The Marqueyssac estate in the Dordogne valley is home to 150,000 box trees, forming a unique example of a huge garden that is both romantic and contemporary.
Located in Vézac, for millennia the Dordogne has eroded and carved its way through the limestone cliffs of the Marqueyssac Estate. The land is wooded and steep — a rocky outcrop which has always been populated by oaks, beeches and wild boxwood. It was here that in 1692 Bertrand Vernet de Marqueyssac built four imposing terraces, which form the area that is still today called “the Bastion”. But it was one of his descendants — Julien de Cerval — who, in the second half of the 19th century, would leave his indelible mark here. A judge in nearby Sarlat, Julien was an avid grower of fruit trees but also passionate about box tree gardens as they reminded him of his childhood trips to Italy. He planted 150,000 boxwoods on the rocky outcrop that is home to the château. To its two bridle paths, he also added six kilometres of trails over his incredible estate. Far from establishing a classically “French” park, he wanted to create a variety of spaces and surfaces, that flowed with the movements of the land. He landscaped groves, hidden chambers and belvederes that opened onto sprawling views over the surrounding countryside… His almost obsessive passion for box trees was not something he passed on to his descendants, however, until Kléber Rossillon acquired the estate in 1996 and resolved to restore it to its former glory. “Our family has its roots in the village, just next door,” explains Geneviève Rossillon, his daughter, now manager of this estate and a dozen other sites in France, including Cosquer Cave, Chauvet 2 Cave and Château de Langeais.
From what was then a boxwood forest that hadn’t seen a shear for several decades, Kléber Rossillon wanted to return to the very essence of what Julien de Cerval’s estate might have been. And so he and head landscaper José Leygonie, in charge of the restoration, began to extensively research the ethos of mid-19th century gardens. “This garden coincided exactly with the Anglo-Chinese period of romantic gardens, which were inspired by books depicting natural landscapes and then reproduced on a smaller scale. It was very common in China and Japan and it was a time when the English had many trading posts along the Asian coasts. The style was brought back with them, and offered a contrast to French and Italian gardens,” says José Leygonie.
To get back to that essence of a Second Empire garden, the box trees that had been left to run riot in the perfect conditions provided by the limestone soil, needed to be cleared, pruned and sculpted. The existing boxwoods were reworked, but new boxwoods also needed to be planted — around 3,500 over the entire Estate.
Whilst retaining the central ideals of ingenuity and romanticism that reigned at the time of designing the Bastion — the central motif of the Estate — the shapes of the boxwoods were entirely made up. “We shaped the boxwoods empirically, based on what the existing boxwoods allowed us to do,” adds José Leygonie. We inched our way along, improvising as we went, one day at a time. As for the overall plan, we wanted to make it so that we could move around inside it, manoeuvre, add signage and so on”.
And so there are curves, soft shapes, clouds and undulations that ripple one after the other over the Bastion level, like a set of waves at the top of the cliff. Further on, in front of the château, large parallelepipeds, as if fallen from the sky in cleverly ordered chaos, catch the eye. This new lawn was created in 2003. But Marqueyssac is not only about the visual impact of these iconic boxwood beds. The Estate has managed to strike a balance, with Italian influences too, offering visitors a contrast, a visual breather of sorts, whether that be in the form of large expanses of greenery or dry paths softened by patterns made from rosemary plants, whose colour contrasts with the deep green of the boxwood.
This site, whose style is unrivalled in the world, has been classified as a “Jardin Remarquable” since 2004.
It took two whole years, the involvement of sixty different companies and the employment of ten gardeners to tame the overrun gardens of Marqueyssac. They now require daily maintenance and have so far been protected from attack by the terrible boxwood moth, a caterpillar that is combated with the use of natural weapons. Head gardener, Jean Lemoussu, uses Bacillus of Thuringia (a bio-insecticide) and trichogramma (small insects) to fight against the moth. “And to strengthen the boxwood’s resistance to fungi, we spray mixtures of plant manure every month between April and October: nettle, horsetail and comfrey” adds the head gardener. The box trees are pruned by hand, using templates that guide the gardeners. The shapes created give each shrub a specific role in the overall scheme. Most of the pruning takes place in late May / early June, after the first spring bloom, then in September, although they are still tended to every day.
There are also box trees on the cliffs, pruned by gardeners wearing ropes like mountaineers. Elsewhere, some of the pruned boxwoods retain a wild shape or are trained to form barrel vaults. And others are sculpted according to the rules of topiary, into geometric shapes. “I believe that what visitors to Marqueyssac like is the charm of a long stroll where everything is both highly manicured but also perfectly natural. Marqueyssac is both a garden and a park – it provides spaces of tranquillity and breathtaking views. I think they also like the deep family connection at the heart of this project,” notes Geneviève Rossillon. She and her team are already working on next year, 2022, which will mark the 25th anniversary of the gardens’ reopening. After a lacklustre year marked by the health crisis, she hopes to soon welcome back the 200,000 visitors who, each year, tread the tracks lined with one hundred-year-old box trees.