Monty Don’s French Gardens – a review by Darryl Moore

March 26, 2013

in Media Reviews, Reviews

Thinkingardens has been rather over Montyied recently, but we rarely get a serious television programme about gardens, so a review of BBC 2’s series on French Gardens is essential. Apologies for the limited range of pictures. Charles prefers Italian gardens.

The programme is not currently available but will no doubt be rebroadcast and become available on DVD. With thanks to John Kingdon, who recorded the series for us.

Anne Wareham, editor

Le Jardin Plume, Normandy France, copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Le Jardin Plume, copyright Charles Hawes

Monty Don appears to be a man happy in his work. Unsurprisingly so perhaps, given that when not appearing on Gardener’s World, firmly rooted in his plot at Longmeadow, Herefordshire, he occupies the enviable post of intrepid investigator of global gardens, continent hopping between various sites considered to be the great and the good of the garden world.

In his Vernian quest in 2007 he brought us ‘Around the World in 80 Gardens’, a geographically scattered selection from Chile to China, Norway to New Zealand, in a mission to reveal a rich tapestry of horticultural delights. The gardens and landscapes featured in the series ranged from the renowned to the reclusive, reflecting extremes of scale and scope, as well as both personal and public aspirations and ambitions. He clearly revelled in the adventure, sharing insights into each garden’s history and the people behind them, along with his own sense of awe at their splendour.

Then narrowing his focus in 2011, he delved deep into the treasure trove of Italy’s grand gardens, in four geographically themed episodes.

Le Jardin Plume, Normandy France copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Le Jardin Plume, copyright Charles Hawes

The format of each series lay in creating a melange of travelogue, gardens and history, aimed at entertaining and educating, driven by the very personable approach of Monty’s delivery, expressed as though it were a journey of enlightenment that the viewer is being invited to take part in. Tapping into the excitement of foreign experiences, holiday memories and the appeal of the burgeoning industry of garden tourism, they attempted to use gardens as mediums to measure the world, to learn about cultures through their relationship to the land, and leaving the viewer to reflect upon these points when tending their very own Eden.

This time around, in the latest three part series he set his sights somewhat closer to home on a jaunt around France to reveal through gardens and their histories, the French love of food, the soil and the arts, and why they value order and structure so highly.

Thankfully the producers seem to have ditched some of the unnecessary paraphernalia intended to signify the intrepid traveller. Gone is the omnipresent shoulder bag, and the notebook which was constantly scribbled in, although the camera still remains firmly in hand, with passages of Monty in snap happy mode.

Villa Noailles copyright Darryl Moore for thinkingardens

Villa Noailles copyright Darryl Moore

Also the delivery has forgone some of the annoying TV tropes that have plagued the medium over the past decade and which were evident in the previous two series. The Kevin McCloud arch agonising hand-wringing has disappeared, whilst the Sharma style pacing across the screen has slowed it’s pace to a more relaxed naturalistic manner. Perhaps it’s partly a sign of a more assured approach, but its seems apparent that in this series Monty’s familiarity with the material he is dealing with is key to setting the tone. As a self confessed Francophile, he is in his element, and that not only puts a spring in his step, but allows him to introduce a more personal narrative which provides an opportunity for him to nostalgically reminisce on his youth, and create an intimate bond with the viewers.

Yet in a slightly confusing move they have dispensed with the geographical relationship between gardens, which neatly compiled them together according to their locations, in favour of themed episodes. Thus in his dizzying quest Monty attempts to unravel the mystery of “What is unique about French gardens and the French”, by contemplating ‘Gardens of Power and Passion’, ‘The Gourmet Garden’ and ‘The Artistic Garden’, whilst travelling in a recursive frenzy across the countryside in an old Citroen 2CV.

Appropriately the first episode starts on an historical note, providing a framework for understanding  the origins of French garden culture. But given that each of the series have been produced in a stand alone manner, this means that an opportunity is missed to logically link with the history of Italian gardens, particularly in the case of the first property featured, Château de Chenonceau, with its links to the Medici family, makers of the Giardini di Boboli in Florence. This omission meant that the historic creative cultural exchanges which shaped gardens in Europe were ignored, in favour of a year zero approach to the story of French landscapes.

Le Jardin Plume, Normandy France copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Le Jardin Plume, Normandy France copyright Charles Hawes

Key to this story is Louis XIV’s avaricious garden grabbing of Vaux le Vicomte, and the construction of Versailles, revealing clearly the development of gardens as symbols of power, wealth and domination over nature. There is nothing new to the telling of this familiar tale, but it is certainly an essential one worth repeating for those unfamiliar with it, as the relationship between gardens, personal identity and aspiration in such a grand manner, can be translated in many ways to garden making on any scale. It also introduced the formidable work of Andre Le Notre, one of the luminaries of garden history, and his incredible expansive creations in Northern France.

Paris, both old and new, are considered, from Le Notre’s vision for the Jardin des Tuileries (another Medici related project), through to Dan Kiley’s landscaping of the city’s contemporary business district La Defence. Each are posited as embodying a French trans-historical penchant for order, geometry and harmony, which provides one of the overarching themes of the series. This is slightly disingenuous, given that by limiting the historical framework, similar elements which appeared in earlier Italian gardens are ignored. The French translation of these aspects was certainly novel but not unique, and the focus should rather have been more heavily orientated upon their development and refinement, rather than their discovery.

