The theme of this year’s Festival International des Jardins at Chaumont-sur-Loire is the Seven Deadly Sins, which are usually given as wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Every year, groups of landscape architects, artists, designers and architects submit their entries and the most imaginative gardens are chosen by a jury and constructed by the winning designers with a limited budget (plus some low-key sponsorship). We are a long way from the huge budgets lavished on the show gardens at the RHS flower shows in the UK. These gardens are showpieces of ingenuity and imagination and are designed to look good from April to November. It is gardening as art, philosophy, and wit – so French!
The garden above is the garden of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection – the sin of pride. Though he may have been spared his fate in this pool, as by September it was rather full of pond-weed and so not terribly reflective.
The grotto is surrounded with luxurious vegetation including many different Brugmansia cultivars. The Russian designer imagines the grotto or temple as a place of lavish seduction, of lust and every conceivable excess. Coming back after dark, the Brugmansias smelled delicious, a heady scent which made the concept far more sensual by night.
Bloom is a garden of red deliciousness surrounded by a high white table. The red flowers and mulch represent a sumptuous banquet that is made inaccessible, provoking desire and greed. However the sin of gluttony is unobtainable and to appease one’s frustration we are encouraged to admire the lovely view of the river Loire through the trees.
This garden represents an old Maori legend which tells of two volcanos, Taranaki and Ruapehu, who both fall in love with a third volcano Tongariro. Jealousy and anger wreaks havoc on their previously strong friendship provoking a huge argument involving rumbling, fire, lava and smoke.
The balance garden reflects on how we can lead our lives avoiding the ‘sins’ that make real satisfaction impossible to achieve. How can we achieve happiness and harmony without succumbing to temptation? Black totems on each side of the garden represent the seven deadly sins standing opposite the seven cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, restraint courage, faith, hope and charity). The wooden see-saws between them show that a balance is required to achieve a harmonious life.
It says a lot about human nature that the seven deadly sins are far better known than the virtues, or is it just me? Playing on the huge wooden see-saws was great fun in this very philosophical garden – why are there not more playgrounds for adults?
The designers of this garden denounce consumerism, greed, gluttony and waste. Sitting among these cans, symbols of consumption to excess, we are to reflect upon how to create a world with a fairer distribution of wealth.
The visitor passes through the padded door and grill of the confessional box to enter this garden. Inside the plants represent the different sins by their names, appearance or habit and the visitor is asked to listen to these sins. But do we need to absolve them?
This garden with its huge tea-cups is light-hearted and uplifting. The designers see the deadly sins as a part of life and their garden is a sort of purgatory which the visitor travels through in a gentle stroll towards repentance. We are purified by the colours of the flowers, white, blue, mauve and purple and sitting in the cups with friends, can share our thoughts and feelings, relax and reflect.
This garden is a satirical comment on the green American lawn where neighbours compete to have the best greensward of their street – theirs is the sin of pride. These lawns consume water, time, energy and require chemicals to keep them looking good – not very environmentally friendly say the American designers! By using artificial turf they show it is possible to have a beautiful lawn all year round…. in a synthetic oasis where vanity has no place.
The name of this garden is a play on words between “déchâiné” which means “unleashed” and déchêné which means “de-oaked”. A violent storm has been unleashed on the garden, felling a mighty oak. Inspired by a poem “The Oak and the Reed” by Jean de La Fontaine, the designers show that nature will humble even the mighty and their vanity will be vanquished. The round metal arches represent the trunk of the fallen oak and around it the planting of reeds and marginal plants shows nature reclaiming its rightful place.
(For more photos and information on this garden follow this link to the facebook page.)
Hoarding is about delaying instant pleasure and saving treasure for later consumption. Gardeners, we are told, if they prepare for the long-term, stretch out the pleasure of a garden into the future. This garden starts with a dry desert of spiky plants representing the dry, prickly nature of the miser. The second part of the garden, lush and luxuriant represents the Garden of Eden and the love of his life, his treasure. However, above a daybed surrounded by aromatic plants hangs a sign “He who counts..misses the point”.
