Last week I spent a day in Kennebunkport, a town long associated with the Bush family because of Walker’s Point, which was purchased by President H.W. Bush’s maternal great- and grandfather after the turn of the last century. The usual congregation of onlookers was there, looking down on the Point compound: summer white house towns seem to have lasting appeal and Kennebunkport is a summer white house town x two. I was thrilled because the gate to St. Ann’s-by-the-Sea, a bit further down the coast, was open and so too was the church itself: I had never been inside and this was my chance! It did not disappoint: what a lovely seaside chapel that actually accentuates its setting, a great achievement as its setting is magnificent.
On the road that connects Kennebunkport harbor and downtown to the coast is a small park owned and maintained by the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust named River Green which is the site of a lovely little garden dedicated to former First Lady Barbara Pierce Bush. “Ganny’sGarden,” referring to the name she was called by her 17 grandchildren, was laid out in 2011 and became a memorial garden after Mrs. Bush’s death in 2018. It is completely charming, and also provides a good lesson about what one can do in a relatively small space. It is packed with plants, including some unusual ones (I was struck by the liberal use of mustard) but also personality and presence: bronze “statues” of Mrs. Bush’s gardening shoes and hat lie adjacent to that of an open book (her favorite Pride and Prejudice) as if she had just been there—or was still there.
The garden is overlooked by another statue dedicated to the seafaring forebears of Kennebunkport: Frank Handlen’s Our Forebears of the Coast, which was commissioned in 1994. Its presence made me wonder, in my compare-everything-to-Salem habit which I am trying to kick this summer: why no monument to Salem seafarers? If ever a settlement was made by the sea, it’s this one!
Sunny June continues, showcasing gardens all around me in the Seacoast region of southern Maine and coastal New Hampshire. I’m back to Salem today, and then off on other adventures, but first I wanted to share some photographs of gardens along (or not too far away from) the York and Piscataqua Rivers, including an absolutely stunning private garden which is cultivated by friends of my parents. It is behind a gate, which reveals nothing of the wonders within, so I feel very fortunate to have been granted access: the garden was in its last stage of late-spring bloom, but I’m sure you can discern its full-blown glory even with my amateur photographs. A bit further down (up?) the York River, the “old-fashioned” garden at the Elizabeth Perkins House, now the main office of the OldYork Historical Society, has always been one of my favorite York gardens: this year it is untended due to the pandemic, but I have no doubt it will rise again.
A spectacular private garden along the York River and the Elizabeth Perkins House and grounds.
Over in Portsmouth, I found refuge from a largely-maskless crowd on Juneteenth in the city’s pocket gardens and on the grounds of the Governor Langdon House, which belongs to Historic New England. So again, not a lot of garden-tending, but good bones!
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.
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.
Photographs 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.
Photographs 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.
The Laing daughters, Iris (younger) and Janet (older) in their mother’s photographs, 1908-14. More on autochromes here.
Since the beginning of the corona quarantine, I’ve been contributing to an initiative called #salemtogether which has focused on past episodes of challenge and adversity in Salem’s history in an effort to kindle some context, and perhaps even resilience. There has been a flurry of social media posts on the great Salem Fire of 1914, the Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919, and this week it’s all about World War I. I wish we could go back farther, but I do have to say that I have developed great respect for the people that lived in Salem in the second decade of the twentieth century: through fire and flu and war. They really got going, without too much whining (that I can detect). I’m at a bit of a disadvantage compared to my partners in this project as they are the keepers of archives and I’m just armed with a few digital databases, so I have to be a bit creative in my search for portals into the past. Just reading contemporary newspapers made it very clear that the primary responsibilities of citizens during 1917-1918 were to: 1)produce; 2)conserve and 3)buy liberty bonds. As the first two obligations were focused on FOOD first of all, I then browsed through as many gardening publications as I could find, as I don’t have access to the records of the Salem Public Safety Committee on Food Production and Conservation (wherever they are!) and settled in for a delightful afternoon with TheGarden magazine, which was issued between 1905 and 1924. This magazine was entitled Farming before it became The Garden so it’s a bit more practical than some of its contemporary sister publications, but still, before the war it was far more focused on aesthetics than produce. Then comes a stark change in the spring of 1917: from flowers to vegetables, from conservatories to cold frames, from sundials to tools, from the “hospitable garden” to the “patriotic garden”. And then back again, when the garden can be “demobilized” after the Armistice of November 1918, and attention can return to perennials and pergolas.
