You might not have heard of Georges Lévêque if you are not French but you will probably have seen one of his gorgeous photographs and not known it. He is the author, co-author or photographer of more than 50 books including those he worked on with designer Terence Conran and the great British gardener Rosemary Verey.
Georges Lévêque is without doubt one the best known gardeners and an authority on gardens and flowers in France, especially roses. Georges, a charming French man with a great sense of humour and a plethora of wonderful anecdotes to share, talked to Janine Marsh and Katie Saint at The Good Life France about his favourite gardens and how he became the garden expert of France…
How did you become a garden guru?! My life in the gardens is the result of a combination of circumstances. As a child I was often in poor health. Living in Paris, my parents thought that it would help me to work outdoors and directed me to a job as a gardener!
The city of Paris has a horticultural school with a good reputation – the Ecole du Breuil. They train the gardeners who maintain the many Parisian parks and I went there; but after graduation and military service I followed a different path. The famous fruit tree and rose grower Georges Delbard was at that time looking for young people who had studied at my school. With Delbard I learned a lot, working as a salesman, technician and how to graft roses. I spent two years with him before my path crossed that of Bertrand Peyrègne, then editor of l’Ami des Jardins et de la Maison. He needed help with the one hundred pages of writing he had to produce each month – I was that help!
From 1967 gardening magazines began to move from black and white to colour photos, my photography and writing skills were honed enormously at this stage. My photos were good enough that after my position with Peyrègne I became editorial secretary at Mon Jardin & Ma Maison, and I realised that almost no one in France practiced garden photography.
Books and journals on gardening were illustrated by English and German photographers and I knew that we ought to try to change that. I suggested to the director of Mon Jardin & Ma Maison, Monsieur Lacroix, that I go out travelling and visiting gardens and bring back reports written by a gardener for gardeners.
As the harvest in France was cut short that year I travelled to England – the land of gardens. I visited famous gardens in the South of England such as Savill Garden, Sissinghurst Castle, Wisley and Great Dixter – all so inspirational.
My career took on a further dimension when I met Jacqueline de Chimay and Charles de Noailles, the latter of whom was one of gardening’s most exclusive and influential figures. His Jardin in Grasse at the Côte d’Azur was a marvel, and many fellow gardeners came to visit it. I took hundreds of photos as a sort of war chest to remember everything by, and learned much from chatting with fellow botanists whilst visiting gardens.
Favourite gardens? When visiting these historic gardens I also met with the landscapers who create both the public and private gardens. I’ve had several memorable meetings with wonderful landscapers like Jean Mus in the south of France, Erwan Tymen in Brittany and Gilles Clément in Paris. These were landscapers of private gardens, whose work covered the pages of French gardening magazines. In 1982 I signed a contract with the new owners of Mon Jardin & Ma Maison that enabled me to continue my travelling to meet fellow gardeners. The eminent gardener Rosemary Verey and the gardening writer Penelope Hobhouse, who worked at Barnsley House gardens and Tintinhull Gardens respectively, were my contacts in England. Helen Dillon Dublin, a world-renowned Irish gardener, is also a friend, as is Jacques Wirtz of Belgium. I consider the vegetable garden – one of the first of its kind – created by Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School near Cork, Ireland, to be elegant and impressive. These large gardens were almost always designed on a geometric pattern, with endless hedges and topiaries as well as yew and beech trees. Decorator Walda Pairon, whose garden was designed by Jacques Wirtz, warmed the sometimes cold atmosphere of these geometric gardens with high quality architectural objects and a modern look involving lots of colours.
Sybille d’Ansembourg, artist, interior decorator and gardener also left it to Jacques Wirtz’ team to design the gardens for the orangery at her family Chateau near Brussels. Her husband, an antique dealer, gave them many beautiful pieces. The gardens are quite glorious. At the same time Sybille’s brother, Philippe de Spoelberch was collecting shrubs and trees for his arboretum as we had been able to do thirty years earlier with Jelena and Robert de Belder in the arboretum at Kalmthout in Antwerp, Belgium. It was at Kalmthout that I saw the world famous Hamamelis, or witch hazel. These are one of my favourite shrubs, I love their yellow, orange and red flowers throughout their branches from December to February, like thousands of insects posing on bare branches. Fascinating! In recent years I have discovered Mount Steward in the Belfast area. The statues are unique and the rich plant collections have elegance at every turn. The topiary has advanced to an excellent standard. I recommend this garden to everyone.
The world of the old rose was booming in the early 80s. André Eve began a collection which too at least 10 years to create, and when it was strong enough changed its name to mention Old Roses. I went to meet him to report on this new craze as he became famous, and we became friends. Thirty years later, I am the photographer of a new book entitled Chédigny la vie en Roses. André gave the mayor of Chédigny, a pretty village in Touraine, a taste for roses. Enthusiasts line the commune and village every year at the weekend to see the roses, and it is this history that is the subject of my book.
For the last twenty years in France, we have had a garden festival at Chaumont sur Loire close to where I live. It is in a large park at the Chateau of Touraine. There are always a lot of new ideas colliding to enchant – or annoy visitors! In the chateau and its park, many contemporary works of art from international designers prolong the spectacle. The spirit of Chaumont is very different from the Chelsea Flower Show, which relies more on new plants and horticultural trade, even if landscapers present works which the world will be inspired by. Each year there are about thirty new gardens open to visit – always something new to marvel over.
Which gardens to visit while staying in Paris? Bagatelle park and its rose garden is of course one to see. The Tuileries gardens too… and Parc André Citroën. The vertical garden wall of the Musée du Quai Branly is astonishing. Elsewhere in France, there are many villas devoted to gardens such as in the town of Menton, near the Italian border. Menton tourist services have special booklets on the subject. With Kerdalo and the garden at Pellinec, Brittany is a figurehead full of rich creations. Touraine is attractive, especially with the gardens of Villandry and the Rivau, there are so many gardens in France that are beautiful and are there to be enjoyed!
Find out more about Georges Lévêque exhibitions and photographs as well as his blog at: GeorgeLevequeJardins.com
All photos courtesy of Georges Lévêque, hover your cursor key on the photo to read the captions.