Chaumont 2012 reviewed by Anne Hanley

August 14, 2012

in Events, Garden Reviews, Reviews, Shows

We don’t seem to have heard so much of the garden festival at Chaumont recently – or is it simply that I don’t read enough of the garden media? It is clearly still going on its colourful, wonderfully French way and I’m very happy to have an excellent review of this year’s gardens from Anne Hanley.

It should, of course, strictly speaking be called the Chaumont-sur-Loire Garden Festival but everyone seems to just call it ‘Chaumont’.

Anne Wareham, editor

Chaumont Festival webpage

Anne Hanley:

The International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire overlaps with Chelsea and is often billed as its French equivalent. The comparison couldn’t be more flawed. Approaching Chaumont – as I did this year for the first time – it’s crucial to get the words ‘flower show’ out of your head.

Chaumont isn’t about flowers. Plants and planting play – on the whole – a walk-on role. The stars here are ideas, concepts and flights of fancy. Which can be excruciating. But whether you’re cringing in embarrassment or tingling with pleasure – and I did both as I sauntered through the 26 show gardens – Chaumont will constantly force the garden lover and garden designer (as opposed to the fan of avant-garde whimsy for its own sake) to ask serious questions about what makes a garden a garden. And that can’t be a bad thing.

The festival sets limits for its competitors: the bell-shaped, 210 square metre plots all come with high hornbeam boundaries. The themes – this year’s is ‘Gardens of Delight, Gardens of Delirium’ – point designers in some vague direction. (I listened in delight as a nursery school teacher tried to explain ‘Delirium tremens’ – the title of one garden – to her bemused three-year-old charges: she needn’t have bothered because the garden in question failed to evoke even mild tipsiness to me.)

But it imposes a weighty freedom too: unlike Chelsea with its too-good-to-be-true, three-day-event, instant gardens, Chaumont burdens its competitors with six months of growth, development and evolution. On show from April to October, these plots change constantly. What I witnessed in mid-May will bear little relationship to what autumn visitors experience. Which may go some way towards explaining competitors’ desperate reliance on structural elements rather than potentially temperamental vegetation.

Some of these heavily structure-dependent gardens are among the least impressive. A rather faded (already?) plywood cake fills the centre of the garden called ‘En patisserie, tout est permis’.

Chaumont 7 2012 copyright Anne Hanley

(“The pastry-maker dreams of being an architect and the gardener a seeker of savours,” read the notes in the press pack. “Oh dear,” I’ve scribbled in the margin.) I keep hoping a scantily-clad something will explode from the cake because I’m pretty sure nothing so exciting will happen to the bits of bamboo and tulle-wrapped bay balls around. In ‘Orange mechanique’, from Spain, a large, dazzling orange spiral in flimsy plastic winds forlornly around nothing much at all. “Enjoying a nice juicy orange in this particular garden would be delightful indeed but here, in this season, it would be pure delirium!” say the notes. I’m still wondering why.

Yet stand-out structures can also work. In ‘Emeraude’, a French team has cheated somewhat, filling most of its space with a towering adobe cube; here, however, jungly planting around, and emerging from the top of the cube promises to transform it, as the summer wears on, into some kind of long-forgotten prehistoric wonder. And in ‘Sens dessus dessous’, a multi-coloured palissade twisting around to a raised observation platform really does look joyful amid deep green planting which will, one suspects, tumble over it beautifully as the season progresses, softening the huge model poppies which lend the garden another playground note.

Elsewhere it’s individual elements that constitute the gardens’ USP.

Chaumont 8 2012 copyright Anne Hanley

A host of blue butterflies on long sticks,waving slightly above a hornbeam hedge in ‘Le jardin bleu’, is full of charming promise: inside, the blue-tinged rugs on the ground and the wiggly copper wiring in the middle of a bit of gravel and some young eucalypts doesn’t quite deliver.

Chaumont 9 2012 copyright Anne Hanley

A forest of vermillion-painted canes for climbing vegetables, with metal bottle tops strung on long strings between them in ‘Le calendrier des sept lunes’ is a lovely idea

Chaumont 2012 1 Anne Hanley

which I fully intend to snaffle for my vegetable garden; elsewhere in the garden, someone appears to have dumped a load of unwanted lumber. Seed packets galore strung on contorted bits of rusting metal rods fail singularly to conceal the fact that the garden they’re suspended above is pedestrian.

Chaumont 10 2012 copyright Anne Hanley

As you progress around the festival, ‘statement’ gardens can begin beguiling you,  to the point where the few gardens which would actually work in the real world stand out rather oddly – at once a moment’s relief and, however attractive, almost a let-down. An Italian team has produced ‘Locus genii, le genie est partout’,

Chaumont 6 2012 copyright Anne Hanley

an azure-tinged moorish fantasy which would work beautifully as the back garden of some boutique B&B (real chairs! to sit on! wonderful!). From the US comes ‘Le jardin des renards rouges’, a slick contemporary design which would do credit to the back yard of any hi-tech company HQ (but what’s with the cut-out red foxes?)

