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BOOKS - The Gardens of Versailles By Pierre-Andre Lablaude Photographs by Jacques de Givry. Scala, 2005. £19.95

Exhausted by the enormous chateau at Versailles, too many visitors have stumbled into the gardens to be impressed by their scale but hardly charmed.

Pierre-André Lablaude, however, the man charged with their restoration after the devastating storms of 1990, is fascinated by their history.

He traces it from Louis XIII's hunting lodge to the vaunting ambition of Louis XIV.

The Sun King wanted to subdue the whole landscape with endless allées, to conquer nature with massive irrigation projects, to tame it in topiary, and to outwit geography and the seasons with hothouse plants and fruit. But his designers, Le Nôtre and others, also created the charming and long-moribund 'bosquets', Baroque external rooms carved out from a mass of trees.

Although Louis XV made some charming additions, largely at the Petit Trianon, costs were already hard to meet. And what looked at first like a charming loosening of structure was the start of a loss of control.

After centuries of decline and neglect, and with the latest replanting cycle of trees long overdue, Lablaude produces his manifesto for restoration, made more poignant by the fact that scarcely a tree still stands from Louis XIV's time.

'Going inside the iron railings of the gardens must remain, or once more become, a step through the looking glass, a passage into a different universe, ' he writes.

The prose may be purple, but the illustrations are superb, and Lablaude certainly prompts a revisit.

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