Thursday, 7 October 2021

A Visit to Méréville c.1808

The following is an extract from the Description des nouveaux jardins de la France written in 1808 by Laborde's youngest son Alexandre. The engravings show illustrations by Constant Bourgeois. At the time of writing, the estate was still in the hands of  the Laborde family, with the trees and plants now in full maturity.  Laborde's account conveys a keen sense of how the garden was intended to be experienced, as its different features progressively revealed themselves to the admiring eye of the visitor.

Alexandre de Laborde, Description des nouveaux jardins de la France et de ses anciens chateaux (1808), p.95-
Description des nouveaux jardins de la France et de ses anciens châteaux - Google Books

The  English translation is given in the book itself. 

SEVENTEEN leagues from Paris and three from Etampes, in the middle of the lonely plains of Beauce, is a charming valley watered by a small river called the Juine, which is never known either to freeze or to overflow. Even very near its source it becomes sufficiently deep to carry boats, and its channel is sufficiently elevated to give all the effect which can be wished for in the composition of the landscape.

It displays all its beauty particularly in the neighbourhood of Méréville. This spot has accordingly been fixed upon for planting one of the finest gardens in the environs of Paris.

The river, which is the principal beauty of the spot, divides into two branches. The one flows in its natural channel, turns several mills and afterwards forms a cascade of two feet, which is seen and heard from the mansion; from thence it spreads through the valley, forming several islands and delightful walks. Its banks are planted with trees so fine and so high, that a boat may sail in the shade round the whole garden. The other branch runs in a subterraneous aqueduct for the space of three quarters of a league, and again makes its appearance through an artificial grotto of rocks in the interior of a building which was intended for a dairy.

The water rushes in the first place into a basin raised in the middle of the grotto, and is afterwards distributed through the room by spouts ornamented with white marble. The pavement as well as the parapets are also of white marble. The coolness of this place, the gentle light which it receives from above and the beauty of the marble , recalls to mind the Arabian authors and the ancient Eastern Fairy Tales. Upon leaving this building, the river, continuing its subterraneous passage, at last falls again into its own bed by a cascade of from ten to twelve feet high, and forms one of the finest situations which any mountainous country can present to the view.

The whole rising ground which commands this site, is planted with tall ever-greens, the rocks are overgrown with ivy, creepers and other plants of that kind. Steps are hewn in the rock leading to the bottom of the cascade as well as to several vaults which are near it.

.... In ignota, Palinure, jacebis arena. VIRG., V, 871. Et statuent tumulum, et lumulo solemnia mittent. VIRG VI, 380

At no great distance, is a building which separates the garden from the highway and the open country. It is a mill, and a considerable farm yard. This is a curious building, for it can serve the miller, who lives on the side which looks upon the open country, and the garden side of the house is found to be the first floor and the most delightful apartments independent of the miller's dwelling. They are distributed in such a manner, that from the one are beheld the busy country labours as well as all the productions of a valley rich in fruits and cattle, and from the other, the same river gently rolling over golden sands near an enamelled lawn and shaded with high tulip, plantain and southernwood trees and weeping willows. On this side are the gardens of Armida; and on the other those of Alcinous.

What pleases most in the general view of Méréville part, is the just proportion which prevails throughout. So much unison is every where observed, that the mansion has the appearance of having been built for the garden.

The same unison, to make use of the expression, also exists between the inhabitants of this part and those of the village. The immense works continually ordered by the owner, drew whole families from distant counties. He got houses built for them and gave them employment. The high-street of Méréville, as well as the townhall were built at his expense. When, therefore he was thrown into prison during the Reign of Terror, the inhabitants sent a deputation to claim him as their property.

But in those unhappy times, the poor man's prayer was not sooner listened to than that of others, and those good people returned with heavy hearts to bestow their care on the preservation of a spot where they had all once been happy.

When the owner's widow returned to inhabit it and to endeavour to recall past events to her memory, nothing was found in a degraded state : she could not, it is true, add any thing to it; but she preserves every thing; she cannot bestow riches; but she gives relief; and the good she now does proves what she would wish to do.

Mereville resembles Ammon's Oasis, situated in the middle of deserts, and where the inhabitants lived happy although they were separated from the rest of mankind. - The happiness in a future state, says Mahomet (1), will be, to live for ever in a garden watered by rivers....


The Entrance of the Park of Mereville

Que le début soit simple et n'ait rien d'affecté. BOILEAU, Art Poét.

