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Sceaux

Here is formal landscape really paying its way: declaiming, punching, stretching the view in a way that nature could not do unaided. The odd thing at Sceaux is that true and false formality exist side by side, or rather at ninety degrees to one another. The main approach from N20 leads to a chateau of 1856 which replaced Colbert’s original building, demolished after the Revolution. For this, and for the gardens immediately beyond, there is little to be said: so much effort, so little effect. Yet to the south, fifty feet below, the true nature of formal landscape deploys itself to the orders of Le Notre: a canal a kilometre long, bordered by a double line of Lombardy poplars. Still water and straight trees in parade-ground symmetry; the twice-repeated perspective, above and below the water-line, hypnotizes the viewer into that same state of timelessness or rather time-liquefaction produced by completely different means in the Bois de Vincennes.

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Half-way down, there is a cross-axis. One view leads across dahlia-gardens to the Pavilion de Hanovre, a vivid, unacademic garden ornament designed by Chevotet in 1760 and transplanted from the boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The other arm is a water axis: poplars are exchanged for planes, and a canal leads to an octagonal basin. Here, where the tension should mount, it is relaxed – a ‘stand-easy’ when you expect ‘’shun’. A water cascade leads back to the chateau (the side facade, and that obscured by trees) and in the bassin there is a central jet which reaches forty feet. These when they are working may provide the necessary stiffening, but I doubt it.

In all this the chateau is snubbed, as though the gardens had finally taken over, as they almost do at Versailles. The only buildings that would be appropriate are water pavilions on islands: unapproachable, mocking, twinned by reflection.

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Le Vrai Arbre de Robinson

Robinson is south-west of Paris, near Sceaux, hilly and quiet and idiosyncratic. Le Vrai Arbre is one among many guinguettes (in the dictionary, ‘suburban public house, tea-garden’ – we need an English word for it): places which originally offered drink, dancing and an illusion of countryside. The countryside has gone away five miles or more: the establishments remain, islanded and evocative. Le Vrai Arbre is a large chestnut tree, into which three wooden pavilions have been fixed.16 Around it is a grove of chestnut trees, Victorian cafes and circumstantial decor, a public park turned private. I saw it on a misty, melancholy day at the end of October when there was nobody there, the cafes were empty, the lovely chestnut leaves were within a few days of falling and the tristesse was intolerable. What happens in June? Are all the visitors curious Englishmen, or does the spirit of Renoir live again?

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(Le Vrai Arbre is in the rue de Malabry, a few yards south of its junction with D60, which runs from le Plessis-Robinson to Sceaux.)

Meudon: Musee de l’Air

A dotty hangar full of fancies in the middle of a military camp between Paris and Versailles. You hand in your passport at the gate, look neither to right nor to left, and end up in a fancy-land of all the ways that men have thought up to stay aloft. It seems as though the world’s oddest aeroplanes have all been collected here, from the crazy contraptions of the 1900s to the Leduc research aircraft of 1946 which has an uncanny resemblance to the Concorde. Dominating everything is the monstrous fuselage of the Farman Goliath, well-named, which looks as though it were designed in an odd half-hour by S. S. Teulon. As a pilot my overwhelming reaction to three quarters of the machines in this museum is simple amazement that they ever got airborne.

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