The Landscape Guide

The landscape garden in France

Baroque Garen at Chantilly Chantilly, France
The Baroque garden at Chantilly. See hameau, below.

Most countries have been at war with their neighbours and the existence of La Manche (The English Channel) did not prevent this being the case between France and England. After a successful conquest, in 1066, England belonged to Normandy. When the English economy became stronger, in the following centuries, it began to seem that it was Northern France which belonged to England. This led to centuries of strife, the Hundred Years War and other conflicts. During the seventeenth century, England annoyed France by supporting the Dutch. During the eighteenth century it did so by supporting Frederick the Great of Prussia.

It was, therefore, something of a surprise when French intellectuals began to look favourably to England in the mid-eighteenth century. They did so because of the burdensome weight of the 'Ancien Regime' in France. This was a name given, by radicals, to the autocratic system of government they hoped to see replaced. England, for one of the few times in French history, seemed to have something better: a constitutional monarchy in which real power belonged to parliament - though it was in fact a parliament of rich landowners: universal suffrage came in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Furthermore, the English had executed a king (Charles I) on account of his autocratic tendencies.

During the eighteenth century, it seemed to French thinkers that England provided a model of liberty, democracy, scientific progress and rapid economic advance. The linking factor was NATURE.. It was 'natural' for the people to enjoy the rule of law and  to have a say in government, just as it was 'natural' to thirst for knowledge of what Descartes called 'the laws of nature' and to use this knowledge as a means to economic advance. Also, it was believed, art and design should be more 'natural'. One of the obvious candidates for modernisation was the design of gardens.

According to Dora Wiebenson, author of a book on The picturesque garden in France (Princeton University Press, 1978), the first French author to write about the idea of rural retirement was Honoré d'Urfé. He wrote a book, published 1608-28, called Astrée. It is a pastoral romance and 'a long-winded, archaic, and moralising story of the adventures of shepherds and shepherdesses, set in the simple rural countryside' (p.4). Its popularity continued into the eighteenth century as a picture of how simple and virtuous life had been, and could be, without the influence of Louis XIV. Horace Walpole associated d'Urfé with the paintings of Watteau. French authors, even in the time of Louis XIV, had also been interested in reconstructions of what Pliny's villas might have looked like (p.6). Wiebenson also points out that the Ha Ha was first described in a book by d'Arganville in 1709 as a means of opening up views of rural scenery. In France, this movement tended towards the rococo garden of the Régence period. The architect, J F Blondel, published a book on Maisons de Plaisance which praised intricacy, complexity, variety and contrast so that all the parts of a garden 'cause surprise and amusement' (p.7). Chinese influence had long prevailed in France. Charles Dufresny designed gardens with rococo characteristics, as did Watelet. This is surely the direction in which garden design would have developed had it not been for the political change which was coming over Europe.


The association between politics and naturalistic gardens was made by the great theorist of constitutional democracy: Montesquieu. [See note on Montesquieu's Persian Letters] Born Charles-Louis de Secondat, in the chateau of La Bréde near Bordeau in 1689, he studied law, began writing and spent much time in Paris, enjoying a gay and dissolute life. A political pamphlet hindering his advancement, he left Paris to go on a Grand Tour. He spent much time in Italy and then went to to England, between 1728 and 1731. There, he made friends, became a member of the Royal Society, bought a large collection of books and visited English gardens. He saw work by Pope, Bridgeman and Kent, as did Voltaire. What interested the French writers was the 'natural' principles on which they worked, including the idea of making an estate which was both useful and beautiful. Other French writers, including Abbé Le Blanc and Mme du Boccage, gave detailed descriptions of the gardens then being made in England. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 signalled the loss of France's colonies in North America India and ended another war with England. After this date, it became easier for the French to visit England and landscape gardens began to be made in France. The feature of English gardens which attracted most attention was 'the number of buildings' (Wiebenson p 28). In 1762, Diderot wrote of La Briche having 'large bodies of water, whose banks are covered with rushes and swamp herbs, and are connected by an old bridge, ruined and covered with moss; bowers that have never been touched by a gardener, trees planted without symmetry; fountains flowing from a natural source' (Wiebenson p29).