The maxim is as suitable to the rules of a garden as to those of a poem; the commencement of a part ought in a manner to be only the sequel or continuation of the country which surrounds it: the elegance of the plantations with the neatness of the grass-plots and walks, are the only additions which can be made to it. When so, the interest increases as you advance: you are not dazzled at first, so as to have no further enjoyment afterwards. Our impressions acquire all their strength only in as much as they are gradual, and the art consists in leading them on, one by one, without their weakening each other or confounding themselves together.

The entrance of the Park of Méréville is exactly of this description, but its effect is much more lively from the contrast which it forms with the barrenness of the plains that you have just crossed. The situation of the valley is such, that you arrive at it almost without suspecting its existence, and it is upon turning off a naked and rocky road that you enter a part where you breathe the most delicious coolness. The road that crosses it is cut from the declivity of a hill covered with a wood of lofty trees, which rises, to the left, in form of an amphitheatre, and descends, to the right, into a meadow. The cluster of trees artfully scattered over the lawn, by no means intercept the prospect of the valley and thus leave an open view of the towers and tops of the castle. All this side of the garden is entirely in the taste of English parks. The road forms an easy circuit, which has nothing strained in it and never deviates from its object, to which, however, it does not lead too directly.


General View of the Castle of Mereville from the West

The castle of Méréville was formerly one of those gothic fabrics, forming almost a perfect square, the four angles of which were flanked with four towers. These have a handsome appearance on the outside and at the same time form commodious apartments in the castle. Nevertheless, as it was not sufficiently spacious and that its aspect was inelegant, two wings have been joined to it, which are remarkable for their happy harmony with the style of the primitive building, and give an air of great elegance and lightness to the whole mansion. One finds in it that art which has been so much improved in England, of taking advantage of old buildings by imitating their style, instead of altering their structure for the purpose of bringing them to more regular or more modern forms. In order not to injure the appearance of the whole by adjacent buildings for stables and outhouses, a large subterraneous construction has been formed, and this being divided into halls, answers all these puposes. These halls exhibit a regular line from afar, and join the elegance of an Italian fabric to the awful aspect of the gothic structure.


General View of the Castle of Mereville from the East

The castle of Méréville has the advantage of being situated in a hollow relatively to the country, and upon an eminence with regard to the garden , a view of which it commands on all sides. You behold it rising in the midst of the trees in the park, and forming on all sides an aspect at once noble and picturesque.



General View of the Park of Mereville, taken from the Terrace of the Castle

Among the constructions usually met with in ancient gardens, terraces were considered as the most necessary, and were looked upon, with sufficient reason, as the intermediate structure between the building and the country. Indeed, they afford a real delight during several hours in the day, when one wishes to enjoy the prospect of the surrounding sites and to take an airing, without straying far from the castle. It, therefore, appears to me proper to retain their use and easy to give them an agreeable form. For this purpose it will suffice to slope their borders, to throw down the stonework which supports them and to cover the slope and top with green turf, flowers and shrubs. Such is the terrace of Méréville, from which you have a prospect of the whole park, without perceiving its details. To the right you see and hear the fall of the river, which, rushing under a bridge of rocks, meanders through the meadow and afterwards loses itself to the left in a thicket of lofty trees, where it forms the delightful island a view of which we give.

The mountain, which bounds the extremities of the garden and valley, is ornamented with a few buildings which serve as a shepherd's habitation and sheepfold, and with a very high column, which commands a view of the whole country.


The Mill of Méréville

From the Park

This structure is as pleasant from its style, which is at once rural and elegant, as from its situation. Being surrounded with lofty poplars and in a manner wrapped in shades and verdure, nothing can equal the content that one breathes in it in summer. Placed upon a village road on the one side, this mill belongs to the miller, who turns it to profit and whose yard exhibits all the variety of country-labour. On the other side, it forms a part of the park, the repose of which it disturbs only by the noise of its wheel. On the first story some handsome lodging rooms and an elegant saloon have been fitted up. From the latter you enjoy a delightful view of the surrounding country and the beauty of the shades in the park. This peaceable and smilingg habitation seems calculated to serve as a retreat to the poet and an asylum to the philosopher.

Ornamented mills are in general the most natural and almost always the most picturesque kind of buildings, whether in gardens or in the open country,

From the countryside 


The Dairy

Ar the end of the lake of Méréville, and opposite to the rostral column, is a building of which you perceive only the portal ornamented with Ionic columns. This building, which was intended to serve as a dairy to an ornamented farm that has not been entirely completed, is one of the most singular and agreeable structures which can embellish a garden.

