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Louis Benech is one of the foremost garden designers working in France today. His major mentor is the great English designer Russel Page, and like Page he combines rich, airy planting with clipped geometric forms. The latter are often low squares of box or free-standing hedges, which lend an avant-garde air to this traditional English style of contained luxuriance. Trained originally as a lawyer, Benech soon turned back to his first love and apprenticed at Hilliers Nurseries, working in both their English and French branches to acquire a prodigious understanding of plants and their requirements.
Unlike many contemporary designers, Benech brings a poetic sensibility to his work, rejecting hard surfaces in favour of gentler, natural materials: his walls and fences tend to be vegetal, his paths are grass, even his moats are faced with clipped holly rather than brick or stone. Beneath the poetry is also a wry wit and a keen intellect. For Loel Guinness he created a four-leaf-clover-shaped bed – to the amusement of the patron, who was reminded of the Irish shamrock; he insisted that it be filled with flowers of orange and yellow to echo his horse-racing colours. Benech responded by transforming the space into 'a garden of the sun and a garden of the moon'.
Benech has worked on such high-profile French sites as the Futuroscope theme park and the Elysee Palace but he seems most comfortable with rural projects and reveals an unusual respect for the history and topography of each site. For a handsome 19th-century Normandy villa he created an entrance path that winds beside an old cider press, recalling the agricultural heritage of the area. In the attached courtyard he produced a modern iteration of the curate's garden; with its roses, lavender, lilies, lilacs, iris, asters and wisterias it suggests a cheerful, welcoming ante-room.
In many sites, Benech simply enhances existing features. At a moated mediaeval chateau he planted the bank facing the chateau with flowers but left the near bank unplanted so as not to obstruct views of the water. At a secluded farmhouse near San Tropez he retained existing vineyards and olive groves, then worked with a Mediterranean palette of palm trees, mimosa and dry stone walls to enhance the rustic atmosphere. For a house in central Paris he screened a disfiguring extension to the elegant 18th-century facade by covering it with jasmine, balancing that with a laurel courtyard to create a comfortable, scented seating area overlooking the garden beyond.
Naming simplicity as his defining characteristic, Benech asserts 'I like the idea that no one would guess that I'd worked on a garden'. Nature rarely creates such perfection, but for anyone interested in following Benech's ideas and studying his creations this book offers a clear analysis of 12 key designs, with well-captioned photographs to help one visualize the effects described.
Louis Benech: Twelve French Gardens has text by Eric Jansen and photography by Eric Sander and is published by Gourcuff Gradenigo Publishers. 226 pp; 188 colour illus, £35.00. ISBN 978-2-35340-155-0