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The rise and fall of the English gardener at Giverny

Tinted photograph of Monets garden at the beginning of the 20th century
Match! La Grande Allée, Monet’s garden September 2017.
matching tinted postcard of Monet’s garden at the beginning of the 20th century.

Spring 2018 and a short news item in a Normandy newspaper simply states:

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Jean-Marie Avisard will be replacing the legendary Gilbert Vahé as head gardener at Giverny, home of Claude Monet. The role is responsible for keeping the beautiful gardens, so important to Monet’s work, in pristine condition and will included the flowerbeds, water garden and lily ponds and it is no easy task.  Gilbert Vahé has been in charge of the gardens since 1977. He then retired in 2011 and was replaced by British gardener James Priest. In 2017, Vahé came out of retirement. Now he is retiring and handing over the title to Avisard.

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No story is so simple, certainly not one involving the most famous garden in the world.  Journalists contacted the Giverny Foundation after James Priest left in October 2017 to talk about their head gardener of six years, but they would not discuss his work, or why he left. They simply stated “We do not keep records of Mr Priest. He is gone”.

What happened? What went so very, very wrong? This is a story of love, passion, and four gardeners. Our first is the artist Claude Monet.

Monet in his garden
Claude Monet in his garden, photo from 1927 Illustration magazine interview

The creation of Monet’s garden

Monet discovered the wide pink house with green shutters at Giverny while out walking.  Initially he leased it in 1883 then went on to buy in 1890. He would live here with his family for more than 40 years.

Apparently the owner laughed at Monet when he said he would be planting flowers in the garden. At first it was just a few inexpensive seeds, annuals, so he would have vases of pretty blooms to paint indoors when the weather was too bad to paint en plein air, outdoors.

As his finances improved, Monet invested in more expensive perennials; roses, rhododendrons, irises, whatever caught his eye.  He studied catalogues of flowers from the great French nurseries.  We know he sometimes read the English magazine Country Life that depicted the home and gardens of the British aristocracy.  He would ask fellow artists about the flowers in their paintings. And so his expertise, and the garden grew.

The house amongst the roses, by Monet
From The house amongst the roses, by Monet

Monet cleared trees, fed the soil, asked experts for advice and sent as far away as Japan for unusual seeds. Initially working towards a traditional formal French garden, his creativity would not be restricted and he was soon playing with light and colour in his new landscape.

In the clos Normand he created high, dense borders of vegetation, straight edged and separated by many small paths, so the walker could be completely immersed in flowers with the sky barely visible. Giverny was becoming a garden like no other.

 La Grande Allée Giverny oil painting Monet
From La Grande Allée at Giverny by Moneet 1902

Leading from the house down through the length of the garden was a wide alley of established Spruce trees. Monet’s wife Alice loved them; they were elegant, traditional and gave welcome shade. Monet thought they were ghastly and the well matched coupled argued about them for some time.  The trees survived years of debate until eventually Monet got his way, mostly, cutting down all but two that still stand close to the house. The others were replaced with metal arching over the pathway and soon heavy with roses.

Famously Monet bought a plot of land across the road from the bottom of his garden.  Here he dug the waterlily pond that would go on to inspire so many of his paintings. His first order for waterlilies still exists. It was to Latour-Marliac and for three varieties; pink Nymphaea ‘Laydekeri Rosea’ (now sold as N. ‘Laydekeri Rosea Prolifera’) and two yellow ones, Nymphaea ‘Odorata Sulphurea Grandiflora’ and Nymphaea Mexicana.

Lily ponds Giverny
The water garden, Giverny from an interview with Claude Monet and Illustration Magazine 1927

Monet once described his garden as “my most beautiful masterpiece” and he worked on it constantly, trying new colour combinations and nudging the layout, investing huge sums  of money and time.  Hundreds of joyful paintings were created here, from bunches of flowers in vases, to the changing colours of the season along the grande allée to Nymphéas, waterlilies, lit by the myriad vagaries of sunlight and shadow.

Photo of Monet's waterlily painting
Waterlilies by Monet, Illustration magazine 1927

Claude Monet died in 1926. The house stayed in his family but they found the garden impossible to maintain.  Borders were grassed over, the watergarden became overgrown, it’s banks began to crumble.  The house and garden were both damamged by Allied bombing in 1944.

When Michael Monet the painter’s youngest son died in 1966, he willed the Giverny house, workshops and gardens to the Academy of Fine Arts. The property was unremarkable, its garden choked with weeds and impressionist art very out of fashion, so perhaps it is no surprise the Academy took a decade before they began to tackle the problem of Monet’s house and garden.

In 1976 the Institut de France (which includes the Academy) asked Gérald Van der Kemp to restore the house and garden.  Gérald had masterminded the restoration of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles and saved the ‘Mona Lisa’ from destruction by the Nazis, often keeping it in his bedroom during the war.

