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The master behind the French garden

André Le Nôtre was the leading gardener of the so-called Grand Siècle and the designer of its most extravagant gardens

As events around France mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of gardener André Le Nôtre, Oliver Rowland asks a gardens historian why he is so revered...

ANDRÉ Le Nôtre was the leading gardener of the so-called Grand Siècle (the 17th century) – a time of a spectacular flourishing in the arts, and the designer of its most extravagant gardens, those of the Palace of Versailles, for Sun King Louis XIV.

After four centuries, Le Nôtre is still the most famous French gardener, his formal, symmetrical style seen as typical of the jardin à la française, contrasting with the more irregular English style for grand gardens, which aimed to imitate nature in an idealised form.

The Versailles gardens cover 800 hectares and took 40 years to complete – enormous earth loads were brought in to transform what was marshland and woods into elegant lawns and paths; trees were brought in on carts from all over France and thousands of men were involved, sometimes whole regiments.

A cross-shaped ornamental lake, 1.8km by 1.5km – the grand canal – was created from what was described as “a stinking pond”.While Versailles is the job Le Nôtre is most associated with, it is just one of dozens of gardens on which he worked in France and even abroad.

Born in 1613, gardening ran in Le Nôtre’s blood – both his father and grandfather were gardeners to the king in charge of the Tuileries (a former royal palace that burned down in the 19th century), and his mother was a gardener’s daughter.

He was educated in drawing, sculpting, architecture and perspective and considered becoming an artist, all of which fed into his elegant style. In 1635 Le Nôtre became head gardener to Monsieur, the king’s brother, looking after the Tuileries, the Jardin du Luxembourg and Fontainebleau.

The first garden he designed was for another nobleman at the Château of Wattignies, near Lille (which no longer exists). Finished in 1640, it featured grand Medici-style vases carved from stone and an open-air theatre.

However, it was his work at Vaux-le-Vicomte for the king’s wealthy superintendent of finances, Nicolas Fouquet, which brought him fame and fortune – until Fouquet was imprisoned on suspicion of embezzling, in 1661. It is thought the king was fed up with his extravagance – including a party in 1661 at which the entertainment included a comedy-ballet staged by Molière and Lully during which servants dressed as elves served delicacies and diamonds to the guests.

King Louis engaged Le Nôtre to work at Versailles in 1662 while he was working on Chantilly for Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé. He was also made ‘controller of the king’s buildings’, a post with wide responsibilities for royal palaces and gardens.

Remodelling from scratch the simple gardens laid out by Louis XIII at Versailles, Le Nôtre brought into play all the typical jardin à la française elements he had perfected at Vaux-le-Vicomte, with wide main axes of parterres, crossed by secondary ones and surrounded by wooded areas known as bosquets. A parterre is the open, flat part of a formal garden, consisting of lawns or planting beds divided by gravel paths and edged with stone or tightly-clipped hedging.

One variation, the broderie (embroidery) style, uses yew clipped close to the ground in curlicue shapes. Water features, statues and topiaried yews added to the elegant style which he also showcased at sites such as Saint-Cloud (1665), for the duc d’Orléans; Sceaux (1670-77), for finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert or Clagny for the king’s mistress Mme de Montespan (1674), as well as many others in both the capital and the provinces.

In Paris his work included improving the Tuileries, including opening up new vistas, one of which, the Grand-Cours, is now the Champs-Elysées. Enobled in 1681, he maintained the king’s favour all his life and counted him a friend. He cultivated a hearty, down-to-earth image which earned him the nickname ‘bonhomme Le Nôtre’ (‘goodfellow, Le Nôtre’) and chose as his coat of arms three snails on a green background, crowned with a cabbage on the top.

Le Nôtre had a lasting impact not just on his own century but right down to modern times, explains landscape gardener and gardens historian Frédéric Sichet.

