Ladies of the garden

The origin of a garden is often invisible.

Readers may skip bylines. Gallery and museum visitors might admire or criticise a piece of art without noticing the name of the person who created it. Concert-goers might not read the programme and learn the name of the composer, and patrons of dance may not bother to learn who choreographed the ballet they just enjoyed. Yet the creators of these works are easy enough to find should you choose to look for them.

The garden, on the other hand, seems almost divine in its origin, an object sprung up for our enjoyment, sui generis. Visit any botanical garden in the world and it’s unlikely you’ll know who planned and planted the riots of flowers and rows of trees bringing you so much pleasure. In fact, it probably wouldn’t even to occur to you to think about the garden as an authored work of art.

It wasn’t always this way, though. There was a time, and it wasn’t so long ago, when the names of the people who designed these living works of art were as well known as the scions of industry and the socialites who hired them. Exploring that era and its luminaries was the proposition of “Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them,” an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx, New York. The show, which opened in mid-May and ran until September 17, was a tribute to the work of early 20th-century American landscape designers and the photographers who documented their gardens for posterity.

Groundbreakers was unique among botanical garden programming in that it focused not only on a collection of flowers, plants, and trees that visitors can wander past and murmur, “oh, how lovely”. Beyond the sensory pleasures imparted by Groundbreakers, of which there are many, the exhibition introduced visitors to six women who played significant roles in establishing the aesthetic of the American garden. Three of those women — Marian Coffin, Beatrix Farrand and Ellen Shipman - were landscape designers; the other three — Mattie Edwards Hewitt, Frances Benjamin Johnston and Jessie Tarbox Beals - were landscape photographers. Beginning their careers at the end of the 19th century and continuing them well into the first half of the 20th, these women were the forerunners, the “groundbreakers” among a group of peers who were forging careers for themselves in two fields that, according to Cynthia Zaitzevsky, author of the book, Long Island Landscapes and the Women Who Designed Them, had been dominated — as most professions were at the time — by men.

“I had to make my [own] living”, said Mattie Edwards Hewitt when asked why she became a photographer. Divorced from her husband, who was a photojournalist, Hewitt was able to do just that. She was in high demand among the wealthy, who commissioned her to shoot house interiors and gardens. If having a portrait painted of oneself or one’s family or home was once a status symbol and a reflection of an individual’s wealth, the nouveau riche of the early 20th century affirmed they were well to do by hiring photographers to produce pictures of their homes and gardens. So much the better if those photographers also had a publication history, their work appearing in magazines such as Town & Country and House & Garden.

Benefactors and stewards*

The sudden interest in showpiece gardens was new to the US, but its emergence was no coincidence. As the titans of industry built and profited from factories and the infrastructure that sustained them, including railways, they began to seek respite and refreshment in nature, typically in the form of lavish gardens planted on the spacious grounds of their estates. They also began to see themselves as benefactors and stewards who were responsible for establishing a culture of beauty and refinement that could be considered on a par with Europe. Gardens, both public and private, were at the centre of the beautification movement spearheaded by industrial leaders such as the duPonts, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, as well as their wives, who were often responsible for laying out a vision for the gardens and overseeing the design and planting of them.

Such was the case with Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who worked directly with landscape designer Beatrix Farrand to create an Asian-inspired garden at the Rockefellers’ coastal Maine estate, The Eyrie. The garden was an ambitious project, remembered by Abby’s son David as the “greatest expression” of his mother’s “deep appreciation for Asian art”. Rockefeller and her husband, along with one of their daughters, Babs, took a grand, three-month tour of Asia in 1921, visiting Japan, China and Korea. Feted by the continent’s most prominent political, social and cultural figures, the Rockefellers were introduced to Asia’s finest artistic traditions. When they returned to the US, they were accompanied by trunks of porcelain, robes and other textiles, furniture, prints and statuary acquired on their journey. The statuary, in particular, inspired the garden designed by Farrand, which also incorporated yellow wall tiles produced by the same factory that had for centuries been making tiles for the Forbidden City.

Farrand started designing the garden in 1926 and continued working on it, along with her numerous other commissions, for nearly a decade. She developed the initial planting list with Rockefeller’s input and their ongoing collaboration appeared to be a close one. In the fall of 1926, Aldrich Rockefeller wrote to her sister: “I am having great fun with the new garden. Mrs Farrand is helping me; fortunately, she likes Chinese sculpture.”

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden at The Eyrie was not solely for the enjoyment of the Rockefellers; it was opened to visitors in 1930, who came in even greater numbers after the Garden Club of America named it a garden worth visiting during the proceedings of its national convention in 1934. The garden was evoked in the Groundbreakers exhibition in the display “Mrs Rockefeller’s Garden” that was planted in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. In addition to creating borders consistent with those Farrand planted (and which have been changed with each season of the exhibition), “Mrs Rockefeller’s Garden” featured a wall and arches that recreated Moon Gate, a circular doorway that opened to a Buddha statue in the original garden at The Eyrie.