The edifice is in the form of an oblong, the end of which is a very elevated grotto, from the middle of which rushes a branch of the river, which falls away gently into a basin, whence it spreads itself through the hall in white marble channels; the floor and walls, which are breast-high, and of the same substance, as are also two large tables at the sides. These rivulets, ever limpid, running through the interior of a hall over a marble bed, call to mind the delights of the East and the charming palaces of Grenada. This use of waterworks in buildings, so common in Asia and Africa, might be employed to great advantage in our parks, and would give to some structures a coolness and a very agreeable air of enchantment.


The bridge of rocks at Méréville

This bridge is the same that is seen to the right in the general view of the park. It rises above the cascade which is seen from the castle; it is one of the most pleasant places in the garden. The little river, which turns the mill, rushes between the cascade and the bridge. This meeting of the most beautiful waters maintains the richest vegetation and the most delicious coolness in this enchanted spot.


First View of the great Cascade of Méréville

It is difficult to believe that art is susceptible of more perfection in the imitation of nature, that, above all, it could ever more fully imitate those grand effects which nature herself produces only in countries where she still retains all her strength and all her originality. A whole river rushes over rocks, from the midst of other rocks; a forest of ever-greens arises above them; beds of flowers, of every kind, cover the intervals which they leave between their masses; moss and gramineous plants of every sort line the rocks; in a place where every thing was created by art, all appears to be the work of nature and of ages. Near the cascade and in the middle of the mountain is a grotto so spacious and elevated, that it is difficult to imagine how it could have been formed by the hand of man. It opens on the one side upon the cascade, on the other, upon the garden, by a mysterious entrance shaded with a tufty yew, and communicates with the top by a staircase. It is particularly from the bottom of this grotto that the cascade and every thing which surrounds it fascinates you with the illusion of the finest sites in Switzerland or in the Pyrenees.


Second View of the great Cascade of Méréville

We have spoken of the subterraneous aqueduct which leads one of the branches of the river the space of three quarters of a league, to a spot where it forms a cascade from 10 to 12 feet high.  The place where this scene is beheld is one of the most solitary and most picturesque that can be imagined. 

It is from the mountain itself that this enormous body of water rushes down into a lake surrounded by large and beautiful trees of every kind. A cottage built upon the top of a rock is the only habitation to be seen, and above the mountain rises a majestic column which commands a view of this whole scene on all sides. The sight of this cascade and the noise of it, as heard from afar, have a sort of delusion which awakes the remembrance of those extraordinary sites which travelers fatigue themselves with seeking in the mountains, and which always leave with the admiration that they cause, the regret of purchasing the sight of them for a moment by long and painful journeys. Such is the peculiar advantage of picturesque gardens : they unite the finest pictures of nature around you and make you continually enjoy the sight of them without trouble. The effect of this fine view is still more lively when you repair in a boat to the foot of the fall, which you then behold in its full beauty.


Rostral column

Not far from the mill, which has been already described, turning to the left, you behold the column represented in this plate. It rises from the middle of an island at the entrance of a tolerably extensive lake. Round it are planted different foreign tress, among which is the sea thorn, which grows upon the seashore and always wears a pale and sorrowful hue. The column is of fine turkey-blue marble rostrated with bronze, and surmounted with a ball of the same metal. This monument is dedicated to two brothers, who died victims of an act of courage and generosity; they had learned in their early youth that fortune acquired by merit sufficiently dignifies the man who possesses it; but that it ought to be acquired anew when it is only an inheritance; they, therefore, sought it in the most painful and most dangerous career; and in that career they chose the most hazardous enterprises. Their names are to be read upon the column.... The following verse of the Holy Bible is engraved under the above inscription.

Saul and Jonathan, were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.


Captain Cook's Tomb.

In the preliminary discourse, we showed the ridicule of those tombs of parade and fashion which some people take a pleasure in multiplying in gardens through a puerile affectation of sentiment and melancholy; we must, however, except such monuments as are raised to the glory of some celebrated man, when particular circumstances allow this homage to be paid to him. The proprietor of this garden had, like a devoted citizen, placed all his sons in the marine. His enthusiasm for that career, in which he beheld the support of the State and the most honourable glory for individuals, inspired him with the desire of creating a funeral monument to the memory of Cook. It is no doubt an affecting idea to find under delightful shades the remembrance of a great man, whose mortal remains, abandoned on a savage land, could not be honoured by his countrymen.
Such is the monument raised to the boldest of adventurers and the mildest of men, in the most solitary and most agreeable part of the part of Méréville and upon the borders of the little river formed by the waters of the great cascade.

