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English gardener puts his touch on Monet's garden

James Priest, an Englishman, is the new head gardener of the painter's paradise in Giverny, France. It's a heady responsibility.

April 17, 2012|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times
  • James Priest, a Briton and head gardener at the residence of painter Claude Monet in Giverny, outside Paris.
James Priest, a Briton and head gardener at the residence of painter Claude… (Devorah Lauter, For The…)

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.

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