English culture

The English culture of gardening in the Italian and French Rivieras

Most of the major English gardens were created in Italy and on the French Riviera in greater numbers than in the rest of continental Europe.

The mildness of the Mediterranean climate made it possible to grow outdoors plants that in England would have survived only in greenhouses and to offer the culture of English gardening exciting prospects.

Italy was the favorite destination of English travelers until the late 1860s, when the lure of the south of France became dominant.

The popularity of the Riviera (French and Italian) in the late nineteenth century was based on the exploitation of its mild climate. Bordighera, Hyères and Menton were created as health resorts for invalids from the humid climates of northern countries. The British soon discovered that the climate was as suitable for gardening as it was for respiratory problems.

Three stages can be distinguished in the development of the history of gardens which can be attributed to the English. The first is linked to the landscape movement which developed throughout Europe in the late eighteenth century and which acquired universal acclaim. The second development in English gardening is the horticultural management of plants, distinct from botanical studies. The third innovation, a widespread phenomenon in the twentieth century and which still dominates sophisticated English gardening, consists in the composition of gardens through the colours, shapes and structure of plants.

English gardens abroad are the quintessence of the history of English gardening, characterized by the intervention of the owners also in the maintenance of the garden itself. English gardeners were often able to look at the gardens of the foreign countries that hosted them with creative opportunism, inserting local elements into the English tradition with the result of giving harmony and variety to the entire design.

It was the climate that first attracted English visitors and residents to the south of France. Those who visited the Riviera in winter continually remarked on the abundance and variety of wild and cultivated flowers. Florists were quick to exploit the climate and in the eighteenth century carnations were shipped to London; later the area around Bordighera came to be known as the Riviera dei Fiori. Its prosperity was built in the late 19th century on using the expanding railway system to send fresh winter flowers throughout northern Europe.

Tobias Smollet contributed to the birth of the English passion for the Riviera. Smollet was a physician and his "Travels through France and Italy", published in 1776, was immediately and for a long time popular. Nice, Cannes, Menton and Bordighera certainly would not have had such a development without English enthusiasm and money. Furthermore, the Riviera was one of the favorite places for English families who were looking for treatment for tuberculosis; in fact, many years passed before doctors discovered that the alpine air of the Engadine and not the Mediterranean climate offered a real possibility of recovery for consumptives.

In the 1890s Queen Victoria visited the south of France several times, but later her attitude changed; King George V and Queen Mary disdained the Côte d'Azur and in the 1920s and 1930s living in the south of France was considered unpatriotic and a sign of debauchery.

After Nice and Cannes, the third place to develop was Menton. It was a creature of the railway line and consequently more attached to the middle class than to its flashy neighbours. Doctor James Henry Bennet (1816–91) with his "Mentone and the Riviera as a Winter Climate" published in 1861, declaimed the Riviera di Ponente between Genoa and Nice, as the most suitable area to obtain benefits for tuberculosis patients and was largely responsible for the rise of Menton's popularity. He himself owned a garden in Menton-Garavan which was much appreciated and visited at the time, even by Queen Victoria.

Across the border, the Italian section of the Riviera was never as elegant as the French one; Sanremo and Bordighera weren't particularly exciting but tranquil, like Hyères and Menton, they were mainly climatic and healing stations.

Bordighera's extraordinary popularity is due to a Victorian novel. In 1855 Giovanni Ruffini published in Edinburgh, while he was in political exile, "Il Dottor Antonio". The novel, written in English, told the story of an English gentleman, Sir John Davenne and his daughter Lucy returning from a trip to Italy and forced by an accident in their carriage to stop in Bordighera. Lucy, due to a broken ankle, is entrusted to the care of Doctor Antonio, a Sicilian exile. An affection develops between them, but Lucy returns to England with her father; she returns in 1848 as a widow but Antonio has returned to Sicily to participate in the liberation from the Bourbons. She joins him in Naples where he is arrested before her eyes and after a vain attempt to get him out, Lucy dies of a broken heart. The novel stimulated English sympathy for Italy and the Risorgimento, as well as the attraction for the city of Bordighera so romantically described by the author.

Edmondo De Amicis described Bordighera as "The Paradise of the English."

Social life was centered around the English church. Bordighera had the largest proportion of British residents and visitors of any city in Italy, generally middle class, apart from the Earls of Strathmore who owned a villa which they later sold to the Queen Mother of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, and the Duke and Duchess of Leeds who lived at Villa Selva Dolce.

