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We must cultivate our garden

By Alastair McCapra
Voltaire is still revered as a writer, historian and philosopher, but his role as a gardener has almost slipped from view. Yet we can learn a lot by seeing how, like Candide, he cultivated his garden.

When I visited Voltaire’s house at Ferney in eastern France, the guided tour of the garden was an optional extra, and although it was free, I was the only one who took it. The other visitors wandered off, none the wiser about the fascinating story of how, over twenty years, Voltaire worked on the grounds that he loved so much. I was lucky to visit when I did, because all tours stopped just a few days later and the house is now closed for an extensive, three-year conservation project. Already, efforts are being made to recreate the gardens on which he lavished so much attention. Research has been done into the varieties of fruit tree which existed in Voltaire’s time, and there is a plan to replant his orchards. The beehives are already back.

The conservation project will hopefully allow us to recover a much clearer idea of the landscape that Voltaire created. Like the visitors who only came for the house, many people seem uninterested in Voltaire’s horticultural endeavours. Indeed it did not take long after his death for mistaken ideas about the garden to start circulating. An accurate view was commissioned by Catherine the Great, who wanted a ‘detailed and geometric plan’ of the Ferney estate, but that was kept in Russia, together with the exact scale model of the house which she also ordered.

‘I have done one sensible thing in my life – to cultivate the ground. He who clears a field renders a better service to humankind than all the scribblers of Europe’.

After Voltaire’s death few people made the long journey to Ferney, and representations of the gardens became gradually less realistic. They tended to represent the terrace behind the house as much longer than it actually was.

At the same time, knowing that the gardens lay between the Jura to the north and the Alps to the south, some artistic renditions of the site both stretched the terrace and enclosed it with fairly dramatic-looking mountain slopes. These do not in fact exist, although one of Voltaire’s pleasures, while working in his pavilion, was to look south over the lake at the distant prospect of Mont Blanc.

So what was the real landscape, and what was it about? Voltaire’s gardens were much more than just a place for developing ideas – they were part of an aesthetic, productive and social landscape which he devoted many years to designing and cultivating. Having bought the Ferney estate in 1758, he demolished the existing house and built a completely new one (he tried demolishing the parish church which stood within his grounds, right in front of his main entrance, but that was one battle that the Catholic Church won). Thereafter he left the interior decoration of the house to his niece, Mme Denis, who was by that time perhaps no longer his lover and merely his companion. He, meanwhile, devoted himself, when he was not working on his writing, entirely to his grounds, where he often liked to work inside a pavilion rather than confined to his study.

Nobody really knows how many trees Voltaire planted, but he loved planting, and seems to have done it, for long periods, as part of his daily routine. During his twenty years in exile at Ferney he drank endless cups of coffee, wrote 15,000 letters (or rather, that many are still extant), ran social justice campaigns, composed plays, pamphlets and other works, and received so many guests that he described himself as ‘the innkeeper of Europe’. If his planting was on the same scale as his other activities, he personally transformed the landscape of his estate at Ferney in a way no-one before or since has ever attempted.

Voltaire’s friend, the artist Jean Huber, produced a series of humorous views of the great man’s regular routines, and his depiction highlights Voltaire’s relationship with his landscape very powerfully. One shows him, with two gardeners in attendance, occupied with planting. Since we lack detailed records of his efforts it is hard to know which of the trees at Ferney today were seedlings he planted, but it is certain that of the surviving trees, he at least planted the ‘Charmille’ – the long avenue of hornbeams which he trained to grow into arches, providing a shady walkway for his daily meditations.

The aesthetics of his gardens mattered greatly to Voltaire. Having spent time in England in the 1720s, he had fallen in love with English gardens, and wanted to create a ‘jardin anglais’. He disliked the formal, geometric layout of standard French gardens (he described Versailles as a ‘masterpiece of bad taste and magnificence’) He built a terrace behind the house at Ferney, with a maze to one side. To his many English visitors, he proudly announced this as his ‘jardin anglais’, but while he certainly created something more free and less forced in design than most French gardens, none of his many English visitors judged it to be English either.