The spot in which it is placed is retired and tranquil, the river gently flows by it, some natural rocks hang over it, and a variety of trees almost entirely cover it.  Everything around it inspires recollection and thought. A great number of foreign trees seem to reproduce the savage and remote country which contains the real tomb of that illustrious voyager. The sarcophage  is of the finest white marble, surmounted with an urn of the same.  Upon the principal front you see the bust of Cook, and above it a bas-relief which represents a lion devouring an eagle; at the four angles you behold the figures of savages. The body of the monument is surmounted with a fine urn the handles of which contain heads expressive of grief.

The whole of this sarcophage is covered with a dome supported by four curtailed Doric columns, of Pæstum, without any bases.  A plain inscription upon the funeral urn serves as an explanation to the monument.  A few verses had been added to it, which have been almost effaced by the hand of time; but although composed by a celebrated man, they are not worthy of being remembered.

This tomb is one of the best performances of M'. Pajou.


The island of Nathalie at Méréville

THERE are certain places which can neither be painted nor described, so powerful and diversified is the charm with which they surround the beholder. It is not only their different aspects which delight him, it is their aggregate which seduces, which attaches and in a manner plunges him into a forgetfulness of the whole world.
Nothing is more capable of producing this delightful impression, than the conjunction of a fine river with lofty trees. Its limpid waters gently gliding under the silent vault of the trees, this light movement remote from noise or disturbance, together with the coolness which accompanies it, cause a sensation inexpressibly pleasing.
The view exhibited in this plate is one of those enchanting places. The island is covered with flowers and shaded with thick trees of every kind; it seems to float along the stream of the surrounding waters. Bridges of a plain and elegant structure join the two sides of the park; no foreign aspect disturbs the pleasing emotion which the visitor feels, and he perceives through the trees only the four antique towers of the castle, which have an agreeable effect from every part of the garden.


View of the Temple at Méréville.

THIS structure, which one would not expect to find in the garden of a private person, is one of the finest pieces of architecture to be met with in France. All the stones of it were hewn in Paris, by the best stone-cutters, and conveyed numbered to Méréville. This Temple is the exact model of that of the Sibyl at Tivoli, but in a perfect state both outside and inside. The ceiling is particularly remarkable for its ornaments in stucco, which are of more finished workmanship than any before executed.

This edifice was built twice, the first time in the lower part of the garden, where it fell down; the second time upon the spot where it now stands, and which fully calls to mind that of the Sibyl. It is surrounded with trees of tolerable beauty and size, and overlooks a river which is no way inferior to the Teverone. It was doubtless the beauty of this monument and the delightfulness of the place which suggested to a stranger the verses which he has written upon the walls, and which are deserving of being distinguished from many others to be seen upon them. They shall conclude the description of Mereville, and I regret only my not knowing the name of their author, in order to testify to him my acknowledgment.
Ici La Borde, au fruit de ses utiles veilles
Donnant un emploi généreux,
Par bienfaisance y créoit des merveilles,
Et par goût pour les Arts y faisoit des heureux

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Méréville - a restoration project

In this video you can see the actress Catherine Deneuve starring (in English) in an new, unexpected role, that of "godmother" to an 18th-century garden!

The garden in question is the park at Méréville, near Étampes, which, like La Ferté-Vidame, once belonged to the financier Jean-Joseph Laborde; The restoration is yet another ambitious and ongoing French heritage project

Laborde acquired the estate at Méréville in 1784, shortly after he had surrendered La Ferté-Vidame.  He employed the most renowned architects of the age - François-Joseph Bélanger and Hubert Robert "of the ruins" -  to collaborate with him on the design of the park.  The result was one of the last, and finest, of the naturalistic  jardins pittoresques, of the pre-Revolutionary years, admired by contemporaries, along with Ermenonville and the gardens of the princesse de Monaco at Betz. 

Sadly, Laborde was granted little time to enjoy the fruits of his efforts and within a few years of  his death, the park had become neglected. The estate was sold by Laborde's widow in 1819 to a mason, Despagnac, who set about emptying the château and demolishing the stonework. It was temporarily rescued in 1824 by the comte de Saint-Roman,  but gradually fell into further disrepair under his successors.  In the park, trees were destroyed and, in 1896, significant monuments sold off; thus by a strange quirk of fate the  magnificent follies created by Hubert for Méréville now adorn a completely different stately home and gardens, the chateau de Jeurre, twenty-five kilometres down the road.

