The Landscape Guide

Versailles Garden (2)

Clagny  King’s Island  Colonnade Bosket  Trianon de Porcelaine 

The year 1674 was the crowning stage of Louis’ life in every way. He was thirty-six years old, and felt in full possession of his powers. He was not unjustifiably proud in his conviction that he had become the central point and focus of art and culture in his own country, then incontestably at the head of all Europe. Every objection, even from the Church, was silenced in these days; for Louis was undoubtedly monarch and Mæcenas in one. His love for Madame de Montespan gave the inward stimulus to his being; she was the woman who supplied what in these years he wanted. She was beautiful, proud, self-willed, and full of spirit and fun, a nature which wanted to rule and gave in to him alone. She was the kind of queen he needed for his fêtes, and one who inspired him with a desire for peaceful days after the campaigns of war. When the fête of 1674 was over, it was an understood thing that the king would make Versailles his proper residence, since he cared for Paris less and less. Then when his passion for the marquise knew no bounds, he determined to make a fine place for her near Versailles, inferior to nothing but Versailles itself. She would be near enough at Clagny, a royal property lying north-east of Versailles, and yet not so admittedly by his side. On 22 May of the same year Colbert’s son submitted to him a plan designed by a young architect called Mansart, as yet little known. The king’s answer was: “ I can say nothing yet; I will first hear what Madame de Montespan thinks,” On 12 June the answer was: “ We both agree; they are to carry out the plans at once and begin work without a moment’s delay. Madame de Montespan is very anxious to see the garden so far advanced that it can be planted this autumn,” Colbert knew that the king was one who expected things done that to other people would seem impossible, not only in the case of buildings of this kind, but also at his fêtes.

When Madame de Sévigné visits Clagny in the next August, 1675, she writes to her daughter: “ We have been at Clagny, and what shall I tell you about it? It is a palace of Armida; the building rises à vue d’oeil, the gardens are already made. You know what Le Nôtre is. He has left standing a little dark wood which is very nice; and next comes a little wood of oranges in great tubs: you can stroll in this wood, which has shady avenues, and there are hedges on both sides cut breast-high, so as to conceal the tubs, and these are full of tuberoses, roses, jasmine, and pinks. This novelty is certainly the prettiest, most surprising and ravishing that one could imagine, and the little wood is greatly liked.” Naturally at that time the castle and gardens were not yet finished: before every- thing was complete in the way of marble sculptures, paintings, gildings inside the house, orangery, and gardens—costing the sum of about 17,000,000 francs—the year 1680 had arrived, and the star of Madame de Montespan was rapidly waning. She no doubt did live for a time in the beautiful castle, and in 1683, after his marriage to Madame de Maintenon, Louis did present it to his former mistress. But the pain caused to the lady by her humiliations was too much for her pride in the long run, and in June 1692 she left everything to her son, the Duc de Maine, and entered a nunnery.

At the end of the eighteenth century the ruined castle was pulled down, and to-day there is no trace of it. Mansart made his first experiment at Clagny (Fig. 408).

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 As at Versailles, the buildings were round an inner court with a large one in front, at the sides of which kitchen-gardens and stables were cleverly concealed; and this front court was enclosed by a moat, showing how hard it was to part from the traditional idea that a castle must have trenches as a protection. The main part of the building was set forward into the garden by side wings, a plan carried out on a small scale by Mansart, serving as an example for the future enlargement of the castle at Versailles. The garden, which Le Nôtre laid out “in his own style” as Madame de Sévigné says, and which has been so greatly praised, could be no more than the private garden of a small house.

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 But the style of Le Nôtre is here fully exemplified, and the middle show-garden gently sloping in terraces from the castle (Fig. 409) ends in a large water-mirror, the great pond which the master found to his hand and made into the shape of the long canal; there were groves bordering the middle garden, planted with hornbeam and silver fir. In front of one wing of the castle, whose ground floor served as an orangery, there was that little orange wood so charmingly described by Madame de Sévigné, with a dark grove at the side that made a pleasing contrast to it.

The works of Mansart at Clagny recommended him to the favour of the king. When Louis was living at Versailles more and more uninterruptedly, it became inevitable that the castle must be enlarged; for though he might receive his court for summer entertainment, he could not possibly receive the Government. Le Vau had died by 1670, and his pupils had finished the building; but now the king, who could never brook delay, needed a young, energetic person, and so Mansart began the gigantic structure of the two side wings, which was started and carried through with a really superhuman speed. As many as 22,000 or even 36,000 workmen were employed. The king would hear of no interruptions—even an epidemic must not stop the workmen. Madame de Sévigné writes that in October 1678 there were “cartloads of dead bodies brought out of a sick-house every night.” Le Nôtre worked on unweariedly at the garden, for the king and his court had to have something new—and again something new. In the official Court News would constantly appear the statement that the king had been to visit a successful alteration. And so new groves were made as often as possible, and in due course the best one of all, called the King’s Island. This was a very large basin, comprising two boskets, with an island in the middle, made lively with an endless supply of water-jets (Fig. 410).

