English gardener puts his touch on Monet’s garden

GIVERNY, France — When James Priest is asked to strike a Claude Monet pose and stroll under the famous arched trellises lining the pathway of the painter’s world-renowned garden, he becomes almost giddy, his excitement melting into a grin.

“Compare me to Monet?” asks the 54-year-old gardener, standing between the lush strokes of yellow, pink and red tulips — nature’s spring palette — that glow in the midday light in this preserved village 45 miles northwest of Paris.

To Priest, no compliment could be higher, and, as he quickly insists with playful charm, undeserved: “Nobody can fill his shoes. There is only one Monet.”

More than a century ago, the French Impressionist created what is now one of the world’s most beloved gardens, with the water lily pond and arched bridge that have been painted in countless tableaux memorializing the groundbreaking artistic movement here.

Now Priest is a bit of a groundbreaker himself: He’s an Englishman who has just been appointed head gardener for this utterly French patch of land, and is only the third person ever entrusted with the master task (one being Monet himself).

“The responsibility is a great one that is not to be taken lightly, but not in a heavy way, either. It’s a great pleasure,” says Priest, who has gardened for prestigious French estates for some 25 years, including the Rothschild family domain outside Paris. “It’s heartwarming to know I’m involved with this public love affair with Monet, and trusted to carry it on.”

Even if the public knows little about the elite gardeners who keep the country’s chateau and palace gardens fit for kings, “head gardeners get a reputation” within their small circle, Priest says. That’s how the Claude Monet Foundation learned of Priest’s green thumb and offered him the job last year. On April 1, the foundation reopened for spring displaying the work of Priest and his team of eight gardeners.

Though Priest says any subtle changes in style won’t be noticeable to most, a garden will always reflect something about the hands that till it, whether the gardener wants to make a strong statement or not. In Priest’s case, the difference may be a cultural one.

Priest, who has a broad, boyish smile and a fondness for self-deprecating humor, rejects any notion that he will impose English-style landscaping on Monet’s Giverny, or his own creative designs, for that matter (something that would surely cost him his job on the spot, he says with a laugh).

That said, Priest feels that his Englishness reveals itself in the way he thinks about plants — in his relationship to them.

“In many gardens where I’ve worked here in France, there wasn’t this great respect for plants that you can have in England,” says Priest, citing examples of gardeners stepping on plants, or not watering them out of semi-neglect. “But you wouldn’t leave your child without water, right?”

Giverny’s former chief gardener, Gilbert Vahe, 64, who is retiring after 35 years, agrees that there’s a difference between him and the newcomer, though he thinks it won’t be obvious for several years.

“There’s a cultural difference, that’s true, in the way that you see things,” says Vahe, who helped restore the landscape, which been abandoned to ruin after Monet’s death in 1926. But to Vahe, any subtle shift appears to be more in how Priest is also using some of Monet’s paintings as key guides, versus Vahe, who mostly relied on interviews with people who had visited when Monet was alive.

Monet didn’t document his plans for the garden, so there is a limited amount of material to go on. “Monet never worked with exact precision,” Vahe says. “It was a garden of sensations.”

He has no problem ceding his turf to a British national: “It’s the man who counts. Never mind the nationality.”

Vahe says he is enjoying his anxiety-free semi-retirement. “I wanted to lose this responsibility that has kept me from sleeping. If you work in one direction and then nature goes in another and you’ve got 3,000 visitors coming the next day, it’s worrisome!”

So far, Priest is skillfully managing the pressures of the job, including about half a million annual visitors during the garden’s open season from April 1 to Nov. 1, plus countless media interviews after becoming something of a celebrity when news broke that a foreigner was taking the helm chez Monet.

His English roots have brought only curiosity, not controversy. He notes that his long experience working in French gardens has a lot to do with the smooth transition.

But the strong differences between French and English gardening is inevitably a topic addressed in news coverage of Priest, both French and British. French gardens are more angular and organized into trimmed lines, while English gardens typically try to maintain a sense of tamed wilderness.

Keeping in mind England’s great gardening legacy, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a certain pride,” said Liadi Fashola, 36, who recently visited the garden from London. WithBritain’sgardening reputation, “it’s almost natural that there was a British guy good enough to do the job.”

Monet’s garden is rather an international anomaly, anyway, a completely original mix of several influences, including Mediterranean, French, English and even Japanese (the water lily pond).

More important, Priest says, the Giverny job has brought him a deepening appreciation for what he calls a “painter’s garden,” and the man whose imagination brought it to life.

“It’s about the whole story, not just the flowers, but the way he lived, and how he evolved, and getting under his skin,” Priest says.

He tells how the painter hauled his canvas on 4 a.m. trips to open fields in the cold, or the “obsessive” way Monet painstakingly gardened and painted his home in multicolored interiors, including a buttercup yellow dining room, sky blue kitchen, and bright green trim on the exterior known as “Monet green.”

“My job is to pump in the energy, to pay tribute to Monet, because Monet was a little obsessive in everything. Not just in painting and gardening,” Priest says. “So we are trying to do that. Make it as best as possible.”

Flower beds must always have some blooming color, he says, so visitors experience the “feeling” Monet intended, which Priest partly interprets from the paintings.

“Monet was gardening with an artist’s eye,” he says. “He would make a backwash of blue, and put a little bit of yellow, purple. He drops in this color.”

The feel of a painting is what Priest hopes the garden will evoke for visitors.

“Monet spent his life trying to go further in everything, and especially further in the way he looked at light, and its perfections, and the way he tried to translate that into feelings,” says Priest, noting that his favorite Monet paintings are of the water lilies. “It’s a unique garden that you can’t copy, in my eyes.”

But during Monet’s lifetime, when the garden was private, he could easily let areas go untended on a whim, or when he didn’t need them for painting. He also had less access to long-blooming plant varieties. Not Priest.

“It has to be true to the feeling of Monet’s garden, but if I dare say so, it also has to be even better than Monet’s garden,” says Priest, who studied gardening at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England.

“We have to teach to love and respect the soil, the plants and everything around them.”

Lauter is a special correspondent.