Since 21 September 2000 the Serre de la Madone Garden has been twinned with Hidcote Manor, the first time that two European gardens have been linked in this way. Under this arrangement, exchanges of both plants and gardeners are to take place for the mutual enrichment of the two gardens.
The twinning ceremony, during which the Ambassador presented representatives of each of the two gardens with certificates and a number of plants were exchanged, was held at the British Embassy in Paris.
Web Site: Hidcote Manor
Extract from the book by Louisa Jones, Serre de la Madone
"At Hidcote, Johnston was faced with an inhospitable, windy site. He solved the problem by planting hedges, thus creating sheltered compartments rather like rooms in a house without a roof. This architecture directs the gaze inwards through these interconnecting outdoor rooms and junctions, rarely toward the surrounding countryside. These closed areas enabled Johnston to create the right conditions for the most beautiful plants from Europe's best nurseries. His flower displays were doubtless inspired by Gertrude Jekyll and the layout of the Garden by the Art and Crafts Movement and the Anglo-Italian compositions of Harold Peto (who was as well known in Britain as on the Riviera).
But Johnston’s planting style evolved towards ever greater freedom. He gradually introduced a lush profusion which Vita Sackville West much admired: “The plants grow in a jumble, flowering shrubs mixed with Roses, herbaceous plants with bulbous subjects, climbers scrambling over hedges, seedlings coming up wherever they have chosen to sow themselves”. Fragrant plants spilled over paths so that visitors brushed them in passing.
The result, said Sackville West, was “a jungle of beauty; a jungle never allowed to deteriorate into a mere jungle.” Norah Lindsay described the effect in 1948 as “an intoxicating and riotous jungle of herbage, all intertwined and gloriousy rampant”. 1948 was in fact the year Johnston abandonned Hidcote to live year round at Serre. At this time, he himself summed up the “character” of Hidcote as “a wild garden in a formal setting”.
In the thirties, when Hidcote was already a mature garden, Serre was still in its infancy. The countryside was famous for its beauty, and Johnston was able to include it in his plans. His Menton garden covers a steep slope hidden from the road. The villa is halfway up the hill and a fine stone stairway leads straight down from the house to the large pool, five levels below. This T-shaped central axis, reminiscent of the one at Hidcote, lends unity to a complex layout which is otherwise mostly asymmetrical. This is the most architectural and ornate feature of the Garden and is often compared to Italian gardens and the creations of Harold Peto.
On the fringes of the Garden, there was no need to create an artificial wilderness as at Hidcote. It was enough to enrich the existing maquis above the house. One can still find a number of exotic plants there: Canary oaks and pines, evergreen maples, callistemon (bottlebrush), and traces of a vast "Mexican garden" to the west. To the east there subsist traces of the fencing from an aviary, covering an area of roughly three acres, for exotic birds which lived in semi-captivity.
This smooth transition towards a wooded landscape was undoubtedly inspired by the woodland gardens of Robinson and Jekyll, who also took care to ensure a natural progression from house to countryside. Indeed this was a well-established practice in Western gardens: Edith Wharton notes similar layouts in her 1905 book on Italian Renaissance villas. By 1924, the year Johnston bought Serre, Mrs Philippe Martineau was advising English newcomers to the Riviera that: “In a garden where the indigenous maquis is already established, the planting should be carefully merged into it by means of such shrubs of semi-wild character as arbutus, laurustinus, the many cistuses, lavender, broom and so on, instead of cutting it off by some hard dividing line of hedge or fence. » She regrets, already in 1924, that “much of the maquis near the ocean has gone” and recommends mountain sites…like Serre.
Serre then, unlike Hidcote, allowed Johnston a formal centre softening into surrounding woodland. The designer’s great originality however was to maintain, simultaneously, just the opposite approach: his “wild garden in a formal setting”. He pushed it even further than at Hidcote. Sackville-West regretted that at Hidcote « flowers of a kind are not grown in bold masses ». At Serre, Johnston could splurge with a host of pink trumpeted Amaryllis belladonna emerging from a vast carpet of dark blue Ceratostigma plumbaginoïdes. He could even recreate whole ecosystems, as people do today, to welcome plants brought back from his many travels—his Alpines, camelias, daturas or Chinese peonies.
As a "formal setting", Serre offered Johnston a new feature with rich potential, i.e. terracing. Though terraces divide up the terrain like the green rooms at Hidcote, the geometry of English hedges is straight-lined and orderly, whereas the bold lines of Mediterranean "restanques" are never truly parallel. Their dry-stone walls support terraces of constantly varying height and breadth, following the curves of the terrain. They thus constitute an ideal transition from architecture to wilderness.
Terracing also differs from “green rooms” in its balance between shelter and prospect. Both protect from the wind and concentrate sunlight, but a terrace also offers open perspectives in several directions from a single viewpoint. The steep slope of Serre makes visitors experience the garden vertically—whether from the small entrance terraces which look up towards the house, or from the villa’s windows, looking down. Johnston also created plunging perspectives which cut diagonally across the hillside, like that from the wisteria belvevdere. The most intimate corners open onto distant views on the surrounding landscape which, judging from photographs taken in the 1930’s, before more recent building took place, were truly superb.
Anna Pavord remarks that new visitors to Hidcote are sometimes disconcerted by the lack of a single, set route. This is even truer at Serre where the terracing already had multiple points of entry. Various visitors’ accounts show that Johnston led his guests up towards the house by any one of several different paths, according to his whim of the moment. Still today, once engaged in the secret eastern terraces, visitors may hesitate between the two mischievous sphinxes who beckon downhill and the glimmer of a Roman bust at the far end of the peony lane. In Johnston’s time, it must already have been hard to explore all directions in a single visit—and it is still a challenge today.
The above passage is taken from Serre de la Madone,
writen by Louisa Jones and published by Actes Sud et le Conservatoire
du Littoral .
Crédits: Louisa Jones and M. Smith