James Priest stood on a footbridge overlooking the lush Japanese-style lagoon at the bottom of Claude Monet’s garden, pleased with what he saw.
It was here that Monet painted the water lily series that hangs in the Musee de L’Orangerie in Paris. “Some people go into the museum and they say — ‘wow,’” Priest said. “But I get that feeling standing here. Looking at this makes your head spin. It makes your heart boom — just like his paintings do.”
Priest, who is British, likes it even better in the evening when the visitors are gone, a solitary view he can relish whenever he wants. He took over last month as head gardener of the grounds that surround Monet’s pink stucco country house here, the home the painter lived and worked in during the last four decades of his life.
No one has made much ado about handing over an iconic French garden to an Englishman, he said. But he does blanch when asked if parts of the garden — with their wild tangle of flowers — reflect more of an English style than the formal, symmetrical style of French gardens.
“Oh, you must not say that,” he said, looking just a little bit panicked. “It is a unique garden, neither French nor English. It’s an artist’s garden, a dreamer’s garden.”
“This is France,” he added. “They cut off people’s heads for saying less than that.”
Priest, 53, says he will take his time deciding what to do in the garden, which is divided in two parts. He sees nothing much to change in the lagoon. But he has questions about other aspects in the areas closer to the house, which are perhaps not as true to the original as they could be. He points, for instance, to a flower bed with bright red crocosmia — a flower native to South Africa that he says Monet would never have had access to — and some rows of flower beds that once had blooms of single colors, but are more of a mix today.
Still, he says he is only in the early stages of understanding Giverny, which is open to the public seven months a year and drew more than 500,000 visitors last year. Monet, Priest points out, did not have to keep the garden lush and flowering at all times for the visitors, who too often try to pose for pictures standing among the plants. Monet could tend to one patch or another as he painted it, while letting flowers bloom and fade elsewhere.
“Monet’s garden would not have had concrete paths, for instance” Priest said. “But they are a necessity today. You have to meander between the purist line and the practical one. Take the irises. They are all over his paintings. But look at them now. They are nubs. So, you need other flowers blooming to keep that impressionist feeling along those paths.”
Priest was raised in England and studied gardening there, but he has lived in France for some 30 years, much of it married to a French woman and tending the gardens for the Rothschild family estate in Chantilly, on the outskirts of Paris, called Royaumont.
At first, Priest took his new job at Giverny in his stride. But having spent much of the past few weeks giving interviews, he says the weight of the task of caring for one of France’s most famous gardens is sinking in. “I know this sounds silly,” he said. “But it’s only little by little that I’m realizing the aura around this place. I was quite naive really.”
His family had a large garden when he was growing up, and his father would run gardening competitions for the children. Priest said he won every year. But so did all his siblings. His father wanted to make sure no one was bruised. And it was his father who suggested he take up gardening as a profession. Priest studied horticulture at school and first came to France when he was 18 to work for a landscaper. A few years later he went back to England to study at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew.