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At a distance, grandeur in gardens leaves me cold. It seems miles away from life among plants, weeds and squirrels, the level at which English gardeners are most at home. It requires a notable anniversary and a special occasion to persuade me to contemplate it close up. This year is the 400th birthday of the genius of grandeur, France’s André Le Nôtre, king of formal landscape design. His masterpiece, Versailles, is so gigantic that this column has skirted round it for the past 40 years. There is no longer an excuse. Until February 23 next year it is the site of a superb exhibition in the great man’s honour. Deep down I have hitherto preferred the second mistress of Le Nôtre’s royal patron, Louis XIV. The portrait of this lady, the Marquise de Montespan, shows her with her four (explicitly legitimate) children and gives her a beguilingly squeezable waistline. I have now downgraded her. It is not just that she would need a personalised Trianon to be built in her honour if I was to stand a chance, like Louis XIV, of seducing her among flowers. Le Nôtre is so much more fascinating, so modest, so widely admired and so brilliantly talented. His range of interests went far beyond formal lakes and terraces. He is the true marvel of the age, so much greater than that menace to European unity, the Sun King himself.
Like his gardens, his life has gained some fascinating new dimensions. The architectural historian Georges Farhat, now in Toronto, has recently cracked some of the secrets of Le Nôtre’s perspectival planning. With a whole room to themselves, they are explained in a helpful video and a contoured see-through model of Versailles’s main park. Even my ungeometric eye can understand them. It is no longer good enough to talk vaguely about the philosopher Descartes as the inspiration of Le Nôtre’s “Cartesian” sense of geometric space. The landscaper applied tricks called “anamorphosis” and “collimation”, perspectival ways of making distant objects appear big and allowing levels and features to unfold as the observer moves forwards from specific viewing points in their foreground.
These were not new 17th-century inventions, nor were they learned from high thinkers like Descartes. Le Nôtre met them in his twenties during his years with the painter Simon Vouet and his constant relations with artists around the Tuileries in Paris. Farhat rediscovered the use of them only after meticulous measurement on Versailles’s site itself. Le Nôtre was not using a new secret instrument. He applied artists’ older tricks to a new field – garden space.
Meanwhile, his life has become clearer despite the absence of any autobiography and the proliferation of legend and invented bons mots. After 15 years of archival research, the biographer Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin has given us a study of the man and his contacts which is of the highest importance. It is the ideal garden book to give to French-speaking friends this Christmas. She writes with such clarity and verve. She is also the commissaire of the Versailles exhibition. Kindly she invited me to see it for four hours in her company.
If you think that Le Nôtre was a one-horse trick, specialising in vast long canals and inhumanly big terraces, you need to do penance. He was a lover of flowers and a serious collector of coins and medals, including a batch from Louis’s sworn enemy, the Protestant William of Orange. He was a buyer of first-class contemporary paintings and, as Bouchenot-Déchin shows, a man with a fascination for the classical ancients too. A stunning first room into the exhibition recreates the octagon with which Le Nôtre enlarged his privileged house in the Tuileries. It shows many of the paintings which he presented from it to the king, including two top-class Poussins, bought from the artist, and a superb pair of Claudes.
Meanwhile, her biography deepens our knowledge of Le Nôtre’s family and connections. It gives a new view of his visit to Italy when in his late sixties. It tactfully refutes so many legends, including the one which still terrorises modern high financiers, the tale of the king’s visit to Vaux-le-Vicomte, the proud new home of the finance minister Fouquet. Louis promptly expropriated the house, the garden by Le Nôtre and all the garden staff, allegedly because they and Fouquet had put on such a spectacular show that the king felt intolerably jealous. In fact, Fouquet’s fall had been in the air for much longer and the main garden experts had been working for Louis for some while. The financier’s party for the king was not to blame for his arrest, although its magnificence makes a modern hedge fund evening seem like a tame tea party.
The garden at Vaux unfolds before the visitor in a way which makes it the favourite of many modern historians. I admire Sceaux, also near Paris, and the brilliantly balanced design which Le Nôtre laid out later for Fouquet’s financial successor, Colbert. There is so much more to discover. As we went in detail round the exhibition, its commissaire suddenly exclaimed in excitement as she had noticed for the first time a pen and ink scribble on a Le Nôtre plan from Turin. It describes a garden slope in the master’s own handwriting. Le Nôtre’s modern influence, from Moscow to Washington via Munich and Belgium, concludes the huge show, but the biggest excitement is the room of garden paintings, completed in his own lifetime.
The prize exhibit is a big painting of a garden at Juvisy, midway between Paris and Fontainebleau. For years it had been in private hands but during the formation of the exhibition it came on to the market through Pelham Galleries in London. It is a superb snapshot of a visit by Louis XIV and attendant horsemen to a formally designed French garden. The landscaping is set to one side of a house which could not be enlarged or moved because of the church beside it. Bouchenot-Déchin happened to see it while trawling the internet and at once matched it with documented comments by François Blondel, the designer of its notable canal and cascade garden. He remarked that he was working within a design of “that (celebrated) man”, clearly someone very famous and manifestly, as the owner and the gallery had merely suspected, Le Nôtre himself. The painting was already being bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is now a great coup for London. It shows how one of Le Nôtre’s formal gardens could merge into a flower and vegetable garden and an outlying farm with bucking horses and grazing cows beyond. Versailles was not his only style and scale.
Some have claimed that Le Nôtre was not much interested in formal parterre beds, others that he was not interested in flowers. Bouchenot-Déchin is herself a keen gardener and includes fascinating evidence of Le Nôtre’s own love of flowers, a fact also documented by a chapter on his “floral embellishments” in the excellent exhibition catalogue. The king wanted fresh flowers in his gardens for every month. We still have the original orders for thousands of tulips, hyacinths and so forth. A vast nursery trade underpinned the flowery heavens which were planted to delight the king’s mistresses.
The exhibition is my top Christmas tip for keen travelling gardeners. So is its surrounding garden. As the afternoon light faded, I was treated, next, to a Versailles visit of unsurpassable excitement. The biggest garden is the greatest of all. Just you wait until next week. The marquise did not even get a look in.
‘André Le Nôtre In Perspective, 1613-2013’, Château de Versailles, runs to February 23
‘André Le Nôtre’, by Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin (Fayard, €27)