Garden Magazine Covers 1916-1919
I’m not sure that this national publication can capture the Salem scene but at least these covers can (decoratively) symbolize contemporary attitudes. As you can see, the messaging gets increasingly strident until the Kaiser ends up canned! The more I read about the homefront during the First World War, the more I realize just how important canning was: “turn the reserves into preserves”!
I am pleasantly tired at the end of a busy weekend, which included: a sunset sail, several garden walks, a tour of the Coast Guard’s tall ship Eagle, long conversations into the night, the annual vintage car show on Chestnut Street, and a Red Sox game. Highlights of a New England summer all in one weekend! We have (for now) made it out of the muggy days of midsummer and are in the golden days of late summer: no humidity, just bright sun, warm days and cooler nights with just a whiff of Autumn in the evening breeze. The disappearance of humidity always recovers my will to live: I am not a summer person, but as long as there is a cool breeze mitigating the hot sun I’m fine—-everybody’s fine. I’m sure the humidity will return—and Fall will be here soon—which makes beautiful August days like these all the more precious.
Mid-August in Salem and Boston: a sunset sail on the Schooner Fame Friday night, Salem Story Walk in the Ropes Garden & a visit to the US Coast Guard’s Barque Eagle on Saturday, the Phillips House-sponsored annual vintage car meet on Sunday morning, at Fenway Sunday afternoon (the Red Sox lost in extra innings–I was so impressed with the score-keeping of the kid in front of me, who only took a break for an ice cream cone).
I was up in New Hampshire this past weekend for a spectacular summer wedding on Dublin Lake, and of course I made time for side trips; the Granite State continues to be a place of perpetual discovery for me after a lifetime of merely driving around or through it, to and from a succession of homes in Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts. On the day before the wedding, some friends and I drove north to see TheFells, the Lake Sunapee home of John Milton Hay (1838-1905), who served in the administrations of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Hay is the perfect example of a dedicated public servant and statesman, attending to President Lincoln as his private secretary until the very end, at his deathbed, and dying in office (at The Fells) while serving as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. He was also a distinguished diplomat, poet, and a key biographer of Lincoln. Fulfilling the conservation mission that was a key part of his purchase and development of the lakeside property, Hay’s descendants donated the extended acreage surrounding the house to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1960s, and it eventually became the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge. Hay’s daughter-in-law Alice Hay maintained the house as her summer residence until her death in 1987, after which it was established as a non-profit organization, open for visitors from Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekends.
When it comes to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century country or summer residences in New England which are now open to the public, it seems to me there are three essential types: those of very rich people (think Newport), those of statesmen (The Fells; Hildene in Manchester, Vermont; Naumkeag in Stockbridge), and those of creative people (The Mount in Lenox; Beauport; Aspet, Augustus Saint-Gauden’s summer home and studio in Cornish, New Hampshire). The last category is my favorite by far, but there’s always lots to learn by visiting the houses of the rich and the connected, and John Milton Hay was as connected as they come. I was a bit underwhelmed by the house, which is a Colonial Revival amalgamation of two earlier structures, until I got to its second floor, which has lovely views of the lake and surrounding acreage plus a distinct family feel created by smaller interconnected bedrooms opening up into a long central hall. The airiness of the first floor felt a bit institutional, but this was an estate built for a very public man, after all. For the Hays, I think it was all about the relation of the house to its setting, rather than the house itself.
The gardens surrounding the house also seemed a bit sparse although it was a hot day in late July and we might be between blooms; certainly the foundations and structures are there, especially in the rock garden that leads down to the lake. This was the passion of Hay’s youngest son, Clarence, who established the garden in 1920 and worked on it throughout his life. After his death in 1969, the garden was lost to forest, but it was reestablished by the efforts of the Friends of the Hay Wildlife Refuge and the Garden Conservancy. When you’re standing in the rock garden looking up at the house, or in the second floor of the house looking down at the rock garden and the lake beyond, you can understand why the well-connected and well-traveled John Milton Hay proclaimed that “nowhere have I found a more beautiful spot” in 1890.
The granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hildegarde Hawthorne (Oskinson) followed in the family business and published a wide variety of works over her lifetime (1871-1952), including children’s books, travel books, poetry, and biographies. I posted previously on one of her “rambles” books, Old Seaports of New England, because it features Salem prominently, but it is not my favorite of her titles: that preference is her garden book, The Lure of the Garden (1911). Gardening books by society ladies such as Hildegarde are a dime a dozen in this era, but The Lure of the Garden is different: it’s not a practical tome or simply an appreciation of the botanical beauty, but rather a series of essays on different cultural aspects of the garden, in her time and over time: from “Our Grandmother’s Garden” to “Childhood in the Garden” to “The Social Side of Gardens” to “Gardens in Literature”. It’s beautifully written (I think shorter-form essays are her strong suit) and beautifully illustrated, by Maxfield Parrish, Jules Guérin, Sigismond de Ivanowski, Anna Whelan Betts, and others, with plates in both color and black and white, paintings, drawings, and photographs. Throughout the book, the theme of the garden as a private refuge and true reflection of one’s inner self emerges, both very literally in considerations of enclosure and garden gates as well as through textual and visual illustration, as she shows off her connections and takes us into the “Gardens of Well-Known People” such as Parrish, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Cecilia Beaux, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Parrish. For all this (and because I am dealing with the menace of powdery mildew right now), I think my favorite chapter is “Some Garden Vices”, in which the garden is portrayed as an autonomous entity, showering “pity and love to its ugliest weed” to a touching though infuriating extent: it will spare no pains to convey to this voracious plant all the delicately prepared food destined for your lilies or your phlox, will discover the utmost art in draining its water toward the thick roots of its favorite, give it sun and shadow, sweat and labor for it. If you snatch the hateful progeny from its arms, leave only the slightest portion of root behind, that patient, devoted garden will nurse the battered and wounded thing back again to life and health, to flaunt triumphantly in bed and border. As this is Hildegarde’s extravagant prose in reference to weeds, you can imagine her descriptions of more covetous cultivations.
These are the rose weeks of the summer in central New England: while newer varieties of roses are bred to be repeat- or ever-blooming the older varieties bloom now, so if you walk the streets of an older city or town you’re going to see bursting bushes behind and over fences and along porches and foundations. Often red or a very very dark pink. I’m not certain what cultivar these roses are: at first glance they appear to be of the gallica variety, the oldest type of rose to be cultivated in Europe which was brought to North America in the seventeenth century. Certainly several of the rose bushes in the “Colonial” garden behind the Derby House are gallica, cultivated for their medicinal and household uses as much as for their beauty. When I’m walking down the street taking photographs of rose bushes at this time of year and happen to spot a homeowner in close proximity, I always ask about their roses, and I nearly always get the answer: oh they’ve been there forever.
Salem was a horticultural haven in the nineteenth century, so it’s fairly easy to find out what people were growing and showing. When I look through periodicals like the New England Farmer, and Horticultural Register or the Transactions of the Essex Horticultural Society it is pretty clear that most people were more excited about dahlias than roses at mid-century, though Francis Putnam did have quite a collection of showy roses on hand, including La Reine, Duchess of Sutherland, Aubernon, Baron Prevost, Madame Laffey, Madame Damame, Mrs. Eliot, Devoniensis, Bon Silene, Bossuet, and Anne Boleyn, though he was a florist by trade. I have a pink David Austin AnneBoleyn rosebush in my garden, though I doubt it’s the same cultivar as Mr. Putnam’s nineteenth-century varietal. According to Alice Morse Earle’s Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth (1901), an even more storied English rose, the “York and Lancaster” striped gallica, could once be found on the grounds of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location on Union Street. Interest in the “old-time” roses was clearly reviving in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as was the lore attached to all sorts of flowers according to the “language” attributed to them, but serious garden writers always cautioned against mixing up the York and Lancaster with its similarly-striped cousin, the “Rosa Mundi” rose, which had even earlier “historical” origins.
John Ramsbottom’s “King Penguin” book, 1939, with its York and Lancaster illustration; Mrs. L. Burke’s The Language of Flowers, 1865; Rosa Mundi from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1790s.
Enough of history and let’s see some more roses about town, including my own (first up) which are modern David Austin varieties: my house was a working (rooming) house for much of its life and I doubt there was space (or time) for a flower garden, so I don’t have any old rosebushes. I don’t like any red in the garden for some reason (though I love it indoors), so it’s pink and yellow and ivory for me. Then we have: one of my favorite pocket gardens on Botts Court, two very dependable displays nearby, and the particularly lush roses behind (not in) the Ropes Mansion Garden—just love these. It’s summer now.
