I’ve just come back from visiting the garden festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire. The great Renaissance chateau there has had a very chequered history, but for the last 28 years has been home to a wonderful celebration of gardens unlike any other that I know.
To start with the festival lasts for months, and combines permanent planting and installations with dozens of temporary ones. It attracts designers and artists from round the world. It values innovation and sustainability more than most, and recycles materials and plants from year to year. It’s also open access, relatively inexpensive and surprisingly uncrowded. Bits of it can be brilliant, others wild and wacky, and sometimes there are miserable failures or a complete mess but thats part of the fun and excitement of going. You never know what you’re going to find!
The images are either from the official Chaumont website or my own photos unless otherwise stated.
The site, on a bluff overlooking the Loire is impressive and has been occupied for over a thousand years, with the first fortress being built by Odo, the Count of nearby royal town of Blois. It passed into the hands of the Amboise family but was burned to the ground in 1465 when they chose to support a rebellion against the king. Perhaps unsurprisingly they later changed sides and were allowed to rebuild. Amongst the members of the family involved in that process was Georges d’Amboise, Cardinal Archbishop of Rouen who not only became a close advisor to Louis XII but was a great gardener and patron of the arts and architecture.
Georges oversaw the later stages of the reconstruction in the newly fashionable Italian style, as well being responsible for the chateaux at Gaillon and Meillant which feature in Androuet de Cerceau’s Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France both of which had grand gardens. However Chaumont, surprisingly, did not .
The chateau was bought by Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France in 1550 as a hunting lodge. Her husband meanwhile had given the nearby famously picturesque Chateau at Chenonceaux to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. After his death Catherine became Regent of France for her son who was a minor, and she forced Diane into an exchange of two properties. Diane continued to develop Chaumont but there were still no gardens. The estate passed through many hands after the death of Diane’s granddaughter in 1594, with nothing much happening until the late 18thc when two grand avenues were planted… one of chestnuts flanking the main driveway, and a second a lime walk along the top of the escarpment. Both survive, although somewhat imperfectly.
In 1833 the neglected estate was bought by the Count of Aramon. He undertook extensive renovations and crucially began to establish a suitable landscape setting for the chateau itself. This was difficult since on the flat land in front of the chateau was a church and two hamlets made up 113 houses as well as a pottery factory and a walled cemetery, and all the associated access roads. All that could be done was laying down some lawns with a few flower beds, and planting some cedars in the grounds well away from the chateau. Further plans were dropped when he died in 1847. His widow remarried but the money ran out and in 1872 the château and its c2,500 hectares [6,200 acres] was sold again but this time to some one with a lot of disposable cash.
The new owner was the 17 year old Marie-Charlotte-Constance Say, who could afford to take on the job because she was heiress to a vast sugar refining fortune. She capped this when three months later she married Prince Henri-Amedee de Broglie, the younger son of Duke de Broglie, a former Prime Minister, and scion of the old aristocracy. Incidentally the current heir to the Dukedom is Louis-Albert, the gardening Prince who runs the Château de la Bourdaisière with its amazing tomato festival [I feel another blog imminent!]
With aristocratic and political connections as well as load of money the couple turned Chaumont into the centre of a great social network, entertaining artists, musicians and writers, as well as royalty and high society from across the world. Henri-Amadee was a shrewd administrator and began modernizing both the estate and the chateau itself.
In 1880 the couple called in landscape architect Henri Duchene to transform the grounds. His plans were radical and involved,as so often in such grand schemes, the relocation of both villages around the chateau. The de Broglies built a new village complete with a new church at the foot of the hill on the banks of the Loire, then bought up the existing houses and demolished them along with the old church. The cemetery was next to go and having exhumed all the bodies they demolished its walls and turned a section of it into a pet’s graveyard. Freeing up the flat ground in front of the chateau enabled Duchesne to lay out a grand parc a l’anglaise – the French version of a supposedly English style parkland. It was a lengthy and expensive business, taking 4 years and costing 560,000 gold francs.
Duchene’s plan was very simple but very effective. He took advantage of the chateau’s extraordinary elevated position, with a long approach road that ascends the very edge of the rise from the valley to the chateau. At the top he laid out an almost circular carriage drive, that brushed the perimeter of the park, but which was screened from the land outside by a planting belt. The view to the river was left open. Inside it he laid out a series of curving cross paths which open up views or focus on specific trees or features. and planted clumps of trees as well as individual specimens.
He also built an atmospheric bridge over a small valley. It is made out of something the French love – imitation wood made of concrete and was reached by a staircase inside a concrete tree trunk. It now spans an early installation – the Vallon des Brumes – the Valley of Mists – but in the early years of the festival it was still used as the entrance to the show gardens but has been closed for many years now on health and safety grounds, but
The de Broglies also built a new stable block on the site of the former factory. Stable block conjures up a rather cosy rustic picture but this was no ordinary stable but one that was state of the art, with marble and brass fittings and all possible equine mod cons. The block looks more like a small stately home than a home for horses!
