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

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Review by Paul Steer –

Monet’s Garden, Through the Seasons at Giverny 

by Vivian Russell published by Frances Lincoln

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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…”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Paul Steer October 26, 2016 at 1:08 pm

Thank you for all the comments. If you like photography of gardens then you may still value the book for that reason alone – as a document of the seasons in the Giverny of today it does give a real sense of the work involved and is a pleasant enough way to spend an hour or so.

Abbie Jury October 17, 2016 at 8:29 pm

Interesting review, thank you Paul. It explains the modern, vulgar, dinner plate sized dahlia hybrids we saw there which were far from what I thought of as Monet style. And I see I have photographs of a small army of young gardeners picking the spoiled petals off the pelargonium bed – not deadheading, deadpetalling. While we found a visit to the garden interesting, it was more in a sociological sense of looking at the seething mass of garden visitors. The charm of our visit lay in the village after the hordes had gone for the day (we stayed in a converted mill house B&B). I admit the imbibing of a glass or two may have added to the ambience, but in the fading light of dusk, Giverny village was hugely charming, wildly romantic and soft-edged. Rather like many of Monet’s paintings, in fact.

Jane Harries October 17, 2016 at 11:11 am

Well, that was useful! I have a poster I have had up in the kitchen for 40 years, of Monet’s garden (painted by him) with steps leading down from the house and sunflowers either side. Lovely!

Jack Wallington October 16, 2016 at 4:39 pm

A thought provoking read, thank you.

I thought your last paragraph was very poignant. As an amateur artist and big lover of art, I often think paintings capture the world in a way photography cannot. They capture mood and emotion and convey that to the viewer because a painting is not an exact replica, it is an interpretation. So for Monet’s garden, his pictures are the closest we will ever come to a dead gardener’s garden as it was meant to be.

That said, I do think there is something in keeping these gardens going as closely to the vision of that gardener. It will never be perfect. But it can be close.

It sounds like the public pressure from visitors has bent the garden away from its original feel. Which I agree with you, is wrong. But then, these things need funding to survive…

It reminds me of Sissinghurst at the moment where the new head gardener Troy Scott Smith has been on Gardeners World this year saying he wants to take the garden back to its original vision. I think that will be one to watch. If he can pull it off, against the tide of the National Trust visitors, it will set an example the world over of how to preserve a garden when the original gardener is long gone.

James Golden October 16, 2016 at 2:52 pm

I particularly enjoyed Paul’s review of this book. It illustrates how often we misread books to see what we want, not what is written on the page. I also agree with him that the living that takes place between the garden maker(s) and the garden is essential. Recently, I attended a presentation on a planting technique that involved installing plants into engineered soils, a method growing in importance these days as gardens are put into more urban and commercial surroundings, and I left feeling very much that this planting style, though it “optimizes” the growth of the plants, results in a very soulless display, not a garden.

David Bowen October 16, 2016 at 10:46 am

Paul’s review is interesting, perceptive and convincing. But perhaps an interesting contrast is between a garden that is lived in (by the owner or proprietor, as Monet was) and a garden that is visited, especially with visitors from far away, who cannot make weekly or even monthly visits.

Perhaps a garden with Virtual Reality headsets (so that you could walk around looking at the present, but also seeing last month and next month when you wanted to) will be worth developing?

John Kingdon October 14, 2016 at 7:46 pm

Let’s not forget that Paul is reviewing a book, not a garden. And, it would seem, it has been mis-titled. Perhaps “The Garden that Monet Once Owned” would be more appropriate.

I disagree with Paul about the soul going from a garden with the death of it’s creator. Everything depends on who takes the garden on for the future. No garden should be frozen in time; by their very nature, gardens must develop. If that development is sensitive to the creator, as, say, at Great Dixter, then the soul remains. And I don’t agree with Charles’ notion of “exploitation”. You could equally say that Sissinghurst, Hidcote, anything by Capability Brown (or “in the style of Capability Brown”) is exploitation of the creator’s memory. If there is exploitation, it is in the title of the book.

Which reminds me I have a copy of “Shakespeare’s Gardens” waiting patiently in my reading pile.

Charles Hawes October 14, 2016 at 5:19 pm

An excellent review. And it confirms what I thought – that I do not want to visit this garden. To me they are simply exploiting one of the greatest visionaries of modern times. As Paul says, the closest we can get to Monet’s garden as he saw it is still there in his paintings.

Cherie Southgate October 14, 2016 at 2:44 pm

Thought provoking indeed. I visited Givergny several years ago in late August and was surprised to see the remaking of certain beds and lack of access to some areas because of this. I know I left feeling there was something missing but I wasn’t sure what it was, now I know, thank you Paul for helping with this informative and properly critical book review.

Valerie Lapthorne October 14, 2016 at 2:18 pm

We visited this garden in winter before any ‘restoration” when we lived just up the river. It wasn’t then open and we just peered through the railings up at the house in the pouring rain. It was neglected but there was a magical feel to the place, probably emanating from my overactive imagination at being close to the source of the paintings.
I shall treat myself to the book just to see how the gardeners cope with having to produce this reaction in visitors arriving all year round.

flahertylandscape October 14, 2016 at 2:07 pm

Paul wrote:
‘…gardens without a soul are of little interest…’ I get what Paul said and agree about how a certain magic escapes when the maker of the garden passes away.

Isn’t that the magic of a garden; and aren’t we just short of vocabulary in that ‘magic and soul’ discussion of gardens and their characteristics?

I find the descriptions of that strange impact, that strange communication, which arises between some collections of plants and humans observing them, that is wanting in vocabulary. Can anybody suggest the best of the writers who disassemble that magic and describe the special layers of shared communication between plants and humans?

I hope I have not gone to ethereal for the readers. 🙂

Katherine Crouch October 14, 2016 at 11:02 am

ah, the torment and delight of the evolving garden! For a garden to remain the same it has to change, which is often a mistake. What will The Veddw look like in thirty years time?

annewareham October 14, 2016 at 5:52 pm

Decrepit, like it’s owners?

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