villandry: there is evidence of work-in-progress by the students who today get to practise in the plots; some of the areas were uncultivated or rather untidy; while fat geese honked and charged around rather appealingly in one space at the back. But it was still a good place to visit on a warm October day, and a chance to mark the end of summer harvests and the arrival of chill autumn.

Potager du Roi 6

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Flowers
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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