Persistence, pluck and technical skill

Farrand’s gardens weren’t limited to Maine; she, like her peers, worked throughout the north-east. It was there where the industrialists lived and retreated to summer homes; as the patrons of both the landscape designers and the photographers who captured images of private and public gardens, the majority of paying work was concentrated in this region. Though women’s professional opportunities were still quite limited, the possibilities for success in landscape design and photography were promising in the north-east. Fully half of the gardens designed for and planted at private estates on Long Island between 1890 and 1940 were conceptualised by professional landscape designers who happened to be women, wrote Zaitzevsky in her book. In addition to Marian Coffin and Ellen Shipman, the designers featured in the Groundbreakers show alongside Beatrix Farrand, there were nearly two dozen others, including Ruth Dean, Annette Hoyt Flanders and Martha Hutcheson. Their gardens are significant, wrote Zaitsevsky, because women of that era “were rarely offered even small-scale public work”. In addition to their work on the grand estates of Long Island, these landscape designers tended to commute among clients all along the north-east corridor, from Boston to New Jersey.

While it’s true that many of these women were born into relative privilege - several had even earned university degrees, including Coffin, who studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology - their privilege didn’t ensure a primrose path to success. Persistence, pluck, and technical skill were all required, as was the willingness to buck convention with respect to traditional gender roles, both in society and within their own families. A certain degree of business acumen was required, too, and a close look at the biographies and records of these women proves they had plenty. Coffin is a particularly representative example; her insistence that clients pay her the same fees as her male colleagues were earning proves she was no shrinking violet. Coffin provided prospective clients with a “Method of Practice” document, in which she outlined her responsibilities and those of her clients. She would not, for instance, pay a nursery for plants, nor assume financial responsibility if the plants failed to grow.

“Money, manure, and maintenance” were the components of Coffin’s formula for a successful garden and career, wrote Nancy Fleming in her biography of Coffin. Coffin sent a “Schedule of Professional Charges” even before booking initial consultations, which were not complimentary; they started at $100. Her rates ranged from $250-500 for preliminary plans. Planting plans and lists ranged from $100 to $500 and “personal supervision” would run a client $50 per day, plus $25-35 per diem if Coffin required an assistant. “All travelling expenses… long distance telephone calls, and telegrams are charged to the client” the schedule concluded. Before starting work, she required a signed contract confirming her commission.

Coffin also supplemented her respectable salary by parlaying her skills into multiple income streams, as did many of her peers. Writing magazine articles and books about landscape design, giving lectures and teaching photography were just a few ways the groundbreaking women solidified their reputations and ensured their own financial independence. Most of the women were able to buffer themselves from the hardships of the war years and the Great Depression as a result of their hard work and their carefully crafted business models.

Botanical legacies

By the mid-20th century, most of the groundbreakers had died. Their botanical legacies lived on at places like Dumbarton Oaks, Longue Vue, and Winterthur, though as generations passed, fewer visitors to these gardens knew the names of the women who designed, photographed and brought them to prominence. And if they did know these women’s names, they likely knew little, if anything, about their significance to gardening history and, indeed, to women’s history.

The Groundbreakers exhibition, then, was important because its educative mission was as central to the show as the pretty flowers were. “Our goal is to make gardening, horticulture and plants exciting to as many people as possible”, says Karen Daubmann, executive vice-president of exhibitions and visitor engagement at the New York Botanical Garden. “One of the ways we do that is by treating the garden as if it’s a museum, a living museum.”

The experience of walking through Groundbreakers, as with all of the Garden’s marquee shows, was enhanced by a rich range of multimedia materials. An iPhone app visitors could download for free provided literal snapshots of the original gardens, creating a type of overlay experience that allowed comparison with the Garden’s interpretations of the designers’ creations. Carefully selected music was piped into the Conservatory, relevant poems were posted in English and Spanish, and a whole programme of events, from talks and lectures to concerts, poetry walks and photography workshops.

Groundbreakers is one example of how an exhibition of flowers offers multiple points of entry into a subject or idea that is related to horticulture but which, she explains, is ultimately much bigger than a collection and display of plants. Next year, the Garden will be unveiling another, that may be still more ambitious than Groundbreakers. Frida Kahlo’s Garden, slated to open on May 16 and run until November 1, 2015, is likely to appeal to a large and diverse group of people, including, Daubmann hopes, many who have never visited the Garden before. The floral displays will feature recreations of the Mexican painter’s studio and her garden, as well as explore the roles of botanicals in Kahlo’s art. “It will be the first solo Frida show in New York in 25 years”, Daubmann says excitedly, “and so far, we’ve confirmed 14 of her works that will be on exhibit here.”

Unlike most Frida exhibits, which focus on her illnesses or the artist’s turbulent relationship with her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo’s Garden will invite visitors to meet Frida anew, through her intense patriotism and her love, above all, of Mexican flora. Expect a Mexican food market, music performances and an epic Day of the Dead celebration.

Daubmann represents the new generation of groundbreakers, professionals who are reimagining what the experience of visiting a garden can be and what longer-term impact it can have. No longer the exclusive domain for men and women of means, the garden, says Daubmann should be a place that is accessible to anyone who shows an interest in it, and every day she strives to make sure her garden - the New York Botanical Garden - is.

Julie Schwietert Collazo

How this article was made

  • 886 points
  • 23 backers
  • 4 drafts
  • 1 comment
Creative Commons License

Also in this issue