The most famous Anglo-Chinese gardens of France

temple to god Pan


the Désert de Retz

in this page :

in French:
Photographs of the Désert
Montjoie, Joyenval and Retz
owners of the Désert


The Désert de Retz, created from 1774 to 1789 by Monsieur de Monville, was one of the most famous places in FRance at that time. In an altogether banal small valley, he mixed in garden art rare trees with some small buildings (called fabriques) to reach the absolute grace of that time. The important persons of the world went there; it is difficult to imagine today the fame of this garden and the feeling of perfection that it inspired.

map of the Désert and surrounding
aerial view in 1996


François Nicolas Henri Racine de Monville, born in 1733, was a model of a well educated 18th century man.
Born in a family of tax collectors, wealthy, beautiful and even an athlete, he played toothing-stone with Gluck and killed with an arc a flying pheasant during an upper class challenge. He was an excellent horseman, an envied dancer, and an inspired flute player. He was passionate about botany and horticulture, taking seriously his responsibility as Master of Royal Forestry Commission of Normandy. His townhouse, torn down in order to create Malesherbes boulevard, was very luxurious - it had even central heating!

The Desert was for him an entertainment in the countryside. In 1774 he bought 13 hectares (35 acres) with the village of Saint-Jacques de Roye (or de Retz) and its church, the whole in ruin. He made of it a place of luxurious delight. The temple of the god Pan was built first, followed by the Chinese house, which M. de Monville moved into in 1776. Except under constraint, Mr. de Monville would not leave his property again.

pyramid-shaped ice-house in 1986

Pyramid-shaped icehouse in 2000

The size of the property was gradually increased and reached 40 hectares (100 acres) in 1792. Rare trees were planted, a garden of grasses was created, along with small valleys and pond with "l'île du bonheur" (island of happiness), forming an exquisite landscape. A vegetable garden was created, with greenhouses supplementing its produce.

The plan of the gardens and the designs for the fabriques were the creation of François de Monville. In the actual construction of the buildings, he was assisted by a young architect, François Barbier. Mr. Barbier is believed (probably correctly) to have created the pyramid-shaped icehouse. He was sacked, and have had been replaced by a simple draughtsman.

By 1785, 17 fabriques were set up. The Chinese house and the destroyed column functioned as Mr. de Monville's homes. Along with the temple of the god Pan and the pyramid-shaped icehouse, they have always been the best-known features of this garden.

The whole property was planned with the greatest care, with a focus on creating harmony between buildings and the surrounding landscape. The garden was designed to be rambled through, and the landscaping around each fabrique was designed to screen out the rest of the garden. The visitor had thus the impression of successive revelations and space appeared wider than it was really. It is only from the destroyed column, after having entered it and climbed to the upper floors, that one could see a considerable part of the property.

The eastern part of the property contained the ornamental Anglo-Chinese garden, with its houses and the temples, rare trees and open-air theatre. The agricultural part of the property lay to the west and included the smallholding and the dairy, the more rustic thickets, the obelisk, the hermitage, and the tomb.

The Désert was visited by King Gustavus III of Sweden (who stayed six weeks in 1784), Marie-Antoinette, the countess Du Barry, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The Désert directly inspired Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway, who accompanied him. The American people, remembering this connection with their country, have shown an interest in this garden. Jackie Onassis-Kennedy and President Bill Clinton are among the Americans who have visited the place.

The Désert was also open to the general public, for the cost of a ticket.

The fall

Put in jail during the Terror (the bloodiest period of Révolution), M. de Monville escaped the guillotine only by the fall of Robespierre; he died in 1797, ruined by the new political system and spending for women.
Without to have sought information on this topic, I wouldn't be astonished that he bought his rescue day after day at ransom price. Houses set up in hospital with the complicity of the public indicters received imprisoned under pretext of health care. They delayed the fatal outcome as long as they could afford the enormous fee required.

With the Revolution Monville had to yield under the worst conditions all of his estates; the Desert went to Disney Ffytche, an English living in France, and then was seized. It would never recover its glory. The west part was converted to farming and the Anglo-Chinese garden remained unspoiled, unmoved during decades.
The Passy family acquired it in 1856 and kept it almost a century; one of its members replanted larches, maples, and sequoias. But the Desert went down little by little, for lack of money to maintain it, even if Colette made of it her "terrestrial Paradise" and if the surrealists appreciated it. It was sold in 1936, after an attempt at layer breeding to make it profitable.