Slightly further away is the model farm: “model” as in perfect rather than miniature. Begun in 1903 work went on for 10 years. The majority of the buildings are set around an ornamental horse bath , and apart from the obvious range of uses there’s a magnificent bee barn. It would have been home to, presumably, to Miss Pundji an elephant given to the princess in 1898 by the Maharajah of Kapurthala.
But all good things tend to come to an end and in 1913 work stopped before the farm complex was fully completed. The fairy tale princess’s fortune had suddenly begun to shrink. The managers of the sugar refinery business made some bad investment decisions and a third of her income disappeared. Henri-Amadee took austerity measures and enabled them to survive without too much loss of face but after his death in 1917 the princess was not quite so careful and her fortune continued to diminish. The 1929 crash and associated currency devaluation cost her dear too.
In 1930, aged 73 she remarried a man 30 years her junior: the Franco-Spanish Prince Louis Ferdiand, Prince of Orleans and Bourbon, and around the same time she began selling off her property and possessions. Although she kept Chaumont she sold most of its land reducing the estate to just 21 hectares [51 acres], which was essentially just the Duchesne parkland and the area around the model farm buildings.
By 1937 the French government was alarmed and the following year compulsorily purchased the rest of the estate and much of its historic collection of art “in the public interest” compensating the princess to the tune of 1,800,000 gold francs, paid out by a special fund set up by the Historical Monuments Department. But before they had time to think about what to do with the place France was at war. The princess left Chaumont and moved to Paris – living in the Ritz and George V hotels- and finally died there in 1943 aged 86.
But what was the impoverished post-war state to do with its new acquisition – yet another chateau in a country full of them? The first answer was the obvious: turn it into a museum, or rather yet another museum in a country stuffed with chateau-museums. And so it drifted until in 1990 Jean-Paul Pigeat, director of the Pompidou Centre and a landscape and garden historian, published Contemporary parks and gardens. The book attracted the attention of Jack Lang, the Minister of Culture as well as Mayor of Blois which is close to Chaumont. Lang saw a range of possibilities and asked Pigeat to “create an original institution …to show that [gardening] was not just about the past” and to do so in an international context. Pigeat set to work and the first international festival opened in a small part of the park in 1992.
Meanwhile the French government embarked on a cost-cutting mission. One of the areas to come under review was that of the Patrimoine or national heritage. Monuments de France, the French equivalent of English Heritage was responsible for hundreds of historic sites all over the country. The government decided one way of improving their management and redirecting the cost of running them was to give almost all but the 200 most important of them away to regional or local authorities, whichever seemed the most appropriate. This was a mixed blessing but overall perhaps a surprising success because where the recipient authority took an interest the site often thrived with an injection of new ideas.
One of the greatest successes was undoubtedly what happened at Chaumont.
Chaumont was transferred to the Centre Region in 2008. The garden festival was thriving by then and with a new less centrally-directed management approach, it didn’t take long before the idea of the chateau as a museum was expanded.
Contemporary art began to fill the grounds, the chateau’s less interesting rooms, and many of the outbuildings. The empty and dilapidated attics and service areas, were opened too, and rather like Calke Abbey or Dyffryn left in their original state but with small art exhibitions added to the mix. A horticultural training centre was also opened in parts of the model farm.
The garden festival went from strength to strength. Permanent planting improved and in 2011 the grounds were extended with the acquisition of the overgrown 10 hectare Pre Goualoup, across the road and a former part of the park. This included a magnificent stand of 19thc cedars and several other specimen trees.
Louis Benech a well known landscape designer was commissioned to convert it into a showcase for a series of permanent gardens linked to great gardening styles from around the world.. There are currently gardens in the Chinese, Japanese, Korean styles and I’ve written earlier about the English garden. Benech wanted the new design for Goualoup to be contemporary in approach but done with a light touch and “with humility” because “he was walking in the footsteps of the celebrated Duchesnes , father and son. The result is a grand circuit walk, much like the original parc a l’anglaise but with the permenent gardens and installations mainly on the fringes.
Although the festival only runs for 6 months of the year, the chateau, art installations and park are open all year with other events taking place out of season. There are plans to create a residential study centre which will allow the chateau to become a intelelctual as well as horticultural and landcsaping centre of excellence.
If success is measured in visitor numbers then Chaumont is doing well. From 100,000 the first year it was open to 200,000 by 2007 and over 400,000 by 2017. If it’s financial terms then it’s also getting there. A budget of about 8.5 million euros allows it to employ over 50 staff, including 11 full time gardeners, with 7 more temporary ones each summer.
Admission fees and profits from the restaurants and shops now cover 75% of its running costs, with its grant from the regional government now down to 1.9 million euros. If this was Britain any grants would soon be withdrawn but luckily France believes in supporting its heritage and contemporary arts, at both national and local levels.
But all this would as nothing if the gardens weren’t up to much, but as another post soon will show, at their best they’re world class and inspirational, so definitely worth making the effort to see…and of course you’re welcome to submit a proposal for a garden yourself. See here for details!