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Posts Tagged ‘Waddesdon Manor’

Before on this blog I have written about the mysterious French designer Elie Lainé, and about the placing of modern artworks in historic gardens.

So I was delighted to see the two come together this Christmas, with the installation Winter Light in the grounds of Waddesdon Manor. Contemporary artist Bruce Monro placed six large light-based displays in the glorious landscapes of Waddesdon, which were laid out by Lainé in the 1870s.

The most interesting of the six for me was Field Of Light, a geometric wave that swept down a valley between Lainé’s majestic trees. In the photographs here (from a set by Eamonn McCormack), you can see how, in the late afternoon, the 6,500 tiny lights looked like of a swathe of Spring bulbs; by sunset, they were more reminiscent of a lustrous peacock’s tail; and then a great river of liquid chlorophyll. I like that, close-up, you can see the glass fibre and spheres, understand something of how the display is created, and yet still its magic holds.

Field of Light was not conceived for Waddesdon. It had already been displayed in various locations, in England and the States, and is currently in its first urban setting, in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh. It seems to me to have worked beautifully at Waddesdon, with both Lainé’s confident Victorian landscape and Monro’s contemporary artistry enhanced by the temporary juxtaposition.

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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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