A belated (my fault) review of the 2014 Chaumont Garden Festival – but not too late, it runs until November. I wonder, contemplating these gardens: is it all rather old-fashioned?
Anne Wareham, editor
International Garden Festival, Chaumont-sur-Loire 2014 by Valerie Lapthorne
Seeing Chelsea Flower Show and The International Garden Festival in the same week, it is difficult not to compare the two. They are, after all, both annual garden shows but they are totally different in approach. Chelsea Flower Show luminaries, having read the proposals and aims of the designer, judge the gardens when they are complete, and, amongst other criteria, on how well the result satisfies the brief.
At Chaumont, the gardens are chosen by the appeal of their proposals and aims, and its up to the designers and landscapers to get on with it, the only judges being the public who come to enjoy the experience. However, this year for the first time by public request, three prizes will be awarded, one for innovative ideas, one for the range of plants and one for the most transposable,- that the public would like to create for themselves.
Is “range of plants’ a good thing? “Suitability” would perhaps be better. Presumably they will have to be seen two or three times over the six month life of the gardens.
This year’s theme is “The Seven Deadly Sins”. Some of the links between the gardens and sins are tenuous, but all have the boundary hedge and the need to enter, go through and come out of the garden, which lends itself to journeys towards redemption and absolution, having confronted, and hopefully resisted, temptations to sin.
I am unable to reconcile the designers’ intentions with what I see before me. On the right hand side of a path are vibrant, hot coloured tubs planted with small cordylines fronted by a pixelated wall of colour, perhaps the colours of a landscape. This is described as being “libres et undulant”. To me this is the virtual world, confined to monoculture and restricted growth. On the other side is a plant filled border, which I agree could be “une belle nature sauvage” The large multi coloured wings of the fallen angel, which seem to have crossed from the virtual to the natural side could indicate the move between purgatory and paradise, but I am in no way sure at all.
The idea, and the garden are straightforward. The centre piece is a large gilt framed mirror, (pond )which could reflect the chateau, but the garden is too low down, and only the tower tip can be seen reflected. It is also not possible to get close enough because of the planting to see, like Narcissus, one’s own reflection, and be proud, but you can see the greenery and the sky from a different angle and this makes the mirror into a landscape painting. Even better if the sun had been shining.
A simple idea using the word play of pécher and péché, peach tree and sin. A pool is surrounded by seven peach trees of different varieties, representing the seven deadly sins and are reflected in the water allowing one to reflect on the sins. Much bigger trees required. Perhaps they were only small sins.
Here the sinners are those plants, which are the most voracious feeders, spilling from woven horns of plenty. And by extrapolation, perhaps we, too, are greedy for wanting to feed, encourage and eat them.
Food tins, with the food consumed, lined up as in a supermarket, but also transformed into plant pots exuding life. The planting is herbaceous. I think the plants would have been imbued with more appropriate meaning by bearing a closer relationship to the original contents of the tins; strawberries, say, or beans.
The proud oak is felled and is in pieces with the destructive wind working to finish the job.
Think Ozymandias: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”.
Plants could do with being more mature. To plant the likes of gunnera and rodgersia from out of three litre pots does not do these impressive plants justice. Although, to buy larger would put the cost up. I daren’t think how much the Telegraph Chelsea garden’s magnificent pleached limes would have cost.
Walk around the table and hop up onto a chair and be frustrated in your gluttony by the sumptuous display of red plants representing an unreachable feast. You are urged to compensate yourself by looking at the view. Lovely view, but really not enough to replace an anticipated lunch.
Stroll through this garden and repent your sins. Having received absolution, sit in a teacup. What else? The idea is to relax and be convivial and guilt free. (lemon drizzle, Anne?) (thanks…ed.)
Enter through a padded door and pass through the seven areas of sinful plants and hear their confessions. Mirrors confuse, not unpleasantly. Difficult to allocate sins to these plants. Maybe by their colours- scarlet, black and gold or by their names – Diamond Frost, Golden Plate, Heavenly Blue.
Take the path being tempted by sins en route and reach Eden, which is where you started from, hopefully having been enlightened on the way.
I didn’t interact with this garden as I was expected to, as I read the blurb after viewing it. The colour co-ordinated planted frames placed on a dais, represent gowns on a cat walk to slip into and show off, illustrating the sin of pride. The black masks indicate the different viewpoints from which they can be admired or perhaps, envied. One can choose, by adding oneself to the display, to be the watcher or the watched. Shame I missed that. Give anything a go, me.