Botany was a favorite pastime of middle-class Anglican intellectuals and indeed the great botanist Revd. Clarence Bicknell was one of the faithful of the Bordighera church; his collections formed the basis of all subsequent botanical studies in the region.

There were, surprisingly, no English gardens of note in Bordighera, the most famous garden belonging to the Italian Moreno, described in Ruffini's novel. Another known garden was the Winter Garden created by the German botanist Ludwig Winter around his greenhouse, Winter had been head gardener at La Mortola.

As Nice, Cannes and Menton expanded, new areas of the coast transformed into elegant properties. Cap Ferrat, Cap d'Ail, Cap Martin, Antibes and Juan-les-Pins were all creatures of this explosion in land acquisition.

In 1890 King Leopold II of Belgium bought all the land that was for sale on the Cap Ferrat peninsula, in 1900 he bought Villa Polonais renamed Villa Les Cèdres after cedar trees were planted. This garden became one of the most important on the Riviera - for a certain period even more important than the Mortola - and the most renowned private botanical garden in the world. One of the houses which belonged to Leopold II was Villa Mauresque, near the point of Cap Ferrat, originally built for Mgr. Charmenton, the King's confessor. Somerset Maugham bought it in 1928 and lived there until his death in 1965.

It wasn't just the British who became passionate about growing exciting novelties, botanical gardens sprung up in 1775 in Aix-en-Provence and in 1786 in Toulon, one already existed in Marseille. French colonial families returned to France with the fortunes they had made in the tropics to create subtropical paradises in southern France. The Empress Josephine, from Martinique, had plants sent from New Holland to Malmaison, to the director of the gardens of Nice, with the aim of naturalizing a multitude of exotic plants in French soil. The diplomat and botanist Gustave Thuret (1817-1875), created his own botanical research institute in Antibes in 1856. Georges Sand wrote in 1868 that it was the most beautiful garden he had ever seen in his life; Thuret's sister-in-law donated it to the state in 1877. The British tended to regard these places primarily as scientific stations and not as gardens.

An extreme example of the English style was the garden of Eilenroc on the Cap d'Antibes; it was very popular in its day, and opened to the public twice a week. The Swiss botanist and nurseryman Henri Correvon considered it superior even to the Mortola garden. The house was built in 1850 for Hugh Hope Loudon who named it after his wife's name, Cornélie, spelled backwards. It was designed by Charles Garnier, the architect of the Paris Opera House, and whose palm garden in Bordighera was well known. Eilenroc Garden was created after an Englishman, James Wyllie, bought the 30-hectare property in 1873. His grandson, Sir Coleridge Kennard, who inherited Eilenroc in 1890, recalled that millions of tons of earth were hauled into the garden to allow the planted with thousands of trees, about half of the garden consisted of boulders and outcrops up to 40 meters high which were transformed into an extravagant rock garden. Guy de Maupassant visited it in 1887 and described it as a prodigious garden where the most beautiful flowers in Europe grew. Sir Coleridge Kennard was forced to sell Eilenroc after a disastrous night at the tables in the Monte Carlo Casino and nearly died in poverty.

The desire for interesting plants that many English residents expressed was largely satisfied by French nurserymen.

However, the British abroad tended not to seek contact with the local population. On some occasions the natural English reserve masked an affirmation of superiority that was not confined to important subjects such as language, commerce and social customs but some English residents extended it also to the kitchen. An English oddity was the insistence with which it was stated that no one could stay on the Riviera during the summer; the season ended on April 21st and almost everyone went home by the end of the month. Lack of water was the excuse, ignorance and fashion were the real reasons. In fact, some Englishmen lived on the Riviera all year round for health or financial reasons. After the First World War many more Englishmen began to live permanently in the south of France, also for economic reasons, because in Provence it was possible to be poor with more dignity. Many gardens were opened to the public and visiting them became a social pastime.

The first English woman to buy a house on the Riviera with the intention of growing plants from the Mediterranean area was Ellen Willmott of Warley Place. She had stayed with the Hanbury family in La Mortola on several occasions before making the decision to buy Boccanegra, which was located in the immediate vicinity, in 1905. From 1914, with the outbreak of war, Ellen never returned to the property and in 1920 was forced to sell it to avoid bankruptcy. Boccanegra, with its 8.5 hectares cultivated with olive groves, is built on a steep and sunny area, crossed by the railway line, which was shielded with the plantation of palms and rubber trees, and, to solve the problem of water, cisterns were built for irrigation. Many rare and exotic plants were introduced, some of which still survive in the garden which is now owned by Guido Piacenza.

