James Priest: Tending Monet’s masterpiece

Laura Davis meets Monet’s Maghull-born head gardener among the flowerbeds that inspired the painter’s most famous works

TALL tulips of sunshine yellow, burnished reds and candy pinks stand to attention like paintbrushes dipped in oils. Flowerbeds arranged like paintboxes of graduating colour line narrow paths and run along arches entwined with roses.

Here, one of history’s greatest artists spent 43 years of his life, creating alluring scenes to capture on canvas and radically change painting forever.

But that was its past. The present and future of Claude Monet’s Normandy home lie in the greenfingers of its Maghull-born head gardener James Priest, who took over the role last summer.

His appointment makes him a direct successor to Monet himself, who looked after every aspect of the garden he called “my greatest masterpiece”.

In between there have been just two other head gardeners at Giverny – including Gilbert Vahé who restored the land to its former brilliance in the late-70s under the guidance of horticulture expert Gérald Van der Kemp.

The garden Priest inherits is far from the overgrown ruin with which his predecessor was confronted – dead trees, weed-ridden borders, the wisteria-covered Japanese Bridge that appeared in so many of Monet’s paintings rotted through.

With no detailed plans or colour photographs on which to base his design, Van der Kemp studied letters describing Giverny and Impressionist masterpieces of the paintbox borders.

The garden that the 500,000 annual visitors experience today is therefore not an exact replica of the one where Monet picked bunches of flowers to paint in his studio, but it is as close as it is possible to get.

Priest has already veered slightly from Van der Kemp’s design – drawing criticism from some quarters for planting more tulips. The most striking border imitates a sunset – the bright hues evolving from cheerful yellow, through orange to blood red.

“Van der Kemp has one interpretation but the only person who can say what Monet wanted to do with colour in his garden was Monet and he’s dead,” says Priest, 54, leaning on the rebuilt Japanese Bridge.

“A head gardener can’t do exactly the same as the person before even if he wanted to. It’s impossible.

“I’ve made some subtle changes. Sometimes have to take a little bit of a leeway basically to keep the gardens interesting. Some people have said they like it – that it feels more calm.

“But I didn’t come here to change the garden, that’s not my job, and anyway I’m my own biggest critic.”

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