I’ve always loved Impressionist paintings and those by Monet in particular. As a student, a visit to the National Museum in Cardiff to gaze at their collection was an instant pick-me-up. Years later on our honeymoon, I dragged my other half into Paris’ Orangerie to see the famous waterlilies. Naturally, as a gardener, Giverny has long been on my list of must-see gardens.
Yet, it’s somewhere that I knew very little about – beyond the instantly recognisable pictures of the wisteria-festooned bridge, the mass plantings of iris and sprawling nasturtiums.
I say ‘knew’ because writer and photographer Vivian Russell’s book Monet’s Garden, Through the Seasons at Giverny, has filled in many of the gaps.
It’s a new paperback edition of a book that was first published in 1995, winning The Garden Writers’ Guild ‘Book of the Year’ award. Whether the text has been revised to allow for any changes in practice in the garden is unclear but that doesn’t detract from what is an enjoyable and informative read.
The book charts the history of the garden at Giverny from 1883 when Monet and his family moved in, starting as tenants and later buying the former cider farm, to the painter’s death in 1926 and beyond.
We learn how the various borders were designed, from the ‘paintbox beds’ to the Grand Allée and the book describes how Monet created his famous water garden, despite initial local opposition, turning the stream into a pond and slowing the water flow with a grille to protect the waterlily blooms.
A picture emerges of someone who gardened with a passion, searching out new varieties, sending plants to friends by train, worrying about his plot while away and even sitting up all night to ensure a new stove would adequately heat his greenhouse. He was a perfectionist, leaving detailed instructions for his head gardener, down to how many sweet peas to sow and the dates for starting dahlias into growth.
That Giverny is today a popular tourist attraction is due to Gérald and Florence van der Kemp who masterminded its restoration 50 years after Monet’s death.
“There is no question that, without this formidable duo, Giverny would by now be history,” Russell tells us.
Yet, there is more to the book than a mere historical journey and it is as much about how the garden is managed as it is a description of what is there and why.
Working through the seasons, Russell outlines the extraordinary lengths the garden team goes to in order to recreate the Monet look. These range from the wholesale lifting of borders in autumn in order to store tender plants to the sowing of thousands of annuals and the endless tidying and manicuring of plants through the garden’s months of opening.
Along the way, she gives details of varieties grown, from dahlias to roses, and the atmosphere of Giverny at different times of the year, all underpinned by numerous photographs that chart the life of this famous garden.
Yet, despite all this Giverny is, says Russell, a garden of “compromises”. Plants that would have been grown in blocks are now woven through borders, the banks of the pond are today densely planted as the original grass was being ruined by visitors’ feet, and the once open boundary railing now sports pyracantha to prevent a “free peep” into what is a commercial operation.
“Most visitors want to be dazzled more than they want authenticity,” explains Russell. “It is only the few purists who wish to see the garden as it was in Monet’s day with some beds in flower for just a few weeks of the year and positively dull the rest of the time.”
• Monet’s Garden, Through the Seasons at Giverny by Vivian Russell is published by Frances Lincoln priced £16.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I will receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)
• Review copy supplied by Quarto Press.
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