Collapse was close. Although classified an historic building in 1941, it was not maintained by the new owner, the master of the castle of Joyenval, who saw above all in its purchase a land extension. The rare trees decayed and were not replaced, the fabriques collapsed. The Désert with the abandonment was ransacked.
In 1965, half of the fabriques were no more that empty clusters, the others were in ruin, the plantations were ghostly. Malraux took this example to plead the need for a law in favour of the cultural estates.

The Désert de Retz, along with the various buildings in the park, was classified an historic building by decree of April 9, 1941. It had been registered with the inventory by decree of August 2, 1939. The site is protected by decree of July 4, 1983.

Restoration of the site.

In 1973 the backup of the remaining fabriques was undertaken on requisition of the national Case of the historic buildings. In 1981 the Worms bank repurchased the site then reassigned it as the civil company of the Désert of Retz, which is committed restoring it. The agricultural zone, to the west, whose fabriques were early absolutely deleted, is now devoted to golf.

Meadows of half of the fabriques had completely disappeared. From several others, very little remained. Those which could be saved are gradually restored.

Remaining at least
in part
  (red numbers):

1 - destroyed column
2 - rock-grotto
(gate of the forest)
3 - temple of god Pan
4 - ruined Gothic church
5 - Chinese house
6 - dairy
14 - pyramid-shaped
16 - ancillary house
17 - open air theatre

18 - temple of the rest
19 - small almost ruined

plan du Désert avec ses fabriques

Completely disappeared
(blue numbers) :

7 - arranged smallholding
8 - hermitage
9 - orangery
10 - island of happiness  
(with the Tartar tent) (*)
11 - hot greenhouses
12 - thatched cottage
13 - tomb
15 - obelisk

(*) the present tartar tent
is new

1) some existing parasitic constructions are in black (with the top of the smallholding, beside the ancillary house)
2) I am not sure of the actual place of the temple of the rest (n° 18)
3) ponds were filled, their form has evolved/moved considerably.
4) I did not mentioned the remarkable trees

Several old remarkable trees from 250 to 450 years, former to the creation of the garden, also remain.

17 fabriques, 18, or more?

Generally a total of 17 fabriques is mentioned, because the map of 1785 draws up the list with this number (I took their classification from 1 to 17 in the order of that time). I have added the temple of the rest as number 18 and the delicious "small almost ruined altar" as number 19. Some authors incorrectly include the gate on the side of Chambourcy among the fabriques; it never had been a fabrique in the mind of Mr de Monville.

The "picturesque bridge" and the "lattice of arranged architecture" could have joined the list, changing to 21 their total number. Mr de Monville published their drawings like fabriques, but didn't include them in its plan (whereas they already existed in 1785).   The "Tartar tent" was called "tent with a dome made in the Siamese manner" and the "arranged smallholding" also was called "decorated farm". The open air theater was the "uncovered theatre under a cradle of large elms".
Some other projects were planned, but never executed: a birdcage, a rustic pavilion, a lodge, six tents and especially the "baths to be taken under a rock". These baths would have been opportune, as the Désert is little provided with rocailles.

Among the fabriques that had not completely disappeared, very little remains of some of them.
Of the Chinese house, only the stone base remained; its teak superstructure is nothing but a memory (some parts of its decorated wood are kept in collections). The site of the open air theater (where a tennis court had been created by the Passy family) is just a rectangle on the ground with a Chinese furnace in one corner; from the Temple of the Rest, just two melancholic columns remain...

In my opinion, the strongest architecture is that of the pyramid shaped ice-house. In its simplicity and its loneliness, it is overwhelming, more than the extravagant destroyed column. It is undoubtedly not a chance if the pyramid is (probably) the work of François Barbier.

Practical details

Désert de Retz
Alley Frédéric Passy

(I point out that the visits are suspended)

Map : IGN serial TOP25 at 1/25000 n° 2214 of Versailles - Forests of Marly and Saint-Germain - 58 FF

Some dedicated links

Bibliography and contacts

Acknowledgments to Kirk Johnson external link , contributor to Suite101, for his kind help to correct this English translation.

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Copyright of the author : Dominique Césari
Last update : June, 2000