Le Nôtre is seen as having invented the jardin à la française – is that true?
In the collective imagination he is the one that invented it, but it’s not entirely true. The style came about over a long period, from the end of the 16th century to Vaux-le-Vicomte. At that site he synthesised all the innovations – small and large – that had been starting to emerge in the first half of the 17th century. He is not the inventor of the broderie parterre or of the grand canal or of the first garden fountains; but doubt-less he managed to give a new dimension to these regu-larly planned gardens.

We owe to him most of the large gardens of 100-500 or more hectares in France; he made dozens during his career and very large gardens were very rare before him. He was lucky enough to meet patrons who said to him, “Mr Le Nôtre, design me a big garden, like only you know how”, and there was doubtless a time when everyone wanted a garden designed by him and he couldn’t keep up with the demand. I must clarify, though, that Le Nôtre didn’t get his own hands dirty – he wasn’t digging or putting in hydraulics, though he understood all of it very well, to be able to direct the works.

What is so special about his gardens?
He had a great talent for assembling different elements. In a Le Nôtre garden you have spaces which lead on, one from another; it’s not just a parterre and bosquets, it’s often, a multitude of parterres that link up – ones in front of the château, then lateral ones; and with a system of terraces you access a second level of parterres, then you get to the first bosquets... it’s very impressive; you never get bored.

When you make the effort to walk in one, you realise that it’s not designed to just look at from one viewpoint; there’s an immense variety, with things that are hidden and only appear later in the walk, there are steps leading to different levels, it’s not flat and boring. There may be wide central axes – at Chantilly it crosses the whole estate – but the garden is not just about that, there are lots of transversal ones which make you want to go and discover what’s on the sides.

Can you expand on some of his influences – these ideas that were emerging at the time?
The use of yew no doubt came from Italy where it suited the warm, dry climate. The first to use it in France was a royal gardener, Claude Mollet, who planted the first yew broderie for Henri IV [late 16th century]. Le Nôtre’s father was responsible for part of the Tuileries at the same time as old Mollet was looking after another. Another important concept, from Étienne Dupérac, an architect and interior designer, was composing ‘large format’ parterres. In the 16th century you had square beds each with a design in them, next to each other. In the 17th century the idea developed of a big design spreading across several beds. This is important in Le Nôtre’s gardens, where unity of composition is the aim.

Another element which we started to see in the early 17th century, for example at the Jardin du Luxembourg, is a half-moon pond or ornamental lake at the end of the parterres [at the opposite end to the house] as opposed to one in the middle, which led to the more elongated parterres which Le Nôtre used in his first important garden, Gagny, in the early 1640s then, for example, in the parterre de broderie at Vaux-le-Vicomte.

That one has a striking orange colour setting off the green yew – how is that done?
It’s made of crushed brick, which is a classic technique along with slate or pebbles or gravel or even, sometimes, pieces of mirror.

This kind of geometric garden is known as ‘French’. Is there something about this regular style that appeals to the French character?
We need to forget the idea that the French garden is a ‘cartesian’ garden [ie, clear and rational, sometimes claimed as typically French]. Yes, they are geometrical, but they have a very fine appreciation of nature; they don’t go against it. The ornamental lakes and canals are not in any old place, they are where the geology is suitable, where the ground is non-porous, where there’s a water supply... The gardens also lend themselves to the shape of the land; not everything is on the same level and symmetrical.

At Vaux-le-Vicomte, for example, if you look down the garden from the house there is a flowerbed to the right and on the left is the crown parterre which is lower. It’s harmonious, but not symmetrical. Nonetheless, there are technical tours de force. At Vaux-le-Vicomte there was a river going though the middle of the garden which they channelled underground to the left of the garden – and without that there would have been no garden. At Chantilly the river went by at the foot of the château and it was moved 400m away to feed into the grand canal. We’re talking about gigantic, earth-moving works.