The most important English garden on the Riviera was the one begun by Major Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote Manor when he bought a farm in the Gorbio valley above Menton in 1924. Johnston transformed the farm at Serre de la Madone into a stately home, the land was terraced and planted with olive groves and vineyards; it was conceived to be a winter garden where the owner spent the period between September and April. As always on the Riviera, the shape of the land determined the design of the garden; terraces of various sizes were organized differently according to horticultural and architectural schemes, stairs, basins, fountains and statues were inserted which recalled the Italian Renaissance. The essence of the design of the ponds was to create a feeling of openness, in fact no trees were planted around them so that the immensity of the sky was captured by the reflections of the water. Johnston made many expeditions abroad, Drakensberg, Yunnan and Java, introducing ornamental plants to great effect in his garden. The Serre de la Madone entered a period of great difficulty following the death of the owner in 1958. It passed through various buyers who in some cases made very questionable modifications and left to the care of nature and time until 1999 when it was bought by the Conservatoire du Littoral with the participation of the Ville de Menton, the Conseil Général des Alpes-Maritimes and the Fondation Electricité de France which are starting the restorations through the "Association pour la Sauvegarde et la Mise en Valeur du jardin Serre de la Madone" with a view to make it as soon as possible a model of autonomous management and the meeting point of all researchers and lovers of exotic plants.

Villa Val Rahmeh in Menton-Garavan was built in 1925 by General Sir Percy Radcliffe and inhabited for many years by an English doctor, Dr Campbell. After her death in 1950, her daughter Maybud Campbell intensified the planting of fine plants for their horticultural rather than botanical effect, although Miss Campbell was a renowned botanist specializing in the natural flora of the Alpes-Maritimes. In 1956 Val Rhameh was sold to the French State which managed it as the "exotic botanical garden of Menton".

Clos du Peyronnet, in Menton-Garavan near the Italian border, has been owned by the same English family for three generations. It is the most beautiful private garden created on the Riviera since the Second World War. The garden is small, about half a hectare, and its history is all in the marble inscription placed at the top of a staircase: "Derick and Barbara Waterfield and later their son Humphrey created and loved this garden 1915 - 1971".

It was above all Humphrey who was responsible for the creation of the garden; he was a painter who said he painted so that the money he earned with his work could be spent on his garden and he was also a landscape gardener. The two main elements of the project are an ingenious use of water and the construction of broad perspectives that unite the various areas of the garden and one of which opens into a luminous view of the Mediterranean. The current owner, William Waterfield, Humphrey's nephew, takes care of the garden alone and tries to preserve its original structure by letting the plants grow naturally, creating an informal, romantic and almost exuberant style that unifies the different parts of the garden. William makes his contribution by introducing new plants, in particular an interesting collection of bulbs from the Cape Province. Lawrence Johnston's presence in the garden is reflected in the Hidcote style structure, in fact as well as being one of the best modern gardens in the south of France it is also the best example of a Hidcote style garden.

Charles de Noailles began to create his garden in Grasse in 1947. It soon became the most perfect example of an English garden created by a Frenchman. It must be said that Noailles' mother was English and certainly her approach to gardening was entirely Anglo-Saxon. He was also for many years Vice-President of the Royal Horticultural Society and counted Russell Page, Lawrence Johnston and Norah Warre among his "gardener" friends in France. Villa Noailles is located on steep and terraced land with olive groves. The structure is quite formal near the house, less towards the bottom. The presence of water unifies all parts of the garden with fountains, waterfalls and pools that blend harmoniously with the rich colors of the flowers and trees. The ownership of the garden is still private.

Villa Les Cèdres in Cap Ferrat belonged to an extraordinary Frenchman called Marnier-Lapostolle, who lived there for about sixty years starting around 1920, a worthy successor to a botanist like Thuret. Harold Peto revamped the formal garden below the house in 1911 adding allegorical statues, urns and balustrades. The design was typically English, a valley of waterfalls created a unique microclimate on the Riviera. Marnier-Lapostolle considered it a tropical garden in which there could be around 15,000 different species, including forty types of citrus fruit and thirty species of bamboo. Groups of specialists were sometimes admitted to his garden by appointment but never casual visitors. Marnier-Lapostolle had an almost obsession with privacy, he did not allow photographs to be taken and often insisted that those who wrote about his garden not reveal its name.

from “The English Garden Abroad”, Charles Queston-Ritson