Nicole de Vesian—Gardens: Modern Design in Provence

Several years ago, we had the immense pleasure of spending a day with Louisa Jones in the south of France, visiting a few of her favorite gardens in the Luberon region of Provence. This was our first visit to Provence, and we had no idea what we might see. However, when we arrived at La Louve, in the delightful hilltop town of Bonnieux, I realized that this was the one garden I had longed to see. Judith Pillsbury, owner of La Louve, treated us to lunch in the garden. It was the thrill of a lifetime for all of us.

Louisa Jones is an exceptional chronicler of gardens, garden history, and culture in southern France, having written roughly twenty books published over the past thirty years. Some have focused on the history of the Provençal garden, others on modern trends in garden making there, still others on the cuisine and the traditions of the region. In this, her latest book, Louisa focuses on one of the singular personalities of the garden world in Provence: the late Nicole de Vesian. Nicole had designed La Louve for herself in the mid-1990s, but she also created gardens for others in the area.

Nicole had a long and prominent career in the publishing world in Paris, setting the pace for fashion and style in that style-conscious city. Upon retirement in 1986, she purchased a small hillside dwelling, somewhat in ruins, in Bonnieux and proceeded to learn about garden design in order to create her iconic garden of shaped and sheared trees and shrubs. Such treatment in the United States is invariably the result of untrained mow-and-blow maintenance teams, with too many power tools at their disposal. At La Louve, Nicole was inspired to shear her plants by the locally native trees and shrubs, whose mounded shapes ensured their survival in the face of drought and the desiccating and destructive winds of the Mistral. Many of her plants are, in fact, the same ones that grow naturally around her; a few unsheared plants are juxtaposed against the shaped ones, for the contrast of texture and light that results.

To further anchor her garden in the region, Nicole depended heavily on stone, most of it collected on site or nearby, some given her by friends from travels further afield. Stone pathways, terraces, walls, stairs, containers, fountains, basins, and benches—mostly of the sturdy local stone—further unite the garden’s many rooms.

Of Nicole’s ten tips for gardeners, which she followed in creating her own garden and, eventually, those of others in the region, I am particularly fond of “Use a chair to sit in a garden when planning, taking in all the views—a garden should be seen seated.”

As she researched her many books, Louisa developed a close relationship with Nicole. We, the readers, are the beneficiaries of that relationship in this new book, as Nicole trusted Louisa to express her ideas and pass on to others her philosophy of garden making. Neither trained in garden design, nor even inclined to draw plans, Nicole was, nevertheless, successful at creating magical gardens that fit their place perfectly, simply by sensing what was right, what belonged. She did so by studying the setting, the region, its plants, its light, its current life, and the centuries-old traditions of working the land. She understood the meaning of place and its role in the design of a modern garden. Louisa shares that with us beautifully in this masterful book about an exceptional designer.

Richard G Turner, editor