Between 1805 and 1827, sculptor François-Frédéric Lemot embarked upon the creation of an idealized landscape taking his inspiration from the vast landscaped and picturesque gardens characteristic of the 18th century.
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In the woods of La Garenne, the former hunting grounds of the lords of Clisson, on an estate spread over thirteen hectares, Lemot shaped his Italian idyll through a particular style of architecture and choice of vegetation. Imbued with the ambience of the lost paradise of antiquity, the Middle Ages and history, Lemot constructed an Italian rustic-style house, a neoclassical villa and ornamental follies.
François-Frédéric Lemot was born on 4 November 1771 in Lyon, the son of a carpenter. From an early age, he took drawing classes and demonstrated an interest in art. In 1785, he entered the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, where he studied under master sculptor, Dejoux. In 1790, he obtained the Grand Prix de Rome for sculpture, for his bas-relief: The Judgement of Salomon and travelled to Rome where he resided at the Académie de France. He then embarked upon a promising career as an official artist, working under different political regimes for over thirty years.
In early 1805, Lemot was invited to Clisson by his friends, the painter, Pierre-René Cacault, and his brother François, a diplomat and art collector. He discovered their museum and was impressed by the Clisson site which reminded him of his beloved Italy. On 26 June, he bought the wood at La Garenne, which at that time was planted with oak trees. This was the beginning of a vast landscaping and architectural project which he would carry out in addition to his work as a sculptor in the French capital.
On 5 May 1827, Lemot received the act signed by Charles X which granted his Clisson estate the status of barony. The news was a source of great joy and came just one day before his death in his Parisian apartment.
On the advice of his friend Pierre Cacault, François-Frédéric Lemot asked Joseph Gautret, a municipal civil servant in Clisson, to oversee the construction and landscaping work of his Garenne estate. The Clissonais surveyor proved to be a loyal ally to Lemot in his development of the estate. From 1806 to 1827, the two men corresponded with each other and today, these letters are a remarkable documentary source in terms of the history of the area. More than five hundred letters and diary entries help to piece together the history of the estate: they refer to the plantations within the grounds and the construction work, as well as the acquisition of farmland, which provided Lemot with a necessary source of income. Gautret’s friendship with the Cacault brothers and Lemot instilled in the Clisson local a love of rustic Italian architecture. In addition to his municipal role—Gautret worked as a justice for the peace for the township of Clisson—he also held a supervisory role, assisting new owners of estates that were once national properties.
The son of a carpentry contractor, Mathurin Crucy, born in Nantes, began his studies at the Royal Academy of Architecture in Paris in 1771. Winner of the Grand Prix for architecture in 1774, he sojourned at the Académie de France in Rome for four years, where he discovered and fell in love with the city’s historical monuments. Upon his return to Nantes, he was appointed city-architect and began work on the development of the Graslin quarter, promenades and the Île Gloriette, as well as the construction of several public buildings: covered markets, public baths, a theatre and stock market. He is credited with introducing the neoclassical style to Nantes’ urban landscape.
Crucy was chosen by Lemot to assist him in the creation of his Clissonnais estate. Like Lemot, Crucy was familiar with the Roman countryside and rural architecture. This served as a model for the Maison du Jardinier (Gardener's House), plans for which date back to 1808, although it is unclear whether the sculptor or the architect had the initial idea to base the design on this picturesque style of architecture. In 1821 however, relations between the two men deteriorated and an overworked Crucy retired from the project.
After a childhood spent in Paris, the sculptor’s son chose to settle in Clisson from 1841 onwards. Despite his involvement in politics, Barthélémy Lemot remained attached to the family estate at La Garenne Lemot. Indeed, he pursued his father’s plans to continue the project although he made several alterations to the plans already drawn up for the villa. He is responsible for the gazebo, the semi-circular Roman-style colonnade and the gallery (Galerie des Illustres) on the first floor of the villa where: ‘the faces of Lemot and his peers are forever engraved on sculpted medallions, as a posthumous tribute to the sculptor who had dreamed of turning the Garenne estate into lively artistic hub’.