I liked the charred walls at the entry of this garden. The Japanese technique, where the outer side of the wood is charred to make it fire-proof, is called shou-sugi-ban and is a recent trend in landscape design. I first saw this technique in Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden for Chelsea Flower show in 2013 and have been seeing it ever since. It gives a lovely textural quality to the wood and a deep matt black colour.
This next garden also takes the hoard of a miser as it’s theme. In Molière’s play ‘L’Avare’ or ‘The Miser’, the lead character Harpagon hides a treasure chest of gold in his garden. Here the designers invite us to search for the casket hidden at the heart of their garden. The chest is represented by a room enclosed by living willow walls and the gold by a pool of golden balls into which the visitor can plunge……but disappointingly the way was blocked and no actual plunging was allowed.
This garden recounts a fable of pride and envy. The chickens living to the right represent humanity, who consider themselves like gods. The chickens live in the garden but commit all the deadly sins, they waste everything, pilfering and destroying all that is given to them. Yet the Garden of Eden is so close with its values of respect, reason and intelligence. The visitor, stepping into the garden, proudly takes the place of the gods contemplating the chickens, representing humanity, living without moderation and the kitchen garden with its profusion of unreachable food.
This garden invites us to relive the experience of King Midas, obsessed by wealth, who asked Dionysos to give him the power to turn all he touched into gold. Within a bare paved circle, a golden tree shines. However, though splendid, the tree is dead. Surrounding the circle is a garden of gold-leaved plants and the visitor is torn between admiration and rejection of all this opulence. Midas soon realised that his gift to change everything to gold was a catastrophe, as all he touched died, depriving him of any happiness.
Every year artists and landscape architects of renown are asked to create a garden or art-work to be exhibited in the Chateau or in the grounds; Chaumont is becoming known as a place to view land art and art inspired by nature. The latest addition to the grounds is a large field called Le Prés du Goualoup where the following works are displayed.
Micro-droplets of water under high pressure create the fog sculptures of the Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya. She believes it is the wind that forms the sculpture and likens the experience of being in the fog to being inside a cloud. Here at Chaumont, the mist envelops a stand of birch trees.
The British artist Chris Drury has created this whirlpool of logs with a charred centre. This environmental artist uses materials gathered at the site of his sculptures which emphasises the strong sense of place in his work.
The Japanese landscape architect Shodo Suzuki created this garden for the festival in 1993. The disjointed positioning of the stones evoke the state of crisis of modern Japan and the artist’s hope for the future. The black stone islands are symbolically broken and are surrounded not in the traditional gravel of the Zen garden but by water.
Two organic sculptures by the French artist Marc Nucera, who aims to bring out the innate magic in the wood he is carving.
Leaving the festival gardens and the sculpture park behind, there are still more treasures to be found in the grounds of the Domaine de Chaumont. Here a huge topiary rabbit marks the entrance to the potager or kitchen garden.
I was invited by Philips, the lighting manufacturer, to visit the festival gardens at night. Below are some of the gardens illuminated to emphasise the deadly sins they represent.
And finally the Chateau itself, illuminated at sunset.
The Festival International des Jardins at Chaumont-sur-Loire is open to the public from the end of April to the beginning of November every year. In 2014 the opening dates are from the 25th April to the 2nd November. I recommend going in August or September if possible to give the plants some time to fill out. Entry to the Festival and sculpture parks in 2014 cost 12€, or 16€ if you also want to include a visit to the Chateau. There are several restaurants and cafés within the park as well as a gift and book shop.
There is ample free parking, follow the signposts to the back of the domaine. There are regular trains from Paris Gare d’Austerlitz. Take the train to Onzain followed by a 15 minute walk turning right from the station. This is perhaps the best way to approach the Chateau as you benefit from a lovely view across the river Loire.
The website has more information in many languages including English.
The date of my visit was the 18th September 2014.
Lynda Harris is a landscape architect and garden designer based in Paris.