Monet’s English Country Gardener

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The Much-Painted Gardens at Giverny are like walking through a painting; tootlafrance.ie catches up with its operational head - Englishman James Priest

“I suppose if you’ve fallen in love with Monet and his art, then you’ll love the gardens.” So says the head gardener at the Monet gardens at Giverny – Englishman James Priest (pictured right). That, he says, is the big point of attraction for most people who visit the gardens.

Indeed it is. There are few in this world to compare with the pulling power of Claude Monet. Born in 1840, he is considered by many to be the father of Impressionism. He lived a long life, finally succumbing to the inevitable in 1926 at the age of 86. Although he struggled for most of his life, he did live long enough to become financially well off – a true rarity amongst his impressionist contemporaries – and today, his paintings are in the “priceless” category. The last one – Le Bassin aux Nymphéas – sold at auction in 2008 for £36.5 million (€45million!).

Unlike me, Claude Monet wasn’t afraid to go for the big gardening project and he seemingly cultivated every square centimetre of his sizeable 2-acre site just outside the village of Giverny in Normandy. He moved here in 1883 with his second wife Mathilde and their extended family when he was aged 53. When he did start making money, he ploughed much of the fruits of his work into creating a large and beautiful garden to match his large and beautiful house.

“That’s why I’m here,” continues Priest, “because I admire Monet’s works.” For Priest, a man of vast experience in working with fabulous gardens in Britain and France, this is actually one of the smallest he’s worked on in recent years.

The Famous Japanese Bridge Over the Lily Pond

“This garden is completely different,” he enthuses. “It’s original… it’s unique and so it’s a challenge to see what you can do with it and to learn something ultimately; I’m always trying to learn new things and to not get into a rut.

“It’s not an English garden and it’s not a French garden,” says Priest, who has lived in France for the last quarter of a century. “It’s a unique kind: It’s based on straight lines, which is something the French like… and yet the way it’s treated within the structure is very relaxed and very natural. This is why many people think it’s an English garden but it breaks all the rules. Monet’s the one who invented the ‘rules’ in this case and he approached the planting of his garden in much the same way that he approached painting a picture.”

Gardening has evolved somewhat in the last 100 years. There are many plant varieties around now that simply weren’t available during the great painter’s time, according to Priest. Furthermore, Monet’s paintings of the garden tend to focus on particular parts of it, without giving an overall impression:

“There were times during the year when the garden wasn’t in full flower, but now that the garden is open to the public (since 1980), we have to ensure that it’s more interesting throughout the year for visitors.”

The Grande Allee as it is in Full Bloom

The first curator of the gardens Gerald Van der Kamp made the decision, for example, to plant annuals in the garden, noting that it was necessary because if the garden was planted exactly as it was in Monet’s time, then people wouldn’t come to visit them.

Thus, the flowering calendar is a full one, heaving with blooms almost from one end of the year to the other, whether you come to see the cherry trees and the laburnum in April or the autumn crocus, the lavender and the dahlias in October.

Monet’s house is itself part of the tour at Giverny. Wooden steps lead up to the raised front door and an interior that is surprising spacious. Everything here has been faithfully restored and/or reproduced to appear just as it did in his day. It’s a house without corridors, with one large room leading to another and a walk through it does bring you to a level of intimacy with the man and his work that you don’t get from walking through the garden.

As you step through the épicerie (spice room) that leads into the main salon/studio, for example, you can see the Japanese prints that inspired so much of the oriental flavour evident in the water garden. During Monet’s era, Japonisme was at the height of its popularity in French society and today the Japanese connection is manifest in the large proportion of fans from Japan that make a regular trans-global pilgrimage to Giverny. His large study/studio with its split level, high ceiling and large windows is just as it was, complete with superb life-size reproductions of many paintings by him and his wife.

Monet at work in theSalon-Atelier

Spot the Difference: The Salon-Atelier as it is Today

Upstairs, you can walk through his bedroom. For such an apparently big man, his double bed is of modest enough proportions and it’s worth spending a moment pausing at the window to get a fine view of the gardens spread out below you and to see his favourite rose on the veranda outside – the one that he loved to wake up to in the morning.

When he first came here, he could already feel a sea-change in his fortunes: “I am in raptures, Giverny is a splendid region for me!” he wrote shortly after arriving. Although he would continue to travel and paint scenes from Brittany, Normandy, London and Venice, he spent more and more time painting scenes from his garden as the years progressed. More particularly, his efforts were concentrated on painting the water lilies in the garden.

Apart from presenting the opportunity to buy all manner of Monet paraphernalia from heftily-priced reproductions of some of his most famous work to water-lily-themed tee-shirts and key chains, a visit to the gift shop gives you some idea of the project involved in the production of his “outsized” series of water-lilies. He created them in this cavernous building that’s appropriately named the Atelier des Nymphéas (the Water-lily Workshop). The finished products – as enormous as they are priceless – are exclusively on display in the purpose-built space of the Orangerie in Paris.

The Front of Monet's House

It’s when you get to the water garden that you get the truest sense of being transported to a scene in another era altogether. Today, the water-lily pond looks precisely as it looked when he painted multiple scenes from it one hundred years ago. The effect of standing on the Japanese bridge at the edge of the pond and finding yourself literally in a picture is breath-taking.

It doesn’t happen by magic, of course. It’s all down to regular maintenance by the Académie des Beaux Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) and the Fondation Claude Monet, which is funded by visitors’ entrance fees. Before they took it over, the house and gardens had fallen into rack and ruin and the challenge since has been to get it up to a standard both worthy of fee-paying visitors and of the memory and spirit of Claude Monet.

James Priest began his current role in June of last year, having worked extensively in private gardens in France. This job is, he freely admits, a “dream come true” to work in such a special garden. As for the best time to come, he is suitably non-committal: “I don’t know – in the Spring, it’s nice because you can see the structure of the garden, whereas it’s also nice when it’s full, like it is in Autumn.”

Sounds like you just have to come and see it at various times of the year.

    Get Yourself There

Giverny Gardens are open daily from April 1st to November 1st. Entrance rates are €8.00 for adults and €5.00 reduced rate, with children under 7 free. Combined tickets are also available covering the Musée des Impressionismes next door.

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly daily from Dublin Cork and Shannon (summer only) to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport with regular rail connections to nearby Vernon railway station and local shuttle bus to Giverny.

    More Information

Fondation Claude Monet Giverny, 84 Rue Claude Monet, 27620 Giverny, France. Tel +33 2 32 51 28 21.

4 thoughts on “Monet’s English Country Gardener”

  1. Lucy O'Donnell says:

    Fabulously written. I’m off tomorrow!

  2. John Ainsley says:

    Here her! I was fortunate enough to visit the gardens in 2000 or thereabouts. It didn’t look so smart then, but a few people have told me that it has been recreated very well since. I think that chap was in charge of Kew when I used to live in England.

  3. Michelle Gray says:

    Sounds fab! I’ve that picture of the bridge hanging in my bathroom.

  4. John Stafford says:

    I AM afraid of the big gardening project.

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