Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Visit to the Dowager Duchesse de Mouchy

The orangerie in the garden of the
dowager duchess de Mouchy.
Image:  French Garden Style.
A garden design class for architects way back during my university days continues to be a great influence in my work today.  In addition to studying the history of garden design, my class visited a number of private, truly remarkable gardens in the Ile-de-France region with the tour of each site led by the owner.  All the gardens were memorable, but none more so than the enchanting garden created by the dowager duchesse de Mouchy, Marie (de la Rouchefoucauld) de Noailles, as her country retreat about an hour outside of Paris.

Chateau Fleury.
Image:  Wikipedia.
After the death of her husband, in 1950 the dowager duchesse acquired the cottage adjacent to the 250 acre Fleury estate, next to the parish church of the village of Fleury-en-Biere, once the chapel of the chateau.  Her son lives in Chateau Fleury while another member of the family lives in the nearby Chateau de Courance;  we visited both in the class.  (For a relatively recent event at both to benefit the American Friends of Versailles, see the story in New York Social Diary here). 

The path from the herb garden to the pool
passes through a formal area with a
lawn decorated with geometric designs of
colored gravel and two yew obelisks.
Image:  French Garden Style.
The large garden surrounded by a high stone wall had long been neglected but the old magnolias and cedars gave evidence that the landscape had once been carefully considered.  It was thought to be the original potager (kitchen garden) for the chateau which dates from the sixteenth to eighteenth-century.  Although not as well known to the public as some other gardens in France, the garden of the dowager duchesse was the standard by which all others were measured, in some circles of residential garden design.

The Koelreuteria paniculata (golden rain tree)
with pale yellow blooms is outside the garden
 but visually brought inward with a gap
in the hedge filled with an iron fence.
Image:  French Garden Style.
Using the premise that each area of the garden was an outdoor room, the spaces followed various themes and functions.  A magnolia-filled Persian garden contained many unusual varieties, a very unique feature in France.  Another garden contained herbs and another area provided flowers especially grown to cut.

A wall of yews are clipped in the form
of buttresses define the herb garden
which also contains aromatic flowers
and foliage.  Note the unforgettable
topiary 'confessional' in the garden beyond.
Image:  French Garden Style.
As the dowager duchesse led us through garden, she might stop briefly and take clippers out of her pocket to snip an errant twig.  Design is crucial, but after all, it is maintenance that makes a garden legendary.

An arcade of trees trained on cables (1) and
a screen of pleached trees (3) provide garden
architecture.  A bench of stone slabs is backed
both a hedge of clipped yews and unclipped branches
to give contrast (4).  The tumbling naturalized
plantings against the cottage are in the English style,
in contrast to the topiaries bordering the terrace (2).
Images:  Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
The immediate area outside the cottage comes to a horticultural climax with a life-size sentry box or confessional and a row of enormous fleur de lis topiaries.

The duchesse's 'confessional' carved from
Thuja plicata 'Atrovirens' (giant arborvitae).
Image:  Derry Moore.
The cottage, and that term is relative, is just as charming as the garden.  Like the garden, it carried the dowager duchesse's personal touch.  She said that many of the furnishings had come from her family but she had bought some things at the flea market.

The fleur de lis topiaries on the terrace
at the entrance to the house.
Image:  Derry Moore.
The space known as the Servants' Hall provided a cool, welcome transition from the garden.  It served as a casual reception room.

The Servants' Hall.
Image:  Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
The adjacent room which also opens onto the terrace is the dowager duchesse's dining room which also served as a casual sitting room.  One of the distinctive features of this room is the tapestry wallcovering, hanging but not fully attached to let the stone walls 'breathe.'
The Dining Room.
Image:  Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
A slightly more formal sitting room follows in progression, the tone of the room set by the eighteenth-century paneling.

The folding screen illustrates the 17th century
poem Le Lutrin by Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux.
Photo by Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
The use of miniatures adds to intimate character of the Sitting Room.

Another view of the Sitting Room.
Image:  Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
A guest bedroom with papered walls and a papered dado of an architectural paneling design displays colored engravings of gardens.

A guest bedroom with a chimneypiece
and hearth of rouge royale marble.
Image:  Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
Another bedroom, with rich red walls, is filled with photos and drawings of family members and other personal mementos.

A bedroom having a view from the bed
to the garden below.
Photo:  Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
The Duchesse acknowledged getting advice from her brother-in-law, the Vicomte de Noailles (whose exemplary garden was also visited and will be featured in a future post), and her Danish cousin Mogen Tvede, a landscape designer.  But she clearly developed her own taste and skills to become an incomparable gardener in her own right.  The Duchesse de Mouchy died in 1982, and it has been said that her beloved garden, though briefly in a period of decline, is now maintained as a tribute to her remarkable spirit and talent.

A park-like section of the garden.
Photo:  Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
The photos noted as being from Architectural Digest were published in the June, 1982, issue of the magazine.  The additional images here by the photographer Derry Moore appear on his own website.  The other photos are from FRENCH GARDEN STYLE, now out-of-print but used copies may be purchased through The Devoted Classicist Library.


  1. I adore the arch and the confessional. The tree archway looks familiar. Has this been in a movie? Or, as you say this was the garden that others based their own gardens on, so perhaps influenced those in movies.

    1. S.C., I don't know, but if anyone knows of this being used as a film location I hope they will leave a comment.

  2. John,
    An education such as yours makes an indelible impression, no doubt. I very much enjoyed this tour of the enchanting garden and home of the Dowager Duchess de Mouchy- tres' comme il faut!

    1. D.F., I was fortunate to have the educational opportunities so early on that have helped shape my career today. Thanks for commenting.


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