This post started out as another “serious” look at the history of treehouses but has ended up a bit more off-beat than usual , somehow managing to include mentions of a well-known children’s book, a Disney film, donkeys, bars in the skies, the French rock star Johnny Halliday and a mistress of the Prince of Wales. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Carrying on with the “proper” garden history from last week …the “natural” landscape garden of the 18thc seemed to have no place for treehouses preferring instead temples and other paraphernalia of classical antiquity, but these too fell out of fashion as more romantic ideas about “wild” nature and landscape began to assert themselves.
So what happened next?
Well…. Rusticity – the kind of “basic” architecture that flourished before “proper” architecture – did not go away. It tied in very neatly with the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau about the simple and uncorrupted lives led by primitive man, ideas which helped underly the romantic movement. It also tied in neatly with the ideas of untamed nature in both the landscape and the garden promoted by Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight. However, unlike the “noble savage” he admired Rousseau didn’t live in a treehouse but one group of people who did appear in a book written in 1812 by Johann David Wyss which you are quite likely to have read as a child.
Wyss was a Swiss pastor who wrote the story for his children. It was a highly moral book designed to inculcate family values, knowledge and good care of the natural world as well as self-reliance. He had no intention of publishing it but was persuaded to by his sons.
“Swiss Family Robinson or the shipwrecked Swiss preacher and his family. An instructive book for children and friends of children who live in cities and in the countryside” – to give it its full catchy title, was an immediate hit in Switzerland and very quickly translated into French and English although often with many alterations.
It was based loosely on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – hence the title – and tells of how an unnamed Swiss family cope after being shipwrecked , although with substantially more material goods than Crusoe. Their island, supposedly off the coast of New Guinea, was also had a much wider wider range of animals and plants than Crusoe’s rather barren desert island.
The family start their life on their desert island by building a treehouse in which to live. The story and its protagonists have continued to hold the public imagination and there have been dozens of versions of the book, as well as several film and TV versions, including most famously one by Disney released in 1960
Just as Walter Scott’s novels bought about a wholesale rethink of architecture and garden design based around his romantic reinvented ideas of medieval and Elizabethan buildings and gardens, so The Swiss Family Robinson, written under the influence of Rousseau and Defoe, brought a bit of new life to the treehouse.
It became part of a romantic vision of pioneering/ frontier/ survival life which is often described as Robinsonades. If that sounds a bit far-fetched check out the University of Florida’s collection of related material.
The idea took hold in Europe, especially France, while at the same time more traditional French garden designers were incorporating rustic ideas into their pattern books. Just a few years later Louis-Eustache Audot for example suggested a range of “primitive” small garden buildings including a house built round a tree, and this leafy tiered treehouse.
One place took the whole idea even more seriously: the small village of Le Plessis-Piquet on the south western outskirts of Paris, some ten miles from the city and not far from the Chateau of Sceaux. In the early 19thc it was a quiet wooded place, perched on a plateau above the Seine and the Marne. The 200 or so villagers lived in two small clusters of houses round the church and the chateau and were mainly foresters or farmers. The nearest they ever came to excitement was when Sceaux held a public dance. These had become fashionable in the late 18thc and attracted glittering crowds from Paris.
Images of Robinson are, unless otherwise acknowledged are from https://www.cparama.com/forum/robinson-t1340.html
All that was to change in 1846 when the railway arrived at Sceaux and it became much easier for all classes of Parisians to escape to the countryside at the weekends. Amongst them was Joseph Gueusquin who, on taking a walk from the station and seeing the crowds who flocked to enjoy the peace of the countryside, decided it would be a good spot to open a bar. He bought a piece of wooded ground, well away from the village, which boasted a very large chestnut tree and he set up a cabin underneath it. . But he was a fan of Wyss’s book as well as Defoe, and it must have inspired him to try out a new idea.
In 1848 the chestnut became home to a series of small treehouses – or rather a tree guingette. This is a very French concept which has no simple translation but guinguet, literally means a sour white wine and the word became synonymous with a rather rustic open air cafe, bistro or bar, often near water and often too with also a place to dance. Gueusquin named his chestnut tree Le Grand Robinson and his guingette, Au Grand Robinson. Stairs and ladders led up to the dining room platforms and once customers were up there they could be entirely private as meals were sent up in baskets via a pulley system. It wasn’t long before Gueusquin offered other attractions such as a live orchestra and dancing, as well as accommodation [although not up in the trees].
Le Grand Robinson was an overnight success, with a dozen or so rival establishments quickly springing up all around, including some run by members of Gueusquin’s family. Many had very similar names such Au Viel Arbre, Le Gros Chataignier, or Le Grand Arbre.
When there were no longer enough large trees to house the platforms owners improvised – L’Abre des Roches for example was tree-shaped but constructed with that other fashionable 19thc French material – concrete – but concrete moulded to resemble wood, as can be seen in almost every French public park of the period.
