For a gardening icon, Nicole de Vésian is unusually chic. When she was Director of ‘l’Art de Vivre’ at Hermès in the late 70’s, her assistant Christian Lacroix remembers her arriving in the morning ‘in her tiny car of the best green …. dressed in a beige cashmere sweater …with a soft leather, vanilla-coloured skirt, just one or two Scandinavian jewels …her white chignon impeccably drawn back to set off her tanned and weathered face’ .
Having taught the young designer how to recognise the ‘endless multitude of tones’ in beige and grey, she retired to the south of France at the age of 70 and started an entirely new career as a gardener and garden designer developing a subtle, simple approach to garden-making with an ‘almost biblical search for basics’ that has come to epitomise Provençal gardening style. Replacing ‘washerwoman’ Mediterranean plants such as garish oleanders and scarlet geraniums with gentle greys and greens, it goes without saying that over time her personal style came to mirror her earthy, richly textured gardens. At La Louve She would unfailingly dress in rough linen or wool and her only scent would be lavender essence.
After a life famous for creativity and resourcefulness – turning up at a glamorous post-war race meeting wearing a hat made from a camembert box was a sign of things to come – Nicole de Vésian died in 1996 but her renowned garden, La Louve, can still be visited.
La Louve, is a series of perfectly judged garden terraces, quilted with tightly – and loosely – sculpted lavender, box and myrtle, which have been carved into the hillside of the glorious Luberon village of Bonnieux. There is covetable garden furniture: benches made from recycled iron frames with rough seats of deliciously weathered oak and a stone trough built up with beautifully worn pieces of salvaged stone in the handsome spirit of a Picasso sculpture. There is a spareness to the planting – the pale yellow single rose ‘Mermaid’ makes the quietest festoon against the stone-coloured walls – and everything is born of practicality. Trees are shaped because there is a view to be framed and her signature flat-topped cypresses (now echoed up and down the Provencal hills) were the result of a bargain purchase of cypresses with frost damaged tops which she hard pruned to bring them back to health.
The views and the light of this part of France are of course exquisite but La Louve remains a brilliantly inspirational garden to visit if you are on holiday nearby.
Ideas to take home from La Louve
- Begin with a restrained palette of structural plants in green and grey and experiment with grouping them together and clipping them into organic shapes. The dark green Myrtus communis subps. ‘Tarentina’ , Laurus nobilis ‘angustifolia’ Phillyrea angustifolia and grey-leaved Rosemary, Santolina and Teucrium fruticans would work well in a sheltered UK garden.
- La Louve has a spectacular terrace of lavender, partly clipped into tight mounds, partly left wild and loose. The long-limbed Lavanadula x intermedia ‘Grosso’ would be the perfect lavender to recreate this.
- Nicole de Vésian recommended planting aromatic plants slightly too close together along a path so that you would release the scent as you brushed past.
- She also hung old, tarnished mirrors onto branches for dreamy glimpses of the view beyond.
- Salvaged materials were recycled to make furniture or create simple garden sculptures. At La Louve, even rusty barrel rings hanging on a nail become a sculptural shape that casts shadows on the wall behind.
Recommended reading: Nicole de Vésian – Gardens: Modern Design in Provence by Louisa Jones.