Thursday 30 June 2022

An inspiration for Monet and his waterlilies, by Carol Drinkwater

                                   Here we are (Me, Michel and François to the right) at the confluence, 
the conflux, of the Lot and Garonne Rivers. The sound of water crashing and engaging was rather spectacular.

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.)  

The present Trocadéro Gardens  (top pic above) covers an area of almost 94,000 square metres. It was created for the 1937 Exposition Universelle des Arts et Technique dans la Vie Moderne. The architect who designed this extraordinary refurbishment was Roger-Henri Expert.

Before that, the gardens Monet would have visited, wandered about, collecting ideas and inspiration and where Latour-Mauriac was displaying his vibrantly-coloured water lilies was the garden of the Old Palais de Trocadéro. These gardens had been designed by Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand for the previous, the 1878, Exposition Universelle. Alphand was a French engineer for the Corps of Bridges and Roads. He remains famous for the many parks and green spaces he created for nineteenth century Paris. A monument was built in his memory and stands in avenue Foch in Paris. (17-22 avenue Foch.)

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.

Joseph Bory Latour-Mariac 1830-1911

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.

Water lily displays at the gardens in Le Temple-sur-Lot. Both photos above taken by Clarisse Noll.

After Monet's death in 1926, his son Michel inherited the property and gardens. Alas, Michel and his wife Blanche never lived there. Due to WWII and various other obstacles, the gardens grew neglected. Michel Monet gifted the property and grounds to  the Académie des beaux-arts in 1966.

The restoration of the house and grounds took almost ten years. The ponds had to be dug again, much dedicated time was given to recreating the gardens, finding the same flower species as Monet had chosen. The Japanese bridge was beyond repair and a new one had to be built to the same specifications. 
Monet's home eventually opened to the public in 1980. Now the property is in the hands of the Fondation Claude Monet museum. The house and gardens are visited by millions every year. They continue to be an inspiration.

Two of Monet's works inspired by his water gardens and bridge in Giverny.

And here are three pics I took of our little pond at our home east of Paris. Not quite as colourful!

We have only the white water lily, but I have decided to order one of the deep red varieties from Latour-Mauric's amazing gardens. 

©Carol Drinkwater June 2022

Carol's most recent novel is An Act of Love published by Penguin


Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

A wonderful post and beautiful pictures - thank you, Carol.

Le Jardin des Nénuphars sounds like a real haven. I did not know about it but it is now firmly on my 'to visit' list! The story of the meeting between Monet and Latour-Mauriac is fascinating. I visited Giverny many years ago and loved it and recently re-read the Guide Book (a virtual visit) so Monet's lilies have been on my mind!

Your pond looks lovely and how exciting that you will soon have some deep red lilies growing in there to accompany your white ones.

We also have a pond and spend hours sitting next to it watching the wildlife and enjoying the lilies - you have inspired me to research which varieties they are and perhaps we will even be able to place an order with Le Jardin des Nénuphars...!

Thank you again for a lovely post.

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating! I visited Giverny in summer many years ago, but would love to revisit in the spring when the irises are out. It had never struck me that someone had bred all the varieties of coloured waterlilies.