It’s box, but not as we know it

Set high on a spur, with far-reach­ing views along the val­ley of the Dor­dogne River, the re­mark­able gar­dens at­tached to a hand­some Périg­or­dian manor are one of the many won­ders of the re­gion, re­veals Kirsty Fer­gus­son

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Clive Nichols

The re­mark­able dis­plays at Jardins de Mar­queyssac in France are play­ful as well as splen­did, says Kirsty Fer­gus­son

Be­tween Berg­erac and Sar­lat, the Dor­dogne carves a wide and shim­mer­ing path through some of France’s loveli­est land­scapes: lime­stone cliffs jut over the river, giv­ing shel­ter to pre­cip­i­tous vil­lages whose troglodyte dwellings are still in­hab­ited to­day, rolling hills clothed in dense forests of ev­er­green oak are pierced by the tur­rets and high gables of me­dieval cas­tles and val­leys strewn with wal­nut groves and or­chards are filled with flocks of fat geese and ducks. Kitchens that don’t make use of the lo­cal foie

gras, black truf­fles and wal­nuts are thin on the ground in th­ese parts.

How­ever, it’s not just epi­cure­ans who are in for a treat in Périg­ord. A rich seam of gar­dens has also been draw­ing at­ten­tion to the re­gion, many of which are serv­ing to rede­fine the French art of top­i­ary. eyrignac, a gar­den be­gun in the 1960s just out­side Sar­lat, for ex­am­ple, is an ex­er­cise in sculpted per­fec­tion in which repet­i­tive forms con­ceived in box, yew and horn­beam cre­ate a dy­namic se­ries of en­clo­sures, each of in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter.

Losse, also on a trib­u­tary of the Dor­dogne, speaks of the present owner’s un­der­stand­ing of Ital­ian Re­nais­sance gar­dens, in which ar­chi­tec­tural top­i­ary cre­ates a sense of drama and vol­ume—op­pos­ing the es­sen­tial lin­ear­ity of clas­si­cal French for­mal­ity, which has been rein­vented with enor­mous panache on the ter­races of Haute­fort, fur­ther north of Losse.

Mar­queyssac, how­ever, perched on an es­carp­ment 450ft above the River Dor­dogne is a top­i­ary gar­den that de­fies cat­e­gori­sa­tion and oc­cu­pies a po­si­tion that would be hard to equal. From the airy heights of the 17th­cen­tury ram­parts, the views over the val­ley be­low and hills be­yond are

al­most more than one pair of eyes can take in. Early-morn­ing mist fills the val­leys, mak­ing is­lands of the wooded hills. As the mist dis­si­pates, peregrine fal­cons and black kites may be seen, cir­cling be­low, glid­ing on ther­mals ris­ing from the val­ley.

To the west, the soar­ing walls of the Château de Beynac dom­i­nate a bend in the river and, across the wa­ter, the tur­rets and tow­ers of the Château de Castel­naud com­mand the south­ern shores, re­minders that, un­til 1442, this was the front­line be­tween English Aquitaine and ter­ri­to­ries loyal to an em­bat­tled French throne.

Al­though con­structed on the eve of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, the long win­dows and rose-cov­ered walls of Mar­queyssac’s hand­some manor house, built in tra­di­tional Périg­or­dan style with a steeply pitched roof of stone tiles, or

lauzes, seem to speak of less trou­bled times. It was the coun­try res­i­dence of the Sar­lat-based Ver­nets and it’s believed that Porcher, one of Le Nôtre’s more dis­tin­guished pupils who worked in Sar­lat, de­signed the im­pres­sive ter­races that form the bas­tion be­tween manor house and cliff edge.

How­ever, the per­son re­spon­si­ble for fill­ing th­ese ter­races with an as­ton­ish­ing (some might say ob­ses­sive) com­po­si­tion of box top­i­ary was Julien de Cer­val, whose grand­fa­ther had mar­ried a Ver­net. Cer­val, a Sar­lat mag­is­trate, had a num­ber of pas­sions out­side the ad­min­is­ter­ing of jus­tice: he grew fruit trees, stud­ied agron­omy and was also a stout de­fender of the pa­pacy—in 1849, he went to Italy as a mem­ber of the Ital­ian Le­gion to de­fend the Papal states.

In 1861, on his re­turn, he re­tired to Mar­queyssac, where he was able to give am­ple ex­pres­sion to his newly ac­quired pas­sions for the Ital­ian—or, specif­i­cally, Tus­can—land­scape and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of box top­i­ary. This ac­counts for the four-square, red-tiled out­build­ings, framed by um­brella pines and cy­presses that ar­tic­u­late the lower ter­races and lend give the en­trance to the gar­dens such an un­de­ni­ably Ital­ian flavour.

But from which Ital­ian source or gar­den did Cer­val get his ex­trav­a­gant ideas for the box top­i­ary? This bux­ophile planted no less than 150,000 spec­i­mens of box on the ter­races and more still, to line the drives and paths that lead the vis­i­tor from the house to the belvedere, some 2,600ft dis­tant on the tip of the promon­tory.

