Sunday, February 6, 2011

Les jardins d'Argences, Normandy, France

Les jardins d'Argences are residential gardens created around a beautiful stone mansion in Normandy. The house is stunning and the surrounding countryside even more so. But unfortunately, my honest impression of the garden was that, while nice enough, it was missing that special something. Everything is very pleasant and comfortable, but there are no moments when you feel captured by this garden. It’s the type of place you could easily relax in with a nice book and a glass of wine, but you’d be admiring the house and the tranquil French countryside first and foremost. And that doesn't sound too bad, except that in this case there are in fact gardens which occupy the space between house and countryside and that's what we went to visit.

Before I launch into this one, I just want to issue one warning: this garden is extremely photogenic. I look back at the pictures and I almost don’t recognize the place. It’s another example of how the camera can, and often does, lie. By always trying to take good pictures and choosing angles, we didn't capture the place honestly. You’ll have to trust me that something was missing in this garden though, because the pictures sure don’t give it away.

The gardens at Argences were created by the owner, Mme Caroline Lecardonnel starting in 1989, after purchasing the house. There is a heartfelt essay on the website where she describes the creation of the gardens, and her own aspirations as a gardener. This of course makes me feel very guilty saying that the gardens are only so-so, but in the end, the passion and reward the owner puts into and derives from her garden are not connected with a strangers’ impressions of it. Although in all honesty, everybody loves to hear that their creation appeals to others. A discussion for another day…

The owner’s first gardening attempts resulted in little skinny borders, which she was painfully dissatisfied with. That was all the motivation she needed to launch into the project full force , ending up with 9 different gardens scattered around the house at present. The best parts are actually the oldest, which perhaps don't try to do too much and work off the house, using its French charms to full advantage. The courtyard in the middle of the U-shaped main buildings is the best example. You don’t need much when you already have such a perfect setting – a few plants crawling up the stone house, some old shade trees and a generous patio of local stone (which is where I would sit with that book and drink) are more than enough.

From here, you go on to various small garden spaces surrounding the house. The first two are formal in nature, with a rectangular, shallow pond in the first, and a large parterre in the second.

The garden in the back of the house features more informal, English-style borders of perennials and a circular pond one one side of the central lawn. The pond is a perfect example which I think shows how the camera can distort one's perception. In the first photo, the angle makes the lawn look nicely anchored in the garden, a perfect garden picture. But from another angle, you can see that in reality it's floating on one side of the lawn, and meets up awkwardly with the straight-edged flower border.

To travel on, you follow a small stream in a little valley around the side of the house. This offers a very pleasant respite from the open areas, complete with lush stream-side plantings.

More gardens await at the end of the stream, including some with a more formal layout as well as a more casual garden composed mainly of lawn, with a few, not particularly happy-looking, perennials and a naturalistic pond in the middle. And there’s also the requisite labyrinth.

So, why didn’t I like the gardens? In my opinion, the incredible potential of a beautiful French house and property were wasted. I had the feeling that I was walking through a series of gardens I had seen in different books, placed here on the whim of the garden maker, but with no connection to each other. This is a beautiful spot that demands its own treatment, not just a collection of gardens to show off different styles. I thought the saddest example of a missed opportunity, of not looking at what is there, was the moat. Yes, the house had a moat on three sides; a centuries-old one with mossy stone and actual water flowing through it. And yet, it’s not in any of the pictures because the gardens completely ignore it, and in fact obscure it most of the time.

And then there were the details. I often forget how important they can be, but this garden was a good reminder. There were many little things that just felt a little off, enough to change your whole perception. In some cases the proportions didn't feel quite right, or there were walkways that didn’t connect or weren’t wide enough, or patches of glaringly bare soil between plants. These are the kind of things that don’t show up on camera, but play a huge role in shaping your impressions when you're there.


  1. Another interesting and thought provoking post. I often wonder does a garden inevitably reflect the inner thoughts of the designer? If so, this designer might be a peaceful and quiet person who avoids passionate or dramatic expressions.

  2. Thank you for the comment. I'm sure you're right that a garden, like any creation, says a lot about the inner thoughts of the designer. I think I only managed to get to my point about this garden at the very end of the post, which is that it just felt awkward. Whatever the designer was trying to do, whether dramatic or understated (and either can be completely fine and effective), in this case there was just a feeling awkwardness throughout the gardens, of little things not quite done right. But you've also made me realize that I do seem to have a preference for more dramatic gardens :).

  3. You are a tough judge, I hear, as the pictures look good; very traditional, but good. But then, they are a great reminder of that a garden must always be seen on place, as the eye of the photographer (through a lens) is a great deceiver. I remember one great disappoinment of my own, John Brooke's Denmans in East Sussex: after having seen pictures of it in so many books and magazines, I expected greatness. But then, in place it just felt like decorative incidences, all thrown together on a plot on the English countryside. Just like in your report, I didn't feel that they connected with either each other, or the landscape. And this in such a famous designer's garden , what a disappointment. I guess we all have our way to see, and must celebrate that.

  4. Thanks for sharing your Denmans garden experience, which shows again that there's no substitute for experiencing a garden first hand.
    And I feel guilty being the tough judge, but I suppose it's important to try to be honest with one's own impressions :) I think that we always feel worse about critizing gardens than other works, probably because we have an ingrained sense of gardens being something very personal.