First frost last night. First flock of starlings at dusk this evening, hundreds whooshing west over the yard at dusk as I gave up on outside work for the day. And at last, the leaves left on many trees and shrubs are starting to colour, just in time to fall and begin the last phase of garden work for the year. Fall, or as us Brits more usually refer to it, autumn, is really here at last.
But I’m ahead of the main topics for discussion this post, which centre around our week away in Paris. For the first time I packed a camera – in this case my Panasonic Camcorder, since I wanted to get a video shot for a new talk I’ve got planned around the subject of ‘Painting with Plants’. In fact, I’d already captured a perfect couple of scenes in the UK, since en route to London we stopped off at Westonbirt Arboretum, a well known visit from our days in Bristol.
It may turn out to be our last visit. A victim of its own success, the trees were still as we remembered, although hardly coloured save the Acer glades, but what had been remembered as a peaceful day out, is now visited by hundreds of cars a day. Great for the venue, but somehow diminished in appeal for us.
Still, there in the Acer glade with easel, brush and acrylics and work in progress, capturing his impressions of the glorious leaf colours, was local Gloucestershire artist Martyn Dymott. He kindly allowed me to video him at work, and you can read a bit more about him, and see his style of painting by clicking here to view his website. So I had my images in the can before we left the UK.
But in spite of generally poor light in Paris, on our return I was struck by 2 features which seemed to run through many of the photos – a Parisian elegance and a design eye for the perspective. So in no particular order I’m going to show a few examples below: The above is one of my favourites, from the Parc Andre Citroen, a relatively modern urban green space created on the site of an old Citroen motor car factory. There are fountains, large glasshouses, trees, lawns and some herbaceous plantings, as below. But the image above really struck me. On a grey day, the selection of lighter and darker materials, matt and reflective surfaces, open and enclosed pathway, regular stone viewing stairway placements, and paving over static water, all running in a repeated theme down much of one side of the park seemed inspired. Interesting use of plantings and hard landscape await exploration at the end of the previous walkway.These fountains are placed between 2 tall cubist palm houses, with wooden mast-like feature supports, with views towards the river Seine.
Earlier we’d ventured up the Montparnasse tower.In spite of my aversion for heights, whizzing up 180 metres in just 45 seconds, I was surprised that the views from the top of this, the tallest building in the city didn’t phase me. Not perhaps the most beautiful gardens in the city, seen from the tower’s 56th floor, but not bad when you consider that this green space is constructed above the roof of the Montparnasse station, which beneath, was filled with concrete platform grouped high speed trains bound for South East France.Heading down, rather than up, even the tunnels of the Parisian catacombs revealed interesting perspectives, both in the walkways hewn from the limestone, which has been extensively quarried over centuries to create the white city,And the hushed, and carefully arranged collections of over 6 million Parisians’ skeletons from the middle ages, relocated into ossuaries in areas of the underground quarries, as a means of solving the city’s overflowing cemeteries at the end of the C18th.
Definitely worth visiting once. But we hadn’t worked out the significance of the warning sign at the entrance, advising visitors with heart or respiratory problems not to enter. There were 136 steps down and 80 steps up to exit the tunnels.
The reason for the discrepancy, was partly that the exit was via a tiny stone circular staircase, barely wide enough for one person, with very deep and narrow treads. With a constant slow stream of visitors, once you’d started you had to keep going to the top, where somewhat relieved to have made it, we were greeted by a single chair with a significant item on the wall above it.
Back above ground, the Parc de Bagatelle showed the advantage of a strong formal design, at this fag end of the gardening year, but the final REAL bit of elegance from this location is shown below. For this is Rosa ‘Elegance’. And its significance for us was that it’s planted 3 roses along in a line of climbing roses trained up trellised pillars, from Rosa ‘High Hopes’. We grow ‘High Hopes’ in the garden at Gelli, and so when, a couple of years ago, we spotted a few hips on the ground beneath the French plant, I’d taken them home and germinated them, thinking we might get some interesting crosses. Indeed we did, being surprised by the 3 completely different flowers which opened this summer.I now know that the other parent of my interesting bi-coloured flower must be R. ‘Elegance’. In fact, I think I prefer my Gelli hybrid, with its less striking pale peach-pink ground colour.
There’s always much to see of urban affluence. We grow white Cyclamen (hederifolium) in our mossy copse, but not as glamorously as the rather appropriately, for us, named Hotel ‘Prince de Galles’ does.More gilt on display in the eye catching window display of the flagship Louis Vuitton store on the Champs Elysee. But would you spend over 5,000 Euros for the pale pink Candy floss that passes for a handbag, which the T. Rex is handing over to the clearly unflustered mannequin?
How times have changed. Over 30 years ago, I found and bought an interesting and beautifully constructed small, hand operated, cube shaped oak butter churn in a shop in Devon, with really chunky brass hinges. Probably dating from the early C20th. Several years later I got the Brasso out, and then discovered the trademark name and initials L.V. stamped into the thick brass of the lid fixings.
Some LV luggage still uses hinges of this general style. But as you can see from the above pink design, the price tag has risen stratospherically, and the functionality is perhaps a bit more suspect in the bag above, since LVMH morphed into one of the world’s top luxury brand names. More appealing to my eye, were the stunning window displays of this very chic, central Paris florist. And if you look closely, the trendy Parisian apartments are being decked out primarily with orchids (mainly Phalaenopsis) and Sarracenias. Plus ca change. (Gelli Uchaf Sarracenias and Cymbidium orchids, though clearly not displayed or housed with the same flair or elegance).
