Even those who have never been to Giverny can summon up an image of its water lilies, sun-speckled water, an arching, wisteria-clad Japanese bridge... wide, colourful borders brimming with irises and nasturtiums... and rose-hung pergolas framing a long, pink house with green shutters.
Each year, half a million visitors wander, enraptured, through Claude Monet’s iconic gardens, 50 miles northwest of Paris; there can’t be a petal or leaf that has not been photographed.
Renovation of the gardens began in the late Seventies, after nearly 50 years of neglect. Gérald van der Kemp, the man behind the brilliant restoration of Versailles, oversaw the phenomenally successful operation, recruiting Gilbert Vahé as head gardener.
Vahé retired from the post in 2011 and, to the surprise of many, an Englishman took on the role. Kew-trained James Priest, who has spent most of his working life in France, stepped up to what is one of the most publicly visible horticultural positions in France. So how is he getting on?
‘You really have to understand a garden before you start to build on its past,’ he explains, as we make our way through the throngs. ‘And to understand this garden, you have to understand Monet.’
Monet the gardener
James, who paints in his spare time, discovered Monet as a student on holiday in Paris. ‘I saw The Water-lily Pond in the Jeu de Paume and I was struck by the emotion: this was about Monet wanting to recreate an emotional response to his subject. Later, it dawned on me how, in attempting to capture light in paint, Monet was obsessed by the truth of what light revealed to him.
‘He was an avid collector of plants but he wasn’t what you’d call a plantsman in a modern horticultural sense. He was curious about plants in the way that he was curious about all light-reflecting surfaces.’
The long, wide borders that sweep away from the house were planted by Monet in the same way that his paintboxes were arranged: yellows and oranges in one bed, blues and mauves in another.
James grins: ‘Madame Monet was not at all happy about the way her husband wanted to do away with the rather formal lawns and box hedging that they found here when they first arrived. She was all for keeping up bourgeois appearances while Monet was compulsively exploring the light-reflecting properties of as many plants as possible.’ We look up a flowery aisle together and James chooses his words carefully: ‘This is my first year here, and I’m observing – not planning any radical changes. But I am committed to honouring the spirit of Monet in this garden, and in some places I feel the emotion has been lost.
‘I want visitors to have an impression of recognition: that those familiar with his garden paintings experience that same feeling when they are in this garden. That doesn’t mean slavishly using only plants that were familiar to Monet – rather it means going back to his paintings to absorb the spirit of his planting.’
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The familiar ponds
By now we have arrived at the bottom of the walled garden; across the road lie the famous water-lily ponds. James hesitates; ahead lies the grim concrete subway that links the two parts of the garden. Instead, he unlocks a gate in the wall and we cross the road. Before us is the Japanese bridge and, turning back, we look up the garden to the central façade of the house. This is what Monet saw (the road then was a single rail line) when he planned his water-lily garden, but now that the volume of traffic makes crossing impractical, it has been lost. James is resigned to the necessity of the subway, but knows something must be done to improve its appearance.
At last, we are on the bridge and looking out over the still, green water, lapped by an oriental frame of azaleas, Japanese maples and bamboos.
Apart from the weeping willows, the bankside paths were largely unplanted in Monet’s day and if any of van der Kemp’s restoration has come in for criticism, it is here.
To James, the criticism is spurious: ‘We have an obligation to the paying public. Just as in the walled garden the season has been extended with plants such as semi-tender salvias that would have been unknown to Monet, here planting has been extended without detracting from the water lilies.’
Monet was no purist when it came to planting in water and his original order includes lotuses, water chestnuts and Pontederia, and marginals, such as Polygonum, Sagittaria, grass-like Scirpus and Caltha. In addition, pennywort, marsh ferns and bulrushes suggest the pleasure he took in mingling wild plants with exotic novelties.
You can lose yourself gazing at the water lilies. There are more than a dozen varieties, obtained from the same nursery, Latour-Marliac, that supplied Monet a century ago (see below for details). Surrounded by intensely farmed land, the water is high in nitrates, so the lilies do not need feeding. However, green algae flourishes, which means going out daily with a boat and net from spring to autumn, just as Monet did. Water rats are a nuisance, too, feeding on the lilies’ roots.
James keeps his work worries firmly in perspective. Most evenings, after the gardens have closed, he is here, camera in hand, waiting for a few elusive seconds of perfection when the soft Normandy light falls gently upon the water and lilies.
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Plant Monet’s lilies
Amazingly, Monet’s original plant order placed with Latour-Marliac still survives, so we know he started with just a pink variety, Nymphaea ‘Laydekeri Rosea’ (sold as N. ‘Laydekeri Rosea Prolifera’) and two yellow ones, Nymphaea ‘Odorata Sulphurea Grandiflora’ and Nymphaea mexicana. To order, visit latour-marliac.com and click on £ Latour-Marliac UK.