The Garden Guide

Book: A treatise on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, adapted to North America,1841
Chapter: Section I. Historical Sketches.

Gardens of Versailles

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The gardens of Versailles, says a tasteful English reviewer, "may indeed be taken as the great exemplar of this style; and magnificent indeed they are, if expense and extent and variety suffice to make up magnificence. To draw petty figures in dwarf-box and elaborate patterns in parti-colored sand, might well be dispensed with where the formal style was carried out on so grand a scale as this, but otherwise the designs of Le Notre differ little from that of his predecessors in the geometric style, save in their monstrous extent. The great wonder of Versailles was the well known labyrinth, not such a maze as is really the source of so much idle amusement at Hampton Court, but a mere ravel of interminable walks, closely fenced in with high hedges, in which thirty-nine of �sop's fables were represented by painted copper figures of birds and beasts, each group connected with a separate fountain, and all spouting water out of their mouths! Every tree was planted with geometrical exactness, and parterre answered to parterre across half a mile of gravel. 'Such symmetry,' says Lord Byron, 'is not for solitude;' and certainly, the gardens of Versailles were not planted with any such intent. The Parisians do not throng there for the contemplation to be found in the 'trim gardens' of Milton. There is indeed a melancholy, but not a pleasing one, in wandering alone, through those many acres of formal hornbeam, when we feel that it requires the 'galliard and clinquant' air of a scene of Watteau; its crowds and love-making�its hoops and minuets�a ringing laugh and merry tamborine -to make us recognise the real genius of the place. Taking Versailles on the gigantic type of the French school it need scarcely be said that it embraces broad gravelled terraces, long alleys of yew and hornbeam, vast orangeries, groves planted in the quincunx style, and water-works embellished with, and conducted through every variety of sculptured ornament. It takes the middle line between the two other geometric schools�admitting more sculpture and other works of art than the Italian, but not overpowered with the same number of 'huge masses of littleness' as the Dutch. There is more of promenade, less of parterre: more gravel than turf; more of the deciduous than the evergreen tree. The practical water-wit of drenching the spectators was in high vogue in the ancient French gardens; and Evelyn, in his account of the Duke de Richelieu's villa, describes with some relish how' on going, two extravagant musketeers shot at us with a stream of water from their musket barrels.' Contrivances for dousing the visitors�'especially the ladies'� which once filled so large a space in the catalogue of every show place, seem to militate a little against the national character of gallantry; but the very fact that everything was done to surprise the spectator and stranger, evinces how different was their idea of a garden from the home and familiar pleasures which an Englishman looks to in his."