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RHS Chelsea: Kent grower to create historic display for family who supplied Monet with iris at Giverny

By Lesley Bellew

The sense of stepping into a painting by Monet is about to add a horticultural twist to the growing trend for ‘immersive’ art.

For, while waterlilies feature in many of the artist’s best-known works, the iris was also a favourite in the gardens he immortalised on canvas.

Now Kent iris grower Sue Marshall has been chosen to create a historically significant display at this month’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, using irises supplied to Monet’s Giverny estate by three generations of one family.

Marden-based Sue, owner of Iris of Sissinghurst, has worked with the French iris-growing Cayeux family for many years but says creating this masterpiece of a garden will be her biggest challenge.

Sue Marshall (1905200)
Sue Marshall (1905200)

Richard Cayeux, 59, whose nursery is near Sancerre, in the Loire, said: “With Sue being such a renowned expert in the UK it makes sense for us to work together at Chelsea.”

The stand will be inside the RHS Chelsea Pavilion and Richard and Sue are hoping the Cayeux iris can win a Gold medal for a fourth consecutive year.

She said: “We are aiming to make the stand look like an echo of Giverny – perhaps even a Japanese bridge if we can build it in time!”

Sue says the links between the family, who have been growing iris for four generations, and Monet make an “amazing” story.

Richard Cayeux
Richard Cayeux

In 1924, Victor Cayeux supplied Monet with iris, but after the Second World War the Giverny estate fell into disrepair, and was only reopened to the public, after restoration, in the 1980s.

The then head of the family business, Rene Cayeux, was invited to supply 30 varieties of iris and, last year, the present owner Richard supplied 2,000 rhizomes to Giverny.

Sue said: “The family has all of the records and invoices so we can exhibit the old varieties and some that have been developed from the original rhizomes.”

Iris light up the gardens at Giverny
Iris light up the gardens at Giverny

Richard said: “We are very excited about this display. Last year, the head gardener at Giverny asked me to replace the varieties my father had supplied. I had a copy of the list – some varieties had changed, but overall, the 2,000 rhizomes were close to the originals.

“I felt very emotional and that is why I decided that for RHS Chelsea 2018 there should be a Giverny corner to celebrate the irises supplied by my great-grandfather, my father and myself.

“I have the 1924 invoice and two letters from my great, great grandfather Ferdinand to Monet. The species are listed: Ma Mie, PeauRouge, Degaze, White Queen and Parisienne. Sue will be including some of them in our display as well as Art Deco, Loyalist, Planeur, Got Milk Noctambule and Delicieux Caramel. They will make a wonderful sight.

The Cayeux nurseries were originally in the village of Bouttenchocourt, in Picardy, not far from Giverny, pictured
The Cayeux nurseries were originally in the village of Bouttenchocourt, in Picardy, not far from Giverny, pictured

“PeauRouge was introduced in 1922 and, prior to being supplied to Monet, it had only been sold to the USA. It was extremely rare and very expensive.”

The Cayeux nurseries were originally in north-west France in the village of Bouttenchocourt, in Picardy, not far from Giverny.

Ferdinand, a plantsman in the late 1800s to early 1900s, was interested in families of plants, including vegetables, and some of the varieties he created are still for sale today, including the bean Triomphe de Farcy.

His son, Rene, continued to develop the nursery and, in the 1950s, Richard’s father Jean was allowed to branch out from the family company and was allowed to take the iris collection, peonies and delphiniums.

Monet’s Giverny estate
Monet’s Giverny estate

Richard said: “He was a good businessman, too, as he knew this part of France had good transport links and the Post Office was big enough for shipping out lots of boxes.

“The nursery, at first, was a field of less than an acre, but it has grown to 55 acres. My father had learned everything about iris from his grandfather Rene, who saw their genetic potential.

“When my father arrived the land was not perfect and he had to do lots of work to improve the drainage. The area is not frost-free and in winter temperatures can drop to -10 to -12C, but this not a problem for iris. During 1985-87 we saw temperatures of -20 to -22C, but iris can cope with -25.”

Jean Cayeux (1905198)
Jean Cayeux (1905198)

Many nurseries did not survive the global recession, but sales at Cayeux have started to grow again – with no change, yet, since the Brexit referendum. Richard said: “We are exporting more to Russia, although after France our main buyers are in Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain and Belgium.

“We have about 650 varieties and send out hundreds of orders in July and August alone. Iris are fashionable again!”

Richard gives much of the credit for the beauty of the Cayeux family's 'lovely garden to his wife, Marie Alix, who also takes responsibility for PR, and runs classes with him, and it looks as if the family legacy is in safe hands.

The youngest of Richard’s three daughters, Sixtine, 25, has just been to Oregon in the USA for an internship with the Schreiner family, the world’s largest iris growers – so could be ready to lead the Cayeux family business into a fifth generation.

CHELSEA DETAILS

RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from Tuesday, May 22, to Saturday, May 26.

Visit cayeuxiris.com, irisofsissinghurst.com and rhs.org.uk

RICHARD'S TOP TIPS FOR GROWING IRIS

  • Plant during summer from the beginning of July to the end of September
  • Plant in full sun
  • Be sure the rhizomes are in very well-drained soil
  • Do not plant too deep

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