I would like to express my thanks to my husband, Richard Hoskin, who took time off from writing his novel, as I lay feverish from the flu at home, to meet with James Priest and ask questions I had prepared and some of his own.

The Gardens at Giverny, home of Claude Monet from 1883 until his death in 1926, are open to the public seven months of the year and receive about 500,000 visitors in that time. James Priest, an Englishman from Merseyside near Liverpool, was appointed head gardener there this past year. His tenure follows that of Gilbert Vahe, who brought the gardens from a wilderness to its former glory starting in the late 1970s.

Giverny is unique among gardens, neither formal nor informal, but instead a place created by an artist and reflective of the moods and influences so vibrantly alive in his paintings. Heavily predisposed to a Japanese aesthetic, Monet created two gardens, across the road from each other: the Clos Normand in front of the house and a Japanese water garden, the famous lily pond. The blue bridge (which is in fact very green) so often depicted in Monet’s paintings, spans the water garden.

What James Priest brings to his new responsibilities are his qualification from The Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew as well as his tenure starting in 1986 as gardener for the Baron Elie de Rothschild’s house, Royaumont, near Chantilly. He was hired for three years, but his love of the job resulted in his staying 17 years. He worked after that for another French banking family and then went freelance. This latter transition lasted only a short while before he got the call to work at Giverny last year as head gardener.

Attracting him to those particular gardens, just as he was setting up his new business, was his having “always looked after beautiful gardens in France.”  He adds, “Starting up on your own isn’t always easy. You know it’s going to be two or three years, and suddenly this offer came along out of the blue. When you’re offered a job like this, you have to think about it seriously. That’s what I did, and it was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to. I had to let go all my plans; I can make gardens when I am retired, but this opportunity comes up only once every thirty-five years or so.”

Priest views the style of the gardens accordingly: “They are not any classical or established style. It’s almost a French garden at the beginning – when Monet bought the garden, there were boxed-plant allées. The main allée was covered with spruce and yew trees along very formal lines. Monet wanted to break away from that.

Too, people had to feed themselves at that time, so it was a vegetable garden with a few flowers in it. From then on, Monet put his own stamp on his garden. He wanted first of all to plant a few flowers, but the more he established himself at Giverny, the more his ideas developed, and he wanted to make a garden that inspired his paintings, but I think at the same time the paintings inspired the garden. It’s an artist’s garden. You can’t say an English garden, because English gardens are planted along many straight lines. The inside of the beds, the flowers, are more natural plantings. These imitate his pictures, so it is something that nobody has done – tried to make a painting in the garden. There’s only one.”

Monet’s affinity for the Japanese sensibility has several apocryphal genesis stories attached to it, but it surely started at an early age, and the upshot was that he collected 231 ukiyo-e (literally “floating world”) prints over his lifetime, although he never went to Japan. In the 1870s, under the Meiji Emperor, Japan was becoming accessible to the outside world, and the presence of handicrafts flooding into Europe affected the decorative arts, writers and painters alike. These woodblock prints were not in fashion in Japan and often arrived in other markets as wrapping paper. Thus Monet’s collection comprised works by such now revered giants as Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai and Ktagawa Utamaro.

Clearly, both Monet’s paintings and his gardens reveal more than traces of a Japanese point of view. In the AEQAI article I wrote on Hou-mei Sung, Curator of Asian Art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, she was quoted as saying:

“The barrier to understanding Asian art is, number one, you have to change your mindset. If you look at it as you do Western art, you are not going to see anything,” says Dr. Sung. “In Western art you look for the light source, the vanishing point, all that perspective, how realistic it is. However, Asian art is not trying to convey that realistic image. The artist is trying to portray a sort of cumulative visual image – how looking at a landscape is a totality. They travel in the mountains, and with that experience, they go home and paint everything in their minds. In that way, you’re going to see all the artist’s experience, on the top of the mountain and in the valley. It’s like a composite without a single perspective, but far more. What they are also are trying to portray is the concept of nature. The Asian concept of nature does not have the human as the center of the universe. Humans are instead part of nature. You then paint it as though you are in there, not looking from outside. And that is the difference. You don’t need a special focus, but if you have the context, it helps you see more.”

