Het Loo and the perils of garden history

Here’s a puzzle for you. Why isn’t this a picture of a 17th century baroque garden? (Ignore for a moment the fact that the image was taken with a digital camera!)  There’s an anachronism here – the horticultural equivalent of Mr Darcy checking his mobile phone before admitting his love for Lizzie Bennet.

Het loo gardens

It’s those glorious copper beech! Copper beech weren’t introduced into gardens until the early 19th century, some 300 years after these gardens were originally laid out. The trees may be wrong, but to the modern visitor they look just right, offering a bronzy-pink foil for the bright green of the original beech and the dark green of the conifers.

Prince William of Orange bought Het Loo in 1684 to use as a hunting lodge. Four years later something more palatial began to take shape, with gardens laid out by Dutch architect Jacob Roman and French mathematician/designer Daniel Marot. A century later that garden, pinnacle of Dutch baroque landscaping, was history: Louis Napoleon filled in the canals and moats to assuage his life-long fear of drowning and ripped up the gardens to follow the fashion for English landscape style.

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The gardens were restored to their 17th century glory for their 300th anniversary in 1984, using original documents. As an echo of the past, though, mature trees from the landscape era were left to live out their lives in the lower terrace (and the copper beech remained in the park). I love this decision – the trees are a reminder of the fragility of gardens, the transience of fashion and the appealing, but nonetheless fraudulent, act of garden re-creation.

Het loo gardens

As you can see from the swirling patterns of the symmetrical beds, called parterre broderie for their embroidery-like effect, the garden is designed to be looked at from the raised terraces and from the palace itself. But it’s also for walking through: to admire the water features; the statuary; the special flowers and plants, each grown in splendid isolation from its fellows in the outer border of the beds.

Also drawing you into the garden is this hornbeam tunnel which encloses the Queens’s Garden. Walking through here you can just about hear the rustle of satin as a clandestine meeting is disturbed and a lady-in-waiting scurries away.  DSC_0594 

The box that draws the parterre design looked really good in the Queen’s garden when we visited, but in other parts of the garden it was patchy and unhealthy. Diseases of box are rife through Europe and Het Loo has been badly affected. A decision has been made to replace the box – all 25km of it! – with Ilex crenata ‘Dark Green’, a variety of Japanese holly that looks like box but is not affected by disease.

Het Loo is a wonderful example of the minefield of garden history and garden re-creation. The copper beech, the holly hedging, the trees interrupting the parterre patterns – they remind us that gardens aren’t static works of art but ephemeral creations that can’t help but undergo change.

Photos: Robin Powell

Het Loo is part of our tour of Europe’s Best Gardens next May.

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