One of the best things of holidays for me is discovering new places and the other week in the Loire Valley I discovered a real gem.
I’ve been to the Loire Valley many times over the years and have visited many of the chateaux – Chenonceaux is a real favourite. For some reason, we had not visited Chaumont in the past – what a mistake! When I saw in the leaflet that it had special gardens and contemporary art, it leapt to the top of the list for this trip. And it was well worth it. It was an amazing place.
Each year it has a garden festival, with lots of individual gardens on a theme, selected from many entries from all over the world. The theme this year was ‘Gardens of Collectors: Extraordinary Gardens’. They were fantastic, in terms of layout, plantings, gorgeous flowers and, in many of them, for their sheer ingenuity. They truly were gardens as an art form. As I am running a class based on nature from September (still a couple of places left), this was more inspiration than I could cope with. I took lots of pictures of beautiful blooms, architectural leaves as well as general scenes. Between the plants, art and of course the kids, I took over 400 photos in the one day. I was especially impressed by the gardens which made me think.
There was one set up as an art gallery, but instead of a canvas on the wall, there was a hole through which you could see the plants.
There was another which looked rather unkempt and over grown but the actual garden was secret, only seen reflected in the mirrors on the back wall, so you could only get glimpses of it.
A third was set up as a dyer’s garden, with information on plant dyes and hanks of wool hung out to dry. It had a wall of glass jars which from the outside looked like dirty glass. However inside the little shelter, these glasses glowed with the colours of the dyes, like shining jewels.
My enjoyment of the gardens was increased as I was reading the novel ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ at the time, by Tan Twan Eng. It explained some concepts of Japanese gardening, including that of ‘borrowing space’ from the surroundings to make the garden feel bigger. Also the importance of everything being absolutely right: the right number of stones, in the right place at the right height - something that carries through in all parts of art. It is a lovely, if somewhat melancholy book and well worth reading.
As well as this garden festival, there were many more gardens, but we ran out of time to see them all as I also wanted to see the art.
Outdoors in the grounds of Chaumont, there were lots of installations of contemporary art. Some are temporary for this season, other part of the collection which seems to be growing all the time. It also appeared that every possible building on the estate was used as an art venue, including the chateau itself. We were very excited to see some photographs by Naoya Hatakeyama, having been really taken by his pictures of underground tunnels in Tokyo which we saw years ago in London. These ones were part of a photography exhibition on the beautiful but terrifying effects of man on the environment. It’s amazing how lush industrial waste can look.
The primary artist for this year is Gabriel Orozco. He was taken with the layers of peeling wallpaper in the private rooms of the last owners of the chateau. These are now bare apart from some areas of wall where you can see the traces of the previous interior design. Just like Orozco, I took lots of photos of the walls. There was a definite feel of textile artist inspiration to them!
Orozco however, enlarges details of the peeling walls onto canvas using a spray technique and oil paper. It gives the canvases a ghost-like effect, with a sense of the pattern almost sliding off the canvas. These were hung in these empty, run down rooms adding to the impression they made.
The other principle highlight for me (although I loved lots more) was seeing the gigantic El Anatsui installation in a stable. It was enormous, going round three walls of this huge room. The scale was amazing and you felt enveloped by it, with its subtle shades of can shimmering as you looked. According to the catalogue, he needed 40 assistants to help make it and it took a dozen students to help install it. It was truly monumental.
So it was a truly inspiring day out for everyone, including a great discussion about whether some of the pieces were actually art or not. We saw in the information that the gardens are open at night from 10 to midnight lit by lots of tiny lights and we would have loved to have returned, but the kids are just that little bit too young to enjoy the experience so late. But we will definitely return another year and hopefully go for a night visit then. If you are even vaguely in the area, I can’t recommend a day out there highly enough. Do go if you get the chance.