Or­der within the wooded hills

One man’s vi­sion cre­ated the lux­u­ri­antly green and trim gar­dens of Eyrignac, in one of the loveli­est cor­ners of south-western France. Kirsty Fer­gus­son, who will lead a COUN­TRY LIFE tour of the re­gion’s gar­dens later this year, un­rav­els the story of their

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Alessio Mei

Kirsty Fer­gus­son dis­cov­ers how one man’s pas­sion­ate vi­sion cre­ated the lux­u­ri­ant gar­dens of le manoir d’eyrignac

‘I never get tired of wan­der­ing through this gar­den… I made it with my soul

IT has to be said that gar­den de­sign was a fairly ne­glected sport in France dur­ing the 1960s. Al­though other cre­ative arts flour­ished on Gal­lic soil and French cars, films and haute cou­ture stole the lime­light, those in pos­ses­sion of an aris­to­cratic acre or two tended to look back to the grand old days of Le Nôtre or long­ingly across the Chan­nel to the Ar­ca­dian land­scapes of Rep­ton and Brown or the painterly bor­ders of Gertrude Jekyll. The now pres­ti­gious École Na­tionale Supérieure de Paysage in Ver­sailles only opened the gate to its first stu­dents in 1976; in the 1960s, gar­den de­sign was some­thing that ei­ther one’s an­ces­tors or for­eign­ers did.

No won­der there were cries of ‘mais non!’ when, in 1964, Gilles Ser­madi­ras de Pouzols de Lile an­nounced to his hor­ri­fied fam­ily that he was in­tend­ing to plough all re­sources at his dis­posal into the cre­ation of a dra­mat­i­cally new, 10-acre gar­den of his own de­sign at Eyrignac, the fam­ily do­maine for more than 500 years and 22 gen­er­a­tions.

Born in 1909, M. Ser­madi­ras had grown up at Eyrignac, a mano­rial es­tate se­creted in the wooded hills of the Périg­ord Noir above Sar­lat. As a boy, he loved ex­plor­ing the ne­glected grounds, imag­in­ing them in their 18th-cen­tury hey­day, men­tally re-cre­at­ing the for­mal hedges, ter­races and foun­tains and the fêtes galantes of those times. The stone pools and steps re­mained, buried be­neath the over­growth, but all the for­mal plant­ing had been re­placed in the mid 19th cen­tury by a grand­fa­ther mad for the pre­vail­ing style anglais, in­ter­preted as bosky clumps of bam­boo and palm threaded with fid­dly paths and swathes of lawn.

His own fa­ther hadn’t seen the point of gar­dens and left it all to grow wild, mak­ing it a suit­ably me­lan­choly place for a youth to con­tem­plate un­hap­pily the ca­reer as a Parisian lawyer that had been mapped out for him. For­tu­nately, law and parental de­sign yielded to art and na­tive tal­ent and M. Ser­madi­ras launched him­self into the world of in­te­rior de­sign. Over the next three decades, while he es­tab­lished his busi­ness, his am­bi­tion to make a gar­den at Eyrignac never wa­vered and, as soon as time and funds were on his side, he made his an­nounce­ment.

‘All through my life,’ he often said, when de­scrib­ing what mo­ti­vated him to make the gar­den, ‘I’ve been haunted by a long­ing for har­mony. Har­mony be­tween peo­ple, places, things. Life wasn’t very har­mo­nious here when I was grow­ing up and there was dis­cord too, be­tween the har­mo­nious pro­por­tions of the manor house and the over­grown grounds that sur­rounded it. I wanted to re­store that nec­es­sary bal­ance.’

For a while, he played with the idea of restor­ing the gar­dens in a his­tor­i­cal sense, too, but even­tu­ally re­jected that plan. In­stead, the gar­den was to be a per­sonal cre­ation,

guided as much by his gen­er­ous, fun-lov­ing na­ture as by his de­sire for or­der and har­mony. By his own ad­mis­sion, he hardly ever vis­ited other gar­dens; all his in­spi­ra­tion came from within him­self. Alone, he mapped out and over­saw the plant­ing of a se­quence of green al­lžes and cham­bers, bring­ing a kind of rhyth­mic pre­ci­sion to the en­sem­ble of orig­i­nal build­ings, guided only by in­stinct.

This ex­tra­or­di­nary man lived to be 98. ‘The funny thing is,’ he said when he was 90, ‘I never get tired of wan­der­ing through this gar­den. I see some­thing new each time, de­pend­ing on the light. And when peo­ple ask me if there’s any­thing I’d like to change, I say no… I made it with my soul and my char­ac­ter and that’s not some­thing I could change.’

There are no great ar­chi­tec­tural fan­fares or tree-lined av­enues herald­ing the ap­proach to Eyrignac. A small road winds through lightly wooded hills, open­ing out to give views of val­leys shel­ter­ing wal­nut groves and or­chards with flocks of fat geese crowd­ing to­gether in the shade. Young oaks, thinned to al­low each tree room to grow, pop­u­late the flanks of the wind­ing drive. There is no sight of the manor house on ar­rival, just an­cient barns and sta­ble blocks, and the gar­den is only reached af­ter cross­ing an un­fenced, grassy for­mer school­ing pad­dock (the Ser­madi­ras fam­ily is very horsey).

