At the Swiss National Museum in Prangins

There is a lot to say about Prangins Castle’s kitchen garden, located close to the lake between Lausanne and Geneva, from its creation in the eighteen century to the modern day. This is a first encounter.

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The history of Prangins Castle1 is so rich and well-documented, and its function as the ‘largest historic kitchen garden in Switzerland’2 so relevant to the matters discussed in this blog, that one single post is not enough to say how much I learnt from our 22 April 2019 visit and the research I carried out afterwards. Here are my reflections so far, followed by a series of questions to be addressed through further investigation.

The meadow orchard

As mentioned in my 30 April article, we were advised to visit Prangin’s kitchen garden and temporary exhibition ‘A table : what does Switzerland eat?’. On the day of our visit, although very interested in Swiss culinary traditions, we focused on the kitchen garden because of time constraints. We found Prangins very promising right from the start. On the way up to the castle from the car park on the South East of the estate, bands of mown grass allowed to walk among the trees of a meadow orchard, or rather a ‘meadow-cum-orchard’, in the castle’s website words, as the fruit trees were not covering the whole surface. The field around them was growing like natural grassland. There were beehives too. As explained to visitors on an information board, the grass provides nectar and pollen to the bees and the bees pollinate the trees. The curators of his place have created a naturally flourishing biodiverse environment.

The bee-hives in front of Prangins Castle. Photo 22 April 2019, Canton de Vaud, Switzerland.

A mown path in the grass.

Information about the apiary and its contribution to a win-win ecosystem.

The French style kitchen garden and its history

My main subject of interest, the kitchen garden, looked very different from the meadow orchard. Located on the other side of the castle, it features the typical geometry of a French style garden, which reminds me of Le Potager du Roi3 (the king’s kitchen garden) in Versailles, France.

The 5,500 square-metre kitchen garden to the North-West of the castle.

The castle seen from the kitchen garden.

One of the double-sided information boards located around the kitchen garden on a tour called the Promenade des Lumières (Enlightenment walk). The tour enables visitors to discover the history of the castle and its 18th century protagonists, from Swiss banker Louis Guiguer to French philosopher Voltaire.

We learnt from the information boards that the castle was built from 1723 by a Paris-based banker of Swiss descent, Louis Guiguer (1675-1747), who owned a property in Marnes near Versailles. I found this of particular interest. It made me think of factors influencing the development of gardens which resemble each other despite being located in different countries. For instance, it reminded me of the ‘educated, affluent or aristocratic gentlemen’ who contributed to the creation of citrus fruit collections in various European princely residences of the 17th century, inspired by the Medici collection in Florence4. After our visit, I carried out library research to explore possible connections between Prangins’ kitchen garden and Le Potager du Roi, created half-a-century earlier.

I found articles about the history of Prangins and its owners on the ETH Library’s platform for digitised Swiss journals, e-periodica5. Looking at a map of Louis Guiger’s 93-hectare property in Marnes6 and an online map today, I figured out that his domain was located just six kilometres away from Le Potager du Roi. We also learnt from the information boards at Prangins that Louis Guiguer was an influential businessman with access to the French Royal Court. I researched this further to find out whether he visited Versailles on a regular basis. Unfortunately, I didn’t find conclusive evidence of this in the documents I analysed. I can only say that Louis Guiguer might have seen Le Potager du Roi in various instances. Did Versailles’ king kitchen garden give him the idea of a productive garden in Prangins?

Or, as an article by architect Christophe Amsler suggests, the creation of Prangin’s kitchen garden might have stemmed from a local Swiss tradition. Discussing the evolution of Prangins’ gardens throughout the 18th century, Amsler cites the ‘développement tout à fait remarquable du potager suisse’ (the quite remarkable development of the Swiss kitchen garden) in the 18th century, associating it with ‘une tendance vernaculaire… à restreindre chez nous le jardinage à sa composante ménagère’ (a tendency of our local tradition and associated language to restrict gardening to its (utilitarian) domestic component)7.

It looks like both influences played a part. Prangin’s kitchen garden, created in 1729, met utilitarian purposes. For instance, as mentioned to visitors on site, it fed the labourers who worked on the castle’s construction site. As for Versailles, I found the layout of Prangins so similar to Le Potager du Roi that they seem related. Louis Guiguer might have given instructions for his architect to look at the example of Versailles. To design Prangins, the architect might have then used documents such as the plan of Le Potager du Roi featured in the 1690 book of its creator Jean Baptiste de la Quintinie8, or similar landscape drawings of other French style kitchen gardens available at the time.

