This summer I was able to visit a few gardens in France which had been on my mind for some time. The Gardens of the Imagination were high on the list, but I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy them as the images looked disappointing and the descriptions somewhat lacking. The element of surprise certainly helped me enjoy the site and so I don’t really want to give a blow by blow description, but rather to take a ramble through the parallel space which accompanies the physical design, that is, the ideas.
People used to just pass through the pretty town of Terrasson-Lavilledieu, on their way to bigger and better things. How could it compete for tourist attention with the celebrated, prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux a few minutes away, or the famously enchanting chateaux of the dramatic Dordogne valley within easy reach? That was the question the town’s exceptional mayor, Pierre Delmon, asked. And his answer was – build a garden. Not just any garden, but one with grand cultural ideals at its heart; a visionary garden which would nurture civic pride and become the engine for a whole raft of restoration projects. In 1996 the idea became a reality and Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire was inaugurated; a six-hectare, terraced garden, designed by the renowned Franco-American landscape architect, Kathryn Gustafson.
His idea has worked, people come because of his project and stay to enjoy the pretty town he has been instrumental in beautifying. But don’t come expecting to enjoy a stroll through pretty gardens, maybe take tea, and leave with a few ideas for your own Eden because you will be disappointed. This is not a garden as such, but more of a kinetic evocation of mankind’s relationship with nature and the elements, and the constant engagement we have with the natural world, reflected in the history of garden making. It aims at epic storytelling, a journey through history using your senses and the raw elements of the hillside on which it is written. It’s such a big idea that you may miss the point so you are taken in groups, on a guided tour, climbing slowly up through thirteen tableaux, each expressing a different aspect of garden history, but united in the presence of constant elements such as stone, wood, trees, water and wind. It is a little like a dot-to-dot drawing, in which you need to join up the points indicated to get the full picture. The guide is informative and attractive and, a bit like many modern works of art, the visual object itself probably needs to be supported with words. They do their best and after that it is very much up to you to get it, or not. You are part of the tableaux, the human element, the shifting spirit of the place.
Gustafson has created a contemporary garden to express a timeless truth about our relationship with the natural world. She has been influenced by the ‘biomorphic’ movement which emerged after WWI in which an artwork’s elements became modelled on naturally occurring patterns, biological forms, and shapes. This fluid way of creating art from emotion is reflected in her way of working with slabs of clay in which her hand is directly connected to the emerging forms in the earth. There is intellectual depth to her work which, in this case, has responded to the region’s exceptional qualities, both physical and historical. The Dordogne river basin has been named a UNESCO biosphere and the prehistoric sites and decorated caves of the Vézère Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The land has been scribed both by natural forces such as water and a long saga of human habitation.
As VS Naipaul says in, The Enigma of Arrival, ‘Land is not land alone, something that simply is itself. Land partakes of what we breathe into it, is touched by our moods and our memories.’ This probably has more relevance here than in most conventional garden visits. I booked myself on the first tour of the day, the weather was lovely, the group small and respectful and I had no expectation for the garden to live up to. I really enjoyed the ebb and flow of the tableaux. I was happy to enter into the spirit of the journey and listen to the story. I wonder what I would have thought of it on another day, in different company, or in less pleasant weather. Is it a great garden? Is it a garden at all? I don’t think so, but then, I don’t think that’s the point; I think it takes its own path and is unusual and intriguing, a morphological essay on our love affair with nature – and that’s worth a visit isn’t it?
If you think you may like to visit this place for yourself you may choose not to read the following brief description of the thirteen gardens. Having said that, I am certainly going to revisit, and I can reveal here that there is a plan to extend the gardens and perhaps even allow people to go it alone, and take their time, without any guide save their own imagination.
- The Sacred Wood – since the beginning of time the woods have been the home of spirits. Here 2,500 box plants cast their spell among the trees, bells and running water.
- The Green Tunnel – a scented vaulted ceiling of hops, jasmine and wisteria takes you from reality to the world of the imagination.
- Elemental Gardens – express a balance between wild nature and cultivation. A golden thread in the trees represents the imagination.
- The Terraces – ruins of old walls covered in moss is a reminder of a time when the region was full of cultivated terraces.
- The Green Theatre – a link to ancient amphitheatres and to the eternal play between ourselves and nature.
- Axis of the Winds – giant whirligigs on high posts amplify the presence of the wind.
- Views – flowers are the key elements in this intervention – always blue and white to reflect the colour of the town and its insignia.
- The Water Gardens – water in all its artful forms, as seen in gardens through the ages.
- The Rose Garden – Classically romantic but modern too – the rose is an emblematic flower.
- Fountains Way – a serpentine path, along the length of the hillside is punctuated by five springs.
- The Topiary Garden – A classic green garden with man in charge – brings us back to connection with the gardens of the town.
- The Rivers – The course of the five major rivers of the world is engraved in stones which remind us that the whole planet is also our garden.
- The Green House – designed by the British architect Ian Ritchie and won the Stephen Lawrence prize in 1999. It is the only covered space in the garden and is used to hold exhibitions.
The Gardens of the Imagination in Terrasson-Lavilledieu, in the Dordogne Department of France, is a public park and contemporary garden, classified by the Committee of Parks and Gardens of the Ministry of Culture as one of the Notable Gardens of France.
Address: Place de Genouillac, 24120 Terrasson-Lavilledieu, France