The Greater Perfection
Excerpted from a review by
Adrian Higgins, published at washingtonpost.com, November 25, 2001, p. BW08
Four Strong Winds
Francis H. Cabot is one of the most interesting figures in American gardening. In 1989, he founded an organization called the Garden Conservancy in Cold Spring, N.Y., where he had developed his own splendid garden at a property named Stonecrop. The Conservancy identifies and helps protect lovely old gardens. I think I have spotted a new one.
I knew that Cabot had decamped from Stonecrop to a large family property on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. I had no idea that the landscape elements he was creating there were so ambitious and beautiful until I picked up The Greater Perfection: The Story of the Gardens at Les Quatres Vents (Hortus/Norton, $75), a richly detailed account of his development of the property, known in this French-speaking corner of North America as Les Quatre Vents (The Four Winds). The book's title comes from Francis Bacon's observation that stately homes can be built quickly; gardens, taking far longer, are the greater endeavor.
So it seems at Les Quatre Vents, nestled between the broad expanse of the river and the forested foothills of the Laurentian Mountains. The estate has been in Cabot's family for 75 years; the original house, which burned, was rebuilt in the 1950s in a French chateau style. Two uncles had already laid out the basic framework for a garden. Since 1975, Cabot and his wife, Anne, have been systematically fleshing out the old bones, adding new ones, and then developing whole new elements on a scale fitting with the rugged landscape, which is to say gargantuan.
For the book's copious color photographs, Cabot has assembled some of the best landscape photographers in the trade. Their images, naturally, show the garden at its most flattering. Still, you get a sense that this is a fine garden, a place that is grand, even in its more intimate spaces, without becoming grandiose. The book leaves one itching to pay a visit.
There are more than 20 separate garden features, elements as diverse as a simple lawn allée of the conifer thuja to a Chinese moon bridge, whose arch is designed to form a perfect circle with its reflection in the water below. Now in his seventies, Cabot recalls walking the thuja allée with an architect friend who pointed out that the clusters of thuja (known variously as arbor vitae or white cedar) produced their own, unintentional framed views. To which Cabot reacts, "I would have given anything for an architect's eye." This may be false modesty, because the book reveals a master architect at work.
Two of Cabot's inventions in particular haunt the onlooker. The first consists of a reflecting pool, framed in hedges and trees, established to show off a structure based on a feature of old French chateaux, the pigeonnier. Ostensibly a dovecote, the pigeonnier is a temple of architectural and, inside, of decorative beauty. It is arranged so that you come across it unexpectedly. The second is a Japanese-style garden, set on a lake, with, as its centerpiece. a waterside pavilion hand-made by an artisan named Hiroshi Sakaguchi. The garden, which includes a waterfall of great granite boulders, took seven years to create.
In lesser hands, Les Quatre Vents might have descended into a private Disneyland, a hollow pastiche. But Cabot is a gardener above all else, and he clothed these armatures with plants as humble as rhubarb, as regal as the blue Tibetan poppy (chosen as the book's cover image). These gardens are sensational, yes, but not shallow.
You could argue that this tour de force has some broader relevance in the horticultural landscape, that North American gardeners have stepped out of the shadow of Mother England. Perhaps so, but Cabot is a unique figure, akin to some of the great garden makers of Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. Much about Les Quatre Vents is reminiscent of Lord Aberconway's Bodnant in north Wales -- the scope, the setting, the features. A large vision has been effected with patience and detail (and a fair amount of money, it should be said).
One can't help but feel that this book has been put together with equal care, and I recommend it highly.