Clematis are the speciality of the designer of the Victor Hugo Garden, Raymond Evison OBE, VMH, FLS. They have been planted throughout the Garden. Hugo used the clematis as a symbol of the kind of natural wildness and informality he so esteemed, exemplified by the three species shown here. Species of Chinese and Japanese clematis found their way to Europe, some as early as the 16th century, but the large-flowered clematis so popular today did not become available to gardeners until the 1860s. They were adopted and hybridised with gusto by the Victorians. In the language of flowers Clematis stood for mental beauty and poverty, but also ‘artifice’.
A tale as old as the world at least –
Flora and Faun; we’d feel a duty,
Perhaps to ask: ‘What use is Beauty?’
If there did not exist the Beast.
A clematis blooms in a jar;
She quakes; her springtime soon must fall!
I find the blossom oh-so-small;
I find the pot too coarse by far.’
Clematis tangutica and Clematis vitalba were chosen by designer Raymond Evison to take their placea in the Wild Garden.
In a grand garden in five acts
All in the best possible taste
Where the branches were exact
And all the flowers stood up straight,
A few wild clematis, quavery –
Poor pensive shoots – grew
Amongst the noble slavery
Of box, myrtles and yew.
There grew on the terrace nearby
(Full of statues of gods, rather neat)
A rose so aristocratic, oh my!
She had marble at her feet.
The rose at the clems fixed a stare
As Dame Rachel might look down in her way
At the young girls who were there
As the chorus in a Greek play.
These flowers, trembling, heads hanging,
At the mercy of the West wind blown,
Were rather like ladies-in-waiting
Around the Queen of April’s throne …
And I cried: O flowers dotted here and there
Next the rose in this lovely spot,
No, yours are not the minor roles
In the great theatre of God.
God’s work is in all we see,
The rose, in this fruitful text,
Has the opening line, maybe;
But ’tis the cornflower has the next.
Victor Hugo was fascinated by Versailles and its formal garden. The Jardin du Luxembourg, in which Marius and Cosette do their courting, and which Hugo knew very well in his early years, had a similar history. Here such a garden is compared to a theatre, or a play (plays were often in five acts). Rachel was a celebrated actress, whose life is memorialised in the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris. Hugo delights in the thought that the humble and proletarian wild clematis might spoil the effect of these hyper-managed beds, clipped topiary, and terraces, as he has penetrated and dismantled the classical theatre and let in modernity, and as the monarchy – the absolute rule of which was epitomised by Louis XIV, creator of Versailles – was overturned by the people in the Revolution. Here the clematis represent one of Hugo’s favoured themes: ‘the power of the weak’.’
A plant redolent of the Shakepearean garden, Clematis flammula was introduced into Europe in the late 16th century and is known as ‘Fragrant Virgin’s Bower’. Designer Raymond Evison has planted it amongst the roses in the Versailles tubs on the terrace in a deliberate echo of the poem of 1865 above, ‘Equality’.
Clematis vitalba is a thin-stemmed climber that throws out very long creeping stalks. It has star-like flowers and fluffy seed-heads, that give it its common English name of Old Man’s Beard. It is also known as Traveller’s Joy. It has many more names in French, ranging from the simple ‘Hedgerow Clematis’ to the more interesting ‘Beggars’ Clematis’. In his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame Hugo created the sinister figure of Clopin Trouillefou, King of Thieves. Clopin is afflicted with a wound that mysteriously appears when he goes out to beg, and disappears again when he doesn’t. This could have been effected by rubbing the leaves of Clematis vitalba against his skin, a professional beggar’s trick.
Clematis tangutica, formerly Clematis tangutica var. orientalis, is a vigorous climber native to the Himalayas and Northern China, blooming late in the season. It is very similar to some of the ‘mysterious flowers’ that Hugo designed for his furniture and interior decoration.