Chaumont 3 2012 copyright Anne Hanley

Yet in hindsight, they’re extraordinarily comforting, as are all those festival-inspired considerations which, in the final analysis, confirm what we knew all along. Elements which enhance (giant poppies),

Chaumont 2 2012 copyright Anne Hanley

good; elements which impose and seek to conceal a lacuna (seed packets), bad. (above) Structures which belong, effortlessly, to their environment (prehistoric adobe), good; structures glorying in themselves with desultory bits of vegetation around (orange peel), bad. And a garden, to be a garden, should, on some level, be a place you’d like to be in, and not just a thing to look at – and certainly, as is the case too often here – not something that has you bursting into guilty giggles.

A word of advice to visitors: it’s best, I found, to look at the garden and only then decide whether to read the pseudo-philosophical ramblings of the gardens’ creators, posted outside each. If you like the design, give the explanation a miss, or risk being put off. I still don’t know what Big Idea lay behind my favourite ‘Paradis terrestre’ – a misty, marshy Irish creation, half Middle Earth, half leprechaun’s lair.

Chaumont 2012 4 copyright Anne Hanley

Swirling iron work, Fortuny-ish scarlet lanterns, mysteriously ferny, frondy planting and a giant mossy pod-seat swinging in the centre for anyone agile enough to climb in and curl up: I’m not sure about delirium, but plenty of delight.

Chaumont 5 2012 copyright Anne Hanley

Anne Hanley 

Her blog  and her website 

Anne Hanley portrait

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan Gregory September 5, 2012 at 8:14 pm

When I was struggling to get to grips with GCSE art my lack of ant particular talent was rendered irrelevant by a very professional art teacher who made it clear that it was fine to use potato printing as long as the defficiency of skill and absurdity of the product was balanced by the impenetrability of the verbage.
If gardening becomes any more of a silly, easy, game then it will cease to be important and it will no longer be an art form.
Perhaps there should be a little less pomposity and affectation and a little more pride and effort from those who lay claim to the laurels of horticulture.
From the rest of us a little more confidence to call potato printing by its own name.


Valerie Lapthorne August 23, 2012 at 10:58 am

I totally agree with Anne in all she says about Chaumont. To go from the exquisite perfection of Chelsea at the beginning of the week, from this summit of excellence in hard and soft landscaping and in the nurserymen’s skills, to the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire, and the Festival International des Jardins, at the other end of the week is a marked contrast. Both events seek to encourage and promote the work of the gardener, the landscaper and the designer, to push the limit in innovation and quality. And both are the highlights of my gardening year.

Chaumont being open for six months means that aficionado’s visits can be spread more evenly. Standing at the Chelsea embankment end of Eastern Avenue at eight o’clock on Chelsea’s first day is quite alarming as a tsunami of floral frocks and variegated cardis starts to flow down the avenue from the top. The urge is to cut and run. What a contrast arriving at Chaumont just as the ticket desk opens. There is only one other couple there. And English to boot. It’s their first visit, and they admit to not being sure about their reactions, as they are strictly cottage gardeners. I assure them that they will be surprised, but that they will find that later some Chaumont influenced design or idea will have crept unconsciously into their plots.

I am sorry that this year was Anne’s first visit, as the planting was not as good overall as previous years. There were far too many plants requiring water or which had given up the ghost already and too many gaps and bare soil, but the loose interpretations of the theme were as varied and fanciful as ever. And Anne is right. Don’t read the artists statements unless you are really puzzled as to the design’s relevance, because the flowery phrases lose something in translation. English speakers don’t go in for that sort of thing. A Frenchman would claim a border as “balm for the troubled soul” whereas an Englishman would label it “shade perennials”

I did try to get into the spirit of the Festival. In “Orange Mechanique”, I sat in the centre of an unfurled piece of plastic orange peel so that I could feel “the colour of the orange” which would “cling to me relentlessly”, but was distracted by my urge to take a staple gun to some flyaway pieces of plastic.

But its fun, enhanced by the ability to enter the gardens and explore and to try and assess what the designing team is trying to do, something that is impossible at Chelsea unless you are a sponsor or the designer’s granny. And small children love them, these little fantasy worlds. “Comme c’est drole”, says one little chap.

I was most impressed this year by the way the framework garden has matured. When I first visited, the hornbeam hedges dividing the plots were thin and the borders sparse, but this May they were lush and a pleasure to sit in.

The new and exciting development this year is the laying out of a ten-hectare extension of the gardens. This will include a framework of paths and trees which will be the base for some permanent gardens, which are already viewable, but planted to what seems to be a five year maturity, rather then Chelsea immediate. There will be further gardens with a three-year life and an extension of the six monthly seasonal gardens, which are already marked out with hedging whips and furnished with water and electricity. I shall enjoy watching this grow and change.

And I know thinkinGardeners don’t think about these things, but the restaurants are very good. Much better than at the start, when there was a set lunch, relying heavily on pasta, lentils, bread rolls and apples. And there is the prettiest ladies’ loo that I have ever enjoyed, made in the woods with a palisade of silver birch trunks and open to the tree canopy. Unfortunately the area around it has now been cleared to accommodate the road bridge to the new development, so losing its bosky aspect.

I can recommend the Festival in autumn, when the gardens benefit from the golden backdrop of the park. I hope to go again then.


Paul Steer August 15, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I have decided that I will not be visiting Chaumont, I am basing that decision purely on the article and photographs (just like some garden writers do) The only one which looks remotely appealing is the garden of the red foxes with its pool, strong lines and boundary hedge…What has happened to me, I used to be in awe of all kinds of gardens, does this mean I am developing a sense of taste ? And is that taste good ? So many questions.


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