Influenced by the tale of Midas, a circular path with a golden dead tree representing something lifeless yet resplendent, is surrounded by golden plants,. The viewer is to marvel at the opulence or reject it as worthless. The effect however is miserly. The tree is far too small and the plants although yellow do not make an impressive enough blaze of gold.
Here is a collection of narcotic and poisonous plants caged and confined, illustrating their being restricted or forbidden by rules and regulations. They are justifiably angry: ironically, they are plants that are used to calm the anger of humans. But as one walks the pathway through the cages, it becomes unclear whether it is the plants or the viewers who are caged. That works. Although the cannabis actually looks just sorry for itself, rather than angry.
The designers here are landscape architects so it is a surprise that this is a garden that is so reliant on the structure and hard landscaping and pays scant regard to plants. The equisetum “Japonicum” sits well in this structure. Glad it is confined to a box.
Wander through this garden and feel the tug of temptations as you go, finishing in the purgatorium where you can be gently tormented for the small sins rather than the mortal sins and come out in a state of grace. That’s a lot to ask of a garden.
A grotto. A hidden place, for assignations perhaps. Plants chosen of a narcotic nature, brugmansia, nicotiana, poppy. The thrill of the forbidden. The excitement of the unknown. Lust. A bit of a let down to find just a plastic tent at the end of the path.
The descriptions use the quaint expression, “the lady who designed the garden” in all gardens designed by a woman, but “ designer” for the men. French makes the distinction, constructrice or constructeur. English speakers are happy to use merely designer for both. More egalitarian too.
This designer wants to illustrate the power of sin as a life force. Although dark and oppressive, this was a very peaceful garden. It was helped by having a boundary of woodland, rather than the standard hedge, and by having minimal structures. The star is the cracking tarmac being colonized by plants. I find it salutary how plants can take over and absorb: covering, rotting, distorting, spreading. Think bombsites, abandoned buildings, the ivy that comes inside through the double glazing.
A Maori myth about the love of two volcanoes for a third, running the gamut of anger, lust and covetousness. A shame the steam wasn’t working. That would have been fun. In the foreword, the director asks that the humour of Chaumont not be forgotten despite the gravity of this year’s theme.
The observer is asked to contemplate those sins of excess and consumerism, which pollute the earth. One is supposed to be assailed by the smell of minced rubber, but it had been raining, so the smell was missing. Slate shards protruded from the path, symbolising waste intruding, and leading to a dessert of burnt soil, with some rather healthy cactus and agaves growing in it. My experience is that it is dandelions that first colonise volcanic ash. However, cactus would last the whole of the garden’s six month life better than dandelions.
Lawns are consumers of time, water and chemicals. Use artificial turf! The sponsor of this was not, as I thought, an artificial lawn manufacturer. I wonder how “green” the manufacture of artificial turf actually is? If the garden looks like a play park, that’s what it is. Abandon your mower, and play with your children.
Another pun on peach and sin. French for peach tree is pêcher, sin is péché. Same pronunciation. Peach substituted for apple and the walk over peach stones to the artificial tree invites contemplation of original sin and sensuality. A gentle garden this, the planting reflecting the pastel shades in the peach.
Coffee and a cake break. Disappointed to find the illustrated show guides had been delayed by three weeks at the printers. A second wind now to visit the newest section of the estate, Prés du Goualoup.
I must put “Plant Cedars” on my bucket list.
The original aim was to add more of the Festival’s six month gardens, but this does not seemed to have happened, and I am pleased about this, because this area needs to stay as parkland, with stands of trees, vistas, and swathes of mono plantings, which will take years to mature. Add sculptures and art works that people will take to their hearts, as the people of Formby love the Gormley figures. It’s a big space. Think landscape not garden.
The heavens opened when we were at the furthest point away from shelter. Soaked to the skin. Nothing more unpleasant than a cold sodden mac, so called it a day outside and spent a stimulating afternoon indoors with the exhibitions.
Chelsea has the polished, refined feel of professional people at the peak of their expertise; Chaumont of a collection of art degree students’ final exhibitions. All most enjoyable. Perhaps Chelsea could have areas that are more fun and Chaumont could improve the quality of the finish of its hard landscaping and the size of their plants.
Valerie’s photography here
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