If I asked you to think of a pagoda in a European garden I suspect your automatic reaction would be to think of the one at Kew. But there is another, perhaps inspired by it, in an imposing position in the Loire Valley near Amboise.
It’s virtually all that remains of the great palace of Chanteloup, home to Louis XV’s prime minister, the Duc de Choiseul, who fell from grace in 1770. While the palace was destroyed like so many others in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the pagoda remains standing on the highest point of the estate. Although not for the faint hearted it can still be climbed and gives fantastic views over the surrounding countryside.
The pagoda overlooks a large formal semi-circular lake and [now dry] canal which was once part of the 8000 acres of the original park and formal gardens, and nearby are two pavilions, with another lodge remaining nearer the town.
The photos are my own unless otherwise stated
There’s been a farmhouse on the site since the late 16thc but in 1695 it was sold to Louis le Boultz, who started to lay out elaborate gardens fitting to his office of the Grand Master of Waterworks and Forests for three of France’s central provinces [Maine, Anjou and Touraine]. He in turn sold it to Jean d’Aubigny, who called-in the architect Robert de Cotte to convert the main house into a château.
D’Aubigny also extended the gardens and walled-in the park, which stretched to nearly 1000 acres [380 hectares] – that’s an awful lot of wall! Inside the land was divided up geometrically by a series of rides into bosquets or groves which also had ornamental ponds. By the time he’d finished it was described “one of the most beautiful and singular places in all France, and the most superbly furnished.” [Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon]
But that was nothing compared with what was to come. D’Aubigny’s descendants sold the estate in 1761 to the Duc de Choiseul, the chief minister of Louis XV. Choiseul bought up every available square inch of land he could lay his hands on, until the Chanteloup estate eventually stretched to 11,000 acres [4,600 ha] – almost twice the size of the estate at Versailles.
The estate was divided into two main, but unequal, parts. The ‘Little Park’, of a mere 200 acres, surrounding the château itself had elaborate parterres and magnificent water features, while the rest, known as the ‘Great Park’, was a mix of forest and open parkland.
Avenues and rides were laid out across the land, some 6 or even 7 miles long, cutting through thelandscape in elaborate geometric patterns. Seven of these rides centred on a classic patte d’oie [goose-foot pattern] at the huge semi-circular basin, known as a demi-lune [half-moon] which Choiseul had dug on the highest point of the estate. This wasn’t designed in isolation just to look impressive, but as an integral part of the hydraulic engineering of the site. It acted as a reservoir of water to supply the various fountains and water features lower down in the Little Park and around the chateau itself. Nor was it just piped down in a utilitarian manner, but channelled to run down a long decorative cascade, of ten stepped terraces.
With no spring at the top of the hill to fill the demi-lune, water had to be bought in from two lakes in the forest 12km away. Unfortunately these lakes were at a lower level than the demi-lune so the water had to be pumped uphill through an elaborate system of pipework, and then over an intervening valley to reach the new basin. Not content with that, in 1700 the duke then aded a 600m long Grand Canal as an extension to the basin.
At the same time Choiseul greatly enlarged and modernised the chateau and even had plans to extend further although unfortunately these were never realised. Some of his unrealised proposals can be seen on a gold snuff box dated 1767. Luckily all this planning entailed surveys and paintings of the various schemes, several of which survive to provide evidence. The duke was clearly riding the wave of his power and influence at court.
But politicians can fall as well as rise.
Choiseul fell out of favour and was banished to his estates. Like so many other disgraced politicians – think of Stowe – he turned his attention to gardening. Perhaps as a matter of revenge the traditional formal French gardens were ripped up, along with some of the adjacent woodland areas and in their place the duke installed a much more informal and highly fashionable jardin anglo-chinois
His architect/designer Nicholas Le Camus created a serpentine “river” with rocks, waterfalls and bridges, which were partnered by serpentine paths winding through shaded walks with pergolas and small garden buildings. He probably employed a Scots gardener named MacMaster, an associate of Thomas Blaikie, [a Scots landscape and garden designer who lived and worked in France most of his life] to oversee the work.
With the death of Louis XV in 1774, and the accession of the ill-fated Louis XVI, Choiseul found himself to a limited extent restored to royal favour.He had been a popular chief minister and during his exile hadn’t been abandoned by everyone. Indeed he was visited by many court acquaintances despite royal disapproval. As a token of his gratitude he oversaw the construction of the pagoda at the side of the demi-lune and dedicated it to l’Amitié et la Reconnaissance aux Amis. [Friendship and the Recognition or Remembrance of Friends].
It was an appropriate conclusion to his programme of works, putting the exotic exuberance of anglo-chinese architecture slap-bang in the middle of the rigid formality of the traditional French garden. It acted as a beautiful focal point but it was also apparently used to follow the progress of hunting parties round the estate.