I’ve always loved the seventeenth-century poem by Ben Jonson It is not Growing like a Tree with its closing lines In small proportions we just beauties see; And in short measures, life may perfect be. It evokes the ephemeral perfection of late May and early June, when the bleak New England “Spring” finally ceases and we are rewarded with a burst of flowering amidst all that new, lush green. As I write this, at night, I’m still kind of cold, but it certainly is beautiful out. I got my garden under control last week: I lost some things but most of my very favorite plants are doing just fine, including the “ladies”, slippers and mantle. I take long walks on these long days, and pictures of everything beautiful, even plants I don’t really like. I’ve never been a rhododendron fan, and as those are peaking right now, it is difficult to avoid them: consequently I have included an unusual yellow variety. Peonies are also just too much for me, but who can resist capturing those show-offs now? I actually find irises creepy, but they are so colorful and fleetingly stalwart I snapped them too. So here is a portfolio of late spring/early summer flowers, primarily from my own garden, the Ropes Mansion garden, the Peirce-Nichols garden which is the place to go for Bleeding Heart at this time of year, and the Derby Garden at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, where the first of the peonies are just starting to pop. But you can spot flowers just walking down the streets of Salem at this time of year, along or through the cracks of an old fence.
I am just back from a long weekend spent in the Brandywine Valley spanning the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware. A few friends and I drove down principally to visit Winterthur, but I think we were blindsided by all the attractions of this beautiful region: the lush landscape was a welcome escape from still-Spartan New England too! As usual, time was limited, so I felt like I was rushing around trying to see and capture as many houses, gardens, and treasures as possible, but there was simply too much. I’m going to have to go back and spend a week or more. So what you will see in these next two posts are rather impressionistic views of the region in general and Winterthur in particular. When I return, the first thing I’m going to do is drive down every single road slowly (or maybe bicycle) so I can see as many old houses as possible: stone, brick, wood, and combinations thereof, small and large.
Just a sample of the many beautiful houses in the Brandywine Valley: you can see that I was drawn to the stone as it’s more unusual in New England. We were fortunate to be taken to see Primitive Hall, a 1738 manor house in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with its double (“pent”) roof, a common architectural feature of early houses in the region, including the Gideon Gilpin House at the Brandywine Battlefield site. The Battle of Brandywine was the Marquis de Lafayette’s first American battle, and he was quartered at the Gilpin House.
Primitive Hall exterior and interior and the Gideon Gilpin House at the Brandywine Battlefield site; outbuildings of both houses—I could write an entire post on historic Brandywine sheds!
The region is beautifully preserved, in large part due to the work of the BrandywineConservancy, as well as the institutional presence of the Brandywine River Museum, Winterthur, and Longwood Gardens, and the efforts of farm (horses! mushrooms!) owners as well, I am sure. What really stood out for me, besides the abundance of open land, were a number of really stately trees—and I am no tree girl. Looming over the public part of the Brandywine Battlefield site is an American sycamore tree dating to 1787–almost a witness to the Revolution. We saw a seventeenth-century “Penn Oak” on the grounds of the London Grove Friends Meeting House in West Marlborough, Pennsylvania, and many old trees in Longwood Gardens.
LongwoodGardens, the lifetime passion and achievement of industrialist and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) was almost overwhelming in its beauty, scale, organization and administration. What a resource for this community! I would live there if I lived nearby. I think we visited at the perfect time with abundant spring blooms everywhere, but I’m sure it’s beautiful in every season and I intend to visit in every season. There was rather dreary day on the Friday we visited, but the sun miraculously appeared for the afternoon, so no filters were needed for these photos!
Longwood Gardens + Conservatory and “Green Wall” surrounding restroom doors!
I don’t think that we were completely prepared (yet again) for just how charming the Brandywine River Museum of Art is, with its comprehensive yet intimate focus on multiple generations of the multi-talented Wyeth family. I was pretty familiar with patriarch N.C. Wyeth’s illustration work,, somewhat familiar with that of his son Andrew, and a bit familiar with that of his grandson Jamie, but I had no idea that all of his children were so talented, that he was mentored by my favorite illustrator of all time, Howard Pyle, and that he suffered such a tragic death (crushed by a train, along with his little grandson, in 1945). There was also a poignant tribute to Phyllis Mills Wyeth, the wife and muse of Jamie Wyeth, who died just this past January, in the form of an exhibition of Jamie’s works which depict and were inspired by her—including a series of charming Christmas cards which he made for her every year. A visit to the Wyeth family home and N.C.’s studio nearby enhanced the whole experience, and also highlighted how and why the Brandywine Valley was and is so inspirational.
Treasures of the Brandywine River Museum of Art, including: Howard Pyle’s influential “historic” illustrations and a N.C. Wyeth cover, Andrew Wyeth’s Snow Hill and Jamie Wyeth’s Lime Bag, N.C.’s studio exterior and interior and in Andrew’s North Light, N.C. Wyeth, framed by his parents and looking down on his talented family, a Jamie Wyeth Christmas card for his beloved wife Phyllis.