Gilbert Vahé: “I only intended to stay in Giverny for four years!”

After dedicating 42 years to the impressionist’s Giverny backdrop, former head gardener Gilbert Vahé, who oversaw the estate’s restoration, will take his final bow on 1 May 2018. This is the perfect chance to reminisce with him!

When you were younger, you were in charge of flower production in the King’s vegetable garden at Versailles. Was that, in a way, where your Giverny story started?

Indeed, because that is where I met Gérald Van der Kemp! At the time, I didn’t think much of him. In 1968, when I was at the Versailles school of horticulture, I threw cobblestones at the riot police! I was a red and opposed the bourgeoisie or ‘gentry’ that I believed Gérald Van der Kemp embodied…

How did he recruit you for Giverny?

I and two other students founded a company specialising in arranging patios and designing gardens. When I decided to leave the company, I travelled around France with my fiancée to find work. I even asked the school of horticulture’s director if he had a job available. By chance, Gérald Van der Kemp was looking for a head gardener and contacted the director soon after. So the director suggested we meet! At first, the job didn’t interest me. The site was in the middle of nowhere and completely unknown! So I went to the meeting out of politeness…

And how did the meeting go?

I completely changed my opinion of Gérald Van der Kemp! He welcomed me into his rooms wearing a dressing gown! I had pictured him wearing a carnation in his buttonhole… We chatted for over three hours. I realised he was an amazing chameleon, able to adapt to whoever he was speaking with.

Did you still say you would decide later?

Yes, I did ask for time to think it over. But I was less negative than at the start. In the end, it was my wife who determined the outcome. I wanted to accept a job in Strasbourg, but she warned me, “If you go there, you are going alone!” She preferred Giverny. So I accepted because I knew I would learn a lot. But I believed I would leave after four or five years. And I kept looking for another job during the years of restoration! Around 1977, Marcel Lecoufle, a fantastic botanist I worked with when I was a kid, spoke with me about a possible job in Iran. The Shah was looking for someone to manage all the gardens on his properties. I was interested. But my wife, once again, vetoed the move! So I turned it down. That was a good thing as, in early 1979, the Shah was overthrown! It must have been fate…

What state was the Giverny property in when you first set foot in it?

When I arrived, a company based in Giverny called Frange had already started the restoration work. They had cleared the Clos Normand, marked out the paths and started planting. But work hadn’t yet started on the water garden side. The banks had collapsed. It was a wilderness!

Personal stories, letters, photos and other period documents guided the restoration work. Did instinct also play a part?

Of course! To rebuild the garden as it was at the end of Monet’s life, Gérald Van der Kemp drew on key personal accounts including that of André Devillers, former assistant to Georges Truffaut, who corrected our work. I also met Mr Legall, the gardener who worked for Claude Monet in 1912/1913. I recorded him on tape! He told us about many things including the existence of a paulownia in the hen house corner. But in addition to these personal accounts, you needed understanding. One example is the central path as it was designed by Monet. I didn’t understand the difference in style between the spring plantings which resembled spots of colour and the summer and autumn ones which had a more monochrome style. So I looked back through the archives and correspondence, and found that Monet had visited Bordighera and the Valley Of Sasso soon after moving to Giverny. And I finally understood!

What kind of duo did you form with Gérald Van der Kemp?

I had a horticultural and technical education while he was self-taught. He was a professional, loved flowers and was a gardener himself. So we spoke the same language! We had a dialogue and understood each other. We talked a lot because, with our work, there was always an element of doubt. He was also a dreamer. He wanted a carnation of a certain colour in his buttonhole every day. It took me three years to find it! It was a good thing when Mr Hugues Gall became the new Foundation Manager in March 2008, as he complemented Gérald Van der Kemp’s work. Mr Gall provided what we lacked. Namely, management. While Gérald Van der Kemp focused on the garden, Hugues Gall worked on the house. Also, Gérald Van der Kemp was a bit like Monet. If he could have kept the garden to himself, he would have! Mr Gall provided a solution by opening it up to the public.

Tell us about the first day that Fondation Monet opened to the public in June 1980…

I remember several official opening days, including one with Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing present. Yves Mourousi’s team also came for TF1’s news programme. On the public opening day, we didn’t expect so many people! The site wasn’t actually designed to receive so many visitors. We had to pour concrete and widen paths. We were expecting around 7,000 visitors in the first year. But in the end it was 83,000!

What is your worst memory as Head Gardener?

Winter 1985. It was horrible. The temperature got down to around -20°C! All the rose bushes froze. And we couldn’t buy more plants because it was the same for the growers! And the year after, it was frost. All the trees broke and we had two or three weeks without electricity.

Famous people have walked the summer garden’s paths. Who made the biggest impression on you?

I was lucky enough to meet Aragon, who had come to scout for one of his reports. He explained that instead of the underground tunnel, there used to be a little door. That’s how he entered Claude Monet’s home! Of course, we talked about politics. I was a ‘68 protester so that was perfect! I also remember a great photographer, Jacques Henri Lartigue, who was also an artist.

You paint too! Will you be devoting your free time to this passion?

In my youth, I painted. It cleared my head. I was hopeless but I painted! When I arrived in Giverny, I had to stop. When I retired in June 2011, I wanted to try painting again. I contacted an artist and took three lessons during which I discovered much about watercolours. It was great. But then he moved to Brittany! Later, I went to the Atelier du Mardi in Vernon. But then Mr Gall asked me to come back to the Fondation (after James Priest left in early 2017)! So I stopped those lessons too. Who knows what will happen if I start painting again!

What do you think of your successor, Jean-Marie Avisard?

He’s a good choice. He works well in a team. He sees things, analyses, thinks things through and can question himself. And with his deputy, Rémi Lecoutre who is an excellent botanist, they make a great team!

Is the 2018 version of the garden the same as the 1980 one?

The world of plants has evolved and fashions have changed. But plant authenticity is not really what counts. It is how plants are arranged in the garden. The key idea is to recreate the emotions Monet wanted to evoke…