Gérald was also an expert at chatting up benefactors. He took on the task and secured huge amounts of private support that paid for 95% of the restoration.   American patrons were particularly generous; Mrs Lila Acheson Wallace, founder of the Reader’s Digest Foundation donated over one million dollars. Ambassador Walter Annenberg donated fund for a tunnel under the road between the flower garden and the waterlily pond.

In 1977 Gérald hired Gilbert Vahé, who had worked at Versailles, as his head gardener.  Gilbert Vahé thought he would stay at Giverny for perhaps a year or so…

Postcard of Monet's house and garden at Giverny before restoration
Postcard of Monet’s house and garden at Giverny before restoration

Gilbert Vahé

Gérald and Gilbert worked closely on the restoration. Gilbert would later say “We did not always agree, but he was a humanist, who also painted and loved flowers”.

At the time, little was known about Monet’s garden and none of his planting had survived. They spoke to people who remembered the original garden, collected rare photographs, scoured the records of plant nurseries that supplied Monet and studied his letters. Most of all they looked at his paintings.

It took four years to bring the garden back to life.  The year the house and garden were opened to the public 7000 people were expected, over 70,000 came. Visitors discover an earthly paradise.

In a few places the garden was replanted as closely as possible to photographs; just in front of the windows long borders of pink and red geraniums are lifted by pink rose trees. Elsewhere, rather than slavishly recreate the garden at any one time in Monet’s life, Gilbert believed it was important to maintain a less severe aesthetic, and display a feeling for colour and light sympathetic to Monet’s vision. “La nature n’est pas rigide,”  “Nature is not rigid” he said.

Photo from the house by Mitzi Humphreys 1989
Photo from the house by Mitzi Humphreys 1989

The orderly clos Normand borders overflowed with plants; an abundance of tulips, marigolds, roses, sunflowers, lavender and iris, depending on the season. Scented flowers edge the paths. Like Monet’s paintings the gardeners fearlessly placed contrasting colours together, placed pale blooms in shadows and rich reds and golds towards the setting sun. The silent pool was dotted with waterlilies and touched by weeping willow, reflecting a thicket of bamboo and elegant oriental maple.  Gilbert was creating living art.

 La Grande Allée 2011
La Grande Allée 2011

For 35 years Gilbert, with his team of gardeners and volunteers, protected Monet’s legacy. Not long before retiring Gilbert said that in the early days he preferred the autumn colours in the garden, but now preferred the spring. When asked why he said “When you’re young, you want to be older, and when you’re old, you want to be young”.  Retiring in 2011, Gilbert said he planned to work on his own garden and to paint.  If he missed Monet’s garden he did not have far to go, Gilbert lived next door.

Gilbert, with views of the his garden and the garden renovation (Fr) 2011

James Priest

The Giverny Foundation employed James Priest to take over from Gilbert.  Born in England and trained at the world famous Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, he had lived in France for many years.  Before Giverny he was head gardener for Baron Elie de Rothschild near Paris. While James’s gardening experience could not be questioned, his nationality was a big surprise.

An Englishman head gardener in France’s most famous garden? The press was fascinated and over the next few years James was interviewed enthusiastically.

At first the signs were excellent.  James said “You really have to understand a garden before you start to build on its past…To understand this garden, you have to understand Monet.”  He threw himself passionately into research for the garden, viewing paintings in the Paris galleries.

“I saw The Water-lily Pond in the Jeu de Paume and I was struck by the emotion: this was about Monet wanting to recreate an emotional response to his subject. Later, it dawned on me how, in attempting to capture light in paint, Monet was obsessed by the truth of what light revealed to him…He was an avid collector of plants but he wasn’t what you’d call a plantsman in a modern horticultural sense. He was curious about plants in the way that he was curious about all light-reflecting surfaces.”

Lily pond September 2017
Lily pond September 2017

A French reporter noted slightly acidly that the new gardener “expresses himself with a beautiful English accent despite his twenty-five years spent in France”…

James was soon keen to dispel a few myths. “There’s a lot of rubbish about his [Monet’s] love of simple flowers, just because he was pictured with a rose. He loved roses and marigolds, of course, but he loved new varieties. After all, they are the most exuberant blooms. He was fanatical and curious”

James surrounded himself with Monet’s work and started painting to better understand the process and challenges Monet faced. “I would not say I feel close to Monet, which people often ask me,” he said, “but I feel comfortable with him.”

Giverny September 2017
Giverny September 2017

Unfortunately the gardeners at Giverny were not very comfortable with James.  He complained they wanted an ‘instant garden’ of flowers planted in full bloom. For the gardeners this was a way to ensure a perfect garden for thousands of visitors every week.  But for James “a garden is alive, it must evolve over time”.  He had the full support of Hugues Gall, director of the Claude Monet Foundation.

James approved the lily ponds but soon the rest of the garden was about to undergo a dramatic change.  For decades Gilbert Vahé and his team planted a riotous display, clusters of contrasting bright colours shouting together joyfully.  James preferred “something more harmonious, a symphony of colour, not a cacophony”.

