Versailles in 1739

By Thomas Gray


What a huge heap of littleness! It is composed, as it were, of three courts, all open to the eye at once, and gradually diminishing till you come to the royal apartments, which on this side present but half a dozen windows and a balcony. This last is all that can be called a front, for the rest is only great wings. The hue of all this mass is black, dirty red, and yellow; the first proceeding from stone changed by age; the second, from a mixture of brick; and the last, from a profusion of tarnished gilding. You can not see a more disagreeable tout ensemble; and, to finish the matter, it is all stuck over in many places with small busts of a tawny hue between every two windows.

We pass through this to go into the garden, and here the case is indeed altered; nothing can be vaster and more magnificent than the back front; before it a very spacious terrace spreads itself, adorned with two large basons; these are bordered and lined (as most of the others) with white marble, with handsome statues of bronze reclined on their edges. From hence you descend a huge flight of steps into a semi-circle formed by woods, that are cut all around into niches, which are filled with beautiful copies of all the famous antique statues in white marble. Just in the midst is the bason of Latona; she and her children are standing on the top of a rock in the middle, on the sides of which are the peasants, some half, some totally changed into frogs, all which throw out water at her in great plenty.

From this place runs on the great alley, which brings you into a complete round, where is the bason of Apollo, the biggest in the gardens. He is rising in his car out of the water, surrounded by nymphs and tritons, all in bronze, and finely executed, and these, as they play, raise a perfect storm about him; beyond this is the great canal, a prodigious long piece of water, that terminates the whole. All this you have at one coup d'oeil in entering the garden, which is truly great.

I can not say as much of the general taste of the place: everything you behold savors too much of art; all is forced, all is constrained about you; statues and vases sowed everywhere without distinction; sugar loaves and minced pies of yew; scrawl work of box, and little squirting jets- d'eau, besides a great sameness in the walks, can not help striking one at first sight, not to mention the silliest of labyrinths, and all Aesop's fables in water; since these were designed "in usum Delphini" only.

Here, then, we walk by moonlight, and hear the ladies and the nightingales sing. Next morning, being Whitsunday, make ready to go to the installation of nine Knights du Saint Esprit. Cambis is one: high mass celebrated with music, great crowd, much incense, King, Queen, Dauphin, Mesdames, Cardinals, and Court: Knights arrayed by his Majesty; reverences before the altar, not bows, but curtsies; stiff hams; much tittering among the ladies; trumpets, kettledrums, and fifes.

[17] From a letter to his friend West.