Prangins’ kitchen garden looks like a smaller version of the 30,000 square-metre central part of the Potager du Roi in Versailles, the Grand Carré.

Comparing the above picture to an aerial photograph of the Potager du Roi’s Grand Carré enables to realise how similar the two places are. There are four main cultivated areas (each of which is sub-divided in four in Le Potager du Roi), separated by a cross with a round pond in the middle. The garden is flat, sunken and surrounded with walls covered with espaliered fruit trees. Only the contre-espaliers9 are missing at Prangins, where lower bushes and plants seem to serve the same function of framing the beds.

The presence of a church behind the gardens, Prangins’ temple and the Saint-Louis cathedral in Versailles, both built mid-18th century, adds to the similarity between the two places.

Espaliered fruit trees grow against three of the four garden walls at Prangins.

A redcurrant bush on the beds’ borders.

The contre-espaliers fruit trees bordering the beds at Le Potager du Roi and the Saint-Louis cathedral. Photo 2 December 2017, Versailles, France.

The temple behind Prangins’ kitchen garden.

Prangins’ kitchen garden today: a Swiss National Museum site

My historical journey through the creation and development of Prangins’ kitchen garden was instructive. However, what I found most interesting was today’s garden and the conservation and educational purposes of the museum.

Prangins Castle has been owned by the Swiss National Museum10 since 1974. We read on an information board at the entrance of the garden that a ‘market garden and horticultural centre for 230 years’, the kitchen garden ‘was revived in 1997 and restored to its original baroque design’. Visitors can see and learn about one hundred plants of the 18th century, grown by two full-time gardeners who practice crop rotation between some two hundred available varieties. Visits to the garden are free of charge, including a map and an audio-guide which can be collected at the Museum entrance. Didactic support is available for teachers who come with their pupils11.

The garden visit includes the kitchen garden and the kitchen garden interpretation centre. As most places accessible to the public in Switzerland, they have been designed to a very high standard and are well maintained.

Explanations are provided in four languages on the information boards: French, German and Italian, three of the four national languages of Switzerland, and English. The kitchen garden is ‘a site dedicated to preserving historic varieties’. ‘Today, the garden has exchanged its initial, utilitarian role for a new one as a place of recreation, where historic varieties are exhibited and conserved for posterity’ (enlarge the picture to read more).

The interpretation centre hosts a permanent exhibition called ‘Discovering the garden: old varieties, current issues’. It enables to learn about 18th century plants and issues grouped under four themes: biodiversity, agronomy and economy, vegetal reproduction and plant classification, and Huguenots’ migration. The audio-guide provides further information to be listened to in the garden itself while looking at actual specimens of the plants.

Inside the interpretation centre. The sept-en-gueule pear, very small (‘it is only about 25mm in diameter’), is one of the four emblematic plants of the collection which serve as a banner to introduce the four themes. Visitors can see, read and listen about biodiversity and the sept-en-gueule pear in the room. The small map to the bottom right of the picture indicates where the actual tree can be found in the garden.

The sept-en-gueule is first left in this display of diverse pears in the garden interpretation centre.

Visitors can see ripe sept-en-gueule pears on this tree early July. ‘The crops grown there are not intended for sale but rather to be exhibited in situ for as long as possible’. The label in front of the tree indicates where to listen more about the pear on the audio-guide.

The printed map lists the plants displayed in the garden and visitors are guided towards them through a grid. This one is in French and Italian. The latin name of the plants is also provided. Photo 15 October 2019.

The season was not ideal to see much fruit. However, here are some young apricots… Photo 22 April 2019.

… and peaches, which, protected by the walls, survived the April frosts.

A productive red or black currant bush.

Other findings and questions

With regards to history, I was intrigued by Voltaire’s declaration that Prangins was a great castle but that the architect ‘a oublié d’y faire un jardin’ (forgot to create a garden). The French philosopher of the Enlightenment wrote this in his 24 March 1755 letter to Mr Thieriot12, after residing at Prangins for three months from December 1754. At this time of year, he didn’t see the kitchen garden at the peak of its productive season. However, why didn’t he mention its existence?

