Étretat & Moutiers: Twin Stars of the Alabaster Coast
There are a very lovely few days to be enjoyed if you fancy motoring through the tunnel, hugging the Côte Opale, and then drifting on along the shoreline of Normandy from Dieppe to Le Havre, an area known as the Alabaster Coast. You won’t want for interesting gardens to visit, charming little villages and plenty of good food, but my heart was set on visiting the Castor and Pollux of this coast, the twin stars of the white cliffs: Les Jardins de l‘Étretat, a garden based on Neo-Futuristic ideas; and Les Bois de Moutiers, the only French garden by the Arts and Crafts design partnership of Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jeykyll. Separated in time and quite different in scope, to my surprise I discovered that they have some profound qualities in common.
The charming little sea-side town of Étretat is renowned for two things: its stunning coastal scenery, which attracted Impressionist painters, most notably Monet; and the oyster-beds created here at the behest of Marie-Antoinette, famed for her delight in these molluscs. And now there is a third; the garden. I say, The Garden because that really is enough to get you there. Drive to the town and then follow signs up the steep incline to the cliff top. You have to park wherever you can at the side of the road because there is no car park as such, and then walk up a lane, past a few Belle Epoque villas hidden in the trees, to a windy, natural viewing platform with a 1950s chapel and a contemporary art gallery, plus the entrance to the garden of the Villa Roxelana.
It’s a dramatic spot for a garden. The site is fairly narrow and steep with a spectacular view of the sea and one of the three famous chalk arches, the Porte d’Aval. I had seen images but was still rather taken aback by the real thing. Garden magazines had been pressing the point that this is a garden designed on Neo-Futuristic principles which call for the blending of art, technology, ethical values and nature to the benefit of future generations. My first impression was that someone had taken a big, fat, felt pen and drawn swirls and sweeps and parallel lines all over the landscape and then magicked the doodles into topiary. It was amazing and thrilling, claustrophobic, despite its elevated position, mad and, in places, flirting with kitsch. And I think its creator, Russian born landscape architect, Alexandre Grivko, would be quite happy with my reaction because one of his principle aims was to elicit emotion from the visitor. Mine were certainly in a jumble, ranging from irritation with the ‘singing’ trees to rapt admiration for the artistry in the topiary.
Grivko is co-founder and chief architect of the international landscape design company, Il Nature, based in London. Take a look at his portfolio and it is clear that he is deeply influenced by both French and Italian Renaissance and Baroque gardens plus, in certain projects, there is a hint of the Belgian Style, epitomised by Jacques Wirtz, combining structural shrubs and trees with fluid country-style planting. He describes Étretat as his ‘laboratory’ of ideas and best practice which will provide a template for future projects, especially, one suspects, those which have an historical aspect. Indeed, Étretat won the European Garden Award 2019-2020 for ‘Best Development of an Historic Garden or Park’. Grivko knows this part of France well and when he heard the site was for sale he jumped at the chance to work with the splendid view, the environment and with the history of the place.
The house and garden were built around 1905 by a famous Parisian actress, Madame Thébault, friend of Monet and lover of orchids. There was no real ‘historic’ garden here one suspects but Grivko has extended his sensibility to include both the cultural heritage and natural history of the general area. However, as he says himself, one of the advantages of a public garden of your own is that you can really experiment and take risks which you cannot do when working on the private gardens of clients. The site consists of seven named garden areas which flow one into the other in no particular order, allowing the visitor to make their own cocktail of sensory experience, including auditory ones, provided by various art installations like ‘the Clockwork Forest’, where the public can turn a key to start the music. Topiary inspired by the past is married to the fantasy world of Alice in Wonderland in the Jardin d’Aval, and references the local oyster beds on the beach in the Le Jardin d’Émotions where it is partnered with humanoid heads made from polyester resin and aluminium powder by Spanish artist, Samuel Salcedo, (not my cup of tea but people seemed to be loving them). Then there is the Jardin Zen, which may represent the harmonious union of man and nature, but does it through the rather exotic lens of a Buddhist warrior monk. It’s all here – a full-throated mix of Versailles and Alice’s Wonderland.
The Neo-Futuristic label gives me the most pause for thought. Grivko says he has been influenced by the 2007 Neo-Futuristic City Manifesto of Vito di Bari, which calls for urbanists, architects, designers and artists to believe in cities releasing emotions, driven by eco-sustainability, ethical values and the implementation of new materials and technologies, to provide a better quality of life for city dwellers. Think Zaha Hadid and I get it, but it is not so obvious in the context of this garden. It is a conversation I would love to have with the designer. The sculpture situated all over the garden certainly adds another layer of emotion to the design, not always positive I must say, and perhaps the amazing flow of the topiary design has been computer generated, but I am not sure how this garden is ploughing a new furrow. The species he uses to create his amazing sweeps of topiary are really interesting, reviving old favourites like the Georgian superstar, Phillyrea angustifolia, which John Evelyn referred to as, ‘incomparable verdure’, and introducing new possibilities like Elaeagnus x submacrophylla (formerly x ebbingei), a native of Normandy, whose grey leaves reflect the colours of the cliffs and the sea. And fringing the long sweeps of hedging with delicate Muehlenbeckia complexa is inspired. In fact, it will be very useful to observe how the choice of plants to suit this rough and tough costal environment stands up over time. Maybe this is one aspect of the work being done here which fits the future-ready label. Look out for a fuller discussion of this garden in the Hortus Journal later in 2020, but do go and see it if you can as there is much to enjoy and quite a bit which gives pause for thought.
