Chambord is one of the greatest chateaux in France with 426 rooms, 83 staircases, and 282 fireplaces – but apart from a few years in the 18thc – no real garden.
It was built as a hunting lodge in the early 16thc on a remote and inhospitable marshy plain, surrounded by dense forest. The man who built it, Francois I, the new young and ambitious king of France, wanted to create an architectural marvel, to be an expression of his power over both man and nature which people would flock to see it no matter how inaccessible.
He succeeded. In 2019 2 million people visited the estate with 1.13 million going into the chateau itself. Now, after what I think is perhaps the largest project of its kind ever undertaken in France, they’ll also be coming to see the newly recreated 18thc gardens.
Francois was determined to outshine his fellow European monarchs who included Henry VIII and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Although he had mixed fortunes politically and militarily, he was a great patron of the arts and especially architecture. Francois believed, as did many of his contemporary rulers, that a ruler should build with “magnificence” and Chambord is just one of eleven major construction and renovation projects that he launched during his reign. The others include the nearby royal chateaux at Blois and Amboise in the Loire Valley, and Fontainebleau, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and Villers-Cotterêts in the Ile de France round Paris.
Building work at Chambord, the most magnificent of all, began in 1519 and was still going on when Francois died in 1547.
But where did the idea for this architectural extravaganza come from? For the 500th anniversary of the start of work an exhibition there suggested that it was a combination of factors. Previous French involvement in Italy had brought Italian artists, craftsmen and engineers to France, amongst them Leonardo da Vinci who spent the rest of his life at Amboise, dying there in 1519. It’s thought that Francois himself played a leading role in the design of Chambord and was heavily influenced by long conversations he had had about architecture with Leonardo. [If you’re interested in knowing more about that check out the notes that accompanied the exhibition.]
There isn’t space here to go into detail about the chateau’s architecture. Suffice it to say its central double spiral staircase is surrounded on 3 floors by four vast wings and is surmounted by a roofscape that has to be seen to be believed. Between the chimney stacks and turrets a terrace offers panoramic views down out and over the surrounding countryside, the canalised Cosson river and now the recreated parterres.
A garden does appear on the king’s original list of requirements for Chambord and three gardeners were listed in 1522, but it seems that they probably worked in a small vegetable garden, with nothing substantially ornamental being laid out either then or for more than two centuries.
After Francois death the chateaux was used occasionally for the next few years but by the early 17thc was in a parlous state when it was granted by Louis XIII in 1626 to his brother Gaston, Duke of Orleans.
He found “the ceilings are ruined, rotten and corrupted by the frozen waters,” necessitating major repairs Gaston also added a huge amount of land to the estate taking it to 13,500 acres, surrounded by a 32 kilometre wall. Despite his efforts when it was planned to bring the chateau back into use under Louis XIV, his finance minister Colbert reported that it was still ‘in a pitiful state, without doors, without windows, without glass… it rained everywhere’.
Its dilapidated state did not stop Louis XIV making it a favoured residence where Molière gave the first performance of “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” in 1670. The royal architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, was commissioned to draw up plans. Work began in 1684 initially to improve flood defences, and create artificial terraces and retaining walls around the chateau while the river Cosson was canalised and diverted.
As can be easily seen from the 1693 plan work did not get very far. In fact it was stopped when Versailles became the centre of royal attention and expenditure, and geophysical surveys in 2014 during the planning stage of the recreation confirm the abandonment of work.
After that no-one took much interest in Chambord, until 1725 when Louis XV, gave the estate to his father-in-law, Stanislas Leszczynski, the exiled King of Poland. It was a gift of dubious value, with the chateau surrounded by a quagmire.
Stanislas soon complained to the Bâtiments du Roi, the department responsible for building works for all the royal estates, about the conditions which had led to outbreaks of malaria amongst his staff. They responded by restarting the abandoned drainage and flood works. The terraces around the chateau were raised and levelled, bridges, drains and dykes were built and work to clean, widen and canalise the Cosson finally completed. And a garden was started.
Luckily the Batiments du Roi kept meticulous records and these were not destroyed during the Revolution. There are contracts, payrolls, works orders, and reports from the various inspectors. They show that the château and gardens were organized in a simple quadripartite form. The building occupied one quarter and the gardens the other three.
A drawing of 1734 shows a formal style garden had been created and other documents show the hiring of Jean-Baptiste Pattard, a gardener who had been formerly employed on the terracing of the parterre, to finish the work and then maintain it. An inventory of 1742 in the National Archives records that “the garden was then planted and the château, which had theretofore been sitting in a swamp, was made all the more brilliant because of it.”
Even better are the two engravings by Jacques Rigaud, [who incidentally also recorded Stowe] . One shows a corner of the garden peeping out from behind the chateau, while the other shows cut-turf fleurs-de-lys and the double rows of young trees in the northern parterre. This was used as the basis for the garden recreation with archaeology confirming the precise positions of the trees.