‘A garden… really?’ Voltaire wrote about Prangins (enlarge picture to read the English commentary).

I liked Prangins garden curator Bernard Messerli’s humorous comment about the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by French king Louis XIV in 1685, which entailed many Protestants to emigrate. In his ‘Côté Jardin’ collection of short texts, we read: ‘J’ai presque envie de remercier ce roi qui a eu la gentillesse de nous envoyer la crème de ses sujets’13 (I almost feel like saying thank you to this king who was kind enough to send us the crème de la crème of his subjects). He was referring to the Huguenots who brought the cardon argenté épineux de Plainpalais to Switzerland. This edible kind of thistle has since gained Protected Designation of Origin status14 and is one of the four emblematic plants presented in Prangins’ garden interpretation centre.

Bernard Messerli’s book on Prangins Castle kitchen garden, illustrated by Janine Joussin’s photographs. Photo 12 May 2019.

Beyond providing evidence of a side effect of religious intolerance, this case triggered my interest in the development of horticultural practices across countries. Did Prangins benefit from other influences throughout history and to what extent today’s activities of the Swiss National Museum cross borders?

My question spans museum curation, education and horticultural practices. It also extends to interdisciplinary collaboration. Does Prangins differ from other old fruit and vegetable conservation sites open to the public? Was the didactic support document provided to teachers by the Museum developed in collaboration with Education for Sustainable Development specialists, for instance from the éducation21 network15? Do the gardeners apply modern horticultural techniques for the cultivation of the 18th century varieties in the kitchen garden, for instance what fertilisers and pest control methods do they use? Are yields monitored, and are there any 18th century statistics they can be compared to?

It would be great to research this further. In the meantime, and as a conclusion to this post, I would like to mention another of Bernard Messerli’s chronicles, ‘Mystique et symbolique au jardin’16 (mystique and symbolism in the garden). His question at the end reminds us that beyond the mystical and the symbolic qualities which have inspired landscape designers and shaped our gardens for millennia, what makes a remarkable garden is the fine work of its gardeners. Prangins is more than a museum, it’s a place which perpetuates the tradition of the kitchen garden, made concrete through the productive work of those who take care of its soil and its plants every day.

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  1. https://www.chateaudeprangins.ch/en/about-us/history
  2. https://www.chateaudeprangins.ch/en/your-visit/garden
  3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardens-to-visit/inside-the-17th-century-versailles-vegetable-garden/
  4. Attlee, H (2015) The land where lemons grow, Penguin Books, p8.
    https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/180/180553/the-land-where-lemons-grow/9780241952573.html
  5. https://www.e-periodica.ch (in French)
  6. Michon, S (1994), Louis Guiguer et le château de Prangins, in Genava : revue d’histoire de l’art et d’archéologie N°42, p161 fig9.
    https://www.e-periodica.ch/cntmng?pid=gen-001:1994:42::440 (in French)
  7. Amsler, C (1986), Notes sur la forme des jardins du château de Prangins au XVIIIe siècle, in Revue suisse d’histoire et d’archéologie N°43, p239.
    https://www.e-periodica.ch/cntmng?pid=zak-003:1986:43::517 (in French)
  8. Le Potager du Roi – Landscape plan: http://www.sothebys.com/fr/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.4.html/2014/livres-et-manuscrits-pf1403
  9. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/did2222.0001.870/–contre-espalier?rgn=main;view=fulltext;q1=Pierre+Daubenton+le+Subdélégué
  10. https://www.nationalmuseum.ch/en
  11. https://www.chateaudeprangins.ch/chateaudeprangins/ecoles/le-jardin-devoile/supportdidactiquelejardindevoile.pdf (in French)
  12. 24 March 1755 full letter: http://www.monsieurdevoltaire.com/article-correspondance-annee-1755-partie-6-114204443.html (in French)
  13. Messerli, B, Jousson, J (2016) Côté Jardin, Editions de l’Aire, p21.
    http://www.editions-aire.ch/details.php?id=1920 (in French)
  14. https://www.aop-igp.ch/en/cardon-epineux-genevois-aop/
  15. https://www.education21.ch/fr (in French)
  16. Messerli op. cit., p18.

(online references: content as accessed on 26 October 2019)

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