It’s easy to understand ambition that brings riches in this life, or riches in the next. But to start something that will look a bit spindly and scrappy in your lifetime then in about a hundred years be really quite outstanding, now that takes a special sort of ambition. It’s rare but it does happen and of course it happened in Normandy.
For most of us owing a château that homed one of Richard the Lionheart’s best mates, Robert d’Harcourt, on land granted to his ancestor Bernard the Dane by Rollo, would be achievement enough. Just the turrets and moat would make us happy for a lifetime.
For Louis-Gervais Delamarre it was a good start but just part of his plans. Louis had a passion for the law and lived the well-paid life of a successful eighteenth century Paris lawyer. How he came to Harcourt and what happened next is a very surprising tale.
The château was for centuries a dreary medieval fortress turned in on itself with many sides. Then a 17th century lady of leisure, Marie Françoise de Brancas, took it on as a project. She instructed three sides be removed to let in light. A further bit of re-gigging created larger elegant rooms and the back wall was rebuilt in the simple elegant style of her time. It was quite a contrast to the turrety front and both facade’s survive to this day.
Marie’s efforts with the garden produced equally classic lines but a lack of care scrubbed them out by the time Louis arrived at Harcourt.
A steady man in unsteady times
Louis-Gervais Delamarre was born in the town of Mello, Oise in 1766 to an ancient, honorable and impoverished family
Age 12 Louis joined the office of a local lawyer who recognised his intelligence. By 1787 he was in Paris where his zeal for the finer details of law soon earned him the role of Head Clerk. By 25 he was a Partner in the chambers of M. Bourgeon.
Their clientele were the aristocracy of France and these were dangerous times to be an aristocrat. The revolutionaries of 1789 did not like grand inheritors or their entitled noble heads.
Bravely and perhaps foolishly Louis continued to act on behalf of his noble clients as they faced confiscation of land and assets. His brilliant intervention preserved many gentry fortunes while owners lolled securely away from France confidently dreaming of a triumphant return.
Perilous in Paris
Louis intelligence and loyalty were not always backed up with common sense. As heads rolled from the guillotine Louis’ position in Paris became perilous.
He had made the incredible decision to act on behalf the the Duc de Chatelet. This was not just any unpopular aristo, this was the Colonel in charge of the Paris Guard so disliked by his men in 1789 many chose to join the revolutionaries rather than follow his orders. Then Bastille fell and the Duc de Chatelet became known as the man who had ‘lost France for the King’.
It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise when Louis’s enthusiasm for this particular aristocrat resulted in him joining le Duc in prison. On 13 December 1793 the Duc lost his head. Remarkably Louis did not, thanks to some grateful and still very rich clients. But his health had suffered.
Louis is overwhelmed
As the new France lurched painfully towards international acceptance at the beginning of the nineteenth century Louis continued to work for his once illustrious clients. So successful was he at protecting their assets, work multiplied until he was completely overwhelmed.
Nearing crisis Louis handed (charging nothing) armfuls of briefs to close legal friends and planned a life for himself away from the pressures of Paris.
Investing in a green future
Part of his work had been administrating farm and forest assets of rich and distant nobles. Trips to review the forests and pastures of France invigorated him and the clean air strengthened his delicate constitution.
He already farmed a few acres of woodland north of Paris at Montmorency and now looked to invest what he had, and what he could borrow, in Normandy.
Beware of bargains
In the Eure around Harcourt he found what the thought was a bargain.
One hundred and fifty hectares of coppice woodland in questionable condition and one hundred and fifty acres of moor with earth so compact it was hard to break with a pickaxe. Income from this wasteland of heather and gorse was so bad the land tax was negligible.
In the middle of it all stood romantic Chateau d’Harcourt.
Louis left Paris in 1802 for Harcourt’s draughty grandeur. Peering out of a high turret window across his new domain he felt quite at home.
Trees, trials and tribulations
Keen to bring in a good income from his investment Louis set about trialing varieties of hardwood trees and attempted to improve the old coppice wood. He took a close personal interest, overseeing deliveries and planting. But daily walks across his acres revealed a sad truth; his new saplings drooped and faded. The soil could not support them and he could not afford to replace acres of soil.
Louis requested his Paris bookseller send everything that could be found on the nurture of trees. The books were little help.
A sharp determined mind
Many of the attributes that made him a worthy opponent in the courtroom were about to prove invaluable. Louis analytical mind crunched the facts. What could grow on this wretched soil? Each year he purchased new saplings, closely monitoring and recording their progress. One by one he disregarded the failures and cossetted the successes.
Louis’ obsession with the law had been firmly replaced with trees.
It took Louis 10 years but he eventually discovered the most successful, the most economical trees for his land; Pine. To his joy the windy heathland gave way to cool silent forest. And Pine paid.
Always keen to share is knowledge and help others Louis began to write about his trials, tribulations and eventual woody successes.
In 1826 he published the promising ‘Creation of millionaire wealth by the cultivation of Pine trees’ followed by ‘Practical culture of large Pines’ published in 1831. Both are still available, on Amazon, in the original French.
While writing his second book it was clear Louis was not well. He had never enjoyed vigorous health and possibly examining his beloved Pines in all weathers and staying up late planning his next best seller didn’t help.
Illness and a legacy
Louis was desperate to protect his beloved forest for the future. Those trees could out live generations and become an invaluable source of Pinus information.
No member of the Delamarre family recommended themselves to him as a suitable heir. Few made the journey to Harcourt. Those that did, after enduring many days of tree talk, failed to return.
An excellent decision
So our hero made a will and signed his entire life’s work to the only people he knew who would really appreciate some top trees. The Société Royale d’Agriculture. It was an excellent decison.
Louis-Gervais Delamarre died in 1827 just 60, or 61 year old.
The Société Royale d’Agriculture worked hard to be a worthy beneficiary. Following the bequest Harcourt became a centre for the scientific study of trees. In 1833 François André Michaux was commissioned to create an Arboretum at Harcourt. Louis’ perfect Pines would form the foundation of the largest tree garden in France.
Domaine d’Harcourt Arboretum
The age and diversity of trees at Harcourt make it a unique botanical collection. 500 varieties of trees and shrubs are spread over 11 hectares. Species from all over the world have been planted first at Harcourt before anywhere else in France.
Here you can walk among Lebanon Cedars from the ancient Forest of the Cedars of God, London Plane trees, Giant Sequoias, Parasol Beeches, Chinese Ginkgo Bilobas and mammoth Dawn Redwoods.
Since 1999 the arboretum has been the property of the Conseil Général du l’Eure, and they do a fine job keeping the chateau and arboretum part of life in Normandy. Lots of events take place around the chateau during the year (link below) and contemporary artists are invited to be ‘Artists in Residence’.
In recent years yarn bombers were invited in to knit colourful wraps for trees in the grand avenue. What Louis would make of that we do not know.