The Landscape Guide



The French style 

In the time of Louis XIV., the formal garden had reached a height that could never be surpassed. There were then associated an ingenious artist, an enthusiastic ruler with unlimited powers, a technical skill that nothing could baffle, and a host of practical fellow-artists to make the individual sections contribute to a successful whole. It followed that the art grew to its utmost height, and became an organic thing, essentially independent.

The northern garden style originated in France, and became the one shining example for Middle and Northern Europe. All eyes were fixed on the magic place Versailles; and to emulate this work of art was the aim of all ambitions. No imitator, however, could attain his object completely, because nowhere else did circumstances combine so favourably. The great importance of the style lay in its adaptability to the natural conditions of the North, and in the fact that it was easily taught and understood. Thus we have a remarkable spectacle: in spite of the fact that immediately after Louis’ death the picturesque style appeared—that enemy destined to strike a mortal blow at a fashion which was at least a thousand years old—for some decades later there came into being many specimens of the finest formal gardens, and the art flourished, especially in countries like Germany, Russia, and Sweden.

France did not become mistress of Europe in garden art merely because of such of her examples as could be copied; of almost equal importance was the wide popularity of a book which first appeared anonymously in France in 1709 under the name of Théorie et Pratique du Jardinage. In the third edition this work was fathered by the architect Le Blond, who had distinguished himself in the construction of gardens. Some had thought D’Argenville Dezalliers to be the author. Never before did a book lay down the prin ciples of any style so surely and so intelligibly in instructive precepts. It claimed to be the first work entirely devoted to the pleasure-garden, the kitchen-garden being dismissed with complete indifference, “ In large gardens there are good vegetable plots worth looking at, but they are kept away from the house and do not contribute to its grandeur or beauty.” The author will accept only Boyceau and Mollet as his predecessors, and then only in certain departments.

The great diversity in garden art, which gives a place to every other art, compels the garden student to receive a many-sided education. "He must be something of a geometrician, must understand architecture, must be able to draw well, must know the character and effect of every plant he makes use of for fine gardens, and must also know the art of ornament. He must be inventive, and above all intelligent; he must have a natural good taste cultivated by the sight of beautiful objects and the criticism of ugly ones, and must also have an all-round interest and insight in these matters.”

Le Nôtre had brought up a generation of pupils who were educated in these qualities and could easily apply what they knew, and Le Blond, who was busied with the drawings, at any rate, for this work, was one of them. He explains the garden in a methodical way. After preliminary tests have been made, a site is to be preferred where the land is either flat or gently inclined, and not a steep hill. He objects to very high terraces, commanding stone steps, too much trellis, and too many figures. Here we clearly get the opposite of the Italian Renaissance style. In vain had the attempt been made on the French side of the Alps to imitate Italian gardens; it was labour in vain to do here what came so easily to an Italian. This is expressed in that classical sentence: Le cose che si murano sono superiori a quei che si piantano (The things that are walled in are better than the things that are only planted). 

The French garden produces a plant-architecture to which statues, fountains, and water must accommodate themselves. The house must, of course, be somewhat raised on a terrace overlooking the garden, and the site must be fixed in obedience to four main principles, (i) art must be subject to nature, (2) the garden must not be too shady, (3) it must not be too much ex- posed, (4) must always look bigger than it really is. The first principle, soon to be put forward by the picturesque style as a destructive criticism, only emphasises the opposition between French plant-architecture and Italian wall-architecture. The other principles refer to the effort made by the French garden to combine the greatest possible variety with the strictly formal style. House and garden are so united by a single idea that their size is relatively and immovably fixed, and the open garden, the parterres, and their contrasting boskets must exactly correspond to them.

