Three weeks ago, Michel and I crossed France to the new home of one of Michel's daughters, Clarisse. She has moved to a region north of Toulouse that I didn't know at all, the Lot-et-Garonne. It was fascinating to be guided by Clarisse and her husband, François, to discover tiny pockets of this area of France. One of the outings that has stayed with me was a visit to the village of Le Temple-sur-Lot, to a water-lily nursery. A water-lily garden. Le Jardin des Nenuphars. For some reason, it had never occurred to me that there exist nurseries dedicated exclusively to the propagation of water-lilies. On a warm summer's day, before the sweltering heat kicked in, it was a real treat to meander the three acres of grounds, circumnavigating small lakes, pausing for shade in the tall bamboo groves, watching the swans feeding with their cygnets, and discovering the process of lilies as they grow. Such outstanding colours! This establishment has apparently been awarded 'Remarkable Garden' status, plus it is the oldest water plant nursery in the world!
These gardens were established in 1875 by a local man, Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac, a lawyer and horticulturist. Before he set up the nursery for the propagation, cultivation and marketing of water lilies and lotuses, Latour-Mauriac taught himself how to hybridise the lilies and to this day his methods remain a secret. Today, the gardens boast over 250 species of water-lily. Back in the 1870s, in Europe there existed only the white water lily, the Nymphaea alba. Through his experimentation and botanical expertise Latour-Mauriac crossed the white flower with tropical lilies and with wild examples from America and Asia. He created a collection of hardy lilies with a palette that ranged from a rich yellow to fuchsia and on to a deep dark red. Word spread, people took an interest.
In 1889, Latour-Mauriac was invited to display his lilies at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Here the presentations of his hybrids caused a sensation. His plants were displayed at the water gardens at the Trocadéro. (From this point you could see across the Seine to the newly-constructed Eiffel Tower in the background.)
Latour-Mauriac won first prize in his category for his water-lilies. The plants, the exquisitely coloured flowers, drew the attention of Claude Monet who was visiting the 1889 fair. He instantly fell under the spell of these exquisite floating plants with hues never before seen in Europe.
Within four years, Monet had bought a second plot of land abutting his home in Giverny, ordered his water-lilies from Latour-Mauriac and created his own water gardens with Japanese bridge. The rest, as they say, is history. The Japanese bridge with wisterias planted by Monet and the coloured floating lilies inspired, of course, some of his most renowned and best-loved paintings.
Giverny is a village in Normandy. Claude Monet lived there from 1883 until his death in 1926. A decade after moving into his home where he created a fabulous flower garden called Clos Normand, he bought his second plot of land. To reach it he had to cross a small road and a railway line. The plot was crossed by a small brook, the Ru, which is a diversion of the Epte, which in turn is a tributary of the Seine. This offered Monet the possibility of visualising a garden with water features. With the help of the local council and in spite of resistance from disgruntled neighbours who feared he would poison the local water system, Monet started digging ponds. The water-lilies he had seen at the Exposition Universelle were just what he needed; he put in an order from Latour-Marliac.
Monet employed a local craftsman to build him a Japanese bridge that crossed the ponds. At its base he planted wisteria.
The Expositions Universelles were world fairs held in Paris between 1855 and 1937. There were eight in total and the 1889 edition was the fourth. It is particularly famous because it was for this fair that the Eiffel Tower was constructed. Once completed, it was the tallest structure in the world.
The 1889 fair was held between 5th May to 31st October 1889. It attracted an astonishing thirty-two million visitors. What is perhaps even more astonishing is that there were 61,722 official exhibitors, almost a third of which were from outside France. What serendipity then that the paths of Monet and Latour-Mauriac crossed at all. Had Monet heard about these water features? Did he going looking for them? He was by this time an avid gardener, fascinated by the combination and symmetry of colours, textures, the dramatic effects created by the height and volumes of the various plants he was digging into Clos Normand at Giverny.