This letter is not about one of King Arthur’s knights and a French friend of his. It is about two gardeners, André LeNôtre and Lancelot Brown. These were not just any gardeners. In scale, vision and achievement they outdid all the rest.
Both men were raised in the world of caring for plants and working with nature. LeNôtre’s father was a gardener at the Louvre. Brown was brought up on a farm in Northumbria and served a long apprenticeship in gardening on the estate at Kirkharle in the north of England.
LeNôtre designed enormous flower borders, canals and long straight walks lined with tall hedges of hornbeam. He created fountains and waterfalls and theatrical green spaces for dancing and drama. His gardens were geometrically perfect. Everything matched, giving harmony to the whole. At Vaux le Vicomte he had 18,000 men working for him. His gardens at Versailles cover almost 2000 acres.
Brown created landscapes which became the prototype of the perfect English park and they became the pattern of what we think of as the countryside of England. They include hills, streams and lakes, groves of woods and beautiful views. The amazing thing is that these hills and lakes were not there when Brown started the job. He put them there. His gardens became the ‘English garden’ which has been imitated the world over. In fact, in reproducing such natural perfection Brown controlled and manoeuvred nature just as much as LeNôtre had done. The natural looking lake at Blenheim Palace is the result of landscape engineering just as much as the long straight canal at Versailles. When he arrived at a new house to begin work, Brown would look at the surrounding land and say, “This has capabilities”. Today we would say “possibilities”. Because he changed these capabilities into beautiful gardens he soon became known as ‘Capability’ Brown.
Le Nôtre and Brown were chalk and cheese as far as their gardening principles went. One used geometric symmetry and clear control of nature. The other created landscapes which looked natural. But both had a love of plants and an ability to realise their schemes on a grand scale. They have something else in common, and this is just as important.
Both were friendly and well-loved people.
In his television programme on French gardens the great gardener Monty Don talks about LeNôtre’s work at Vaux le Vicomte and Versailles. He shows the fountains, the long straight walks, the alleys of clipped hornbeam and the great canals and then he looks straight at the camera and talks about what sort of man LeNôtre was.
“LeNôtre seems to have been a modest, self-effacing man. People liked him. He was by all accounts a good and decent man. Just interested in his work, he never sought to aggrandize himself. He remained the King’s friend right up to his death.”
A little detour here. In Paris Monty Don consults consults an 18th century book on gardening. “La Theorie et la Pratique du Jardinage”, which was published in 1709. On the title page it mentions a section on “boulingrins”. What are these “boulingrins”? They are nothing more than “bowling greens”! Words often get a few knocks in transit to another country, rather like our suitcase on a plane journey. But I wonder just what the Academie Francaise, so keen to keep words pure and French, made of “boulingrins”!
Now, back to sociable gardeners. In his book ‘At Home’ Bill Bryson describes Lancelot Brown’s achievements at Stowe and in other gardens all over England. Then just like Monty Don looking into the eyes of the viewer, Bryson grabs the reader by the shoulder, and no writer is better at doing that, and goes straight to the point. “Brown’s clients loved him. One, Lord Exeter, hung a portrait of Brown in his house where he could see it every day. Brown also seems to have been just a very nice man.”
Are all gardeners are like this? Are they all pleasant and friendly? One gardener with very bad press is Mr McGregor but perhaps he is the exception that proves the rule. Also we only have Peter Rabbit’s side of the story. If we could sit down with Mr McGregor by the fire in the local pub in Sawtrey and hear what he had to say on the subject of trying to grow lettuces when a family of rabbits live nearby, we should perhaps change our minds. In general, then, gardeners seem to be gentle people with a lot of patience.
So both men were not only good gardeners but were also excellent friends. That makes a welcome change. We often hear about the egoism of creative geniuses and how they mistreat family, friends and all those around them. Many very successful people think only of their own work and their own fame so it is a welcome change to hear about Brown and LeNôtre.
I close with a quotation from the 17th century poet, Abraham Cowley, talking about his objective on retirement. “I want to be the master of a small house and a large garden.” What a great ambition! It sounds as though Cowley was an affable, friendly person too.