Méréville - view showing the stone bridge (from Facebook page)

There is not much to be discovered about Méréville's 20th-century history, but it in the late 1990s there was alarm when an Japanese company announced plans to buy it and converted it into a golf-course.  Thanks to a successful campaign led by Laborde's biographer  François d' Ormesson this fate was averted, and in 2000 the 58-hectares site was acquired by the Conseil général of the department of  Essonne. Restoration work has been ongoing since 2016 in both the park and the chateau itself, which was in some danger of collapse. The garden is now open to the public without charge in the summer months.  In 2018, the first year of opening, it attracted 20,000 visitors. According to the conservators, the park is being restored with an effort  to conserve not just the remains of its past glory but "the accidental beauty of what it has become" - an aim which chimes well with the garden's original aesthetic Care has also been taken to preserve the ecological value of the site.

So far the tab is in excess of five million euro.  For those interested in such things, the effort is an exemplary case study in creative fundraising:  The initiative has benefited from celebrity backing: The Fondation Essonne Mécénat, instituted to support the renovations, has Stéphane Bern as one of its patrons. In 2017 Stéphane's " grand loto du patrimoine" yielded 200,000 euros for the park.  In 2017 too, Catherine Deneuve gave her name as "godmother" to the fundraising effort.  There have also been several successful appeals for corporate and individual sponsorship. In the latest scheme you can adopt a gilded ball or pearl mirror which will be part of an ambitious replica of one of the garden's lost bridges, the Pont aux Boules d'or, which is being designed by the Parisian artist Jean-Michel Othoniel ( article in Le Républicain de l'Essonne, 08.08.2020)

In May 2021 a new plan was approved by the  Conseil départemental which pledged the considerable sum of 10.2 million euros towards further, thoroughgoing restoration. 

Laborde and his park 

There a lot written about Méréville.  The English reader is referred particularly to the  beautiful and scholarly guidebook written by the Paris-based American historian Gabriel Wick, with photographs by Éric Sanders.  The author has generously made this freely available on Academia: 

Gabriel Wick, Méréville: renaissance of a great landscape garden,  2018.   
Available to download on Academia:   Gabriel Wick -

Laborde acquired the estate at Méréville from the first with a view its potential for embellishment. Already aged sixty, he had been obliged to leave behind the magnificence of La Ferté, and once again had "all to do" . 

The  architect commissioned to transform the house was Jean-Benoît Vincent Barré, who had worked for Laborde for twenty years on his Parisian residences. He elected to preserve its "caractère romantique", creating an eclectic mixture of styles, a modern take on the feudal castle.   Bélanger, who had designed Bagatelle and the Folie Saint-James, was  initially tasked with the new park, but Laborde found him a difficult collaborator and in 1786 replaced him with the more amenable Hubert Robert.  The latter continued along the broad lines laid out by his predecessor, but brought his own style to the finished garden, with dramatic landscaping and  fabriques - garden structures - which echoed the imaginative ruins of his painted capriccios.

 Following the accepted wisdom of the time, the design for the park sought to preserve and enhance the natural features of the landscape. The bowl shaped "grand parc",  covering 90 hectares, is traversed from north to south by the river Juine.  The waters were diverted, widened and endowed with islands. The marshy ground was stabilised with imported gravel and huge quantities of rocks brought in to create landscape features and grottoes. The work continued for nine years, until overtaken by the Revolution, and, at times, involved up to  four hundred labourers. Two hundred and twenty-five different species of exotic plants are inventoried, among them Virginian tulips and North American conifers, which were imported at vast expense.   According to Alexandre Laborde, the financier's son,  the final effect resembled  "the Oasis of Ammon, situated in the middle of the desert".(Description, p.98)

The unifying imaginative concept at Méréville was a passion, which Laborde shared with his contemporaries, for remote and distant places -  stimulated  both by the discovery of the American wilderness,  and by  new visions the past uncovered by archaeology:  "No other French garden built in this period materialized the suddenly expanded horizons of the 1780s better than Méréville" (Wick, p.67).   Visitors were invited to enjoy vicariously the experience of travel, via recreated mountain passes, bridges and seemingly natural grottoes; Laborde even placed small boats on the river at their disposal.  A cenotaph to Cook and  the memorial to Laborde's sons, killed on the La Pérouse expedition,  added a sombre note and evoked ever more remote and unknown worlds. 