His style is very much associated with grandeur and presumably doesn’t lend itself to more modest gardens…
No, but he did do smaller gardens – he did a lot for townhouses in Paris. But when you called on Le Nôtre it meant you had the means. It was a status symbol. You would have [François] Mansart for your château and Le Nôtre so as to have a garden designed to impress.

Was everyone trying to copy him at the time?
Yes, his influence was felt all over Europe, even in the USA later on. In the 19th century, you saw colonists with little jardins à la française in Louisiana because that was their idea of a beautiful property. His influence runs all through the 18th century – before the more pastoral Anglo-Chinese style became fashionable, which was very late on in France. He also designed the park of Greenwich in London and one at Racconigi in Italy and he had a huge influence in Sweden, because the king had sent his top architect to take notes in France to see what was being done. At Drottningholm, Sweden, there is a garden very much inspired by, if not to say copied from, Chantilly.

Today, does he still influence garden designs?
Certainly. Pascal Cribier, for one, a great landscape gardener, cites him as an influence and tries to understand what he was doing. His gardens have a very strong use of space and he’s looked closely at how Le Nôtre worked. In France we also had a period of a revival of the classical garden, in the late 19th century, after defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. There was a surge of nationalism and people said “we’re fed up of these pastoral, horticultural Germanic gardens” – by then the English-style was associated with Germany. “We don’t want these irregular gardens that try to imitate nature, the national garden of France is a regular one, it’s Le Nôtre.” That lasted until the 1920s.

In the 20th century, you get different artistic currents at the same time, but one trend was the ‘gentleman gardener’, like Lawrence Johnston, who created Hidcote in the Cotswolds or Serre de la Madone in Menton. There you can see a bit of everything, it’s like a wild garden in a for-mal shape, but in front of the house there are parterres in a regular design. So the influence is durable, with surprising twists and turns. I made a little private garden in a regular design, where people can go and relax, and I dipped into everything I know about Le Nôtre. If I’m still inspired by him, I can’t be the only one – he’s eternal.

- Mr Sichet gives talks on Le Nôtre at the Pavillon de Manse, where you can see a system of machinery created by Le Nôtre to power water for fountains and waterfalls at the nearby Château de Chantilly. For more details of these and other talks visit the site here.

- Also this year: The Louvre has an open-air exhibition in the Jardin des Tuileries – May 25-September 30 and a day of talks on May 25, 10am to 6pm.

Le Nôtre's creations

Le Nôtre’s first major creation and the garden said to have synthesised all the typical features of his style, this site has an exhibition opening on April 21: Le Nôtre, l’oeuvre fondatrice. There are dawn garden visits at 7.45 during May plus guided walks every third Sunday of the month from May to September. Open: to November 11, 10am to 6pm, or 11pm on summer Saturday evenings.

The Palace of Versailles
This became the king’s main residence in 1661 and transformation of the gardens started the following year. Events this year include an exhibition of modern sculptures in the gardens from June 11 to October 31, and the exhibition Le Nôtre en Perspective, from October 26 to February 27, 2014, about the man and his influence. Open: daily, 8am to 8.30pm until October 31 (then until 6pm from November).

This was said to have been Le Nôtre’s favourite garden, created for the Prince of Condé, known as Le Grand Condé. It has an exhibition on the gardens in the 17th and 18th centuries, from April 11 to July 7. Open: daily, 10am to 6pm until September 29; gates close at 8pm.

A property that seems straight out of a fairy-tale, Cordès is located near the Puy-de-Dôme mountain and the garden is designed to line up with it. Open: from May 31 to June 2, 2pm to 6pm, then every Sunday in June at the same times. July and August, daily 10.00-noon and 14.00-18.00 in July and August. September 14 and 15, 14.00-18.00.

The château houses the Ile-de-France museum and is run by the Hauts-de-Seine departmental council. It has an open-air display about Le Nôtre in the gardens until November and events throughout the year including, this month, guided Sunday visits on April 21 at 3pm. www.

Photo: The gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte, by Thomas Henz/Sadeness/Wikimedia

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