Jill SinclairAnglo-chinois gardens

It can be hard to grasp the shift in France from the great classical, geometric gardens of Le Nôtre and his followers to the so-called anglo-chinois style which swept the country in the years leading up to the French revolution. It is possible to write at length and with some pretension (as I have done) about Republicanism and Romanticism, Chambers and Rousseau, to try and tease out the evolution from one to the other.

Temple de Hou, from cahier 14 of Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode

Temple de Hou, from cahier 14 of Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode

But to get a real sense of the shift, you can do no better than browse Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode, a wonderful collection of almost 500 detailed drawings published in the 1770s and 80s by George Le Rouge. Most of the featured gardens are French, but there are a good few from England, Prussia and Germany, as well as dozens of representations of Chinese gardens.

What the drawings show so well is how the great structural French gardens were gradually influenced by the English landscape movement, with its naturalistic layouts and follies, including classical temples and Gothic buildings. Overlaid on this was the craze for Chinese-inspired gardens, which meant the introduction of rocky hills and pagodas and walks that offered contrasting experiences and sensations. Stated baldly like that, in a couple of sentences, the shift sounds clumsy and improbable. Yet the drawings capture it beautifully.

The great geometric Parc de Roissy (north of Paris) with small sections given over to the quirky French take on naturalistic English gardens. From volume 3 of Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode.

The great geometric Parc de Roissy (north of Paris) with small sections given over to the quirky French take on naturalistic English gardens. From volume 3 of Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode.

The classical gardens at Chaville, near Versailles, showing (top left quadrant) how its new owner Mme de Tessé was introducing the distinctive anglo-chinois style among the old geometric allées and vistas. From volume 3 of Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode

The classical gardens at Chaville, near Versailles, showing (top left quadrant) how its new owner Mme de Tessé was introducing the distinctive anglo-chinois style among the old geometric allées and vistas. From volume 3 of Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode

The gardens at the château de Romainville, east of Paris, with the geometric terrace and classical patte d’oie viewing point, overlooking a craggy park of irregular paths and waterways with a Chinese pavilion as a focal point. From volume 12 of Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode

The gardens at the château de Romainville, east of Paris, with the geometric terrace and classical patte d’oie viewing point, overlooking a craggy park of irregular paths and waterways with a Chinese pavilion as a focal point. From volume 12 of Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode

The drawings are all available on line in very high resolution, thanks to a digitisation project by the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art. They seem to be in no chronological or geographical order (although there is an index of sorts at the end of volume 12), with some gardens (such as Chambers’ enormously influential work at Kew) appearing randomly at various points in the folders. New gardens created in the anglo-chinois style also feature, such Ermenonville, Monceau and a whole volume on the Désert de Retz.

Some of the structures and features in the jardin (now parc) de Monceau in Paris, created in the anglo-chinois style in the 1770s

Some of the structures and features in the jardin (now parc) de Monceau in Paris, created in the anglo-chinois style in the 1770s

Volume seven contains a fascinating list of trees and other woody plants categorised by size, which are recommended for this “modern” style of garden. Many are exotic species but considered hardy in the French climate. The introduction to the list stresses that, unlike the uniform specimens used for tree-lined allées in classical gardens, trees in anglo-chinois gardens should be planted in groups of varied size, form, colour and leaf-shape. The recommended species range from pines, poplars and walnuts to blackberries and clematis.

For those interested in garden structures, this collection is also a great source of detailed architectural drawings of temples, towers, pavilions, kiosks and pagodas.

Plan for a kiosk among rocks and the (still extant) 44-metre high Chinese pagoda installed by the duc de Choiseuil at his garden in Chantaloup in the Loire Valley. From volume 12 of Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode.

Plan for a kiosk among rocks and the (still extant) 44-metre high Chinese pagoda installed by the duc de Choiseuil at his garden in Chantaloup in the Loire Valley. From volume 12 of Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode.

Many gardens drawn by Le Rouge still exist and it would be fascinating to examine how many of the anglo-chinois features remain in place today. Some of these gardens are no more (the parc de Roissy for instance is I believe lost under Charles de Gaulle airport), but are preserved here in wonderful detail at a particular point in time.

