Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens are one of the great combos of design history. Their names automically trip off the tongue in the same breath, and they created a whole series of magificant houses and gardens all across the Britain. Yet they made just one joint foray working together on a house and garden abroad.
Standing on top of the Normandy cliffs just outisde Dieppe is what gardening and wine writer Hugh Johnson once described as a “Sussex garden on vacation on the French coast”.
It might not be on our database, but it’s still, for the most part,an English garden…so read on to find out more about Bois des Moutiers…
[all photos are by David Marsh, May 2017, unless otherwise credited]
One look at the front of the house is enough for anyone with half an inkling of design history to make a pretty good guess at who the architect was, and one look at the front approach and entrance area to make a good guess at the garden designer. Surprisingly it’s not a new build but the remodelling of an existing property.
What Lutyens did was convert it into an English country cottage on steroids. It’s got rough-cast walls [just one stage removed from pebble dash!] , with huge chimneys and long mullion windows. Yet somehow not feeling ‘wrong’ or ‘misplaced.’ The back elevation is much plainer and apart from the entrance steps and porch, and the extension at the far end, less immediately obviously Lutyens and that’s apparently because the rear wall of the original house proved less tractable to major alteration.
The Normandy coast, partcularly round Dieppe had become fashionable under Napoleon III and in the late 1890s the Mallets were visiting Marie-Adelaide’s sister when they spotted a house at Varengeville. They bought it and then looked around for an architect to completely redesign it.
How Lutyens got the commission is a good example of being fortunate in who you know. He had, via the good offices of Gertrude’s brother Sir Herbert Jekyll, got the job of designing the British Pavilion for the Paris Exhibition of 1900. It was there he met the Mallets but they were great Anglophiles and had already heard about this young Arts and Crafts architect through of a long chain of slight connections. Adelaide’s uncle was a diplomat in London. He knew the garden writer Mrs Earle. She in turn was the aunt of Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton, who had just married Lutyens. Once they met the Lutyens and the Mallets became life-long friends, although the freindship was a mixed blessing as the Mallets were theosophists, followers of a then fashionable mystical philosophical belief system, and Emily was converted, which eventually rather put paid to the Lutyen’s marriage.
The Mallets were great patrons of the arts and befriended many contemporary artists, writers and musicians amongst them Proust, Debussy, Satie, Picasso, Kandinsky, Miro Gide, Mondrian and Virginia Woolf. They wanted a house that was both simple in style and harmonious with its surroundings, and so Lutyens and Jekyll created exactly that. The remodelling was in a pure Arts and Crafts style, which is almost monastic in its austerity and with fixtures and fittings to match, many by Willaim Morris and his associates. As the current owner, Antoine Bouchayer-Mallet put it: Bois des Moutiers is “a house that has been designed to look at the gardens and the gardens have been designed to be looked at from the house”.
By extraordinary luck the house has remained almost unchanged inside and out since it was finished around 1900, and because of that it has been registered as a monument historique while its 25 acres of garden and parkland are a jardin remarquable. Unfortunately its fate more recently has been uncertain, since under French inheritance laws it now belongs to as many as 11 different people, with the likelihood of it passing to at least 25 in the next generation. Around 2011 it was put up for sale but failed to find a buyer and moves were then made to make it an Anglo-French study centre.
I visited Bois des Moutiers recently and the preliminary research for this post told me quite a lot about the house, its architecture, fittings and decor but much much less about the garden. Even articles nominally about the gardens tend to be articles about the house first and foremost. There is no guide book, just a simple plan with a few notes. Most descriptions of the gardens say that Jekyll designed them but that’s a bit of an exageration. As was usually the case with her commissions she didn’t visit the site and in any case she only worked on the formal gardens in front [south] and to the side of the hosue, while the rest of the 12 hectares of grounds, including almost everything [north] behind the house were planned by Mallet himself.
In an article in Country Life in 2009 Sebastian Cesswell-Turner argues “there is a symbiotic relationship between house and garden. From the south and east façades, tile-capped walls radiate like roots to create a series of what French art historian Emmanuel Ducamp called chambres vertes or ‘green rooms’. Not only does the house rise organically from the garden, with the greenery embracing it, but the garden spaces are an extension of the interior ones. Thus the two stone seats and the yew hedge with its scalloped section at the end of the White garden mirror the two small closets and the huge mullioned window at the opposite end of the music room.” This all reflects the Theosophist philosophy of Guillaume and Marie-Adélaïde which required architecture and gardens working together to inspire “the harmonious development of the spirit.”
