A Feminine Focus in the Garden

It wasn’t just Memorial Day: I feel like I’ve finally come to the end of a long string of obligations and am ready to focus on house, garden, reading, wandering about. We’re finally renovating our kitchen, so that will be a major focus for the next few months: I’ll do a “before” post next week, before nearly everything is torn out of that space, and then we’ll be able to celebrate the “after” later. The garden is looking good, although I fear it will turn into a construction zone. I do have a few last presentations—on Zoom of course–to give to several women’s organizations about the history of Salem women and the quest for suffrage. It is unfortunate, but certainly understandable, that that big anniversary is being overwhelmed by the pandemic, but I want to mark it in the best way I possibly can. As I was thinking about women’s history—and gardening at the same time—-I realized that a big part of garden history is women’s history, in all periods, as women are always charged with provisioning in one way or another throughout history. Certainly this was not an original thought, but it nevertheless led me down various trails, and I ended up spending a rather blissful Memorial Day (after I gave a speech!) looking though the photographs of women photographers over the last century or so. This is just one small aspect of the intersection of women’s history/garden history: I’m going to explore more this summer.

When I’m interested in something, I’m generally interested in something in the past, and then I bring it forward, but this exploration started with two contemporary garden photographers whose work I had been admiring online and in a book I just received:  the Luxembourg photographer Marianne Majerus and the American photographer Stacy Bass. The former is almost like a painter in the garden; likewise the latter is a master (mistress) of light.

Garden Marianne Majerus


Garden Marianne Majerus Garden Images


Stacy Bass Gate (3)Photographs ©Marianne Majerus Garden Images and ©Stacy Bass: much, much more @ Marianne Majerus Garden Images and Stacy Bass Photography.

Is there a tradition of women’s garden photography? I had to go back, following English and American lines (even though Majerus is from the Continent she was trained in England and seems to photograph a lot of English gardens!). Though not strictly a garden photographer, I explored the wonderful work of still-life photographer Tessa Traeger, and through Traeger’s portrait rediscovered the AMAZING Valerie Finnis, whom I identified primarily as the namesake of variant of artemisia before I dug a bit deeper: what an extraordinary plantswoman and photographer! Even though she was a serious botanist, gardening seems like such a social activity for Finnis: she like to photograph people in their gardens, and she was also very, very fashionable, like her subject below, Rhoda, Lady Birley. I’ve just ordered Ursula Buchan’s collection of Finnis’s photographs, Garden People, and I can’t wait to receive it.

Garden Tessa Traeger

Garden Tessa Traeger 2

Tessa Traeger Valerie FinnisFinnis CollagePhotographs by Tessa Traeger, including her marvelous portrait of Valerie Finnis in 2000, National Portrait Gallery. Garden People includes this amazing Valerie Finnis portrait of Rhoda, Lady Birley.

The Smithsonian and Library of Congress have several archival collections of women photographers, including those who specialized, or at least ventured into, garden photography: I love the dreamy mid-century images of Molly (Maida Babson) Adams (1918-2003) who photographed gardens up and down the Eastern Seaboard over her 40+ year career. I did not identify the pioneering photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) with gardens before this little visual journey of mine, but they certainly constituted a sizable percentage of her impressive output.

Gardens Maida Smithsonian

Garden Maida Buttrick Garden Concord MA Smithsonian

Garden Johnston (2)

Johnston CollagePhotographs by Molly Adams of gardens in Maine and Massachusetts, and Frances Benjamin Johnston of gardens in Virginia, Long Island, and Rhode Island, Smithsonian Institution and Library of Congress. 

And I ended up with the charming photographs taken by another pioneering woman photographer, Etheldreda Laing (1872-1960), who experimented with the first color photography process—autochrome—by taking wonderful photographs of her daughters Janet and Iris at their home, Bury Knowle House in Oxford, over a succession of summers between 1908 and 1914: before-the-deluge images indeed! And also, I think, the female gaze.