Eventually in 1888 Gueusquin’s son changed the name of Au Grand Robinson to Le Vrai Arbre de Robinson – the Real Robinson Tree – to stand out from its competitors, especially the Grand Arbre which stood opposite. By then the entire neighbourhood – now rejoicing in the name Robinson – had become an entertainment attraction with dance venues, games, rides, donkey races, a firing range and other diversions as well as eateries and bars. Later there was even a scenic railway.
It attracted not just the ordinary Parisian but the elite of European society including Grand Duke Constantin of Russia , Queen Isabella of Spain, and later Alfonso XIII of Spain…and quite possibly at least one member of British royalty too.
In 1895 the railway line was extended to give Robinson its own station. This reduced travelling time to central Paris to less than 30 minutes. Because it was a steep climb up from the station passengers could then hire a carriage, horse or more popularly a donkey to be taken up to the restaurants.
Robinson flourished and became bigger than the old village of Le Plessis-Picquet. The 1896 census showed its population was nearly 500, with 6 hotels 3 horse and donkey hire businesses, plus a wine merchant and all the cafe and restaurants. Of course there were downsides with the local mayor reporting problems with drunkenness and prostitution. The travel guide writer Adolphe Joanne noted that Robinson was the noisiest place one could find within 100 leagues, but there’s no doubt it was popular and there were almost as many postcards of Robinson as of the Eiffel Tower or Mont St Michel, France’ two premier tourist attractions.
Robinson was such a commercial success that after the 1908 local elections, although not without opposition from more conservative elements in Le Plessis, councillors renamed their commune Le Plessis-Robinson, and the name has stuck.
There was a comic opera and several popular songs written about Robinson [follow this link to hear “Le voyage à Robinson” and this one to hear C’est à Robinson ] as well as plenty of stories in magazines about the goings-on there right through until the 1930s. However tastes change and after the wartime closures Robinson struggled to recover. During the 1950s the treehouses and guingettes began to shut down one after another,. By the late 1960s it was virtually all over – although there were still attempts to keep the spirit going, as witnessed by a more recent song Samedi chez l’amiral .
In 1966 the singer Johnny Hallyday bought Le Vrai Arbre de Robinson to save it from closure but he ended the connection with Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family, and replaced them with a wild west theme. Cowboys and ranches were no more successful and it too soon shut.
The last of real guinguettes, Le Grand Arbre, finally pulled up the pulley for the last time in 1976, the site was built over and Robinson became just another dormitory suburb of Paris. All that’s left now are a couple of facades of the ground floors and these mural paintings of the view out from one of the treehouses.
Just as I was finishing this section I discovered there were other Robinson treehouses in other parts of France…but I’ve had no time to explore much further. If anyone has any more information about any of them please let me know…
…. that’s because I want to finish with a Robinson tree closer to home…
The images for Easton Lodge come from their video about the reconstruction of the treehouse unless otherwise acknowledged
While none of the treehouses at Le Plessis-Robinson have survive – you might be surprised learn there is another Vrai Arbre Robinson closer to home. By that I don’t mean a modern treehouse but a reconstruction of one designed by Harold Peto for Daisy, Countess of Warwick as part of the redesign of the gardens at Easton Lodge, her Essex estate.
In 1883 Daisy had become the mistress of Prince Albert Edward, the future Edward VII and their liaison continued until she was supplanted by Alice Keppell in 1898. He had first visited Paris in 1855 and became a regular visitor for the rest of his life. He and Daisy frequently visited Paris, semi-incognito, and although I can’t find any direct references to a visit to Robinson given that they are known to visited all the main tourist sites it’s hard to believe that a trip there didn’t happen at least once. Why else would she have called her treehouse Le Robinson?
Easton Lodge has had a very chequered history since Daisy’s death. It was requisitioned during the war and occupied by the US Airforce. A large part of the estate, including 10,000 trees, was flattened to make way for RAF Great Dunmow .
Most of the house was demolished in 1950 after it was returned to Daisy’s son. But remnants of Peto’s treehouse somehow survived all that., although by 2007 its “rotting ribs -once a place to escape into an airy cage -” were described “as something akin to an Elizabethan memento mori.” [Tourism and Politics, Peter Burns and Maria Novelli 2007]
Since 2003 the gardens have been in the hands of a trust, and in the last few years as part of their ongoing restoration project they have recreated Peto’s treehouse from the original design. Like the treehouse at Pitchford which we saw last week it sits on stilts around the original tree, although now that’s completely dead. Unsurprisingly has proved a very popular attraction for visitors to the gardens. There’s a short video about the restoration on their website. And of course, the gardens are worth going to see for lots of other reasons too!
Treehouses are having a modern renaissance too… see Paula Henderson’s book for some starting points to find out more & maybe one day I’ll even get mine finished!