Tag Archives: Smithsonian Institution

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

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Garden Marianne Majerus Garden Images

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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.


Scorched Earth/A Lost Salem Garden

Since I went in deep for the centennial anniversary of Great Salem Fire of 1914 a few years ago I have this date imprinted in my mind: I woke up this morning and my first thought was oh no. So much was lost that day—houses, factories, civic buildings, churches–as the fire devoured several wards of Salem. The recovery effort, which seems remarkably swift and efficient to me, focused primarily and rightfully on rebuilding, but there was an implicit concern for the loss of landscape as well, and so parks were planned and trees replanted. There was one notable Lafayette Street landscape that was lost on forever on that day, however: the garden of George B. Chase. There was no effort to reconstitute this creation; instead the large lot became the site of the new Saltonstall School, which rose from the ashes of the fire pretty quickly. The Chase Garden was indeed fleeting, but fortunately we have two great sources to remember it by: the wonderful 1947 guide book Old Salem Gardens, published by the Salem Garden Club, and several photographs in the American Garden Club’s Archives of American Gardens at the Smithsonian.

Chase Old Salem Gardens

Chase Old Salem Gardens 2

Chase Garden collageJust one of my many copies of the invaluable Old Salem Gardens (1947) with the Chase garden entry; the location of the Chase garden on the 1874 and 1891 Salem Atlases.

The Salem Garden Club ladies who produced Old Salem Gardens, chief among them Club President Mable Pollock, took great care to include historical information and personal reminiscences whenever possible, greatly enhancing the research value of their compilation:  this is no little pamphlet! We hear all about the Chase Garden from the “discussive and chatty” Miss Chase, who grew up on the property, as her memories are transcribed onto the page. She tells us about the beds of ostrich ferns and rhododendrons in the immediate proximity of her family house, above which swayed purple beech and weeping birch trees, and a “large bed containing 72 plants of Azalea mollis bought from Lewis Van Houtte of Belgium”. In the spring there was white narcissus poeticus, followed by red salvia. Laburnum and althaea screened the large vegetable garden, which included salsify, rhubarb, asparagus, peas, beans, carrots, summer squash, tomatoes, onions and corn: the seed of the latter [came from] a cousin, Benjamin Fabens, and was called “Darling’s Early”. It was most satisfactory in every way, for the ears were not too long, and they had deep kernels and a small cob; the husk was quite red, as were the blades….it was the sweetest corn ever eaten at that time. Continuing along towards Salem Harbor along a box-bordered path, we “see” fruit trees and more exotic trees and shrubs, including a very notable varieties of magnolia and viburnum which particularly impressed repeat visitors from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Near the back of the garden were beds of roses, and a cutting garden of annuals and perennials, encircled by yet another row of shrubs and trees, including the oldest growth on the property, a locust grove, which nature had planted. All swept away on one day: June 25, 1914.

Chase Garden

Chase Garden AAG 1904 Smithsonian

Chase Garden After

Chase Garden After 2Views of the front and back of the Chase Garden (including Mr. Chase himself on the bench), 1904, Archives of American Gardens, Smithsonian Institution; Ten years later on Lafayette Street: postcard views of the Fire’s immediate aftermath from the (commemorative???) Views of Salem after the Great Fire of June 25, 1914 brochure issued by the New England Stationery Company.


Cultivating American History

The Smithsonian Libraries have produced a summer-long digital and actual exhibition on the history of American gardening titled Cultivating America’s Gardens and it features a Salem garden! I’m not surprised; I’ve consulted the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens on more than one occasion and it has several wonderful slides of Salem gardens, most unidentified. The “old-fashioned” garden of the Misses Laight on Chestnut Street in the 1920s opens up one section of the exhibition, “Gardening as a Link to the Past”, which doesn’t surprise me either: Salem’s Colonial Revival ethic and aesthetic certainly extended to horticulture. Besides “the Past”, Cultivating America’s Gardens has six additional sections/themes: “Gardening for Science” (“botanizing” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), “Rolling out the Lawn” (the emergence of the Great American Lawn from the Victorian era through World War II), “Gardening to Impress” (Gilded Age gardens and World Fairs), “Gardening for the Common Good” (Victory gardens and school gardens), “Gardening as Enterprise” (selling seeds), “Gardening for the Environment” (sustainable gardening), as well as a concluding section on the Smithsonian’s role in preserving America’s garden heritage. My discoveries from the online exhibition? The word “botanizing”, which I never knew was a verb, the “tastemaker” Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851-1934), author of more than 300 articles for Garden and Forest as well as the influential Art OutofDoors: Hints on Good Taste Gardening, and the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Gardening, and Horticulture for Women, founded in Massachusetts in 1901, the first of its kind open to women. I definitely want to learn more about that!

Curated Gardens Laight

Curated Gardens Victorian Lawns

Curated Gardens Gilded

Curated Gardens War

Curated Garden collage

Curated Seeds

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The Laight Garden in Salem, 1920s; Catalog for Ross Bro’s. Co., Farm & Garden Supplies (Worcester, Massachusetts, 1909); The Blue Garden at Beacon Hill, Newport, Rhode Island, 1920s; Editorial cartoon: “War Garden to Do Its Duty”, drawing after J.N. Darling in the New York Tribune, about 1917 (LOVE THIS); the gardens of Alexander Hamilton and Dolly Madison as envisioned in 1920 by Peter Henderson & Co.’s Everything for the Garden catalogs; Burpee’s Seeds Contest entry, 1925; The Concrete Jungle, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2002, Lawrie Harris, photographer, all Smithsonian Institution Libraries.


My Dear Girl

I am absolutely charmed by the physical appearance of a recently-preserved “lost” letter from Paul Revere to his wife Rachel dated a few weeks after his famous April 1775 ride. Its existence has been known for some time, and it was published as a transcription in Elbridge Henry Goss’s Life of Colonial Paul Revere (1891), but the actual document had been presumed lost until very recently, when a box was donated to the Paul Revere House in Boston which included the letter, in a long-folded condition that showed its age. Now digitized and preserved by the Northeast Document Conservation Center and returned to the house to which it was first delivered, the letter is a visible symbol of the power of primary sources: it is one thing to know what a document says, it’s quite another to see the author’s handwriting. It’s much more intimate (and powerful), especially if the expression includes an endearment like “My Dear Girl” and proceeds to details like a request for linens and stockings. At the end of the letter Revere includes a note to his son, informing him that “It is now in your power to be serviceable to me, your Mother, and your self” and signing off  “Your loving Father, PR.”

Revere Letter

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Revere House 1930s

The Letter at the Northeast Document Conservation Center website, where you can see a sequence of images illustrating the preservation process; Paul and Rachel Revere and two 1930s images of their house: an etching by W. Harry Smith, Smithsonian Institution, and a linoleum engraving by Stanley Scott for the Federal Art Project, Boston Public Library.


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