With this in mind, the descriptor “impressionism” reveals Monet’s lifelong drive to wrest the essence of what he saw out of the scenes he painted, and it is this overall approach, as opposed to a realistic depiction of things seen, that characterizes his work and places him philosophically as Asian in approach. He never stopped reaching for it, and the constant attempt to tease out the kernel of truth in what he saw that makes what he created emotionally accessible.

Monet started to form his flower-filled garden when he moved to Giverny in 1883, refining it over 43 years until his death there in 1926. Many of his friends visited him there: Clemenceau, Rodin, Cézanne, Degas and Renoir. He originally planted flowers so that he could pick bunches to have something to paint indoors on rainy days.

Priest says, “The property was called the Pressoir – the cider press. It was a working farm, and all along the road there were working farms. The garden had many apple trees, so between a working farm and an orchard, cider was pressed. Giverny is about two hectares (4.94210 acres); the water garden is about a hectare (2.47105 acres). The Clos Normande – the top part of the garden – is about an acre, whereas Rothschild’s garden was about 250 hectares (617.763 acres), huge – not all gardens, but a huge estate. This is a garden that is intense. Every part of it is like a canvas, like a painting, and has to be worked in an intricate and changing way, whereas obviously the Rothschild’s garden was rich and elaborated, and much of the work was done before I got there. I carried on that work for the next 15 years, but it was simpler in execution. We would change themes, but we didn’t have to obey a theme. With Giverny, you have to respect Monet’s work, so you don’t have so much freedom to do what you want. It makes it more complicated, even though it’s much smaller.

“From his death, the garden was abandoned and kept up in a very rudimentary way. The lawns were mown, but the flowerbeds more or less disappeared. Then from 1966, when Monet’s stepson died, to 1976, it was abandoned completely. The lake was in an awful state; the banks fell in; the water lilies disappeared, eaten by the rats. It was an enormous job to reconstruct the garden. From 1976 onwards until 1980 work went on in the garden so it could open to the public in 1980. At that point, it was immature, a new garden, so it’s matured in every sense of the word since that time.”

Within the unchangeable structure of this garden, Priest says, “There are borderlines we can’t cross, but within those borderlines the garden is always changing. We are digging over the flowerbeds, pulling out or cutting down all the flowers, dividing, replanting new flowers, so every year the garden is different. The leeway I have, as I understand leeway, is in trying to make the garden even better, if that’s possible. The limits are tight: that was the way the garden was historically. Change is not what people want anyway. What changes is how you plant. Quite surprisingly, there is quite a lot of scope to work within that structure.”

Priest feels that there is definitely room to make the gardens even better. “If you look at Monet’s paintings, you feel energy, life, movement, and maybe you select flowers that would give you that movement, whereas they have previously been chosen for color. I think they’ve been a little bit forgetful in certain areas of the garden of giving that movement. I’ve been debating about it; is it possible? I don’t know. These are questions that I am asking myself, and the ambition that I am giving myself is: if you can introduce into these borders the same kind of movement that Monet sought in the paintings, that’s something to work for. Monet, when he made his paintings, was unsatisfied for many, many years, so I think there are going to be years of experimenting with different flowers, with different textures, trying to get closer to the paintings. That’s something I’m really looking forward to. It’s not an easy task, but it’s something I will be working on very, very hard.”

It’s difficult to work directly from the paintings, as Priest says, “There are not that many paintings of the whole garden. We have paintings of the main allée; we have paintings of the irises; but there are very few paintings of the whole garden. So there is a lot of interpretation from the paintings and photographs that we have. We have to interpret the spirit of the garden. What I am working on is looking at the paintings in general and trying to interpret those. We know that Monet’s style of painting changed throughout the years, so it’s not just one style. When you’ve got a garden such as Monet’s garden, you can experiment as he did; you can try to create a garden one year that reflects the beginning of his painting experience, and perhaps as you get better, hope to get to a masterpiece of a garden, perhaps catch what Monet could see at the end of his life. But, it took him 43 years at Giverny to get there, so I’m going to get to garden for a long time before I get there!”