Hubert Robert, Château de Méréville – Collections of the Domaine de Sceaux  Wikimedia Commons

Visit highlights

Unusually for a French attraction, there isn't a  good practical modern map for visitors to download on the internet.  The plan in Gabriel Wick's guide (p.12-13) is very clear, although it includes monuments that are destroyed or no-longer in situ. The plan on the website, by Dominique Césari, lists in more detail monuments which survive (at least in 1990) and those which have disappeared or been translated to Jeurre. 

The park on Google Earth:

 By way of a virtual promenade, the Department of Essonne has has recently posted several short 360° webcam videos on Youtube:
 In the Park: (six videos on autoplay) 

 File:Méréville (Essonne) Château-2.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
This video shows the interior of the château - not as far gone as La Ferté-Vidame, but still quite a project!

The poster of this video has (probably illicitly) penetrated some of the surviving  grottoes: 
"Les secrets du parc du château de Méréville"

Other surviving features: 

The Rock-Bridge  (See Wick, p.20-21; 26).   Video:

File:Parc de Méréville pont (fabrique, ruine).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The Mill  (See Wick p.82)

File:Méréville Château Moulin 682.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The "Grande Cascade" - not much water pressure nowadays, but can still function on special occasions.

The Dairy (Laiterie) - minus its facade (Wick, p.80)

Trajan's Column

File:Méréville Colonne trajane.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
The 35 metre-high Obelisk or Colonne Trajane, created by Bélanger, is an exact scale model of Trajan's column in Rome.  It is situated in "le petit parc", separated from the main garden by a public road,  and came into the possession of the Department much earlier than the rest of the domain, in 1937.  It is in  a relatively good state of repair and, with permission, can be ascended to enjoy the panoramic views.

Brochure: Mairie de Méréville - Vie Associative - Tour Trajane (

More photos:  Media Gallery | Colonne Trajane (Méréville, 1792) | Structurae

At the Château de Jeurre

 In 1896 proprietor of Jeurre, the sculptor Alexandre Henri Dufresne Comte de Saint-Léon  (1820-1903) acquired five of the major fabriques at a public action organised by Prudent Carpentier, the timber merchant who then owned Méréville.  From the old photographs on the Jeurre website, the structures were indeed in a miserable condition. They had to be taken down and numbered stone by stone, then transported by ox cart - an operation that took almost fifteen years.  They can now been seen in a good state of preservation, though lacking the original dramatic settings. 

Temple of Filial Piety

The facade of the laiterie

The Rostral Column & Cenotaph of Cook 

At Méréville the rostral column was situated on a small island known as "la Californie" because of the many trees transplanted to give the effect of the western coastline of North America. It was intended as a landscape of mourning.  Alexandre Laborde noted particularly the transplanted sea thorn with its "pale and sad colour".  

 A second island simulated Hawaii, scene of Cook's death in 1779.  The exotic flora which surrounded Cook's cenotaph aimed to reproduce "the wild and distant countries that conceal the veritable tomb of this illustrious voyager".


Essonne departmental website:

Modern Studies

Gabriel Wick, Méréville: renaissance of a great landscape garden 2018.  Guide in English;  pdf. available to download on Academia:   Gabriel Wick -

Dominique Césari, "Méréville" in Jardins anglo-chinois du XVIIIe siècle dits parcs à fabriques   [website]

Jean-François Delmas,"Jean-Joseph de Laborde et le domaine de Méréville", État et société en France aux XVIIe et XVIII siècles (2000), p.181-194. Etat et société en France aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles - Google Books

Jill H. Casid, Sowing Empire: landscape and colonization, University of Monnesota Press, 2005, p.74-
On Google books.  This book argues that the garden at Méréville represented a "poetic resignification" of French colonialism and the slave trade.  It is an interesting idea, but I don't think Laborde himself would have seen it that way. 

Louise Lezy-Bruno, "Thinking about the concept of "Cultural Nature" whilst walking the Gardens of Méréville", The Nature of Cities [discussion site] post of 13.09.2017.

Contemporary descriptions and illustrations:

Alexandre de Laborde, Description des nouveaux jardins de la France et de ses anciens chateaux (1808), p.95-

Antoine-René Triquart, Château et Parc de Méréville (c.1869-1875).  [ Photo Album]
Online from the Departmental Archives of Essonne

The Monuments at Jeurre

Le Parc de Jeurre, ses monuments et ses folies [website]
Here is a Flickr album with fine views of the Parc de Jeurre. 