In 1761 Jean-Jacques Rousseau published what became an extremely influential novel: Julie: ou la Nouvelle Héloise in which he criticised the old gardens of France for their unnaturalness and 'false taste of grandeur'. Wiebenson (pp29-30) relates his opinion to the Essay sur les jardins, by his friend Watelet, rather than to Addison and English authors. She quotes a remark by Rousseau, when he was in England 1766-7 that he would like to see the numerous small temples 'changed into cottages' and thus put to a useful purpose. This opinion is certainly in line with that of Rousseau's friend the Marquis de Girardin, author  a famous book published in English as 'Essay on the means of improving and embellishing the country round our habitations' (London, 1783) [first published as De la Composition des paysages, ou, des moyens d'embellir la nature autour des habitations, en y joignant l'agreable a l'utile (Geneva, 1777).

By the 1770s detailed descriptions of the new English gardens and their designers were being published in France. The gardens which attracted most notice were Kew and  Stowe. Kew interested Blondel partly because of the work done there by his student, William Chambers. There was a discussion of gardening in the first volume of Blondel's Cours d'architecture (1774). Chambers had visited China and  wroteDesigns of Chinese buildings ( 1757) and a Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772) . Blondel made an association of the English style with Chinese influence - which continue to be made in France during the twentieth century. Stowe was the most famous English garden in the 1770s and a great many descriptions had been published. William Kent was regarded by Walpole as the inventor of Modern Gardening. In France Kent was regarded as the man who introduced the Chinese style of garden design to Europe. 'With the exception of occasional references to Pope, he is the only English garden designer singled out by the French development of the picturesque garden'  (Wiebenson p 35).

The literary record is fairly clear but 'The first irregular French garden has yet to be identified. One of the earliest, however, is Ermenonville' (Wiebenson p 81). It was made by the Marquis de Girardin and was described both by the designer and his son. The site had a 'Genius Loci' in the form of woods, water and hills. It also had the remains of a Baroque garden, destroyed by the Marquis in the Brownian manner. Girardin's design, however, was not Brownian in the sense of being an abstract 'serpentine' composition. Instead, it drew from two themes earlier themes:

To Girardin, agriculture was an essential component of rural life. In 1777 he published an essay which was re-published in English as the Essay on Landscape or, on the means of improving and embellishing the country round our habitations. He wrote that:  

This change of things then, from a forced arrangement to one that is easy and natural will bring us back to a true taste for beautiful nature, tend to the increase of agriculture, the propagation of cattle, and, above all, to more humane and salutary regulations of the country, by providing for the subsistence of those, whose labour supports the men of more thinking employments who are to instruct, or defend society.  

Rousseau's Tomb Rousseau's last home
Rousseau's Tomb - the Isle of Poplars Rousseau's last home, the cottage at Ermenonville
The Rustic Temple Ermenonville
The Rustic Temple The Temple of Modern Philosophy at Ermenonville

Girardin was as concerned to introduce a new style of agriculture as he was to introduce a new style of garden design. He was an 'improver' in both senses of the word and also planned a model village for his agricultural workers. He admired William Shenstone's ferme ornée and wished to make such a place for himself. Like The Leasowes, it was full of poetic inscriptions. There was a picturesque hamlet at Ermenonville modelled from an old mill. The Temple of Modern Philosophy was designed with reference to the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli. Wiebenson (p87) suggests that the design of the buildings was inspired by Italian vernacular buildings. As the below plans show, the Ermenonville had a baroque layout when Girardin inherited it from his grandmother. Only the chateau (private property), the central 'canal', the Isle of Poplars, and the mill survive. The estate used to have a bench dedicated to Marie Antoinette and a memorial to William Shenstone.

Ermenonville Estate  
The plan, below, shows the Ermenonville estate in 1770 and 1776.  

 The ferme ornée became popular in France, often combined with the making of picturesque hamlet (hameau). In 1775 a hamlet was begun at Chantilly which, according to the Prince to Croy, became the model for all later hamlets in France.

Hameau at Chantilly Hamlet at Chantilly

The hamlet (hameau) at Chantilly. Plan left and elevations right

Chantilly: the English garden, left, and the baroque garden, right

The most famous was the Hameau de Trianon, a gift from Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette. See Gothein's comments.

Petit Trianon Petit Trianon
Antoine Richard's 1774 plan for a jardin anglo-chinoise
by the Petit Trianon
Richard Micque 1774 plan for a jardin anglo-chinoise
by the Petit Trianon
Below: the Petit Trianon and Hameau as they are today

The making of French gardens came to an end with the Revolution. After the peace of 1815, it resumed with the making of more overtly English gardens but, since the Mixed Style was coming to the fore in England, there was no single model to emulate.



Wiebenson's useful book has a misleading title. She calls it The picturesque garden in France (Princeton University Press, 1978). Given the dominance of the ancient Greece and Rome in its genesis, it might have been wiser to include landscape garden in its title.