Meanwhile a move away from formality is suggested with a link between power and flowers, in a discussion of Château de Malmaison and Josephine de Beauharnais’ obsession with roses. This may indeed reveal something about the ongoing cultural entrancement with them, but it seemed to go too far off piste in a horticultural direction, perhaps as an attempt to woo a greater section of the Gardener’s World audience.

The second episode took matters further in that direction, when it considered gardens in relation to the growing, cooking and eating of food, exploring the idea that France is a place where a “connection to the soil still has meaning”. Whilst focusing on food is a very valid way to investigate a culture, much of the episode contained items which viewers have become accustomed to seeing on cooking or travel programmes, and a tighter editorial reign could have kept it more uniquely garden orientated.

Consequently the emphasis was very much placed upon the poetically overused French term ‘terroir’, describing the confluence of place, soil and climate. These aspects are key in defining what can and can’t be grown in any particular location, and the qualities and characteristic of the produce, which is obviously not something specific to France, despite the fact that they seem to have effectively trademarked the idea.

The production and processes of growing food provided a framework for viewing the cultural and geographical divide between the North and the South of the country. This came across with a heavy bias towards the good life of the South, in particular as a celebration of the “uncomplicated” paysan lifestyle, with its direct connection to the land. There is more than a slight echo here of the romantic impetus behind the middle class British migration to the area following the publication of ‘A Year in Provence’, something reinforced by Monty’s personal narrative, recalling his exploits in the region when he was younger. Unfortunately the North doesn’t come out so well in the comparison and is given short shrift, looked at only in terms of its formality rather than fecundity.

The potager at Villandry, Loire, France. June copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

The potager at Villandry,copyright Charles Hawes

We are treated to a redux moment when Monty visits Villandry in the Loire Valley. During his previous visit in ‘Around the World…’ he waxed lyrical about the world renown potager, exclaiming that it overwhelmed by exceeding expectations, and fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition. This time around he is not quite so generous and criticises the large scale use of productive plants as an unsettling waste, on the basis that by dint of their being edible, form and function have grown too far apart.

In this reflection he fails to take account of the fact that their function is precisely to be decorative, and they are intended for the eye and not the plate. If it were made from annual flowers it is unlikely the same criticism would have been levelled  The suggestion that they could be glass or waxworks misses the point entirely, for it is the very fact that they are edible which provides its raison d’être (and touristic USP) as a creation of extravagance, decadence and power. In this respect it would more rightly have fitted into the first episode. Likewise the Potager du Roi at Versailles would have been better served there also, considered as part of the entire system of power and order to which the landscape serves, rather than simply as a formal kitchen garden.

The third episode sees Monty wandering into the quagmire question of whether gardens can be art, with an view to exposing an intellectual element unique to French gardens. Obviously such an endeavour should proceed with caution especially when it contends that “an acceptance of ideas is surely something taken for granted in France, as opposed to being treated with a degree of suspicion in Britain”. Whilst there is a great deal of truth to this, as can often be evidenced in the garden world, there are historical precedents to the contrary such as the English landscape movement, which saw ideas as integral to the shaping of the environment into creations that were considered works of art in their own time.

Perhaps an obvious starting point could have been the Festival International des Jardins at Chaumont-sur-Loire, which for the past two decades has set the benchmark for conceptual show gardens, mixing together the worlds of gardens and art, influencing and inspiring similar shows around the world. Or even Parc de Villette in Paris which could be considered the pinnacle of intellectually engaged landscape with the involvement of no lesser eminence than philosopher Jaques Derrida, but alas these are overlooked in favour of a very particular and personal view of art.

Le Jardin Plume, Normandy France copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Le Jardin Plume, copyright Charles Hawes

It is to fin de siècle Paris that Monty turns his attention, the age when it was the birthplace of modern art and the milieu of the Impressionists. The obvious heavyweight of the period, Claude Monet, is duly hauled out with a couple of visits to his home at Giverny, another place previously visited in ‘Around the World..’. But no matter how hard Monty tries to shoehorn it, Giverny was not an artwork of Monet’s, but only the subject of his art, in his later period. He left no indication that he made it as an artistic creation, nor considered it comparable to his painting in any way. Rather than a work of art, it is a garden created by an artist. It is certainly an impressively floriferous one on a formidable scale, and this is the basis upon which it should be admired as a garden.

In retracing the footsteps of his youth and happy times spent in Aix au Provence, Monty accords disproportionate airtime to Paul Cezanne’s relevance to French garden history. Whilst his role in the development of art is undeniable, the subjective reverence he invests in his garden and studio, offer little insight into garden design, horticulture or their relationship to art. This personal narrative indulgence, not only interrupts the pace but creates a detour which looses the attention of viewers. begging the question of whether the show is about anecdotes or actual gardens. The success of the previous series was managing to balance these aspects to create and informative and accessible style.

