The overall structure of Courances, built in the late sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth century, has not been significantly altered. It is interesting, however, to analyse the successive additions and changes that occurred over the following three centuries. The painting by Beaubrun-done around 1600 and now hanging in the Billiard Room-depicts the first "Lady of Courances", Anne Vialar, the first wife of Claude II Gallard. She is holding a small painting representing the park as her creation. From the eighteenth century on, we have more documentation concerning the property. We know that the Miroir in front of the château, a spectacular rectangular pool that reflects the château, was created before 1756. We can also trace the projects supervised by Anne Marguerite Potier de Novion, the second "Lady of Courances". The area around the château was transformed to modify the view of the park from the windows: the imposing main door enclosing the courtyard since 1642 was removed and replaced by a gate placed in front of the bridge crossing the moat. Nothing interfered with the view, which stretched out over the magnificent Allée d'Arrivée, lined with two canals and four rows of lime trees.
The gardens on the island behind the château
were refashioned. The most striking aspect of the transformation work at
Courances during the eighteenth century was the opening up of the views to
the north, towards the entrance and to the south, by extending the area
where the Miroir was to be built. This immense pool not only added
a sense of monumentality to the main perspective, but its large surface
reflected the sky and added a great deal of light to this side of the château.
These aesthetic decisions-the priority given to the alignment, greater
emphasis on symmetry, the addition of water elements-paralleled the
prevailing ideas concerning the art of garden design, as they had been
developed by Antoine-Joseph Dézallier d'Argenville. It was he who
popularized Le Nôtre's work in the eighteenth century with his essay, La
théorie et la pratique du jardinage.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, the art of gardening in France was influenced by new fashions coming from England, which resulted in major transformations: a rejection of geometric composition; a desire to imitate nature; and a quest for the picturesque, inspired by landscape painting. Was the Marquis de Nicolay open to these aesthetic questions? We know that in 1782 he replanted the wide Allée d'Arrivée with plane trees. The archives from the Administration des Biens des Emigrés (Administration of Emigrant Property) reveal that in the Year II (1794), "the foreign trees were removed" from the English garden to make room for food crops. We can imagine that a section of the grounds had been set aside according to this "new fashion", without affecting the overall composition. When Aymard-Charles-Théodore de Nicolay, the marquis' youngest son, returned to the property after his father was executed, he turned his efforts to restoring the estate. Did he also restore his father's "English garden"? There are traces of landscaping efforts both on the island in front of the château and to the east of the moat, in the grove known as La Perruque or L'anglaise, the current location of the Fer à Cheval pond. It was certainly during this period that the Salle d'Eau was transformed into an ornamental lake. We know that A.-C.-T. de Nicolay had to leave Courances when the 1830 Revolution broke out and never returned to his château. The gardens probably looked like an immense marshland when the banker Samuel de Haber purchased Courances in October 1872.
While the architect was working to restore the château, creating a new Henri IV-Louis XIII façade, he, along with the owners, were also considering how to recreate the garden. The plan by Adolphe Fauconnier and L. Landeau (prior to 1880) reveals that the first restoration campaign was a large-scale, ambitious project. The moat separating the château from the garden was filled in, which created an open space for a large expanse of box embroideries. The Miroir and its surrounding area were redesigned: sand alleyways, lawns, statues and mosaic-culture. A new pool with an elaborate shape, called the Dauphin, was dug in the alignment of the Miroir. Oddly enough, although the entire symmetry of the main perspective was restored, it seems that the designers considered transforming the rest of the grounds according to the English fashion, hence adopting the "mixed style" then promoted by the landscape designer Édouard André. The documents show that Henri Duchêne was at Courances in October of 1899 and November of 1900, but it was his son, Achille, who undertook the job of completing the new restoration phase that would continue until the First World War. It appears that the first priority of the owners, the Comte and Comtesse Jean de Ganay was to find solutions for the area located to the west of the château, the former Salle d'Eau which had been re-designed in the English style and needed to be drained. In 1906, Duchêne started to think about the transformations to be made on the other side, to the east, on the site of the previous English garden. In 1908, the beautiful box embroideries, which are so representative of the "Duchêne style", were planted in front of the façade, on the garden side; they are still in place today. A large part of the woods were probably replanted in 1912. From a stylistic point of view, it is very interesting to analyse Duchêne's method, as he was extremely attentive to the owner's wishes. It was finally decided to restore the Salle d'Eau to its original classical form. This contrasted with an entirely new and original design by Duchêne east of the château that was nevertheless in perfect harmony with the rest of the park, the Fer à Cheval pool. Above it, he built the Baigneuse basin, adorned with a statue from the royal Marly park, the nymph Aréthuse, a work by Claude Poirier (1656-1729). But Duchêne's stroke of genius was his idea to bring together all these different areas, styles and periods by rearranging the fourteen gueulards that framed the former Salle d'Eau. They can now be found almost everywhere, spitting water from the many springs, incarnations of the spirit of Courances. Sometime prior to 1908, Berthe de Ganay decided to take a rather boxed-in pool situated below the former sawmill and began to create a delicate Anglo-Japanese garden, entirely devoted to rare plants and shrubs. The proliferation of plants concealed the symmetry of the pool, while a small island gave depth to this creation, which was influenced by the fashion for Japanese art that swept through Europe in the 1900s (other examples include the Albert Kahn gardens, Giverny and Maulévrier). Some time later, an English gardener, Kathleen Lloyd Jones, who was a student of Gertrude Jekill, came to help the owner expand this free interpretation of a Japanese garden with a profusion of brightly coloured perennials. This Anglo-Japanese garden was abandoned during the Second World War, and owes its renaissance to Philippine de Ganay, the niece of Charles de Noailles and daughter of Marie de Mouchy, both famous gardeners. She brought in new plants, selecting more shrubs to provide a greater diversity of shapes and textures: bamboo, japanese maples, magnolias and more. Despite the profound social impact of the First World War, when the conflict ended, more than thirty people were still working at Courances on the farm, as well as on the grounds and the garden. The lawns were mowed three times a year, while a flock of sheep took care of the rest. Everything was still done by hand. The property was occupied by a Luftwaffe school during the Second World War; the grounds were taken over by barracks and concrete was poured everywhere. After the Liberation, a camp for American prisoners was set up. When Jean-Louis de Ganay took over the property in 1948, at the age of twenty-six, everything had to be re-created. The former student of the Grignon agricultural school recounts: "We did everything on our own, by whatever expedient we could, without the help of outside companies, taking on all of the projects with imagination and patience". They had to break up the concrete, re-establish the lawns and revive the hedges. Once again, the pools and ponds had become swamps. Yet, by the early 1950s, the traces of the war had been erased. The owner decided not to re-create all the alleyways and left wide green swaths in the main perspectives and around the pools. Visitors walk on the grass almost everywhere. The trees were not pruned into straight screens. Hence, at Courances, branches hang over pathways or trunks stand out, breaking up the rectilinear views. These "economic" solutions have since guided many decisions concerning the management: this means fewer staff, the increased use of machines, and agricultural rather than horticultural techniques. Although the major classical lines of the past still remain, the simplified shapes and a greater emphasis on nature have given Courances an indisputably modern look-and added a new chapter to the history of this exceptional park.
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