The enclosed gardens in the space to the south and east of the house and their layout relates to the layout of the interior. These Jekyll gardens in particular are well known and much photographed. Quite rightly of course because they are great examples of her “Surrey style”. But the northern parks and woods are equally interesting and on much more difficult ground. There is a broad lawn watched over by a stand of yews which according to family legend were planted to attract fairies and then the eye travels over old woodland considerably enhanced by the Mallets, with several glades of exotic planting – rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias and hydrangeas – which erupt into colour at different times of the year. Even today with the trees matured and the woodland thickened you can still, just about, get a glimpse of the nearby church and the sea in the distance.
So, here’s a quick photographic guided tour….
The entrance is no longer by the main gates that lead through the most famous of the Jekyll gardens. The sheer logistics of large visitor numbers and the need for a ticket booth etc means that now the gardens are usually entered via the service entrance. Still beautiful but which means the visitor doesn’t have quite the same experience of being immmediately engulfed by Gertrude’s double bordered entrance walk.
Instead you pass down through the service area where the ticket booth now stands and, passing the path leading down into the parkland turn sharp right at a rather nice bench and through a yew arch and brick doorway into the first of the enclosed formal gardens.
And who else could have designed the bench or those steps and the archway in the distance but Lutyens or one of his disciples. The only question you’d ask yourself is which Lutyens site is this?
Apologies for the slightly blurry blobs on some of the photos…it kept spitting with rain and I didn’t notice the raindrops on my camera lens!
This courtyard – known as The White garden – serves as a sort of half entrance/exit space between the grand entrance and the service court and has no direct access to the house. It lies under the windows of the Music Room.
The planting today is much less stark and less reliant on roses than it was certainly in the 1980s…
From there one passes through the arch on the right in the photo and into the main entrance area [ seen in several photos earlier] known as The Garden Between the Walls. [Le jardin entre les murs ]
There are small buildings in the corner which look out over the inter-village road that runs past the site.
The planting seems to have altered over the decades. There is, for example, not much sign of yew buttresses or box topiary in the photos taken in 1981, although I have been unable to find any original planting plans to check what Jekyll herself had specified.
Another arch, directly opposite the one the visitor entered by, leads to another typical Lutyens and Jekyll feature: a brick pergola covered with wisteria and roses.
This in turn runs along an edge of a much larger and more open garden area, framed by trees and sculpted yew hedging. It is centred around a stone sundial, that foreshadows the Cenotaph that Lutyens was later to design for Whitehall.
This area is now quite sophisticated compared with its original planting and boundaries, as seen in this photo from 1912. The octagonal bed surrounding the sundial is being replanted with plants often used by Jekyll.
A side branch of the pergola leads to a terracotta statue of David with the head of Goliath standing in a small rotunda, which is hidden at the edge of the clump of dark trees in the aerial photo below. As can be seen most of the formal garden spaces now become more open still. To me these areas are less successful than the tightly structured areas immediately next to the house, where much of the charm lies in the way the planting complements the strong and unifying architectural features used by Lutyens.
That said there are some real surprises, such as the use of highly sculptural wisterias and the large number of magnolias [sadly finished]which were planted by Madame Andre Mallet in 1975
Before one reaches the walled garden, which is centred around a small circular pond. This was the kitchen garden, and with old fruit trees and and small outbuildings along one side it has a sense of its past. It was replanted in 1987 with lots of roses and Irish yew. The house was built for the Mallet’s daughter.
From the walled garden paths lead through a small woodland garden to the back of the main house where we say goodbye to Jekyll’s work and begin to discover Mallet’s.
As the path emerges from the wood, immediately in front is the stand of yews, with their crowns lifted to present dark bare trunks, that form ‘a fairies cage’. They look over a sweeping lawn that drops dramatically away into the valley, and also back to the house and the brick terrace wall and a planting of specimen rhododendrons and massed hydrangeas.
Paths lead downwards ever downwards at first along broad grass paths
and then as the cover becomes thicker through the woods, through glades of rhododendrons, many of which are gigantic and almost tree like with decorative bare trunks – almost enough to make me wish I had room for them in my own garden. Elsewhere there are other clearings surrounded by pine trees, eucryphias and camellias.
A glimpse of the nearby village church through the treetops interrupt the descent before the path meanders through stands of brilliant coloured azaleas and other Japanese plants…
through water gardens and bog gardens…
with a glimpse of the sea through the trees, before the path turns and begins leading back upwards ever upwards on the side of the valley back to the crest of the ridge with its view back to the house and then finally the terrace…
In 1930 the newly-wed Mary Mallet paid her first visit to her new parents-in-law. She recalled “Pushing open the discreet gate … I came across a spectacle of such beauty that I thanked God I had not seen it before, for fear that I might have got married simply in order to live there!” Today’s visitor, including yours truly, is equally astonished by its variety, complexity and sheer beauty and delighted that Lutyens and Jekyll’s experiment of taking Surrey or Sussex across La Manche worked so well.