Villa Noailles 3 copyright Darryl Moore for thinkingardens

Villa Noailles copyright Darryl Moore

Of all the gardens presented, Villa Noailles in Hyères is the only one which could possibly lay any claim to being, if not actually a work of art, then at least created with a determinedly artistic approach. It’s strong sculptural basis and geometry align itself with the artistic trends of the day, and still mark it out as a formidable presence today.

A fundamental problem of the episode is that none of the garden makers Monty meets, such as Patrick Blanc or Sylvie and Patrick Quibel of Le Jardin Plume, respond affirmatively when he enquires if their gardens are works of art. Perhaps he should rather have been asking if there is an art of gardens. Nor do they seem particularly keen to articulate the intellectual virtues of their creations, rather unfortunately undermining the continually espoused claim that the French love concepts. Surely tighter editing could have remedied this logical inconsistency. Interestingly if a British contingent of Charles Jencks, Christopher Bradley-Hole, Christine Facer, Kim Wilkie, Anne Wareham and Tom Stuart-Smith were approached regarding taking ideas and turning them into gardens, they result would no doubt be somewhat different.

Orpheus- designed by Kim Wilkie Boughton House, Northamptonshire. Historic park. Grade 1 listed. copyright Charles Hawes

Orpheus- designed by Kim Wilkie Boughton House copyright Charles Hawes

The series concludes by compiling a set of dichotomies from each episode to describe the key elements which define the French garden. Thus they combine structure and looseness, usefulness and beauty, and are artistic and earthy. Given that these could be considered universal principles of gardens, it is questionable to consider them specifically French, or to draw any inherent conclusions from them regarding French culture.

Accordingly the intention of the series to investigate the relationship between French gardens, people and the land, has to be viewed from within the context of the shows entertainment remit. Its conclusions can only be taken in a light-hearted manner, rather than considered in any meaningful depth, certainly given that they were framed by a rose tinted, and somewhat outmoded, Anglo perspective.

But whilst it may be a tourist’s eye view of France, it could none the less have added value by tackling the realities of the country as a 21st century multicultural society, and the roles that gardens actually play in it in a wider range of contexts. To then link this to the earlier series (and any future ones to come?), would be a step in the right direction to creating a useful and accessible tool for understanding global gardens past and present.

Darryl Moore

Darryl’s blog

 Portrait of Darryl Moore copyright Darryl Moore





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Rob (OurFrenchGarden) May 23, 2013 at 7:27 am

Of course ‘terroir’ applies everywhere, just as the bloody sun rises everywhere. Thanks one and all for this pearl of wisdom.

The word ‘terroir’, now that’s a different subject, there doesn’t seem to be a comparable all encompasing word in English.

Louisa Jones March 28, 2013 at 7:04 pm

hello all,
I’ll keep to two brief comments:
Nicole de Vésian at la Louve was well aware of the “art” aspects of what she was doing, as a designer she had been an artists for decades in many different media. Christian Lacroix, once her pupil, describes this well. And secondly, as someone who lives in deepest southern France (but not Peter Mayle’s at all) I can assure you that terroir is not everywhere and is quite endangered, although renewing itself constantly when it can, enriched by new cultural “hybrids”. The more industrialized or urbanized the region, the less terroir is valued. This is not a romantic defense–anyone who reads my books knows that I combat touristy romanticism wherever I can. But I am glad that Monty stressed this relationship to the land because terroir is the opposite of urban garden centre culture that proposes models everywhere the same, all commercial, transferable, industrial.

Paul Steer March 26, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Monty brings gardening and gardens to a wide audience which always means some degree of compromise. I believe that he has faith in its therapeutic benefits …its ability to enhance our lives, and if he is able to share something of this even with us plebs then so much the better. I would not be quite so critical of his approach to this series. He has stated on twitter that he was frustrated by the edit and the fact it was limited to 3 programs ; so not everything is in the mighty Monty’s control. For me it raised some interesting questions and I thank him for this series; even with its limitations.

Charles Hawes March 26, 2013 at 11:27 am

This is an interesting and informative piece and that counts for a lot. I think it could do with some editing, though. I’m not sure that we needed the slightly facetious and I think, occasionally snide comments about Monty s previous travels to understand his French explorations.

Darryl seems to have a lot of faith in the editing process. If the creators of Jardin Plume both agree that their garden is art and then are unable to articulate why perhaps this says something true about how difficult it is to explain what they think makes their garden art. But yes, this question is hardly touched on and that was disappointing.

As for “terroir” being something particular to France, this seems like so much mumbo jumbo and it would have been refreshing if Monty had quietly pointed out that anyone growing anything needs to attend to the soil and climate if they wish their plants to grow well , rather than swallow this propaganda and swoon over the vegetable.

Darryl Moore March 26, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Thanks for the comments Charles.

Monty’s previous travels provide a background context to the series and are therefore worthy of discussion, in order to inform anyone who may be unaware of them. This provides a frame of reference for the format and delivery employed, which was used as a comparison between the different series. They were intended in a Monty-esque manner rather than facetious or snide.

Absolutely agree regarding terroir, it applies anywhere.

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