We talk with James Priest, curator of the Giverny gardens in France and discover more about the place made famous by renowned artist Monet.
The gardens at Giverny require a curator with a good eye for colour and an appetite for history in order to satisfy his global visitors at a garden where art and gardening are so intertwined that the boundaries are blurred in more ways than one.
James Priest, the horticulturalist from Lancashire who was appointed head gardener at Giverny last year, says he has made subtle changes to the Impressionist Claude Monet’s garden during his first year in the job. Since the garden opened for the 2012 season on April 1, visitors have been able to enjoy a blaze of spring tulips in the improved west side of the Clos Normand, the walled garden nearest the house.
“During the garden’s restoration in the 1970s, plants were stored there but this western side had been neglected and had been given little thought since the restoration,” Priest explained. “We’ve tried to bring this area up to the same spring flowering standard as the east side using simple plantings inspired by Monet.” James therefore decided to use the garden’s traditional colours such as a blue border with yellows, oranges and reds.
Foundation Claude Monet
The house and garden, run by the Foundation Claude Monet, reopened after a record season last year in which 611,000 people visited, well up on the usual half million visitors. It is by far the most visited garden in France and second only to Mont St Michel as the most popular attraction in Normandy.
In another break from the working practices of the garden, Priest encouraged his team of eight gardeners to plant all the biannuals before Christmas. They also put hundreds more spring bulbs into the five-acre garden. “There should be an explosion of foxtail lilies this May after the tulips,” he predicts.
Priest’s workforce has also been busy during the garden’s winter closure, replacing broken bricks around the edges of the borders and taking down the climbing roses to repaint the metal arch supports over the main alley in ‘Monet green’ . They have also added a few well chosen rose plantings to fill in the low flowering period between spring and summer.
“I am not trying to change everything everywhere,” cautions Priest, 54, “but I’m getting back to simple plantings and the cottage garden flowers that Monet liked so much. The flowers I’ve chosen are in the spirit of what Monet liked – you can’t make this garden just out of old varieties.”
James Priest, from Maghull, 10 miles north of Liverpool, took over on June 1, 2011 from Gilbert Vahé. Vahé, as head gardener at the time, was largely responsible for restoring the garden in the late 1970s from an overgrown wilderness to its former glory, exactly as it was when the painter lived at Giverny. It was then opened to the public in 1980. Vahé, who was awarded the Légion d’Honneur last year for his services to the garden, retired from the job after 35 years, but still retains a consultancy role.
During his three-year studies at Kew, James Priest won two travel scholarships, to Mexico and Ecuador, and his work placements included a period at Windsor Castle. After graduating in 1985 he moved to France, where his knowledge of English gardens and his botanical expertise meant that he was in demand among the owners of great estates. He was taken on by Baron Elie de Rothschild to work on his extensive gardens at Royaumont near Chantilly, designed by the landscape gardener Penelope Hobhouse in the English style. Priest was hired initially for three years but he ended up staying for 17 years.
He first saw the work of the Impressionist painters when he visited Paris as an 18-year-old student. “I like art with emotion,” he said. “I work a lot on emotions; my gardens must speak to people of all nationalities.”
The garden and the artist
Monet started to create his flower-filled garden when he moved to Giverny in 1883, refining it over a period of 43 years until his death there in 1926.
He originally planted flowers so that he could have something to paint indoors on rainy days. Some of his most renowned paintings were his huge canvases of the waterlilies on the small lake he had made at Giverny, with its green, Japanese-style footbridge draped with wisteria in the spring. “Apart from painting and gardening,” he once wrote, “I am no good at anything.”
After his death, his house at Giverny gradually fell into disrepair and the once beautiful garden, visited by many artists, art collectors and writers of the day became unrecognisably overgrown and neglected. Monet’s son Michel, who died in 1966, bequeathed the estate to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Under the direction of the art expert and Académie member Gérald Van der Kemp, who had headed the post-war restoration of the Chateau de Versailles, the house and garden were transformed over three years from 1977 until the public opening on June 1, 1980.
The gardens were made authentic by painstaking research into the records of local plant nurseries that had supplied Monet, as well as the painter’s own correspondence, photographs and paintings. The restoration was largely funded by wealthy American patrons who were benefactors of the Versailles Foundation in New York.
The house and gardens at Giverny are open every day from April 1 to November 1, 9.30am-6pm. To avoid queuing, tickets can be bought online at www.fondation-monet.com.
James Priest visited the Chelsea Flower Show in London this year as a guest of the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies (NAFAS), their stand was dedicated to Monet and his garden. The display was made by a team of Yorkshire flower arrangers and was based on Monet’s iconic Japanese bridge over his waterlily pond.