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Lost splendours - La Ferté-Vidame

This  evocative ruin, is all that remains of the once magnificent château de la Ferté-Vidame, in the department of Eure-et-Loir, the property of the fabulously wealthy financier, Jean-Joseph de Laborde.  Eighteenth-century writers argued long and hard over the moral status of riches, the merits of luxury,  the worth of artistic patronage...  This battered ghost reminds us that, for one generation at least the answer to such questions, was to be brutally decided by the guillotine and the wrecker's hammer.

Portrait by François Dumont dit l'Aîné; posted by George J. Homs on

Laborde acquired la Ferté-Vidame in the Eure from the heirs of the duc de Saint-Simon in 1764 at a cost of 1,550,000 livres.   His son Alexandre later reported that the estate brought an annual revenue of 120,000 livres from wood and 100,000 livres from its farms, agricultural land, mills and ponds. In a letter to Choiseul of 1765 Laborde expressed his satisfaction at acquiring a historic house, "d'une forme mâle et antique", even though it would require extensive embellishment.  

The Rouen architect Antoine Matthieu Le Carpentier was immediately commissioned to begin building work. The medieval foundations were retained,  conserving the original semi-hexagonal plan, and two wings added, set at an oblique angle to the main building to form a magnificent cour d'honneur, with huge wrought iron gates,  which rivalled that of Versailles.  The work took three years to complete, at an estimated cost of 14 million livres.  Such mansions lend themselves to impressive statistics :  the main façade is 150 metres long, there were 167 rooms, and the park covers 860 hectares, surrounded by a wall of 13 kilometres.  The garden, also designed by LeCarpentier,  was one of the last formal gardens "à la française".

Image on a postcard - not sure about the original. LA FERTE VIDAME LE CHATEAU DE Mr DE LABORDE DETRUIT EN 1793 TBE ( 

In the event, Laborde did not get to enjoy La Ferté for long; in 1783 he was obliged, as a courtesy to Louis XVI, to sell the property to the duc de Penthièvre, whose own estate at Rambouillet, with its excellent hunting, was coveted by the King. 

In 1793, after the death of the duc, the estate was inherited by his daughter Louise-Marie-Adélaïde, Duchess of Orléans.  As an emigrée, her property was forfeit, and in March 1798 La Ferté fell into the hands of a speculator, Jean Cardot-Villers.  The sales inventory of 20th November 1797 reports that the fabric of the château was already damaged.  Now it was further dismantled and a substantial number of the trees on the estate felled.  After the Restoration, from 1826  the property reverted to Louis-Philippe, duc d'Orleans.  In the later 19th and early 20th centuries,  it passed through a series of different owners.   In the 1940s  the grounds were used a test centre bCitroën, who still retain a track there. 

July 2019  - La Ferté hosts a splendid Citroën centenary show

La Ferté was bought for the state in 1991 and is now maintained as a public park by the department of l'Eure-et-Loir.  The commune of La Ferté-Vidame particularly emphasises the connection to the Saint-Simon family, with an attractive modern museum in the Maison Saint-Simon on the edge of the park.

The ruins of the great house have been stabilised, though they still cannot be entered,  due in part to a protected species of bats which has taken up residence  in the cellars.  In 2019  "a vast project of reconstruction" was begun to renovate so-called petit château, the stable block and apartments,  at cost of 4.5 million euros. The intention is to boost tourism, by providing accommodation, restaurant and tea-rooms.

Here is a cool drone view of the château posted in 2015 on YouTube; must take quite a lot of mowing!

Life at La Ferté

To recover a sense of La Ferté's lost splendours requires quite feat of imagination. We know, from surviving records,  that the château's interiors were decorated and furnished at vast expense in the fashionable taste of the day.  For the gallery or the grande-salon Laborde ordered eight enormous canvases from Joseph Vernet on the theme of the four times of day.  Vernet was paid 50,000 ecu but prohibited from exhibiting his work, which provoke Diderot to condemn Laborde as a "modern Midas".  (Laborde later relented and the paintings were exhibited in the Salon of 1770). Further decorative work was entrusted to other contemporary French masters: Lagrenée the Elder was commissioned to provide huge decorative panels, as well as many small paintings to go over the doors.  [Delmas (1995), p.61]  As we are shown in one YouTube video,  guests  enjoyed every modern convenience, including a hot water system, the flues for which still survive.  

In 1997 a  team of architects, directed by  conservateur en chef  Gérard Mabille, created a series of digital reconstructions which used the inventory drawn up in November 1797 to give a glimpse of the sumptuous interiors. The  images below were posted on an archived version of the La Ferté website:
I'm guessing they originally appeared in this guidebook produced in 1998 by the Amis du Perché

 More than the lavishness of the surroundings, contemporaries remarked on the hospitality they received Laborde who was a generous and engaging host.  Courtiers and Princes of the Blood, Royal ministers, men of letters - all found their way to La Ferté.  

