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

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