Making the estate productive made good financial sense, and also satisfied his wish to make of Ferney a small, self-contained world, unconcerned by the troubles of lands beyond. Voltaire planted orchards and vegetable gardens, raised pigeons and kept bees. He created a carp pond and an icehouse, and was proud to serve his innumerable guests meals cooked largely from the produce he himself had grown. In around 1770 he decided to experiment with silk-weaving, converting his theatre into a nursery for the silkworms, and planting mulberries to raise them on. He also grew his own grapevines. In 1770, the arrival of numerous refugees from over the border in the Republic of Geneva gave him an opportunity to set up an international watchmaking business in his grounds, which he did with great commercial enthusiasm.

Voltaire’s garden was not a retreat from the world – it was very much a social space. (Another of Huber’s illustrations shows him ‘narrating a fable’ to local villagers). In his gardens he built his theatre, where local actors performed his plays for the benefit of local people; this was later turned into the silkworm factory. Here he could play chess with his longterm Jesuit companion, Father Adam. There were picnics and walks where local friends and his innumerable visitors could eat, talk, explore and enjoy themselves.

"I find much greater pleasure in labouring – sowing planting and harvesting, than in writing tragedies,
or acting them."


His gardens were also, in his later years, a form of personal theatre in which Voltaire could perform antics for his own amusement. There are accounts of impressionable young ladies being conducted to his garden to be presented to him and recoiling in horror as the cadaverous old hypochondriac lurched towards them, in his grimy gardener’s outfit, wailing ‘Madam, you have raised me from my grave!’. Some did not seek admission to his house or grounds, but would come to see him, pressing their faces between the bars of the railings which bounded his gardens. On one occasion he decided to stomp out and put on a show, giving them a twirl in his dressing gown and cutting a few capers before vanishing back into his house. He then sent his servant out to collect six sous from each of them, on the grounds that seeing him perform must be worth at least as much as seeing the animals at the circus.

In February 1778, at the age of 83, Voltaire’s exile ended. He left his house at Ferney with Mme Denis and went to Paris, from which he had been banned in 1754. In May that year he died (his final days and burial arrangements were his last great joke at the expense of the Catholic Church, involving friends dressing his body up and smuggling him out of the house, followed by a high-speed coffin chase across the country, but that is another story entirely). Mme Denis was thrilled to be back in Paris and never returned to Ferney. She quickly sold Voltaire’s library to Catherine the Great, his furniture and other possessions to ready buyers, and the estate itself to a new owner. Ferney went into decline, and was largely left untended for many years. Surprisingly, the estate was only acquired by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux in 1999.

Voltaire’s life and legacy are full of amusing paradoxes. One is that a man so prolific in his writings should be most famous for something he never said – ‘I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. Voltaire was by no means what we would call a ‘free speech advocate’, and he would probably have had huge fun ridiculing anyone who had said this in his hearing. Another paradox is that the activity which occupied so much of his daily life for twenty years has been largely forgotten, although it is clearly such an important part of his world view and helps us to understand much of what he did actually say.

The famous last words of ‘Candide’ – ‘we must cultivate our garden’ are not metaphorical; they tell us much about what Voltaire considered important. Cultivation – of land, of skills, of tastes, and of relationships, was core to his notion of the good life. This idea of cultivation stood in opposition to the idealisation of nature advocated by his enemy Jean-Jacques Rousseau and later, by the Romantics. Instead of venerating the child as some kind of primordial innocent, Voltaire argued for the steady nurturing and development of taste, experience and reflection. Inherent in the phrase ‘we must cultivate our garden’ is the notion of proprietorship – of taking responsibility of that part of the world over which one is some kind of seigneur. It contains no notion of altruism, guerrilla gardening or seedbombing. Above all he meant to direct his readers away from idle philosophising and speculative thinking, urging them to find something useful and practical to do to make their own immediate environment a better place. If they could not think of anything else to do, Voltaire wanted them, literally, to roll up their sleeves and start digging.

Alastair McCapra is a former chief executive of the Landscape Institute. He is now chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

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