It is perhaps in the laying-out of the parterre that Le Blond has least gone beyond Boyceau. He was acquainted with all the kinds, including the parterre de broderie, with arabesque patterns marked out in box and combined in one large design—this was now the favourite kind—and the other sort that had geometrical shapes of flower-beds edged with box, now somewhat out of fashion, and generally used, in combination with the broderie style, to give greater variety. From England had come the fashion of laying out the parterre in great stretches of lawn, with a pattern in coloured clay, and a strip of flowers or dwarf trees round. The boskets were now made into novel and hitherto unheard-of forms, and these “ contain all that is most beautiful in a garden.” We have become familiar with such arrangements in Le Nôtre’s great works. Every garden must needs have boskets of the kind as a necessary background for the open parterre, to conceal the secluded

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parts and the variété from spectators on the house terrace, whose view over the open parterre was to be checked here; in these places there was the desirable unbroken shade, the theatre for fêtes, protection from every rough wind, and solitude. The splendour and importance of a garden depended on its many-sidedness; but even the most simple and unadorned could show beauty and symmetry, with a background of thicket, and with pretty paths cut in the massif of the hornbeam with which these small woods were generally planted.

n spite of the love for variety, the book utters that cry for simplicity which inspired the last period of the creation of Le Nôtre. It warns people against dividing and subdividing, a habit in which the author thought—rightly as the future showed—that he saw the greatest enemy of the French garden. The porticoes of many kinds that were cut in greenery, the winding trellis which was overdone, the extravagant clipping of trees into the shapes of animals, men on horseback, men on foot, and many other things—all this was disliked by the writer. What the French garden needed, he said, for its main lines, was most of all simple tall hedges. Everything mean and shabby, even in garden sculpture, should be avoided: better no statues at all than bad ones.

Le Blond’s treatment of water corresponds to this idea in the main. When avenues and squares are planned there should be a really useful surround of water, but he is contemptuous of petty detail in the way of shell-work and small basins— and calls them colifichets (gewgaws), All the important fountains ought to be visible from one central point. It is clear that the art of Le Nôtre could not have found a better or more lucid exponent. There must needs be powerful, if unseen, reasons at work, if so noble

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an art was to be brought to ruin. The success of the book was remarkable : edition after edition appeared, then pirated issues and translations. And it had significant results. To its influence was due the improvement in skill and the lightness of touch which came about in gardens at that time.

France was behind other countries in the matter of new works in the eighteenth century, especially in those districts in the north that were influenced by the Parisian court. They always harked back to Versailles, without which French taste could not have produced so manifold a progeny in the rest of Europe. But the court, as we have seen, changed its taste; the new century was not one of fêtes and displays, because for one thing money, exhausted by the Thirty Years’ War, was scarce in the state treasury and was not forthcoming for new creations, which could only have compared unfavourably with those of the seventeenth century. After Louis the Fourteenth’s death the spirit of the time expressed itself in places like the Little Trianon at the time of its first garden. In the ever-increasing artistry of the parterre there developed very markedly that transition state, of which we shall speak hereafter.

Before we turn our attention to the influence of France on other European nations, one more garden, standing outside the limiting circle of the court, must be considered—the so-called Jardin de la Fontaine at Nimes (Fig. 440). 

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This is perhaps the most important work that exhibits directly the newly awakened interest in antique art. When the foundations of mighty Roman remains were discovered in the thirties of the eighteenth century, the enthusiasm of the people was so great that they demanded restoration. The work was entrusted to Maréchal, a fortress-builder, in 1740; and he proceeded to design a most imposing scheme of terraces, steps, basins, statues and gardens, mostly on the old foundations. It was the best kind of baroque work, and translated the spirit of Roman life into the style of the great age.

At one time there had stood in this place temples, baths, corridors richly adorned with statues, and a theatre. The chief garden is in a straight line with the main street of the town, the Boulevard de la République, and old foundations of baths were utilised as canals, flowing round the different terraces. At a spot where there is now reposing, on a high pedestal, a nymph with children, at the top of the basin of the baths, there was in former days the statue of Augustus on a stylobate, with decorated columns at its four corners. The spring itself lies somewhat removed from the main axis, exactly at the foot of the hill; and on the top of the hill stands a Roman watch-tower, La Tour Magne, while farther towards the side is a Temple of Diana, where the nymph of the stream was worshipped. This enforced bending from the axial line, in which we discern a sure indication of the Roman spirit, is here only a special case of rhythm, for there is evident everywhere a strong feeling for unity, shown in the all-pervading balustrades, statues, vases at the corners, steps, and bridges (Fig. 441).

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The true feeling of the antique world, which restrained the architect, served as a protection to this late work (as also to the Villa Albani in Italy, whose date is much the same) from all the pettiness and prettiness of the court style in Northern France.

And now we must consider the period when all the countries of Europe directly or indirectly felt the influence of Versailles, that central sun of France, so long as it maintained its full and original splendour.