It stood at the starting [or finishing] point of the patte d’oie where the seven long forest rides converged. Although Chinese – or at least westernised Chinese – in inspiration and “outline” the decorative detail, unlike the pagoda at Kew, is not, and remained typically French.
The ground floor is classically colonnaded, with 16 columns. Its entrance has seven steps leading to a circular eoom, with a stone staircase rising at one side. This leads to the six upper floors, each smaller than the one below, and each constructed as a separate domed structure [which sounds a bit silly until you see it]
From the first floor level the staircase is made from mahogany, then a rare wood. The 149 treads [I counted them!] are narrow and steep, and the staircase narrows even more as it rises to the point where it is impossible for two people to pass, even if they are good friends. The handrail is ornamented with interlocked double Cs – for Choiseul and Crozat [his wife’s family name] in gilded bronze.
There are windows all around on each floor, and four of them open onto slender cast-iron balconies. The top one is so narrow that the only way I felt safe negotiating my way around was to keep my back to the wall.
On top is a golden globe symbolising the sun, which complements the half-mooned shaped basin below . The stone to build it came from another chateau, Bourdaisiere, that Choiseul owned but never used and then partially demolished. The whole edifice is 144 ft high, apparently as the result of a bet with the Duc d’Argenson to see who could build the highest structure on their estates.
Some commentators have wondered if the building was inspired by Freemasonry, although I don’t know enough about masonic symbolism to make a judgement, so if you have any ideas let me know.
Choiseul died in 1785 just before the French revolution began, and the estate was eventually bought from his widow by one of Louis XIV’s grandsons, the Duc de Penthièvre. He didn’t get much chance to enjoy it because in 1797 it was confiscated along with most aristocratic and church estates for le bien nationale [the national good].
In typical French bureaucratic fashion an inventory was taken of the contents before they were divided up. Both Choiseul and Penthievre were collectors. Gobelin tapestries were transferred to a museum in Paris, the best furniture and paintings sent to the museum in Tours, and lesser stuff sold. I haven’t found any evidence of what happened to the contents of the garden but the grounds were largely abandoned until 1802, when the estate was bought at auction by Jean-Antoine Chaptal He was a rich scientist turned industrialist, who had been appointed Minister of the interior by Napoleon which of course made him even richer.
Chaptal spent money on restoring the chateau but also used it as a base for his experiments. He established a model farm, raised merino sheep and turned over a large section of the park to growing sugar beet. This was so he could experiment with extracting the sugar as an alternative to cane sugar from the French colonies in the Caribbean which were being blockaded by the British during the Napoleonic Wars. When at the end of the war cane sugar was freely available again Chaptal devised another use for his beet sugar: it was added to low-strength, insipid wines. to strengthen the alcohol content in a process still used today after bad harvests and called chaptalisation. [Its amazing what you learn in a blog about garden history!]
Although Chaptal was a successful entrepreneur his son wasn’t, and after he taken over running the family chemical and gunpowder businesses he speculated badly and ran up huge debts which forced him to sell.
At this point the estate was divided. The southern part of the park with the pagoda and semi-circular lake were bought by the Duc d’Orleans [who was later to become King Louis Philippe] but he declined the chateau itself and the rest of the land. While we might at first glance think that such division was bad news it was actually the opposite because in 1823 when Chaptal sold everything else it was to a band of asset-strippers. They sold the contents, and anything and everything of architectural interest before demolishing the rest of the structure.
Remains of Chanteloup can now be seen at many other properties both locally and further afield. There are, for example, two large Medici-style vases on the Pont Wilson in Tours, while a pair of sphinx have been installed on the main approach avenue at the chateau of Chenonceaux and a large column with a vase can be seen in the grounds at the Chateau de Valmer.
.What survives of Chanteloup is, with one exception, all in the southern part, that had been bought by the Duc d’Orleans. The exception is an entrance lodge on the approach from Amboise. This has recently been restored.
The remnants of the estate, some 28 hectares in all, were bought by René Édouard André, son of the great landscape architect Édouard François André, whose family still owns it. The two small entrance pavilions are still there as well as the nearby concierge’s lodge. The Grand Canal gradually became marshland and has been allowed to revert to grass, semi-circular although I think there are long-term plans to excavate it and refill it, although the pipes that brought the water from the lakes 12km away were stripped out in 1789 for their lead. The pagoda was restored by René André in 1910 and listed as an historic monument in 1937. It remains in remarkably good shape, and is open to the public. It’s supported by the Association of the Friends of Chanteloup who run a cafe, a small museum and an area to play traditional games.
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