The following is translated from a manuscript account, published in 1989, by Alexandre de Beauharnais, the first husband of the Empress Josephine, who contrived to dine with Larborde in the summer of 1782. He was staying at the time with a friend in nearbyVerneuil-sir-Avre.

An excursion from Verneuil to La Ferté-Vidame in August 1782

...the idea came to us... to go and see a beautiful and celebrated château,  which strangers often visited out of curiosity.  This was La Ferté-Vidame, the magnificent estate belonging to Mr de la Borde, the former Court banker and the richest private individual in France.

It was almost eleven o'clock in the morning when the idea came to us, and it already seemed too late to admire everything and be back in time for dinner. One of the servants, seeing our hesitation, repeated what he had hear said in the kitchen:  that strangers who found themselves at La Ferté at meal times, were always invited to dine by M. de la Borde.  This gave us hope and we were intrigued by the idea that we could count on receiving hospitality. We planned to show ourselves at the windows of the château, and to do all that we could to attract the attention of the master of the house.  I still laugh at all our fears and precautions.  I thought we should take my friend's cabriolet because it had springs.   I forced him to change his old uniform coat en route, which he did, and we duly arrived at La Ferté, a distance of three leagues from Verneuil.

Since we ordered our coachman to go into the Courtyard and make a lot of noise with his whip, the porter at the gate asked us our names.  He took them in writing to Mr de la Borde, leaving us transported with delight at the success of our plan....It was Mr de la Borde personally who came to reply, with an offer to eat at his table.  We accepted quickly and gratefully. 

Before dinner he gave us a conducted tour of the apartments. On the ground floor was a dining room with green and white stucco and the gallery or grand salon which had been added to the garden-side of the house... This gallery was decorated by superb Vernets; the two which hang at the crossing of the room must be among the chefs d'oeuvre of this talented artist.....

Works by M. Langrené the Elder, the current Director of the Academy, adorn the salon where the guests meet; these paintings are in poor taste, with an excessive use of colour...

Finally time for dinner arrived and we sat down table, enjoying ourselves marvellously;  I was constantly about to burst in laughter at the memory of our little worries and a nudge of the knee of my companion at each dish.;  after this boufonerie subsided and was succeeded by gratitude towards our hosts and admiration for the spectacle of happiness offered by the household. 

Usually, when one is not born into fortune and luxury, riches create an unbearable arrogance;  this is the reproach commonly made against financiers.. Since M. de la Borde was worth 30 million, I expected to find him thirty times more arrogant.   Instead I saw only a simple and affectionate goodwill, and a bonhomie that I found charming. The two hosts, sitting at a corner of the table, distinguished themselves only by allowing themselves to caress in public, and the little attentions with which they showered us.

After dinner, a game of billiards was proposed and we had the humiliation, my friend and I, of being bested by the  Mademoiselles de la Borde and de la Live.  After  that they desired to show us the park, which we toured, partly on foot and partly by coach, with the women.  The walkways reveal  magnificent courtyards preceded by two stretches of water. The parterre leads equally to vast water features and to the left, a jardin anglais, which would be my delight if I lived here.   It was large, varied, imitating nature, and was noteworthy above all for the freshness of its green lawns, watered by a pretty stream that wound through it.... The walkways of the park were wide and enlivened by winding paths and plantations of trees (les 'bosquets'), as described by the abbé Delille in his  Poème des Jardins: the prettiest had been named after Mr de la Borde's daughters....

I should not forget the evening.  Almost until supper the time was devoted to music...After supper we continued a game of loto; this was a pleasant diversion, but its end signalled the end of this happy day, despite the entreaties of our gallant hosts.   We left for Verneuil,  both saddened that so agreeable an excursion had to finish....
Les Chatelains de La Ferté vidame de 1765 à 1784 (


Château de la Ferté-Vidame — Wikipédia ( 

Mairie de la Ferté-Vidame website - "Un passé glorieux"

"Histoire du domaine de La Ferté-Vidame [archived webpage]

François Formel, Articles originally published in the Bulletin Municipal in 1989-91,  available on the website of  Michelle Frêlon, Saint-Simon à La Ferté-Vidame: 
 Jean-François Delmas, “Le mécénat des financiers au XVIII  siècle: étude comparative de cinq collections de peinture",  Histoire, Économie et Société, 1995,  vol. 14( 1)  pp. 51–70
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