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Greater work was needed in the alterations that from the year 1677 gradually affected almost all the groves; indeed in Louis’ long reign some of them were altered five times. First the architect renewed the two groves at the side of the Avenue of Children, and there appeared the Triumphal Arch bosket (Fig. 405) that Rigaud has engraved.
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 Le Nôtre got longer leave in 1678, so that he could go to Italy and find inspiration. He was no longer young, but he was greatly esteemed by the king, who liked his open, careless, even ‘childlike, enthusiasm, and was pleased to have him about. New legends grew about his name, now well known all over Europe because of his doings at Versailles, especially on the occasion of this visit to Italy, and every beautiful garden must needs enjoy the reputation of having been designed by him. This was asserted over and over again about Villa Ludovisi, which as a fact had been in existence more than thirty years. Though Le Nôtre had, it is true, studied in Italy when he was a young man, such a work as that would hardly have been entrusted to an unknown artist. We have an example of the kind of impression his childlike, frank character produced in an anecdote told about him. They say that during an audience of Innocent XI., Le Nôtre was so charmed with the Pope that he kissed him, and when this was reported at the French court the people about the king refused to believe it; but Louis said, “ I can very well credit that, for he has often kissed me when he was excited.” Le Nôtre kept his eyes open, and made friends with Italian artists, so that he came back with a great many new ideas, which he at once carried out at home.

The garden at Versailles had now to bear a loss, for the beautiful grotto, which had been its chief ornament and a favorite resting-place of the king for twenty years or so, fell a victim to the building of the north wing. There was no thought of transferring it to another place, because the taste for this kind of ornament and many-coloured shell-work began to fade in the eighties. The king had become more serious, and his taste changed to a love for stricter, simpler, and larger lines. But at any rate some pretty groups were kept; they were first moved into another grove, whose fountain bore the statue of Fame (Fig. 411). They remained there till 1704, and were then transferred to a new bosket that was made in the place of Madame de Montespan’s weeping tree.

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 For their present unsuitable position in three niches of a great semi-artificial rock above an irregularly made basin, the era of English taste, with its sham romanticism, which fortunately has not done much harm elsewhere at Versailles, is responsible.

The king lost with his grotto a kind of concert-room in the open, for he had greatly enjoyed having musical performances in front of this grotto or inside it. Not till two years later was the charming pillared  colonnade bosket set up (Fig. 412), which was mostly built by Mansart. 

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Thirty-two marble pillars coupled with pilasters were set in an elliptical curve, connected with balustrades and arches, with fountains between, and in the centre there was a beautiful group representing the Rape of the Sabines. The king often had the concerts held in this grove, which was an early example of the new simpler taste. The new orangery was made by Mansart at the same time that the grotto was broken up, also the enlargement of the south parterre to  make it the same size as the one on the north, and again the final extension of the great water called the Swiss Lake, which now made a suitable ending to a large crossway that issued from the basin of Neptune, at that time called the Dragon fountain, because of its decoration. The central feature of this up-and-down cross-road, the great terrace in front of the castle, was also completed in 1684. The eye grew somewhat weary with all the prettiness, and the water-parterre blocked the straight way to the castle, so that people had to go round; therefore a large wide avenue was made in the middle where all the fine processions could be displayed, having on both sides great water-mirrors—which can still be seen—with their incomparable decoration of bronze statues made by Tuby, Keller, Coysevox, Le Hongre (Fig. 413), and others.

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Two wonderful groups were designed for the middle of this water: the Birth of Venus, and the Thetis group; but it was only for a short time and only as models that they adorned the place, which now looks rather bare. These severe waters with their paucity of ornament (as compared with the host of marble statues) made exactly the right prelude for the garden, suiting the character of the Versailles court, as it developed in these years with ever statelier ceremonial. We must imagine all the accessories of pomp and splendour, when the king was carried for a promenade in the park in his chair, accompanied by dignitaries in order of precedence. These journeys he always took in small specially made carriages, or with some guests to show him the beauty of his park, as he loved to do. He himself wrote the first " Guide “ to the park and gardens, and his servants had to follow this in conducting people round. It was arranged precisely how they were to pause on the steps of the Latona parterre, so as to get the orientation of the whole of the terraces, and then pass down to the Latona basin. At the foot, a point of view is particularly recommended, which allows all the most noteworthy of the water arrangements to be seen at a glance; and this is even now known as the point de vue. Then they are to go on through the main avenue as far as the great canal, and then look back, so as to get the entire castle as a complete view seen over the garden. Then come the groves on the left of the canal, next the orangery, and finally the various places on the right side. This is a method of conducting which is used by every modern guide.