The el­e­gant house was re­built in 1653 on me­dieval foundations and its sandy fore­court and ad­ja­cent chapel and dove­cote are buried deep within the gar­dens. There’s some­thing splen­didly Baroque—even the­atri­cal—about the green ar­chi­tec­ture, com­posed of horn­beam, yew and box that de­fine and con­tain each con­trolled view on the way to the manor and be­yond. Reg­u­lar clip­pings through­out the year en­sure that the top­i­ary hedges never lose their crisp def­i­ni­tion and vis­its are rare that don’t con­tain a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse of a per­fected tech­nique in progress.

Teams of three or four gar­den­ers, armed with strings and mea­sur­ing rods, frames and hand shears, un­der the fore­man’s con­stant sur­veil­lance, work to­gether on a sin­gle sec­tion of hedge or in­di­vid­ual plant; per­fect har­mony comes at a high labour cost. How­ever, de­spite this pre­ci­sion, there is no mis­tak­ing Eyrignac’s green ar­chi­tec­ture re­flect­ing the rig­or­ous for­mal­ity of Le Nôtre’s work or in­deed with any other top­i­ary gar­den (of which there are many fine ex­am­ples in this part of the Dor­dogne). It’s de­light­fully unique, just like its cre­ator.

Pa­trick Ser­madi­ras, Gilles’s son, was a teenager in the 1960s and was fas­ci­nated by the new gar­den he saw ris­ing from the wilderness. ‘I was 16 when he made the big an­nounce­ment,’ he re­calls, ‘and while my grand­mother and un­cles were protest­ing, I was thrilled by my fa­ther’s plans.’ How­ever, as he grew into adult­hood and a ca­reer in ad­ver­tis­ing, he started to un­der­stand that his fa­ther’s vi­sion was likely to out­strip his means.

Open­ing to the pub­lic, in or­der to meet the costs of em­ploy­ing five full-time gar­den­ers, seemed an im­plau­si­ble so­lu­tion. ‘I sim­ply didn’t be­lieve that any­one would want to come,’ said Pa­trick in 1987, as­ton­ished that 700 peo­ple had vis­ited that first sum­mer it was opened to the pub­lic. (Thirty years and

much pub­lic­ity later, that num­ber has risen to 100,000 vis­i­tors per an­num, mak­ing it one of France’s most vis­ited gar­dens.)

Al­though the top­i­ary gar­dens serve as Eyrignac’s defin­ing image—the horn­beam

al­lée has achieved an al­most iconic sta­tus on a par with Monet’s bridge over the wa­terlilies at Giverny or the potager parter­res at Vil­landry—later de­vel­op­ments have broad­ened the ap­peal of the gar­dens. A tall red, wooden por­tal, sim­i­lar to a Ja­panese torii, in­tro­duces the vis­i­tor to the star­tling con­cept of colour and land­scape af­ter so much all-en­clos­ing green­ery.

By way of gen­tle in­tro­duc­tion to this theme, a cir­cu­lar gar­den, brim­ming with Ice­berg, Opalia, Fée des Neiges and Al­béric Bar­bier roses, daisy-white ar­gy­ran­the­mums and pinky­white gaura (the whole en­sem­ble en­livened by the white froth of a four-jet­ted foun­tain) is set against a back­drop of hill and val­ley, where morn­ing mist lingers in the re­ced­ing folds of the land. Lower down, be­low a newly sown wild­flower meadow, Pa­trick’s wife, Ca­pucine, has de­signed a colour­ful potager, a rain­bow ex­em­plar of com­pan­ion plant­ing as well as a cut-flower gar­den pro­vid­ing dahlias, zin­nias, roses and cos­mos for the house.

To the late M. Ser­madi­ras’s de­light, dur­ing the ground clear­ance in the 1960s, he un­cov­ered a small stone fig­ure of a youth, lean­ing on a fu­ner­ary urn, one foot rest­ing on an hour­glass, one hand car­ry­ing a torch. The lit­tle god of time pass­ing has be­come the po­tent sym­bol of Eyrignac’s his­tory, which con­tin­ues to be writ­ten by this re­mark­able fam­ily, as young Gilles, the teenage son of Pa­trick and Ca­pucine, is poised to re­ceive the torch him­self one day.

Pre­ced­ing pages: The ‘French Gar­den’ in front of the manor is in typ­i­cally for­mal style with sym­met­ri­cal box curlicues and top­i­aries. Left: Har­mony achieved: one of the sub­sidiary av­enues of yew blocks and pot­ted top­i­ary. Be­low: A gravel drive winds its way to the house, past the long pond and re­mark­able arched hedge

The av­enue of horn­beams: Gilles Ser­madi­ras cre­ated squared-off horn­beam but­tresses, in­ter­laced with yew cylin­ders

A charm­ing cut-flower and kitchen gar­den is en­closed by a time­less, rus­tic picket fence

The golden-stone, 17th-cen­tury manor house of Arta­ban lies at the heart of the gar­dens

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.