Garden Etheldra-Laing-autochrome-rose-arch Iris and Janet Laing 1910

Garden Etheldra-Laing-autochrome-blue-bonnet Iris L 1910

Garden Iris and Janet Laing c 1914The Laing daughters, Iris (younger) and Janet (older) in their mother’s photographs, 1908-14. More on autochromes here.

14 responses to “A Feminine Focus in the Garden

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    While I am not a gardener, I do love flowers and enjoyed this piece about women in their gardens. Just wondering – are those auriculars in those small pots? There was a great post about these floweres in Spitalsfields Life a recently.

    Agreed: “…I realized that a big part of garden history is women’s history, in all periods, as women are always charged with provisioning in one way or another throughout history.” In this category I would place one of my favorite writers, Edith Wharton. Her design of the Mount in Lennox, along with the gardens she nurtured in her several home in Europe throughout her lifetime, are well described in Hermione Lee’s biography.

    Beautiful pics – thanks. And good luck with your new kitchen.

  • Nancy lutts

    Yes, yes, love your women in garden thoughts and pics. May and June glorious time for gardens here. Thanks, Nancy lutts

  • Nancy

    I really enjoyed this blog, Donna! Having been a gardener for over thirty years, I can attest to gardening and photography going hand in hand. I photograph some aspect of my gardens nearly every day…the plants, the light at different times of day, even the insect and wildlife that visit and/or thrive in them! I hope to one day create four herbariums of my gardens, one for each season. Writing also is a natural match with gardening…Emily Dickinson had quite an extensive herbarium, which can be visited through the archives.

  • Nancy

    I’m not sure if you know what an herbarium is…it’s a notebook of pressed plants and flowers. Not so hard to do. 🙂 Just time-consuming, and a personal record of what grew…Emily Dickinson’s can be found in the Harvard archives.

  • Maureen O’Hare Mercer

    Your blog was such a wonderful way to get out of my head today. This coronacoaster brought me into my garden earlier than usual this Spring. That was a blessing. I am also finishing a kitchen construction project that was halted mid-winter.
    I am a lifelong dirt gardener and competitive flower arranger, but no matter
    my true flowers are my 3 adult children, their spouses and my first pink grandbaby, Blair.
    Springing into my gardens for Memorial Day over the years, usually
    meant a family gathering was right around the corner from christenings to weddings.
    Heck, an extended family BBQ was celebration worthy once Mother’s Day trees or bushes joined the perennials! This year I postponed mulching and
    added more expensive specimen trees to keep my attention in my backyard. However, your beautiful blog brought my personal woman and gardening history to the forefront: there are no amount of exquisite blooms or spectacular depictions of flora & fauna that can replace my biological rosebuds. I still find serenity in my garden, but finding it difficult to be happy as this season will go by without celebration, and barely a BBQ to share my joyous additions & tendings. My offspring are unable to return this season, and my garden longs for their laughter.
    I am a historic architectural designer and color specialist & happy to
    help you find any artifacts or difficult decisions while you work on your kitchen. ENJOY THE JOURNEY!
    Lafayette Street

    • daseger

      Glad it helped, Maureen. I know; it was a weird Memorial Day weekend and it’s going to be an odd summer. I think it helps to focus on things one can control—so gardening tasks certainly help me. Not looking forward to this kitchen demolition/reconstruction, so I might take you up on your offer!

  • Lou Sirianni

    Wonderful…..Thank you
    and also the link to Stacy Bass
    I will purchase her book today

  • Michael Downes

    What a coincidence, Donna. I am writing biogs of WW2 dead associated with our town of Budleigh Salterton, including General Sir Henry Finnis who was Valerie Finnis’ uncle. I discovered your mention of her while searching through my past emails. Many years ago I visited Boughton House where she lived, and Ursula Buchan was the mother of one of my students at the time. Small world.

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