More Monet from Paul Steer

October 13, 2016

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Never imagine that a book review on thinkingardens will be boring. Or that it will only tell you about the book being reviewed. There’s usually more meat on the bone, just as there is with this one by Paul Steer, – an artist and NGS garden opener.

Anne Wareham, editor






Review by Paul Steer –

Monet’s Garden, Through the Seasons at Giverny 

by Vivian Russell published by Frances Lincoln


I seem to be acquiring coffee table books on the theme of Monet’s garden, so thanks to Anne Wareham I must now buy a coffee table.

You may remember the previous book I reviewed called ‘Monet’s Garden in Art’ by Debra Mancoff. Its theme was the artwork that Monet and his American friends produced inspired by the garden at Giverny. The book gave very little information on the development of the garden itself.

I am pleased to say for the gardeners in our midst, that this book is all about Giverny and the processes involved in making and maintaining the garden, and includes an extensive plant list in the index.

However this current garden is NOT the Giverny that Monet created with his team of gardeners. It takes 160 pages of garden photography and text, showcasing Russell’s work, to come to the following conclusion : “The…anomaly at Giverny is that most visitors want to be dazzled more than they want authenticity. It is only the few purists who wish to see the garden as it was in Monet’s day…”


The truth revealed in this photographic journal of the current garden is that this is a garden created for the public’s perception of how Monet’s garden should look.

I must admit that this amble through the seasons of this false Giverny has been well researched, but I wonder if those who reviewed it for Gardens Illustrated and the Sunday Times (see back cover) actually read the text. Here is what they said :

“In this richly illustrated and thoughtfully produced book Vivian Russell’s text and photographs are in a happy balance (ok so far) …. bringing us closer than ever before to Monet’s extraordinary passion for gardening.” Gardens Illustrated.

Er no, actually it shows the current team’s passion and dedication to produce a fantasy version of Monet’s garden which according to the text was far from Monet’s vision and passion.


“A splendidly atmospheric photographic memoir and a perceptive and profoundly researched text. (so far so good) This book demonstrates spectacularly why the garden Monet made earned him the accolade of horticultural wizard.” Sunday Times.

No, this book demonstrates why the garden the current gardeners have made earns them an accolade as public pleasers.


Monet himself was clearly passionate about his Giverny – despite not being hands on – he collected catalogues, bought seeds and plants , employed a team of gardeners and stated : “All my money goes into my garden ”

His garden was made according to his instructions, not ‘designed’ as we have come to understand the term. His beds of colour were laid out in a linear fashion in blocks of colour inspired it is said by his trips to Holland. These beds have not been replicated in the current garden as they do not prolong the season.


There is one statement in this book which made me choke on my coffee – spilling it over myself and my non existent coffee table. (Editor – I thought you might like this)(Ha. ed.) :

“There is always a healthy glow to a garden that is well worked ” 

My own little garden is not well worked – but this version of Giverny is worked in the extreme. There are numerous photographs of gardeners ripping out and replacing plants through the changing seasons – slaving to public demands. In contrast we learn that Monet recognised the peak and the dull times in his garden and lived with them both.

The dichotomy of Giverny is illustrated for me in the chapter on Spring – where Russell writes :

“Spring is when the bulbous and rhizomatous plants reign supreme. Narcisi, daffodils, tulips, frittillaries, eremurus, and irises are the bright stars of spring’s performance…….all eyes are on the new star, the faded one is hastily removed and replaced.”

Contrast this with this contemporary photograph of Monet’s garden – fading glory, almost monochrome.


Monet accommodated fading – surely this was an important part of his experience of the garden, part of the sensual and visual change he explored in his work – and here is the crunch – you forget in this book that he made the garden his studio. Colour mixing went on in his paintings but not so much in his borders. His Giverny consisted of rows and groups of the same plants, as mentioned earlier.

The garden of today is all about an ‘Impressionistic’ style which never existed in the flesh of his planting. This is to confuse the artist and the garden maker. The garden provided material for his work – his work is about seeing beyond the literal to the ephemeral. He saw beyond the colour of the various plants combined – he saw colour in the seemingly commonplace or in unrecognised ways – sky reflected in water, backlit foliage – even in each leaf there exists a myriad of colours. He was interested in light.


No wonder the garden has lost its soul – Blanche Hoschede-Monet, his second wife stated after his death: “The soul of the garden has gone. Everything here emanated from him.”

This book is a lovely collection of photographs and does give some insight into the current garden, but it is to continue a fantasy to call it Monet’s Garden.

It is a pastiche and it would be good to see that made a little more obvious. It seems that I am a purist. For me gardens without a soul are of little interest, and the soul of a garden is in the soul of the creator. Perhaps no garden can retain its soul after the maker dies.  What is certain, however, is that to see the real Giverney you have to go and see the real paintings.

(see also ed)

Paul Steer. 



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