One spin off from a week of walking for hours per day, is that we have to collapse and rest at times, and so I have the rare luxury of time to put my feet up with nothing to do but read a book. On this visit, I’d taken a copy of ‘The Greater Perfection’ by Francis. H. Cabot which I’d bought from the USA 18 months ago and not managed to start before.The title is part of a quote taken from ‘Of Gardens’ by Francis Bacon written in 1625, which I think merits inclusion here:
God Almighty first planted a garden; and indeed it is the purest of human pleasures;
it is the greatest refreshment to the spirit of man;
without which buildings and palaces are but gross handy works:
and a man shall ever see, that, when ages grow to civility and elegancy;
men shall come to build stately, sooner than to garden finely;
as if gardening were the greater perfection.
The book recounts the story of the development of the gardens at the Cabot summertime home at Les Quatre Vents, just outside Quebec. Frank Cabot died a couple of years ago, after a life filled with huge horticultural (and other) achievements, and I’ve mentioned him in this blog before, having briefly met him whilst I had our moth image exhibition hanging at Aberglasney gardens a few years ago. His enjoyment of what I was doing then was extremely encouraging to me.
There are many thoughts and comments in the book which seem to reflect our own much more humble approach to the pleasures and insights that gardening can bring, and I would urge any keen gardeners to try to get hold of this unfortunately very expensive book. Indeed it has been described, I think accurately, as one of the best books ever written about the creation of a garden by its designer/maker. It’s difficult of course to visit the actual garden, but I did discover that you can access an impressive Panoramic 360 degree ‘walk through tour’ of the garden if you follow this link by clicking here. Be warned though, that you can only view this tour twice for free and can then, if desired, purchase it for a small fee. The tour will take quite a while to complete though, so it’s worth planning to take it on a rainy day, or early in the evening!
We always visit a few exhibitions in Paris, and this year our highlight was “Désirs et volupté à l’époque victorienne: Collection Pérez Simón”. (“Desire and Sensuality”) staged at the beautiful Jacquemart-Andre Museum based in a magnificent late 1800’s ‘townhouse’ on Boulevard Haussmann.
(Detail from ‘Crenaia, the nymph of the river Dargle’, 1880, by Frederick, Lord Leighton).
The exhibition was based on a selection of paintings by late Victorian British artists, many of whom I’d never heard of before, and sourced exclusively from the private collection of Perez Simon. It was a revelation. Often such exhibitions travel round the globe, so at the end when we couldn’t buy an English edition of any of several different exhibition guidebooks, I checked whether it was going to move to the UK. Apparently not, though it is scheduled for both Madrid and Rome. Lucky them.(Detail from ‘Unwelcome Confidence’ 1895 by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema).
So, I then asked who Juan Antonio Perez Simon is. Apparently, a Spanish born Mexican businessman who has made his fortune through the telecommunications industry and has amassed the second largest private art collection in the world. I’ve only been able to include one or 2 poor quality images from our catalogue of the style of work exhibited, but it does intrigue me that in the 1960’s /70’s, long after all these artists had fallen out of fashion in their home country, an affluent collector from another country saw their merit, and hoovered them up. (Tiny detail from ‘The Roses of Heliogabale’, 1888 by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema).
A nation’s heritage lost for ever for its citizens through a change of values and lack of real appreciation of what was in its midst. But still prized by a foreigner! Now there’s a thought to conjure with.
(Detail from ‘A Cloud Passes’ around 1900 by Arthur Hughes).
If you click here, you can read a review of the exhibition in the Daily Telegraph, (with a few more images and much more background) and find a quote by the UK’s own Lord Webber, (who has also amassed a significant collection of this group of late British Victorian painters) but bemoaned not being able to buy a painting by one of the show’s stars – Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema for £50 in 1960, because his grandmother wouldn’t lend him the money. Times have changed, it would now be worth more like £22 million!
Or watch a short trailer for the exhibition, below:
Thanks are therefore due both to the J.A. Museum in Paris and indeed to Pérez Simón, for allowing these paintings to be seen by a greater public, for the first time in decades. But I do wonder why the show is not moving on to either London or North America? Is there still no interest in this style of imagery, or is it now considered politically incorrect? Personally, I’d rather see these paintings than the cubism and modernism of Georges Braques, who also simultaneously featured in a major exhibition in the Grand Palais, which we visited. Or many of the feted crop of contemporary Brit Art artists.
But then I’m probably too old fashioned or romantic in my tastes.
So, by a circuitous route, touching on ideas of English “Victorian puritanism and frumpy matriarchs” being shattered by a Spanish/Mexican/French/Italian art exhibition, we’re now back home to the other fall, leaving the city of lights behind, with fond memories. The Great predicted physical storm of my previous blog fortunately never materialised, although sadly right now the Philippines is struggling with the aftermath of the horrendous Typhoon Haiyan.
Dealing with the annual debris of a year’s temperate garden growth seems trivial in this context. But it’s a necessary prelude to a rare quiet time for us in the garden before the spring bulb season really gets going. Frank Cabot mentioned in his book that he often felt ‘gardened out’ by the autumn. In his part of Canada, the gardening season seems noticeably truncated at both ends running from late April, to the end of September.We’re hoping to get most tidying up done in the next week, and the few new tulips we plant each year, in the ground within 10 days. We now know that delaying could see us caught out by a late November snowfall. So first to be chopped back and shredded for fuel to heat the greenhouse are the crocosmia and hellebores. We’ve realised that hellebore leaves take ages to rot down, whilst if the crocosmia aren’t quickly removed, they collapse to a horrible wet brown blanket killing anything underneath. Much better to put them to good use, warming the orchids and lemons. Finally, for all the culture, light and sounds of the city, we really missed the peace, quiet and skies of home.
It’s nice to be back in Wales.