The journey to reach the small village of Chaumont sur Loire in itself is quite magical. Taking the slow road along the Loire valley, where houses are built into caves and ‘degustation’ of wine and cognac tempt you to stop every few hundred metres one feels a little bit like time has stopped. To say the area is steeped in history is a bit of an understatement. The Loire valley has some of the France’s most elegant and grand castles due to it being the place where 16th century royalty preferred to spend the bulk of their time.
It is here, in the 10th Century castle of Chaumont sur Loire that we see a fascinating mix of history and modern thinking. The castle, which once was home to Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici and Nostradamus amongst others, is now a major hub of culture and art. The place that inspired Balzac, Vigny and Proust is now fittingly the host to a vibrant cultural programme including installations by contemporary artists, exhibitions by great photographers and the International Garden Festival of Chaumont sur Loire.
This concept based and boundary breaking international showgarden design festival and the surrounding landscapes are devoted to the relationship between nature and culture, artistic creation and the impact of the landscape, heritage and contemporary art.
The fascinating juxstaposition of ancient history and modern thought sees an incredibly interesting and unique design process emerging. The jury of the festival encourages cross- genre collaboration and there are few restriction in terms of who can enter as long as there is one Garden Designer or Landscaper in the group. Groups of artists, architects, garden designers, and students of all artistic genres come together to create 24 amazing gardens based on the ‘concept’, which changes every year.
Concept. noun: an abstract idea. Though many flower shows such as Bloom and Chelsea have a concept section, Chaumont is one of a few, including Metis in Canada, to be fully conceptual in approach. The concept, or theme for this years gardens was ‘Gardens of the Deadly Sins’ which made me immediately want to start designing a garden.
How exciting to design a garden around Lust, or Pride or Envy! How fascinating to use the idea of Wrath or Sloth to shape the look and feel of a garden and not be bound by the normal restrictions of what makes a ‘pretty garden‘.
The idea of conceptual gardens set against the backdrop of the Chateau and its English naturalistic landscaped grounds is almost surreal in feel here and makes the often modern and urban garden designs contrast quite strongly to the ancient formal surroundings of the Loire valley. But it works, and it works well, drawing visitors from all over the world.
Though many of these gardens are the last thing that most people would imagine for their own domestic settings, the message here is strong. These gardens are created to make us feel, good and bad. To make us question actions and study reactions.
For example, one of the gardens was heavily scented by the stench of rubber and was highly effective in creating a reaction from the viewer, thus creating awareness of climate change and highlight our moral responsibility to the environment. There was a garden so ‘Gluttonous red’ in plant and mulch that when I sat at the banquet table overlooking the ‘floral feast’ I felt irritation and frustration. This was exactly the aim of the designers.
Another garden sees a highly conceptual space based on a Mauri legend of two smoking male volcanoes fighting over a female volcano was a stunning space to be in, telling a lovely story and showing that conceptual gardens can be beautiful.
In French the word Peach tree, ‘Pecher’ is pronounced the same as the word ‘Peche’, which means sin, and this cropped up in a few gardens this year illustrating sexuality as the biblical metaphor of the Apple and creating some interesting stories based on Lust.
The whole idea of the festival, ancient tradition and modern design was shown beautifully and simply, in the design based on the vanity of Narcissus. A giant gilt mirror reflecting the rounded Castle towers showed how well old and new can not only co-exist but create a new, exciting approach born from the risk taking of an open minded Jury and talented artists collaborating for the love of design.
The International Festival of Gardens runs from the 11th April to the 2nd of November.