Monet's house at Giverny September 2017
Monet’s house at Giverny September 2017

He went on to imply the garden’s design previously misinterpreted Monet’s artistic intention. He said “many of his best-known works were painted in, and inspired by, this garden. I have tried to reverse the process. I have used the spirit of his paintings to guide the restoration to something closer to what I believe he intended.”

The two strips of 38 smaller flower beds alongside the La Grande Allée were colour graded to represent an artists’ palette.  “In April the garden exploded” James would later recall.  “What we have now is a painting of yellow and orange, moving on to darker reds, I am experimenting and opening myself up to criticism, I know.”

The results were gorgeous. James told a reporter “visitors sometimes say that they feel that they have been standing inside a monet painting. I could not ask for a better compliment than that.”

Visitors had been saying exactly the same thing to Gilbert for years.

Dahlias in the clos Normand, September 2017
Dahlias in the clos Normand, September 2017

The New York Times asked if his garden with its softened lines and ‘wild tangle of flowers’ was more English than French. Looking very concerned he replied “Oh you must not say that! It is a unique garden, neither French nor English. It’s an artist’s garden, a dreamer’s garden. This is France. They cut off people’s heads for saying less than that.”

He acknowledged his team, largely inherited from Gilbert, were finding his planting ideas challenging.  When they were particularly unhappy they claimed not to understand his accent and would deliberately misinterpret his plans. “I did not think it was because I was British, it was because I was new. They had been used to doing the same thing year after year, because that was what they had always done”.

But he was determined to ignore their grumbling, correcting what he saw as terrible planting errors “I saw things that seemed just not right to me, mechanical blocks of colour, jarring red roses in beds that were supposed to be full of cool blues and purples.”

James described the garden he had taken on as “a hotchpotch”.

Giverny 2017
Giverny 2017

The grumbling got louder.  The gardeners called his palette borders the ‘graves’. Not all of the grumbling was from the staff.  A very short walk away in his own garden Gilbert was said to be furious years of work was being destroyed and how the Englishman was a terrible choice to protect Monet’s legacy. Gilbert provided a sympathetic ear to the protesting gardeners and was apparently quick to share his own views.  What this must have been like for James we can only imagine. Then suddenly James, was gone.

In October 2017 the Foundation announced that after six years James Priest had left Giverny. He gave no interviews.

When asked about their head gardener’s departure, a representative for the Foundation said “We do not keep records of Mr Priest. He is gone”.

Gilbert Vahé was enticed out of retirement to manage the garden while a replacement was found. He said witheringly of his predecessor “In my opinion, the garden envisioned by James Priest was a bit too much like a town garden”.

James Priest interviewed in 2013

Jean-Marie Avisard, spring 2018

On 1 April 2018 the Foundation appointed a new head gardener.  Jean-Marie Avisard is from Normandy, born in Pont-Audemer and bought up in Corneville-sur-Risle.  He knows the garden at Giverny very well, arriving first to do seasonal work in the water garden for Gilbert Vahé in 1988. After two years he was given a permanent job.

He recalled “I started at the water garden. I learned a lot because maintaining the pond requires a lot of work. For example we must constantly collect leaves that fall to prevent them from accumulating at the bottom.   Every day a gardener climbs into a boat to scoop up the leaves with a simple net.”

The garden has unique challenges, 637,000 people visited in 2017.  Jean-Marie understands it well, he gently explains how the garden is created;

“At the end of the season, in October, we strip the whole garden. Then comes the digging and planting of the bulbs until Christmas, pruning the roses in April, preparing annuals in the greenhouses … “ Masses of dead blooms and snails are removed by hand every day. 25,000 bulbs are planted every autumn, 100 000 biennials and perennials and 1,200 dahlias. “We favour diversity and to have the widest range of colours “ says Jean-Marie.

“Everything is done to make the garden look like paintings. For myself I also appreciate the really special atmosphere.”

“We must, of course, keep the spirit of the garden, its atmosphere, its colours … but we must not forget that Claude Monet was also passionate about plants. So nothing prevents us to innovate in this area and to maintain a certain freedom.”

The house at giverny viewed from the rose garden (1922-1924)
From ‘The house at Giverny viewed from the rose garden’ 1922-1924

When asked what he thought Monet would think of his garden today Jean said “Monet would love the gardens so long as they were closed to the public!” and if he could he would ask Monet a million questions about the garden.

Jean is gracious about the garden he is taking on saying “I do not want to change things brutally. It would be a bad method! We will see, over time, what needs to be improved. For now, I have to do what is to be done … and I’ll think about innovations later!”

When Gilbert was asked what he thought of his successor Jean-Marie Avisard he said “He’s a good choice. He works well in a team. He sees things, analyses, thinks things through and can question himself. And with his deputy, Rémi Lecoutre who is an excellent botanist, they make a great team!”

Jean-Marie Avisard talks about Giverny June 2018 (Fr)

We wish Jean-Marie Avisard all good luck, and look forward to visiting the gardens at Giverny very soon.


The rose walk at Giverny by Claude Monet
The rose walk at Giverny by Claude Monet 1922

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