July 2, 2015

Landscape of Dreams

To venture moonstruck across the frost-silvered lawns of the Parc de Wespelaar, near Brussels, was to enter a fantasy landscape by the painter Hubert Robert. Leonard Artois, the Louvain brewer who bought Wespelaar in 1796, may well have had such romantic moonlit promenades in mind when he asked Ghislain-Joseph Henri to design a fashionable jardin anglais for his new estate. By the year 1800, Henri's Temple of Flora and most of the other fanciful structures were in place, focal points for nocturnal, or diurnal, wanderings.

The contemporary visitor was tempted to conjure up phantom figures in elegant harmony with the setting. Consider a nineteenth-century guide to the garden: a Chinese pavilion, a wheel of fortune, swings, a Chinese bridge, a cascade, sculptures and grotto.

The pavilion and bridge, the wheel of fortune, and all the other architectural caprices made of perishable wood and plaster, vanished long ago, as did the original eighteenth-century manor house.

The chateau that preceded it, a flamboyant neo-Renaissance pile, was built in the 1880s. The face of the architect, Hendrik Beyaert, is on our Belgian hundred-franc bill.  The major vestige of Beyaert's extravaganza was the stone balustrade surrounding the island on which the chateau once stood. 

A minor vestige was the wrought-iron Art Nouveau balustrade, which he superimposed on the eighteenth-century Doric columns of the North Bridge. The bridge formed a gateway to the park as it existed in the mid-eighteenth century-it was formal then, and entirely surrounded by a pentagonal waterway.

The picturesque landscape was introduced by Henri, who wooded them with beech, elm, oak, linden and plane trees. 

Plenty of earth to shape the new garden was available after the artificial lake was dug, swallowing up one side of the pentagon. In the 1880s, the lake was enlarged, much of Henri's planting uprooted, and the Chinese bridge-undoubtedly in a state of decay-demolished, all to provide an even more grandiose vista, with a backward nod to the English landscape designs of William Kent and Capability Brown.

In Wespelaar's nineteenth-century heyday, visitors were subjected to a variety of fun-house surprises. There was, for example, the crossing of the Styx in Charon's boat. The voyage began in Henri's lakeside grotto.

Modern Wespelaar displayed a similar mingling of good humor and elegance, reflecting to some extent the attitudes of Leonard Artois and proprietors of other romantic gardens. Such gardens were an expression of the eighteenth-century preoccupation with man's place in nature.

Today the Aboretum Wespelaar injects its own special variety of energy and creativity into preserving a portion of Parc de Wespelaar ensuring that it will long abound with life, as well as with eighteenth-century beauty.