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Jardin Majorelle, the secret garden, by Tristan Rutherford

Etihad Atlas Magazine, February 2017

PPRECISELY A CENTURY ago Jacques Majorelle’s life was changed forever. In 1917 the French painter travelled from the mists of northern France to the searing sun of southern Morocco to cure a heart condition. Marrakech dizzied him by night. Birds serenaded him the morning after. The greens of the palmeries, reds of the medina and snowy white peaks of the High Atlas gifted him a new palette. It was love at first sight.


In 1922 Majorelle put a ring on this affair of the heart. He purchased a palm grove just outside Marrakech’s ochre city walls, then built an artist’s studio amid the lush bougainvillea where doves cooed until dawn. Fresh water funnelled from the Atlas in underground qanat canals was routed into a waterway that gurgled through his hectare of walled garden. Toes could be cooled as canvases were painted to pay the property’s bills. The Jardin Majorelle was born.


Perhaps the isolation from European cultural norms affected Majorelle’s moods. Perhaps he tired of society and became insular instead. What’s true is that the Frenchman became a garden obsessive, writing to colleagues and institutions to source an eventual 300 plant species. Black bamboos from China, bananas from Tenerife. Coconuts from the Caribbean, carob trees from the Levant. Agave cactus from Texas, fragrant jasmine from the Far East. In this era before export controls and invasive species protection, weird and wonderful seeds were posted from botanical gardens across the globe.


Rare plants weren’t the only strain on Majorelle’s resources. As the nightingales sang and muezzins cried he mixed tubs of primary colours to create his perfect shade of blue. This niche hobby took time. By the late 1930s he had painted every pergola, pot, pool and fountain with ‘Majorelle Blue’, a deep cobalt creation burnished by brilliant indigo that accentuated the greens and reds of Marrakech. It’s still used by interior designers to this day. 

During the 1940s international conflict cast its sordid spell on carefree projects like Jardin Majorelle. The artist had already subdivided and sold off parts of the property. In 1947 the gardens were opened to Marrakech’s trickle of post-war tourists, but to little avail. As Majorelle recalled: “This garden is a momentous task, to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under its branches, after having given it all my love.” Without him it fell into sluggish disrepair. Sagging citrus dropped their fruit into the tiled swimming pool.


In 1966 Yves Saint Laurent flew from Paris to Marrakech on a Caravelle – the world’s first mass market jetliner – for a winter break. That year the French designer released Le Smoking tuxedo. This statement suit, modelled by Lauren Bacall and Bianca Jagger, would further propel the YSL name towards becoming a global commodity. Saint Laurent’s business partner, Pierre Bergé, flicked through a travel guide that mentioned Majorelle’s mysterious abandoned gardens and their cooling respite. Like the painter before them, Saint Laurent and Bergé fell head over heels in love. They would tour the gardens daily in the company of young Moroccan couples.


All changed in 1980. Marrakech had sprawled out of the medieval medina and around the site. A property developer was about to raze the gardens to make way for a hotel. The only way that Saint Laurent and Bergé could save the project was to purchase the place lock, stock and barrel. Both garden and the accompanying villa were to become theirs.


Marrakech and the Jardin Majorelle influenced Yves Saint Laurent with genie-like vigour. Collections became coloursplashed. Babouche, kaftans and capes spread from YSL haute couture into mainstream fashion. Influence seeped into fellow creatives Andy Warhol and John Paul Getty, who partied with Saint Laurent’s crowd in the Rose City.


Saint Laurent received no hassle when prowling the medina himself. No one in the old city read Vogue. Or if they had, they certainly didn’t recognise the chiseljawed Frenchman. Period photos show the designer watching the snake charmers in nearby Jemaa el-Fnaa square. He rocks flared double-denim like a male model from a 1980s biopic. “Fashions fade, style is eternal,” he once noted. Twice a year Saint Laurent would jet in from Paris, don a djellaba then start sketching at the Jardin Majorelle. Autumn/winter and spring/summer shoes would be created on location; the gardens became an alfresco design studio. There was no radio. Just 15 endemic bird species tweeting away.


In 2008 Yves Saint Laurent died peacefully at his home in Paris. His decision to have his ashes sprinkled in the Jardin Majorelle proved he adored the gardens as much as their original creator had. This year 700,000 global visitors will find fun and fantasy amid the fountains and lotus flowers. iPhones snap Spaniards, Turks and Chinese who pose on the catwalk-style bridge that Saint Laurent designed. The gardens’ former staff quarters are now a café serving excellent Essaouira Atlantic sardines. An outbuilding is a heavenly bookshop that stocks Moroccan contemporary design titles and belle époque history tomes.


The towering palms are taller than when Saint Laurent first visited 50 years ago; positively soaring compared to a century previously. Later in 2017 a new YSL fashion museum and cultural centre will open next door to further burnish the site’s cultural star. Majorelle’s font of creativity keeps bubbling still.


Read Tristan and Kathryn's travel stories from across the Middle East

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