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Jill Sinclair

About Jill Sinclair

Jill is a British landscape historian, based these days in New Delhi. She studied landscape design and history at Harvard, completed a Masters in garden design at the Inchbald School in London, and lived and worked for a number of years in Paris. Her first book was published by the MIT Press on a historic landscape in Massachusetts, and she now researches, writes about and lectures on designed landscapes across three continents. Follow her blog at Landscape Lover

6 thoughts on “Anglo-chinois gardens

  1. Thanks so much for this Jill. There can’t be many examples of the French so whole-heartedly and unashamedly adopting an aspect of English culture, as they did back in the 18C – to the destruction of so many of their important gardens. That whole English landscape movement seemed to spread through the globe like a particularly virulent virus. But until now, I’d not been aware of their enthusiasm for the anglo-chinois thing. I’d be interested to know if you think that was essential to, or incidental to, France’s embracing of the English landscape movement.

    • Michael, thanks for the comment. It was popular in France to argue that the English landscape style was just an adaptation of Chinese design. Hence the pointed use of the term anglo-chinois. This certainly seems to have made it more palatable.

      And of course many English designers, such as William Chambers, also believed that Chinese elements were essential to stop the new landscape style appearing dull and random, with “nothing to excite curiosity.”

      Your view that the English landscape movement was a “virulent virus” that led to the “destruction” of important gardens is the prevalent one today, but there are still great fans of the style. The year 2016 will mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Capability Brown, one of the style’s greatest proponents, and a great festival is planned across the UK.

      • I’m a huge fan myself, but the contagiousness of the style still seems curious, particularly since it swept through the UK and then through France before there would have been a single fully mature example of the style to prove its merit. It seems like the very idea was contagious.

        I also think it’s perfectly possible to celebrate the 18thC landscapes while still grieving the loss of the gardens swept away in its wake.

        My interest in whether the chinoiserie was essential to the appeal of this style to the French is driven by my (admittedly pretty ignorant, or at least unstudied) idea that the anglo-chinois thing feels essentially novel and ‘featuristic’, while the pure English landscape seems to be precisely the opposite. The moment I write that, I think of Stourhead, and imagine that that must have looked very novel to mid 18thC eyes, and its current ‘naturalness’ or unselfconsciousness may have been acquired with the passing centuries. Perhaps the two styles (if they can be considered two, after all) are as novel and feature-driven as each other…

        • I guess these were revolutionary times in many countries – politically, philosophically, artistically, so I think people were generally attracted to change and novelty, which helped the movement spread so rapidly. [For those not familiar with the dates, the earliest English landscape gardens were places like Rousham (1720s), Stourhead and the Leasowes (both 1740s). Ermenonville, arguably the first landscape garden in France, was begun in the 1760s.]

          Your point about ‘features’ is a fascinating one. Brown used only turf, water, trees and sky in his compositions, but many English designers wanted more of an “ostentatious shew” of mankind’s interventions in the seemingly naturalistic landscape garden. Chinoiserie was just one option for this; other earlier examples included Classical temples and Gothic temples.

          In France “ostentatious shew” seems to have been standard – many supposedly English-style gardens look to us now like forerunners of Disneyland, with a packed array of ruins and follies – windmills, pyramids, pavilions, temples, churches, tombs, dairies and lots of “crooked walks.”

          As I have already said to Catherine, this is such a complex subject, it is difficult to begin to do it justice in short comments on a blog post!

          • I can see the difficulty in doing such a subject justice in such a format. I suspect it would take several books to give it the time it needs.
            But I really appreciate your time and attention in the answers

  2. Michael (and anyone interested in the topic), good books include “The Picturesque Garden in France” by Dora Wiebenson, and “Tradition and Innovation in French Garden Art: Chapters of a New History” by John Dixon Hunt, Michel Conan and Claire Goldstein (Hunt is pre-eminent among garden scholars on the English landscape movement). For a shorter overview, the following are good general introductions to garden history and include something on chinoiserie: “The Landscape of Man: Shaping the Environment from Prehistory to the Present Day” by Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe, and “Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History” by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers.

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