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Sunshine and Shadow

It seems appropriate to focus on sundials in these waning days of Summer. I know, I know–there are technically several more weeks–but I am a college professor, so for me Fall definitely begins on Tuesday. There is just no question; it’s the least transitional of the seasons. Sundials have a long history and are aesthetically pleasing, but the main reason I like them is for their representation of another transition:  from the technological and practical to the simply decorative. A sundial sits right in the middle of my Colonial Revival garden but there is also one (in more portable form) front and center in one of my favorite Renaissance paintings, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger.

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Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533, The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London

There’s a lot going on in The Ambassadors, but if you can get past the anamorphic skull and focus on the instruments on the table, your eye (at least my eye) focuses on the sundial, right in the middle of these two handsome Renaissance men. In their time, the sundial was already almost anachronistic with the coming of the mechanical clock, but still, there it is. Obviously, like the other instruments on the table, it had come to symbolize more abstract things: the ability to harness time and (conversely) the limited amount of time that is available to man, any man (or woman), even men as magnificent as these. This sentiment is very evident in a print from about a century later, Stefano della Bella’s cartouche for the funeral of Francesco de Medici, with the central image of a sundial and the emblem Umbrae Transitus Tempus Nostrum: “Our Time is the Passing Away of a Shadow”.

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Stefano della Bella, A cartouche with a sundial, a skull with feathers on its head at top, from ‘Eight Emblems for the Funeral of Francesco de Medici’ (Huit emblèmes pour les funérailles du prince François de Médicis), c. 1640-1660, Metropolitan Museum of Art

These words, this sentiment, are expressed in multiple variations on sundials over the next centuries: shadows we are, like shadows depart, as a shadow, so is life, man fleeth as a shadow. When they were not strictly utilitarian, sundial inscriptions expressing morose mortality seem to peak in the Victorian era and then shift to the light, rather than the shadow: Robert Browning’s popular plea to Grow Old along with Me; the Best is yet to Be is certainly a more hopeful (and trite) inscription. Visually, sundials cease to be macabre and become romantic, associated not with death but with the pleasures of life and with a world that was slower-paced and less technological: the perfect symbol for taking time away from that busy world, in the garden.

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Back cover of Walter Crane’s A Floral Fantasy in an Old English Garden (1899), available here; Front cover of Alice Morse Earle’s Sun-Dials and Roses of Yesterday (1902), available here. One of my favorite sundials, in the sunken garden of the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts.


Floorcloths

There is one small place in my house where the dreaded fake brick vinyl flooring that once covered an entire hallway still lies: in my mudroom. I kept it there for sentimentality’s sake and because it is a mudroom, so it is mostly covered by sneakers, boots and flip-flops, depending on the season. But now “bricks” are tearing off and I think I’ve had enough: rather than replace with vinyl or tile, neither of which I particularly like, I might go for a custom reproduction floorcloth, based on a sample secreted under one of my china cabinets. I’m thinking this pattern covered the entire dining room, as this part of the house was built at just about the time that new “linoleum” (flax and linseed oil) floorcloths replaced the less durable cloth and canvas varieties following Sir Frederick Walton’s 1860 invention: despite his patent, these new “carpets’ often based on older patterns spread like wildfire on both sides of the Atlantic. My husband says the original flooring was wood, but then what is this little demilune patch of linoleum doing in the cabinet?

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I suppose he could be correct: this covering might date from the 1920s, when “linoleum rugs” seemed to be all the rage. Glancing through Frank Alvah Parsons’ Art of Home Furnishing and Decoration, conveniently published by the Armstrong Cork Company in 1919, I spotted “linoleum designs for every room” including several that are similar to my china cabinet sample. Floorcloths seem to evolve from area coverings to wall-to-wall “carpet” over the nineteenth-and early twentieth centuries, following Walton’s invention. And then wooden floors came back into fashion, and my little linoleum went into the closet.

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Floorcloths from c. 1810 to 1920: the Drawing Room of the Craig House in Baltimore, c. 1810, a period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Captain David Crawford House in Newburgh, New York (from the great blog Big Old Houses); illustration of a living room from Parsons’ Art of Home Furnishing and Decoration (1919)

Whenever it dates from, I do like the pattern (though not the colors), and there are many floorcloth options out there; in fact we seem to be in the midst of a floorcloth Renaissance. One major manufacturer for both museums and individuals (out of her Vermont farmhouse) is Lisa Curry Mair of Canvasworks Floorcloths. There are all sorts of patterns on her site, available in different sizes, and custom options too:  I might request a reproduction of my linoleum patch in a less muddy color for my mudroom and something a bit more 1827ish (the year my house was built) for our entry foyer—now covered rather inconveniently with carpet.