The king’s passion for building and altering was not long satisfied with Versailles; and beside the mighty works there grew up a whole series of castles. Even before Clagny was begun, there sprang up in a few months one small costly erection: the Trianon de Porcelaine. This happened in 1670, and it was on the northern end of the crossway of the canal. “ It was regarded by everyone as a marvel,” says Félibien, “ for it was only started at the end of the winter, and by the spring there it stood, as though it had grown out of the earth with all the flowers about it “ (Fig. :414). 

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Louis wanted to please Madame de Montespan with the little house: it was only a tea-house where you might take refreshments at midday in the heat of the summer. It was about this time that reports had arrived from the French missionaries in China, which were destined in a short time to play such an important part in the story of the changes of taste in gardens; and these reports had astonished the world. People began eagerly to collect porcelain, stuffs, and paintings from China, and the porcelain tower of Nanking was the eighth wonder of the world. Louis desired to have something of the same kind, and so he must have the small Trianon tea-house adorned à la chinoise. Owing to lack of porcelain they used faience in the Dutch manner, but this was produced at a factory of faience newly founded at Trianon itself. On the façade faience plaques were put everywhere, and great blue vases on the cornices and on the steps which led to the canal, with white marble busts on plinths of faience. The inside was to correspond; and you passed through one large room in the middle with a separate apartment on each side of it. The room was all white, with blue figures as ornament, and the floor was paved with faience tiles in the same colouring.

Since each of the side rooms was only one chamber and a cupboard from which issued a bird-house, they added on either side of the house, which flanked an oval court, side pavilions, each set up with the same decoration as a petit palais (Fig. 415).

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 Here we meet for the first time with the detached buildings of the dwelling-pavilions, which group themselves as attendants to the chief house, an arrangement that was carried out at the completion of Many, and from now onwards is repeated many thousands of times, particularly in Germany. To this taste in interiors the garden laid out by Le Bouteux corresponded. On the terraces there had to be flowers, brilliant in colour and beauty, to suit the blue and white pottery; both the seats and the flower-boxes were painted blue and white. Because the flowers in the other gardens were kept back by strict lines of water and trellis, here too this new variété must be introduced. “ On the parterre opposite the rooms,” says Félibien, “you find four waterspouts, which leap up high into the air from four basins raised on pedestals.” [The engraving, Fig. 414, shows only two, and this is probably correct.] “ From this parterre you mount into another garden which might justly be called the everlasting abode of Spring, for every time you go to it, you find it full of all sorts of flowers, and the air is sweet with the pleasant scents of jessamine and orange as you stroll among them.”

A large house made of wood was set up over a winter garden, in which oranges, citrons and other trees were kept rooted in the earth, with surrounds of myrtle and jessamine. The scent of the flowers, tuberoses, hyacinths, and pinks, was often so strong that it was intolerable on the terraces after a while to some people; all the same the odours were, so to speak, tuned to the right pitch, and inside the place there was a cabinet de parfum as its finest ornament, and the sweet-smelling flowers of many kinds combined to make a real harmony. It is a very noticeable thing, that the ambassadors from Siam, who were received magnificently at Versailles in i686, admired this cabinet de parfum beyond everything, “ for they loved strong scents, and were delighted with this way of making perfume from flowers.”

Versailles and all the other places of the king were regarded with veneration in France, and also in Europe, where all eyes were fixed upon France: of this people were very well aware. In 1686, the Mercure Galant writes: “ The Trianon at Versailles aroused in all private persons the wish to have something of the same kind, and almost all great lords who possessed country houses had one built in the park, with smaller ones at the end of the garden. The burghers, who could not go to the expense of these buildings, dressed up some old booth, or perhaps a sentry-box, as a Trianon or at least as a kind of cabinet in their houses.” And all through the eighteenth century this custom grew. The Encyclopædists followed the lead of the Mercure Galant, which had only been in jest with the catchword “ Trianon.” Trianon and Hermitage became synonymous. In the great Universal Lexicon of Zeller, which appeared in 1734, we find “ Hermitage, a retreat, a low-built pleasure-house, in a shrubbery or a garden, furnished with rough stones, or poor woodwork, and left practically wild, so that one may cultivate solitude and live in the fresh air, It is also called a Trianon.” A building like this has gone far afield from the pretty porcelain Trianon—and into a new world. True, Louis himself had aimed at a certain kind of solitude at the Trianon. In his fine barge on the canal he often made his way in the afternoons to this place, whence, looking back, he enjoyed the ensemble of his garden and house. But he soon felt that he was still too near the pomp and show from which he wanted to escape. He needed something that was far distant from the castle, and from the ceremonial that he had made himself, and by which he was confined. Hence came Marly.