Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, created by painter Jacques Majorelle in 1924. In 1980, Yves Saint-Laurent and partner Pierre Berge took over the workshop and the garden, which is now very popular with tourists to Marrakech.
Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, created by painter Jacques Majorelle in 1924. In 1980, Yves Saint-Laurent and partner Pierre Berge took over the workshop and the garden, which is now very popular with tourists to Marrakech.
Image: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Gardeners have a chance to link another birthday with Christmas. It is not the one in a manger. It is the 30th anniversary of something English, which began out west in Herefordshire. In 1987 David Wheeler started to publish a gardening journal which he called Hortus. The stock markets of the world promptly collapsed and although I enjoyed the first issue I did not expect the journal to last very long. Fifteen thousand pages later and, like those stock markets, it is still alive and well, handsomely typeset and printed by Wheeler's own Bryansground Press. Hortus makes an excellent year-long present for any keen gardener or garden watcher, one which friends keep in their potting sheds or greenhouses for breaks from sowing or pricking out. 

This winter's issue includes Wheeler's retrospective on articles printed and books reviewed in Hortus's pages since 1987. Increasingly, Hortus has looked outwards beyond Britain. The current 30th birthday issue also includes a fascinating article on the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh. The site is famous for its owner, the couturier Yves Saint Laurent, and so in 2003 I visited it in the noonday sun. I enjoyed the design and planting of cacti and drought-tolerant plants, but although a working Moroccan gardener was helpful I did not feel I had exhausted the story of its formation. One of Saint Laurent's circle, the great interior designer Christopher Gibbs, then filled in some of the gaps and told me to find the garden's main designer, the US landscape architect Madison Cox. I have now done so, partly thanks to Cox's article in Hortus. Since 2003 the Majorelle story has advanced admirably.

Designer Yves Saint Laurent reclining in his leafy Moroccan garden, strewn with rugs and pillows, wearing a blue caftan.
Designer Yves Saint Laurent reclining in his leafy Moroccan garden, strewn with rugs and pillows, wearing a blue caftan.

"Saint Laurent was not a gardener in any sense of the word," Cox recalls for me, "but he had a very acute eye and appreciated gardens enormously." In 1979 he was still living on and off at the nearby Villa of the Snake, where Cox recalls hazy afternoons, reclining on kilim-style cushions beneath the shade of a big pistachio tree. A long reflecting pool was planted with waterlilies and papyrus and ringed with terra cotta pots, mostly containing red geraniums. One day, Cox, Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé went over to look at the nearby Villa Majorelle, for sale as the former home of the émigré French painter Jacques Majorelle who had died there in 1962. It was "in a state of romantic abandonment" except for "a few amorous local couples hidden within the tangled mass of vegetation". The bamboo's trunks were all dead and the cacti had grown like giants. Bergé and Saint Laurent soon bought it and transformed the design and planting. Saint Laurent saw the scope for painting the many flowerpots in bright shades of yellow, sky blue and the famous cobalt blue tinged with violet, which has become linked to his name. Majorelle had pioneered this colour, le bleu Majorelle, which he had observed during his travels through Morocco. Within Morocco, his paintings are now keenly sought at local auctions.

The former garden had been a respite from Saint Laurent's work in Paris and likewise the Majorelle garden soon became the scene of memorable parties. In it, Majorelle had kept geese in one of the ponds in order to assure that necessary life-support for aesthetic prewar Frenchmen, foie gras. Cox recalls a rather different contribution by the garden's pond life. Saint Laurent once hosted a big dinner in the garden, lit with hundreds of candle lights in metal containers, during which an orchestra was hired to play for the reclining guests, but the frogs in the garden's pools maintained such a chorus of Aristophanic croaking that the music had to swell impossibly in order to drown them out. In later life the garden indeed became an "asylum", Cox confirms, for Saint Laurent, now suffering from depression, in which "he could live in a world within a world". Even in his brightest interludes he could never have imagined at first that part of his frog-haunted garden would become a global magnet.

Majorelle Garden, pond with waterlilies.
Majorelle Garden, pond with waterlilies.
Image: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

In Tangier, Cox designed another garden for the great couturier, the Villa Mabrouka, which has been frequently on the market since. Back at Majorelle, Cox was eventually invited to change the garden's design. He removed the green lawn, despite Saint Laurent's reluctance, and introduced handsomely pebbled paths and banished the last of the red geraniums in favour of drought- tolerant cacti and local flora. Between 650000 and 850000 people now visit the public part of the garden each year. The ground plan and planting which they admire were approved by Saint Laurent but are mainly the work of Cox, now director of the charitable Fondation Jardin Majorelle.

Since 2007, the garden and its foundation have branched into wide-ranging local charitable work, from Aids clinics to youth orchestras and much else. After arranging finance of €14m, the foundation will open a new Saint Laurent museum near the present garden in October 2017. When Saint Laurent's partner Pierre Bergé dies, the rest of the site, including the seldom open Villa Oasis, will also be open to the public. I doubt if an afternoon's purchase of a near ruin has ever developed into such a widely visited and broadly active enterprise. Saint Laurent himself died in 2008.

Majorelle Garden, pavilion archway.
Majorelle Garden, pavilion archway.
Image: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Thirty years ago, Hortus began its quarterly life without any public subsidy or support. Through its pages I look forward to many more such contacts and illuminations, while the Fondation Jardin Majorelle continues to draw paying visitors from a world ever keen to see the settings of great stylists, people blessed with an unusual eye.


DETAILS:

A subscription to the four quarterly issues of Hortus is £53 (approximately R910), and includes postage to South Africa.


This article was originally published by the Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

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