Creating the Gardens at Chateau de Courtomer - Revolution and Romance
In 1864, the well-known Parisian artist Auguste-Aristide Constantin was commissioned to create a book of engravings to commemorate Chateau de Courtomer and its romantic park. Turning the pages of the leather-bound album, the Chateau springs to life. Diminutive human figures gather, converse, or simply repose against the leafy backdrop of the park, on the lawns, in the pastures.
The book was a gift for the chatelaine, the countess Anne-Antoinette-Gabrielle de Turenne d’Aynac. She had inherited Chateau de Courtomer from her mother. Gabrielle was a granddaughter of Antoine, the last Marquis de Saint-Simon de Courtomer. It was he who had torn down the rambling medieval fortress dating from the 11th century, surrounded by stables, granges and workshops, forges, bread ovens and mills. In its place, Antoine and Gabrielle’s grandmother, Angélique, had designed and built a splendid 18th-century country palace – the current Chateau de Courtomer.
The young couple had only just put the finishing touches on the exterior when the French Revolution turned the world upside down. Instead of being on top of society, aristocrats like Saint-Simon de Courtomer found their heads on top of pikes. Nevertheless, the Saint-Simons and their little daughter survived through the turbulence to bounce back under the Emperor Napoleon. The Marquis de Saint-Simon de Courtomer was a loyal and well-compensated political ally of Napoleon; soon the couple was able to finish the Chateau’s interior decoration and the landscaping of the park.
By 1864, the trees that had been planted by the Marquis and Marquise in the early years of the 19th century were nearing maturity. Their graceful forms as well as the sweeping greensward in front of the Chateau composed a “parc à l’anglaise,” an English park. In England, the “natural” landscape mode had long since replaced the knot gardens, clipped topiary, and neatly lined-up trees of Tudor times. Gardeners like Capability Brown, working in the late 1700s for England’s great aristocrats, created lakes, slopes, hills and groves of trees – with the aid of hundreds of workmen wielding spades and wheelbarrows. It was Nature improved…by the eye and hand of man.
In France, the English mode had been all the rage in the years leading up to the Revolution. It was a mark of progressive thinking. Like the Revolution itself, the new garden ideal was an overthrow of the Old Regime – of its rigid “jardin à la française” with avenues and walks lined with stiff rows of trees, and parterres laid out in elaborate geometrical or swirling patterns – the latter inspired by embroidery.
These old-fashioned gardens were about dominating nature, about clipping, pruning and pollarding it into a man-made form. And they were also associated with the monarchy, especially the authoritarian “absolutism” of Louis XIV. His head gardener Le Nôtre developed the ultimate “jardin à la française” at the Palace of Versailles…and it was imitated not just in France but throughout Europe for the next century.
It is one of the revealing ironies of history that by the eve of the Revolution, even Marie-Antoinette had taken up the new style. The Queen made her own “jardin à l’anglaise” at the Petit Trianon, her private retreat in the grounds of Versailles. Like the young aristocrats she frequented, the Queen was fond of flaunting tradition in favor a more relaxed and private personal lifestyle. And like many of those idealistic young aristocrats – the youthful couple at Chateau de Courtomer included – she was to be taken by surprise not by progressive ideals, but by the bloody violence provoked by ruptured tradition.
After the Revolution, the ardor for the “parc anglais” notably cooled in France. A nostalgia for the old certainties of the preRevolutionary era took hold. Following the Terror and the long Napoleonic Wars, France’s 19th-century gardens are about the beauty to be found in order and symmetry.
And so it was at Chateau de Courtomer.
The groves of trees, undulating lawns, the charming stream that cuts across the park…these created the “natural” look. But the old allées of trees were maintained. They exist today, almost exactly as described in a report from the 1640s:
“…and to go straight to the old chateau, we entered a long allée of sycamores…there is a paille-maille [medieval precursor to croquet] court with rows of linden trees on either side…”
Today, the grounds of Chateau de Courtomer represent the successive gardeners and gardening modes of many centuries of family ownership.
In turn, our family takes its turn as caretaker and creator. We carefully prune the formal, orderly rows of linden trees every other year. Over the past three years, we have begun a program of replacing missing trees, particularly in the chestnut walk and also along the circular drive in the grand forecourt. Here, four magnificent plane trees still survive from plantings made during the 1700s.
This autumn, we will be bringing back the romantic replanting conifers – mainly Scots pine, Atlas cedar, and larch. It is time: The branches of the evergreens have grown thin and scanty…. and the soaring larch is now completely bald.
We have started to replant specimen trees as well. These exotic “essences,” as the French call them, were planted in aristocratic gardens as early as the 1500s, when European explorers began bringing rare species back from Asia and the Americas. So although our sequoia appears to be in vigorous health, we will plant a few small companions nearby for future generations to enjoy. You will also see a “handkerchief” tree, or Davidia, and various magnolias newly planted on the grounds. These species were discovered by early plant collectors, including French missionaries in China, and were first planted in French gardens in the 18th and 19th centuries. There were likely planted at Courtomer.
In keeping with our own passion for landscapes and gardening, we have added plantings of small trees and shrubs – hydrangeas and viburnums, dogwood and redbud -- to add spring and autumn interest to the lawns. We have replanted the parterre of red roses along the moat, with a variety that blooms throughout the summer. Fragrant French roses and wisteria now climb against the walls of the Orangerie and the Maison de la Ferme. A mixed border surrounds a garden vase in the walled garden. We planted a small orchard of traditional Normandy cider apples in front of the Ferme. And once again, lemon trees spread their delicious perfume in the summer air – and overwinter in the Orangerie.
The Count and Countess de Turenne d’Aynac, like the Marquis and Marquise before them, spent much of their time in Paris. Chateau de Courtomer, surrounded by its verdant park, was their country retreat. It can be yours as well.
-- Elisabeth de Courtomer, October 2018