How one family ensures the legacy of a landscape gardening genius

Fireworks have just died away above the greatest French garden of the ancien régime. The château at Vaux-le-Vicomte, about 20 miles south-east of Paris, has been hosting a ball to mark the 40th anniversary of its society of Friends, crucial supporters of its financial and material wellbeing.

Until 1661, the genius of its landscaping was André Le Nôtre, the master gardener who went on to work at Versailles, the massive palace of Louis XIV. Vaux, his first garden for a noble patron, has a coherence and accessible charm that Versailles lacks. They are evident for its visitors, more than 350,000 of them in 2022.

Before the ball, I stood on Vaux’s Diana terrace with Count Alexandre de Vogüé, one of the three brothers who work tirelessly to maintain the château and gardens as their family’s property. From my point de vue, I misjudged the width of the ponds that descend in order down the formally planned gardens beyond. I also missed the broad canal that runs transversely across the lower garden. These oversights were exactly what Le Nôtre intended. He manipulated his garden’s viewers by brilliant tricks of perspective and concealment which are intact after nearly 400 years.

His arts of anamorphosis and collimation are at last well understood. He did not derive them from the formal philosophy of Descartes and his views on perception and optics. He acquired them from his years in Paris with artists who were gathered around the Tuileries, especially Simon Vouet. In 2013, the techniques were demonstrated at a fine exhibition at Versailles by Georges Farhat, its researcher, and Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin, author of an excellent biography of Le Nôtre.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was built for Louis XIV’s finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, a self-made owner whose family crest contained the figure of a squirrel. Like other French patrons of fine country houses in this era, he had access to public funds and scope for retaining a cut of them during their circulation. His ascent was indeed rapid. He was 26 when he acquired Vaux’s estate and 44 when he had the château built, deploying 18,000 workers to divert one of the two nearby rivers.

“Please correct the myths,” de Vogüé asked me beneath the fine painted ceiling of the château’s room of the Muses. In it, Fidelity is being escorted through the clouds to heaven.

The myths are still topical. The château and gardens were built in only three years, whereupon Fouquet too arranged a ball. On August 17 1661, his guests, including Louis XIV, were treated to a stupendous banquet by Fouquet’s master chef François Vatel, whose kitchen can still be visited. A new play by Molière followed.

Fouquet was a man of taste, for whom artists were friends, whereas for Louis, people said, they were domestic servants. The king, the story goes, was so jealous of their work that he ordered the château to be confiscated and its statues, tapestries, orange trees and expert gardeners to be moved to Versailles. “On 17 August,” Voltaire wrote more than a century later, “Fouquet was the King of France; at 2 in the morning he was nobody.”

It seems so familiar. In October last year I interviewed a shy ex-soldier as a possible helper in my garden for half a day a week. To break the ice, I asked him what he thought of Liz Truss: a polite version of his reply would be that she had shinned her way up the tree like a squirrel. On October 13, her chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, was the king of finance; by the evening of the 14th he had returned from an IMF meeting in Washington and was nobody. On October 20, Truss was a nobody too. Markets, not the king, had finished them.

In 1661, the truth was less dramatic. For at least six months before Fouquet’s ball, a question of succession had loomed at court: who would replace Cardinal Mazarin as the king’s first minister? Fouquet’s ambitions were opposed by Colbert, the eventual winner, and by the time of the ball he had already influenced Louis’ decision. Fouquet was arrested, not on the morning after, but three weeks later on the king’s 23rd birthday. He was put on trial for three years and eventually imprisoned, but only because Louis overrode the judges’ sentence, an ominous act of despotism.

Before the confiscation, Vaux’s gardeners were already working at Versailles. One of Le Nôtre’s masterstrokes, de Vogüé showed me, was a view directly through Vaux’s ground floor, passing through windows into the landscape beyond. For this autumn’s ball the intervening vestibule was decorated by the designer Fernando Wong from Florida. He clothed the pillars in blue and white fabric and arranged blue-flowered agapanthus beneath trees of Calamondin oranges. Their small fruits brought orange trees back to Vaux for the first time since the 1660s.

Outdoors, I allayed a fear and learnt two lessons. Le Nôtre designed a patterned parterre, laid out in box, for either side of the upper garden, but by 2014 the bushes were moribund, not from box moth but from funguses encouraged by the badly drained clay soil underneath. Another green disaster, I thought from afar, but the loss on site is not critical.

After a competition, the artist Patrick Hourcade’s ephemeral ribbons of silvery metal, partly aluminium, were installed and next year replacements will be decided. The curious metal twists have passed their best but the style of them will be part of a show linked to Vaux and the French château garden, to be curated by Carolyn Miner at the New York Botanical Garden in autumn 2024. As replacements I suggest the evergreen Euonymus Jean Hugues, taller than box but clippable.

Two men pose in front of the chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte

On the right of the garden I admired curving flowerbeds, planted with blue salvias, pink gomphrena and much else, shown by their young gardener Sébastien Gégout, one of a staff of only eight. Le Nôtre too allowed for flowers there and his many homegrown plantings at Versailles refute the view that he was only interested in greenery.

Near the superb transverse canal, de Vogüé pointed me to the Mons bridge, an area of wilded greenery which leads to arches older than the château. Le Nôtre, he explained, approved this informal style himself. In England the designer William Kent was later said to have “leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden”. Le Nôtre had jumped it 60 years before, in France, not Oxfordshire.

As a focal point on the main hillside, Le Nôtre planned a massive statue of Heracles, weary after his 12 labours, copying the one sculpted in the 320s BC by Lysippus, Alexander the Great’s favourite sculptor. In 1891 a copy was installed on a plinth and it has now been vividly gilded thanks to an American donor.

I sat beneath it for a 13th labour, notes for this column, and marvelled how this property is maintained with minimal help from public funding. Of its running costs, €8.5mn a year, only €350,000 are public grants. The rest comes from visitors; fees, events and the support of many Friends worldwide ([email protected], for details). The current appeal is admirable, a phased one to restore all 22 fountains to run as Le Nôtre wished. My labour seems so small beside the constant labours of the family who keep this stunning house and garden alive for us all.

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