Monty Don, in peasant blue, on grand French gardens

Monty Don is an extraordinary figure, and never more so than in his new series on French gardens. At home, and normally, his approach on Gardeners’ World is a work of art. It draws one in. His persona is the antithesis of the TV celebrity. There is no concession to the plebian or the demotic. He is quite Bloomsbury, or Sitwell. He is of the 1950s – somehow, in his world, we are only just out of rationing. Electricity has been invented, but is kept indoors – it has not reached the garden, quite.  His is the manner of an eccentric aristocrat, or gnarled bohemian. But there is the affectation of peasant authenticity, and quite possibly a dread of the common, the flashy, the arriviste and the nouveau. That produced a fine muddle in France.

At home and abroad, Monty Don is the paysan manqué. Where an arts presenter might eschew the little black Armani suit and the dazzling white shirt for the crumpled linen, Don’s gear retreats into the manly rumpledon of  a workman’s cotton drill. He is not quite the Mr McGregor of the Potter books: real-life ancient gardeners wore mighty cords and moleskins, tweeds and flannels – and sacks if the weather was bad enough. The Don affectation is one tad more painterly than that.

I do not mock Monty’s sartorial tricks and tropes. We are all ridiculous, or none of us is. Just ahead of seeing the Sky Arts tribute to Bill Cunningham, the New York street fashion photopgrapher, I was very busy importing from France the classic French manual labourer’s jacket which he always wears. (It was cheap, and my quest had been triggered by a yen for Monty’s dress-sense.) A holiday in Brittany was preoccupied tracking down just the right size in zip-collared fisherman’s jersey of the region. (It was expensive, because yachty rather than fishy.) When I actually did imitate French peasants for real (making wine with them for several years in the 1970s and ’80s), I was ordinarily hippy in my dress. But I know the power of dressing up, and reckon it’s more or less unavoidable. (As A A Gill wrote, the middle-aged man who wears blue jeans is either trying too hard or not trying hard enough. What he didn’t say is that either approach is usually deliberate, and I pefer the former, but beginning with the avoidance of Levi’s and Harley Davidsons.)

All that is fine when MD is up to the trussocks in Herefordshire soil but it becomes a little comical when he is doing obeisance in the drawing room of a French grande dame, the  châtelaine and co-restorer of the gardens at Courances, or sneering lightly at the roof-top garden of the Paris HQ of Hermes.

I guess that this is where we come up against the row within Monty Don, between the lightly earthy garden enthusiast and the grimmer unworldly hippy moralist. Well, we all have an inner  cheerfully accepting Cavalier, and it does battle with our gloomier Roundhead.

In this first French gardens show, we had a lovely narrative in the subtext. It was of course about formality. It began with the Renaissance inspiration of Chenonceau (private, intimate, if grand). But soon we were on with the mad display of Louis XIV’s finance minister, the corrupt and super-rich Nicolas Fouquet and his gardens at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte. These were soon exceeded in nearly every way at Versailles, by Louis, partly out of pique at the hubris of his erstwhile servant. Monty loved them both, and stressed that their geometry was not so much about suppressing nature as expressing a love of order and the expression of power in the human domain.

English garden thinkers of the Picturesque thought that the entire french style was dangerously overt in its display of aristocratic power. Anyway, it was fascinating to have Monty Don’s side-trip to Napoleon and Josephine’s Malmaison garden, and her almost revolutionary love of a softer, wilder effect. And so to Courances, where a mid-20th Century owner started to grass-up and generally relax whilst also preserving a traditionally 17th century formal garden. So a lovely synthesis there.

So far, so good. Very rich and powerful people made gardens in France, and they were variously ostentatious and assertive or coyly modest. Monty Don betrays no difficulty with any of that, and plenty of delight. But up on the roof of the Hermes building he comes a bit unglued. The scrap of garden there was smaller, cheaper, less assertive, than any of the others. It might even be thought to be almost Japanese in its intensity. Not quite minimalist, for sure. But arguably, very meditational and – oops – spiritual. But Monty was in a muddle over it. He riffed about the triviality of the rich; his nostrils flared at the stink of money. I think it was the idea of chic he couldn’t handle: what fashion people liked could not be likeable. He might never be without his dear little Leica (I think it is), but the world of luxury goods was not for him. I am guessing that it was the taint of chavdom which tripped him up. He detected vulgarity. Perhaps his years in Beauchamp Place as a costume jeweller were biting back. And yet, truth be told, it is new money pouring into high-end brands which supports the increasingly rare ateliers I imagine Monty Don loves, and is dressed for.

The Hermes garden was the apex of the narrative arc in the show. Deliciously, we now sped down the other side. The interior designer Jacques Garcia has recreated the 17th century gardens at Château du Champ-de-Bataille, but insists boldly that many of his features are riffs on historical devices and not slavish reproductions. This is surely great stuff: an interior designer (straight from the world of modern consumerism) lavishes multiple millions of today’s Euros cherishing, preserving and advancing, in a post-modern way, the traditions of the excesses of earlier French generations of people on the make.

To his credit Monty Don loved it, and didn’t moralise, for all that this was Hermes meets Louis XIV . He didn’t even mention the contradictions lurking within this evoltuion in his story. That’s probably just as well. If he had been all knowing and witty about his predicament, he might have over-egged the theme, as I perhaps have.


What suit is Monty Don wearing on the Chelsea Flower Show, Wednesday 19 May? Thanks.

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Publication date

06 February 2013