April 19, 2021
Do you ever wonder how seriously the Georgian creators of monumental gardens took all their temples to the gods, their statues and sacred groves? They had all grown up with the classics at school, may have gone on Grand Tours to Rome and come home with dreams of Arcadia, or at least the Campagna. But what are gardens for in real life? To entertain your friends, show off and have fun. Imagine the conversations – ‘I bet that cost you a bob or two’. Perhaps a Latin tag, and then ‘I rather fancy her; reminds me of ….’
Why such profane thoughts? I’m reading the prospectus for one of the most famous French 18th century gardens, written by its designer, a military engineer and man-about-the-salons who called himself Carmontelle. In the 1770s he was commissioned by the royal duc de Chartres, the king’s nephew, to design and build a park or pleasure ground for him at Monceau, just northwest of the centre of Paris. Carmontelle was a wit; irony was his trade mark. It is easy to think he was pulling energetically at his patron’s leg;. he stuffed it so full of follies.. His brochure takes it all very seriously, discussing the key viewpoints to survey a bizarre, to modern eyes rather ridiculous, assortment of pavilions and sham ruins, bridges, columns, temples, cascades, water- and wind-mills, Turkish tents, an Isle of Sheep, a wood full of tombs, arcades, an Italian vineyard and a Naumachia, or theatre for mock sea-battles, all scattered around artificial lakes and streams, over an area of flat land with no natural elevations, no prospect beyond this crazy Disneyland. The present Parc Monceau is just a surviving fragment. Twenty luxurious engravings with solemn captions were sold to be framed (hence the brochure). But if you read Carmontelle’s Introduction he rather gives the game away.
‘What do we actually do in the countryside?’ he asks. ‘We make it our business to please the ladies….but it is difficult to persuade them to go for a walk, and it is always late when they go out, then, deprived of bright light…..features lose much of their charm… and dampness, as well as persecution by insects, brings the walkers back….but what does it matter? – we talked, we laughed, we were gay’.. Hence, perhaps, the shortness of the walks at Monceau, and the number of ‘features’.
The temptation to overdo it is familiar to most gardeners, and a big budget only makes it worse. When some plutocrat started building and didn’t know when to stop the French speak of ‘la folie de la pierre’. Carmontelle was having a lot of fun.. Did the duke never say ‘Hold on a minute. Another ruin?’ You can overdo it with plants, of course, too. Nurserymen would have a lean time without enthusiasts who must try everything. Curiosity is a great gift to possess, but matched with a fortune (still more with indecision) it can rapidly lead to absurdity. Nor is building follies a thing of the past. I’ve been there myself, in the days when yards of reclaimed building materials were quite common.. But that’s another story.
The first English translation of Garden at Monceau was published recently by The Foundation for Landscape Studies in New York.