Tumbling Blocks

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“Tumbling Blocks” and “Blocks and Scrolls” floorcloths from Canvasworks Floorcloths


Peak Season

My garden is a bit of a wild tangle right now, as usual, but I love it; I’ve finally got the layers that I have been seeking for some time, along with the right mix of leaves and flowers and textures. And the mix of colors is good–I have gradually weeded out annoying colors like red (I actually love red indoors but passionately dislike it out-of-doors, even to the extent of red roses. Not sure why).  It’s pretty much at peak; I knew I was going to be in class all week so I took some pictures this past weekend when the weather was absolutely beautiful: sunny and not too humid or hot. Now it’s muggy and rainy, and all the flowers are water-logged and a bit past their prime. The roses look very spotty so I’m not showing them here. Next week will be vicious deadheading week; I always leave the Lady’s Mantle flowers too long because I love them so much, so it’s going to be a big job to cut them back. Yes there are red berries on the thriving baneberry but that is my exception–it’s a great plant and you really don’t want berries to be any other color (its flowers are white). I absolutely love, love, love the fuschia flower of the bee balm in the last picture–wish I could remember its varietal name!

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Too Much @Terrain

I’m ashamed to admit that a relatively large part of my paycheck goes to Anthropologie each month or season, so as I became aware that I was in the vicinity of one of their rarer garden stores as I passed through Connecticut last week, I had to make a slight detour for the Westport Terrain. What a store–I was a bit overwhelmed, which doesn’t often happen to me in a shop scenario. Actually, it’s a combination nursery/garden store/ housewares store/gift shop/bar-restaurant–there was a lot going on when I arrived, too much for me! I certainly hadn’t planned on getting any plants as I was on the road (and I like nurseries to be a bit more dirty) but I thought I might get some planters–as I had never really replaced the ones that were stolen last summer. But there were too many planters to choose from! And too many watering cans, baskets, and vessels of all kinds–along with candles and lanterns and wreaths and everything else. Sensory overload–though I plan to return, better prepared, in the not-too-distant future.

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Three Jacks and Fifteen Ladies

They’re back, thank goodness: the two most precious plants in my garden, Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and yellow Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum). I had feared their demise because of our cold winter and their relatively late arrival, but the Jacks look as exotic as ever (though a bit shorter than usual) and the Lady Slippers are back with a vengeance: fifteen whereas last year there were only twelve. The garden is booming right now, despite some chilly nights–the night before last I think it was around 40 degrees. There are fewer bleeding hearts and Solomon’s seals, but those that survived are lovely, and the other ladies (mantle) are as vigorous as ever. I’ve had these slippers for over a decade now, and I’ve never seen any predators around them, but when I went out into the garden late last afternoon to take some more pictures (not quite satisfied with the first batch) there was a squirrel hovering dangerously close to them: he was up to something, I know it! I had the funny feeling that I had seen this scenario before, and I had, in a lovely illustration by the eighteenth-century British naturalist and illustrator Mark Catesby, who paired his yellow lady’s slipper with a black squirrel. My squirrel was the plain old garden variety gray kind, but just for a second, he appeared to be striking a similar pose.

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Catesby Lady Slipper and Squirrel

Jacks-in-the-Pulpit, Lady’s Slippers, Sweet Cicely, and Bleeding Hearts in my late May garden; page from Mark Catesby’s Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands: containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects, and plants. Second Edition, Vol II. (1754), University of Wisconsin Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture

These late spring plants are so magical I actually develop a temporary tolerance for late Victorian “flower literature”, which I generally find a bit too sweet (and simple). Inspired by their sisters who celebrated “Shakespeare’s flowers” across the pond, a generation of American lady poets wrote odes to American wildflowers, the Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Lady’s Slippers prominently among them. When you’re surrounded by these almost-anthropomorphic plants, you do feel like you’re amidst a kingdom of sorts! Here’s Sarah J. Day on the elfin origins of Lady’s Slippers, from her 1900 collection Mayflowers to Mistletoe: a Year with the Flower Folk: When the fairy Cinderellas/Tripping it before their Queen/Startled by the stroke of Midnight/Fled in haste the moonlit scene/They their gold and broidered slippers/Left behind them on the green/Straightaway then the elfin pages/Sent to clear with care away/Gathering all the scattered slippers/Hang them up in neat array/Just within the shadowed woodland/”Where they grow”, dull mortals say.

 