Chambord reverted to the crown after Stanislas left to temporarily reclaim the Polish throne, and from 1745 it was granted as a reward to Maurice de Saxe, a highly successful military commander who had led French forces to victory at the battle of Fontenoy. Maurice organized major improvements including the mass planting of box, horse chestnut and hornbeam in walks and bowers, as well as shrubs and herbaceous plants. Paths were lined with large pots containing a total of 121 orange trees, and according to an inventory of 1751 250 pineapple plants, although where these might have been overwintered is not recorded.
Reverting to royal hands once again after Saxe’s death in 1750 no-one seems to have lived at Chambord until at the Revolution like all the other royal estates it passed into the “bien national.” Described by the local revolutionaries as the “monument of vultures” it was threatened with demolition so the materials could be used to build 50 “homes for good patriots”. The chateau was only saved by the rise to power of Napoleon who later gave it to Marshal Berthier the victor at Wagram.
In 1817, a report on the condition of the estate showed that there had been little or no maintenance, with overgrown trees and shrubs, and uncultivated flower beds while the moat had been drained and turned into a kitchen garden. Berthier couldn’t afford to restore it and eventually his widow sold it in 1820.
A national subscription was launched to buy it for Henri, Duc de Bordeaux and Count de Chambord, the grandson of Charles X. However, after the 1830 revolution sent the royal family into exile the chateau was once again abandoned.
There was a strong campaign to restore the Bourbon monarchy after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. Henri was recalled and opted to live at Chambord, where he published his “Manifesto to the French”. For some strange reason though he refused to accept the tricolour flag and insisted that France used the white flag of the pre-revolutionary monarchy. This intransigence cost him the offer of the throne and he went back into exile. On his death Chambord passed to his nephews, the princes of Bourbon-Parma. During all this period, the garden was maintained at a very basic level with nothing more than lawn, the sand paths, and the trees that required little maintenance. Achille Duchêne drew up plans to completely restore the gardens but they were never carried out.
Eventually the state bought the estate in 1930 but did little to it, until 1970 when all the trees and remaining shrubs and trees were cleared and the whole garden given over to grass.
It wasn’t until 2000, that the French Ministry of Culture starting consulting about possible ways of improving the château’s surroundings, and in particular the replanting of the gardens. Many different solutions were considered but in the end what was chosen was, according to the authorities, “an authentic restoration of the only structured and completed gardens that ever existed on the property”. Over the next decade or more documentary research, geophysical and archaeological surveys discovered the remains of a tiny mediaeval garden, and established the precise 18thc layout. The work, which cost €3.5 million, was largely paid for by Stephen Schwarzman, an American philanthropist and chair of venture capitalists Blackstone. The installation took just seven months and was completed in March 2017.
Of course, while the intention of carrying out “an authentic restoration” was laudable it just didn’t happen, and arguably it could never have been carried out anyway because of Chambord’s commitment to sustainable development, environmentally-friendly practices, and the protection of biodiversity, to say nothing of the maintenance problems caused by austerity – yes even in France.
There was no problem about restoring the layout of parterres, paths, lawns, flowerbeds, and quincunxes of trees or bushes, etc to the precise original 18thc form and dimensions. But the moment planting was being considered problems began to arise.
Was it worth the risk of replanting box or horse chestnut as in the 18th, given that both are now badly affected by hard-to-control diseases? The answer was “no”, but a carefully-worded “no”.
To quote their website: “The plant species chosen… were selected in order to ensure a ‘historical’ restoration, but also with careful consideration of the environment. For example, Chambord is the first site to have planted thyme borders requiring little maintenance, rather than boxwood.” Of course the Horse Chestnut leaf miner, Box blight and Box caterpillar problems are treatable but “the National Estate of Chambord undertakes not to use any pesticide, fungicide or herbicide (preventive or curative) in the maintenance of its gardens.” So the rows of horse chestnuts have been replaced by Tillia cordata – the Small-leaved lime, and where they had been used in a closely planted quincunx form and designed to be pruned to provide a canopy the choice was Prunus Avium Plena – the double flowered bird cherry. Substantially different but I’m sure Maurice de Saxe would have recognised both choices.
However I think de Saxe would be stretched to recognise many of the other choices made. One of the main structural features are yew pyramids which are now interspersed with Osmanthus x burkwoodii cut as spheres. Unfortunately this is a 20thc garden hybrid, from two parents – one introduced at the end of the 18thc and the other at the end of the 19thc. Does the fact that it only requires an annual clipping and has nice white flowers to please the visitors count more than any sense of historical authenticity? Other shrubs used are Euonymus japonicus mycrophyllus which was not introduced until about 1800 and Syringa microphylla not introduced from China until 1893. Yet surely there were other shrubs which would have been available in the mid-18thc which could have been used?
Sadly there was worse to come. There are roses in the flower borders. Great – because there were plenty of roses that would fulfil the various conditions easily enough and which were around in the mid-18thc. Unfortunately Catherine Deneuve is not one of them. Instead it was chosen because she starred in the film adaptation of Peau d’Âne (Donkey Skin) by Jacques Demy, partly shot at the Château of Chambord in 1970. Great they want to celebrate her [even though in my humble opinion its not a very nice rose] but there are large areas of non-historic garden where they could have been planted.