Even so, it’s not the quan­tity of plants (al­though the fig­ure is staggering), but the in­ven­tive­ness with which Cer­val laid out his vast pat­tern of soft, or­ganic squirls and squig­gles, framed by crisp walls em­bel­lished with ar­chi­tec­tural mo­tifs that counts. This is top­i­ary as never seen be­fore— as dis­ori­ent­ingly play­ful as it is se­ri­ously splen­did.

Else­where in the park, Cer­val was no less gen­er­ous in his ef­forts, rather more typ­i­cal of gar­den fash­ion un­der

‘It’s as dis­ori­ent­ingly play­ful as it is se­ri­ously splen­did

Napoleon III. Grot­toes and wa­ter­falls ap­peared, bosky groves of cy­press were planted and stone steps ar­ranged to lead the vis­i­tor through a pleas­ing Ar­ca­dia, fur­nished with a chapel and rest­ing places, belved­eres and ar­chi­tec­tural fo­cal points, in which stoneb­uilt, bee­hive-shaped huts (a feature of the Périg­or­dan land­scape) took the place of Clas­si­cal tem­ples.

The 20th cen­tury took its toll and, by the end of the Se­cond World War, the gar­dens and park had lost their def­i­ni­tion. By the 1970s, Cer­val’s de­scen­dants were still vis­it­ing, but could only watch sadly as the over­growth of 150,000 un­clipped box plants crept ever closer and be­gan to over­shadow the de­cay­ing walls of the house.

Down the river in Beynac, how­ever, an­other story was start­ing. A school­boy from Paris, Kléber Ros­sil­lon would spend his hol­i­days in Beynac, where his fa­ther was mayor. His par­ents had bought the ru­ined Château de Castel­naud on the far side of the river and its slow restora­tion fired the boy’s imag­i­na­tion. De­spite con- tin­u­ing his stud­ies in aero­nau­ti­cal engi­neer­ing and em­bark­ing on a ca­reer that even­tu­ally saw him work­ing on the Ari­ane space pro­gramme, he couldn’t stop re­turn­ing to Castel­naud. Finally, in 1985, the old fortress was opened to the pub­lic and M. Ros­sil­lon left the world of rocket science to run it as a busi­ness.

Its im­me­di­ate suc­cess en­abled him to turn his gaze to Mar­queyssac, whose ne­glect could be wit­nessed from the ram­parts of Castel­naud. Just over a decade later, with the agree­ment of Cer­val’s last—and oc­ca­sion­ally res­i­dent —de­scen­dent, M. Ros­sil­lon ac­quired the manor house and gar­den.

He gave him­self just one year to com­plete the restora­tion of both build­ings and gar­dens and teams of con­trac­tors worked round the clock (quite lit­er­ally dur­ing the fi­nal weeks) to meet the dead­line.

‘It was the first gar­den I had ever re­stored,’ ad­mits M. Ros­sil­lon, ‘and my only real con­tact with gardening had been through my mother and grand­mother, who were both keen gar­den­ers. But I im­mersed my­self in 19th­cen­tury gar­den lit­er­a­ture and found out all I could about Julien de Cer­val in or­der to be faith­ful to his ideals and the hor­ti­cul­tural spirit of his age.’

Twenty years on, the ex­u­ber­ant squig­gles and soft hum­mocky con­tours of the top­i­ary gar­den con­tinue to make vis­i­tors’ eyes pop with as­ton­ish­ment and the 3,000 new spec­i­mens that were planted to fill in the gaps in the orig­i­nal de­sign have blended im­per­cep­ti­bly with their cen­te­nar­ian neigh­bours. How­ever, de­spite the ev­i­dent health of the box here, there is one sub­ject that ev­ery­body wants to talk about: the per­sis­tent threat of box blight. It’s a rather weari­some sub­ject th­ese days, but Jean Le­moussu, the head gar­dener, re­sponds gravely that, al­though parts of the gar­den have been af­fected, it is kept un­der con­trol with reg­u­lar ap­pli­ca­tions of a net­tle-based liq­uid treat­ment.

Ros­sil­lon and Mar­queyssac’s le­gion of ad­mir­ers can all re­lax. Cer­val can re­lax even more.

Pre­ced­ing pages: Box of de­lights: the plant­ing at Mar­queyssac is like noth­ing you’ve ever seen be­fore, both in terms of style and sheer abun­dance. When early-morn­ing mists have dis­si­pated, the dis­tant farms and vil­lages come into view far be­low. Left: Not all the in­ter­est re­lies on green­ery– this in­ven­tive al­lée is at once or­ganic and ar­chi­tec­tural

Drives and paths lead the vis­i­tor from the house to the belvedere, with plenty of places to ex­plore or rest and en­joy along the way

Rather than the more fa­mil­iar rigid for­mal­ity, the box at Mar­queyssac is trained into soft, or­ganic shapes

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