Worts and All

When I first planted my garden, I was studying horticultural texts from the late medieval and early modern eras, and determined to have the same plants that I was reading about in my own backyard. In particular, I sought out plants that ended with the suffix wort, Old English and German for “plant” or “root”, believing that these ancient plants would connect me to the past–no matter what they looked like! And so, for the past decade or so, I’ve had some rather straggly plants in my garden just because of their heritage–or supposed heritage. Actually some “wort plants” are quite commonly used in modern gardens: varieties of stachys (woundwort), epimedium (barrenwort–containing an aphrodisiac essence), St. John’s Wort, pulmonaria (lungwort), the indestructible groundcover herniaria glabra (rupturewort, sometime called “burstwort”), saponaria (soapwort), astrantia major (masterwort). According to the Doctrine of Signatures and their appearance, the vernacular names of these plants reflect their uses. I have all of these plants in my garden still:  they survived our tough winter. However, it seems that some of my lesser-know wort plants did not: I seem to have lost my motherwort (leonurus cardiaca, of which Nicholas Culpepper commented in 1653, there is no better herb to take melancholy vapours from the heart … and make a merry, cheerful, blithe soul for mothers and everyone else), the variety of campanula that is called “throatwort” is gone, as are many of my ferns, including a maidenhair variety referred to as “spleenwort” in the medieval herbals. Actually the motherwort was much too big for my garden, so I don’t think I’m going to miss it, or the very common mugwort (artemesia) which seems to be gone as well.  I ripped out my spiderwort (tradescantia) long ago because it was so ungainly, and I’m not convinced it was even that old: from the 17th century on, the word wort seems to be rather liberally applied to plants of all kind, even those from the New World.

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Bloodwort and Hazelwort from Leonhard Fuchs’ New Herbal of 1543 (all plates available here; a great resource!); my surviving soapwort, lungwort, and barrrenwort.


Enchanted Gardens

I’m rather depressed about my garden: I think I lost a lot of perennials–including many dear old friends–over this past bitter winter. This is generally the week–or even earlier–that my favorite spring plants pop up, but so far all I see is trillium and pulmonaria in the “woodland garden” out back. Notably missing is my all-time favorite, the almost-magical Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), which should definitely have popped up by now. I think my Jacks are dead, although several of my gardening friends tell me to not give up hope as we are as much as four weeks behind this year, but there is not a single little sprout to be found peeping through the mulch. I fear for my Lady Slippers, but they come up a bit later so I have not given into despair quite yet. The center perennial beds seem to be in better shape than the shady back, with the exception of the germander edging border that I’ve been slowly developing over the past few years: quite a few of the individual plants have been lost, breaking the uniformity of the border. I’m tempted to just rip them all out and start fresh with a hardier plant, and so I would really welcome suggestions for low-lying, traditional, hardy, front of the border alternatives.

So I am not spending these first precious days of May dancing around my lush, flowering garden (in a flowing white dress) because it is neither lush nor flowering: looking for inspiration (or escape) I am instead delving into the “Enchanted Garden” sub-sub-sub genre of paintings. Of course medieval-esque fantasy gardens are a favorite Pre-Raphaelite theme, but even before their Decameron-inspired images appeared in the nineteenth century, artists were inspired to amplify nature in rather seductive ways. In the later sixteenth century, the popular poem by the Italian poet Tarquinato Tasso, Gerusaleme Liberata (Jerusalem Liberated), inspired several paintings of enchanted gardens. The poem turns the Crusades into an epic fantasy, in which heroic Christian knights confront all sorts of obstacles in the Holy Land. One particular knight, Rinaldo, is enticed by the beautiful Saracen sorceress Armida to enter her lush garden, and there she keeps him occupied for quite some time, until he is rescued by his comrades. I like the painting by Flemish artist Jan Soens best among several illustrations of Rinaldo and Armida, because it seems to focus as much on the garden as on the sorceress.

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Jan Soens, Rinaldo and Armida in the Enchanted Garden, c. 1581-1611, The Walters Art Museum

Several centuries later, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron inspired several pre-Raphaelite painters to depict one of its most popular stories (the 5th to be told on the 10th day): the tale of the besotted Ansaldo, who conjured up a magical May garden in the midwinter for his lady love, Dianora, who had promised him that she would leave her husband and run away with him if he completed this seemingly-impossible task. Ultimately Ansaldo releases Dianora from her promise, and the garden dissolves “like the morning dew”, but it seems to have been a collective aim of British romantic painters to recapture it and other enchanted gardens for posterity.

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(c) Lady Lever Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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Marie Spartali Stillman, Messr. Ansaldo Showing Diavola His Enchanted Garden, 1889; John Waterhouse, The Enchanted Garden, 1917, Lady Lever Art Galler, and study for above, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections

Also romantic, in a more naive way, are the paintings of British artist Helen Fielding (1900-1979) who depicted her Lancashire environment in an ever-charming way, including a garden that seems enchanted in all seasons, here pictured, as vividly remembered, in the spring of 1908. I love the inscription on the back, from the Christie‘s catalog: The Enchanted Garden was very/beautiful in April, when Father thought it would be better to send Mother, George and I also the Aunts, Grandma and Miss/Carter (who wore pink) to Grandpa’s at Blackpool/to be safely out of the way of the Suffragettes/in Lees. We saw for the first time the/Wild Cherries in flower and small trees/covered in the palest pink blossoms/which Grandpa said was the Crab apple, George and I had never seen trees/with blossom which covered them like/snow, also in the Enchanted Garden was/the pond which would soon be full of frogs/and tadpoles and the year was 1908/Helen Layfield Bradley 1975. I know just what she means by “trees covered with blossoms like snow”, don’t you? Still waiting for that here.

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Helen Fielding, The Enchanted Garden, 1975


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