A facet of Monet’s art that is more than probably reflected in his gardens was his propensity to paint one scene over and over, often at intervals during a single day, revealing differing lights and shadows. This must have been a driving force in his selection of the textures and forms he visualized for his gardens. Does Priest consider this as he plans?

“I’m thinking of taking flowers out several times a day and trying to follow that,” he jokes. “Seriously, though, the light will be changing all the time, so people will see that at different times of the day. Thus, you’re going to have to experiment, maybe taking those paintings from different parts of the day and planting one part for the early morning light and finishing at the bottom of the garden for the evening light. It’s to some extent how the garden is planted now, lighter colors at the top, darker colors at the bottom with a monochromatic theme. That idea is already there, but I think you can take it further.”

Priest’s house, and especially his living room, is covered with paintings. “Monet didn’t paint very much outside; rather it’s in my head. I saturate myself with the feeling, and that takes a certain amount of time before you can actually get inside the painting.” Priest uses pastel crayons for the plans – the quickest and easiest way to work for him. He says he is just at the beginning. “I’m inheriting a system where planting was done every year according to lists. As you can imagine lists are not very inspiring. I know as the years go on, I’m going to become more and more elaborated and complex, and I’m going to get more and more frustrated and unsatisfied. The techniques will develop as I try to introduce as much of the realities of the paintings as possible.”

He continues, “It’s simply looking at color at the start so as to not get confused. Monet’s style changed from the beginning of his career. To my mind, his masterpieces are at the end of his career – the series of water lilies – it’s what touches me most, so it’s what’s going to influence me. I have to be careful not to neglect the earlier years, the countryside, rivers and seaside. There are so many different styles. You’ve got to try to introduce all periods of his life into parts of the garden. Again, this is a mystery for me at the moment. I can’t go in and change things over night. There will be a period of continuity, doing the same gardens as in the past, but little by little I will be starting with things that are closest to my heart. That’s the easiest way to express myself. Then I have to turn my mind to the things that at the moment interest me less, but I’m sure that in the future, as I get more and more involved, I’ll be able to work with paintings that don’t move me to such an extent and try to understand and express those paintings as well. You’ve got to look at all he did, and then there is a period of maturation and then think about how it is best to represent that in the garden. This is an historic garden, so the changes have to be subtle.”

Referring to the Japanese influence articulated by Hou Mei Sung, Priest says, “This is what I’m calling getting inside the paintings. The paintings are feelings; the feelings are emotions. Monet went for feelings, and he was perhaps the only person who had the clarity to see the light and catch the changing light. Most ordinary people can see light, bright light, but they can’t see the colors changing or the richness and depth of the reflections. By painting something that he could capture, his eye could capture, his mind could understand, and putting that on canvas enables ordinary people to feel the emotions he was feeling. He was an exceptional being from that point of view. So I work with this concept of taking in all these feelings and then transmitting from a painting of a garden to the actual garden.”

Monet’s advancing cataracts meant that as time went by colors dimmed for him, and he must have compensated by making them more brilliant on the canvas. Priest says this is demonstrated in the paintings of the allée. “So how do you decide to plant this allée when there are so many versions? You have to plant as he saw it, clearly; but you can put touches of these later fiery colors, the deep oranges and purples. That’s going to be the fun – the subtle things. How can you give just a reminder of these colors? I think the garden lends itself to these touches of craziness, so those who know all of his work can see them in the garden; those who have a particular image in their minds can recognize the garden as it has always been.”

One can see the challenges here, but of all jobs for an imaginative and enthusiastic gardener such as James Priest, working at Giverny has to be a plum.

–Cynthia Osborne Hoskin

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