If the garden at Étretat is looking to a brighter future for society based on a set of ideals developed by the creative professions, down the road there is another garden which, in its day, was the product of another group of thinkers and creators who were convinced they too had the recipe for happiness. Les Bois de Moutiers, built on the coast at Varengeville-sur-Mer, is the very first collaboration (and the only one in France) of Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens, perhaps the most famous partnership of the English Arts and Crafts movement. Moving on from one garden to the other in a single day makes both visits more interesting and the contrast in emotional response is marked.
Where Étretat is full of edgy drama right from the start as you sidle the car up to the edge of the cliff to park, Les Bois de Moutiers is all gentle bucolic order. Although the grounds here meet the same coast, you don’t get a sense of this as you approach through well-groomed, little country hamlets wrapped in deep green cloaks of hedges and deciduous trees. All is orderly when you arrive, with a symmetrical view through a confident gateway, framing generously planted borders in tasteful shades of pale, which flank a wide walk focussed on the romantic face of the house. There is a spacious and convenient car park, elegantly screened by trees planted on mounds which hint at the romance of an English country holloway. I have to admit that I immediately felt at home in a style of garden whose rules I have absorbed since childhood. The radical vision of the Arts and Crafts Movement grew from a rejection of the Industrial Revolution and was based on a romantic and sentimental vision of a Utopian, rural past, when all were happy in their creative and fulfilling roles within a wholesome community. People should be living a simple but ‘good’ life where everything is either useful of beautiful. Emotion, truth in architecture which reflects the human experience, a desire to make the world a better place through design, these are common ideals which have shaped both the twenty-first century garden at Étretat and Moutiers, its respected elder. Interestingly both embrace an element of fantasy and deliberate dislocation with the real world, in order to express ideas aimed at changing society for the better.
Frenchman, Guillaume Mallet, was thirty-eight when he fell in love with the site at Les Bois de Moutiers. An anglophile from a wealthy banking family, he was deeply affected by his stay on the Isle of Wight as an eleven-year-old boy, where he experienced a gentler way of gardening which embraced nature. As an adult he developed a large circle of artistic, literary and musical friends on both sides of the Channel and was well acquainted with the work of William Morris. He met Edwin Lutyens in 1898 in Paris and, sensing his exceptional abilities, commissioned him to build a house in this beautiful spot. House, garden and park were designed to work in harmony, with Jekyll called in to help Mallet decorate and soften the structure with romantic and billowing planting.
Where Étretat has its Alice in Wonderland theme, encouraging fantasy and flights of the imagination, it is small and hemmed in and has to make a big impression in a short space of time. Moutiers is also considered other-worldly but it has the space to be more subtle about it, and perhaps relies more on our ability to self-generate this spirit. The twelve-hectare site allows the house room to breathe, protected by its little coterie of domestic gardens, set off by an apron of gently sloping lawns, beyond which mixed woodland with planted interventions, all by Mallet, make their way down to the sea. It was experienced as a magical, fairy tale place with ever changing atmosphere depending on the light and the season. The young poet Jean Cocteau visited in 1913 (the date of his friend Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’) with André Gide and wrote:
‘have you forgotten that park?… I’m certain that I went walking there one evening with you. It went right down to the sea… a huge estate, at dusk: the dawn of the night. We couldn’t hear the sea… We were going through, if I remember rightly, four small walled gardens like Italianate cloisters…I count seven steps. We could hear a piano playing.’
Today, the building is quite a surprise; romantic in its fairy-tale features from the front but in a dreary state of disrepair to the rear which rather breaks the spell. The gardens too are unevenly kempt, with the principle courtyards near the house in best repair, but other areas are clearly struggling for care, attention and money. I hope a plan is in place to find the funding needed, not just for vital repairs but to allow for the correct plants to be restored to their rightful place and to let the garden shine again. I would have loved to have the chance to see the interior but this was not possible on my visit – all Arts and Crafts gardens are ideally designed to relate to the principle views from inside the house. House and garden really exist hand in hand.
Walking through the chain of gardens around the house it is a pleasure to pick out features which grew to be typical of a Lutyens-Jekyll garden: crazy paving, rounded ‘landings’, a pergola with stone piers and wooden cross beams, the typical ideal of a progression from formal areas around the house, gradually fading out to meet a completely naturalistic outer belt blending with the wider landscape. The principles of the Arts and Crafts garden have had a profound effect on garden making in Britain ever since, and I believe they still are the single most powerful template for garden designers, informing many of their decisions. The theory of an ideal society based on a kind of pseudo-medieval guild model may be risible t many today, but the desire to live a more harmonious life with nature as an inspiration is still with us – and I think this same desire informs the Neo-Futuristic movement. It is a bond, a common thread which links these two very different gardens and that is why they stand out for me as twin stars, the Castor and Pollux of the Alabaster Coast.