Much better but still anachronistic is the other rose used Charles de Mills. That at least dates from the right century, being first mentioned in 1790 and may well have been much older.
“More generally, perennials have been chosen over annuals. Perennials are more resistant, have a life span of several years and require little care to thrive (no shelter during the winter, little or no phytosanitary treatments, less watering). They also encourage the presence of pollinating insects. Choosing such plants therefore saves valuable resources (water, energy) and guarantees biodiversity.”
Here at least you’d have thought authenticity was possible because there is a long long list of good solid performing perennials available in the mid-18thc. A look at Russell Square or Hampton Court’s Privy Garden would have provided a good model. Sadly almost every plant used is a modern garden hybrid. Again I’m sure that if Maurice de Saxe had known about them he’d have used them although perhaps more tastefully mixed in terms of colour but he didn’t. As Tim Richardson in his review of the recreation in Country Life in 2018 says succinctly and more politely “The plantings do not observe the restrained tone of early-18th-century planting”.
I know that punters have to be pleased with lots of nice flowers all year round but, as I said earlier there are plenty of areas of the site especially in the approaches, car parks and facility areas around the outbuildings – which are now mainly restaurants – where that would have been fine and perfectly understandable. But to claim the recreation as “authentic” is certainly not true of the planting. There is a full list of the plants used , with precise numbers of each kind of plant, on the Domaine de Chambord’s website.
Despite all that looking down on these gardens from the chateau roof offers the visitor an impressive birds-eye view, although not as good as the images taken by drones! It’s very different, as Tim Richardson, points out, from the conventional rather static view of an 18thc parterre from the first floor window. So far I agree with him. He goes on to say that “At ground level, the simplicity of the parterre gardens creates a pleasing contrast with the fantastical roofscape of the château and the shapes of the yew topiaries seem playfully to echo the shapes of its towers and turrets.” There I venture to differ. The group I went with all felt the same: that walking through them, especially around the flower borders of the parterre’s, felt distinctly underwhelming. I hope it was just the season with the beds being ruthlessly cleared, but unfortunately I’m not sure.
Equally underwhelming was the other very different garden area which has been restored. The last of the royal owners, the princes of Bourbon-Parma, apparently laid out an English Garden in the 1880s between the chateau and the service buildings, which now serve as restaurants, shops and visitor facilities. Long and narrow it has winding paths through a rather municipal-looking shrubbery and does nothing much to enhance either the chateau or the facilities. It just looks out of place. That gives rise to another interesting question. Should we restore/recreate things just because they were once there? We wouldn’t for example rebuild a Victorian wing on a Georgian house so maybe there’s a time for saying – actually it’s not that its been badly done but it just wasn’t a very good idea in the first place.
Tim Richardson concludes his article with a very interesting argument about the recreation judged from a garden history perspective, saying it is “neither original nor a masterpiece, but that is not the point. Instead, it fulfils a humbler, subordinate role, sometimes befitting a garden, in that it offsets and complements a truly remarkable architectural set-piece. The garden restoration completes Chambord.”
I can see his point but I’m not so sure. I think it completes a major tourist attraction, which is what Chambord has become. I’m sure the punters will like it, I’m just not sure, as a garden historian, that I do.
For more information on Chambord I’d suggest their own account which is available as a pdf on-line, and some of the YouTube videos that they have made about the recreation which you can find from the gardens section of their website or direct via YouTube.
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Thank you, this was quite fascinating to read and to peruse the historical photos and prints as well. It is remarkable that Chambord survived to its most recent renovation with so many abandonments and periods of neglect. Perhaps its longterm survival was aided by thoughtful structural design, and, from the photo of the stunning double open staircases, solidly built, though I do wonder that such a grand structure’s wet location was apparently not more of a consideration. (Perhaps its construction was preceded by some rather dry years?)
As to the gardens, I like that they kept to the historical front-lawn cut designs, but as I am not walking there I cannot see or feel the effect of plantings or lack thereof, though from photos there look to be so many similar trees and not much color. However, I am puzzled that more historically-accurate choices were not made in the plantings, even if averting tree diseases. Isn’t that kind of the goal of a restoration, to be as historically accurate as possible, to go back to see how it truly was at that time?
I had to re-read the part about the Catherine Deneuve rose because it seemed such a … random reason for rose selection at such an historic residence, as if visitors (tourists) here aren’t properly schooled in authenticity, so no matter: give them a little glitz and star shine with a familiar name, even honor an adored national treasure of an actress in the process. True of me anyway; I don’t have the background to really “know” the difference between roses, though restored to me means same or as close as possible, so even I would find it jarring to be strolling amongst the “restored” gardens to see the name of this rose. (Hmm, perhaps our Catherine was named after one from the 1700’s? … or so my imagination might run, until coming across your expertise, of course.)
Thank you very much for the beautiful, informative, and thought-provoking Chambord tour, truly excellent!