Conservatory at NY Botanical Garden on a bright summer day

Beatrix Farrand Gardens

NYBG Groundbreakers.
The “Groundbreakers” exhibition at The New York Botanical Gardens.

Powerful things happen in a garden. Beyond the miracle of riotous color and the vibrancy of burgeoning life, momentous occurrences have transpired on the garden bench through the ages—marriage proposals uttered, business alliances formed, treachery divulged, fatherhood revealed and affairs of the heart commenced (or terminated).

Beatrix Farrand Gardens

As time telescopes into the past, the arrangement of the florae encircling a person becomes increasingly formal. Consider that as recent as the 1800s, the costume a gentlewoman wore for afternoon tea in the garden conservatory or on the loggia was merely a simpler-cut gown sewn from a less sumptuous fabric than the one she would have donned for her evening activities.

This is an era and societal stratum I’ve been studying for a while, the constraints of which Edith Wharton wrote about in novels like The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. It wasn’t until I began digging into Wharton’s papers that I learned she had niece who was a lauded landscape architect. Her name is Beatrix Farrand, and both women were such avid horticulturists, their letters to each other, which Wharton dubbed their “garden talks,” are filled with arch giddiness and downright despair over growing things.

They so adored the mindboggling variety of plants they discussed in the decades-long correspondence, they anthropomorphized entire species of them. In June 1936, Farrand wrote to her aunt, “It amuses me to hear that Fulva has flowered well with you as she is usually a persnickety lady.” And Wharton wrote to her niece of her gardens at her Villa Ste. Claire in the south of France, “Every day for the last week I have longed for you, for your beautiful irises are in their glory.

You will remember that when you were here you were disappointed that they had not made a more vigorous growth, and I was depressed because I felt that I must in some way have hurt their feelings, and that they were going to be sulky about it. But their only grievance was the cold wet weather, and as soon as the sun came back they burst into vigorous growth, and for the last few days they have been a glorious spectacle.”

Faux Bois for the Garden

How my explorations of their lively repartee would culminate had been percolating for a while as I read their missives, and it wasn’t until I visited the Currey & Company showroom during the High Point Market in April when the idea for this essay began to solidify. I felt it build as my eyes wandered over the company’s artful offerings from my perch on one of their Faux Bois benches. Bethanne Matari was explaining how Robert Currey’s love of horticulture had inspired their garden furnishings—something I hadn’t known even though I had admired their Faux Bois Collection since I first featured it in “Design File,” a column I produced and wrote for Distinction magazine, years ago.

The showroom’s surroundings made my thoughts turn to the trips I’m taking this summer—to one of Farrand’s most famous gardens, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts. My visit to The Mount has been years in the making; the wish to trek to Georgetown is more recent, sparked when I saw the inviting benches Farrand designed for the property’s expansive allées and terraces.

Villandry Bench by Currey & Co.
The Villandry Faux Bois bench, new from Currey & Company.

I asked Bethanne why the company’s founder had become so smitten with a design technique reaching back to the 19th-century. She said it’s due to the organic quality of the style, which he sees as rooted in our primeval memories. I felt a strong reverberation as I ran my fingers across the striated curling arms of the beautifully finished settee and imagined it tucked into the culmination of one of Farrand’s parterres or nestled under the shade of one of her perfectly placed arbors.

Mr. Currey’s sentiments echo Farrand’s and I will be thinking of both as I bench-hop (within lawful limits) in her gardens during the next few months. I will take a moment to salute professionals who understand that good design springs from an innate connection to history and time-honored materials as I move from teak, cypress and marble to limestone, redwood and fieldstone—all materials Farrand used to create her Dumbarton Oaks garden furnishings.

Moon Gate by Beatrix Farrand.
NYBG recreated Beatrix Farrand’s Moon Gate.

She was the only female founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (though she preferred to call herself a landscape gardener than an architect), and she saw furnishings as an important element in her landscape designs, ideas she shared in an article she wrote for Scribner’s magazine in 1905 titled The Garden as Picture. “Breaks in the surface of the ground are also needed, like terraces,” she explained; “arbors to interrupt long walks by shadow, benches and balustrades.

Here is where the old Italian gardens are so successful, their fountains and their statues, their benches and their vases are used as emphasis to give height or light or variation to a part of the composition which might otherwise be uninteresting.” She also believed that plants are to the gardener what a palette is to a painter, and I saw this philosophy come vibrantly to life in the exhibition “Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them” at The New York Botanical Gardens (NYBG) this past Friday. As I rode the train to the Bronx, I anticipated a delicious dose of sensory overload, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Beatrix Farrand at the New York Botanical Gardens

An uproarious display of blossoming forth exploded within the statuesque Victorian-style glasshouse christened the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the floral revelry an homage to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine. I highly recommend a visit if you are anywhere near the NYBG before “Groundbreakers” closes on September 7, 2014.

Waves of color swept me up in a continual unfolding as I meandered along paths flanked by a profusion of petals. I spent over an hour strolling through the lushness, photographing such a torrent of beauty I suddenly felt I had to rest my senses from the brilliance bobbing from every inch of mulched earth.

I found a secluded bench and thought about the number of hours and depth of study, as well as the level of experimentation required for Farrand to have gained the knowledge she had amassed. I thought about her determination to overcome the judgment leveled against her for deigning to work—at the turn of the century, landscape gardening was considered more of a “black art” for a woman of her societal stature than her aunt’s career as a novelist had been.

Groundbreakers at NYBG.
Blossoms billowed at the NYBG exhibition “Groundbreakers.”

Though Farrand’s male counterparts in the field described her career as “a little work between cards and tea,” she forged ahead, embracing what she considered to be the ultimate expression of creativity. You can hear it in the Scribner’s article in which she compares someone maintaining a garden to “the leader of an orchestra,” saying, “he must know which of his instruments to encourage and which to restrain.”

Beatrix Farrand and Edith Wharton

Both Farrand and Wharton saw an intimate connection between the written word and the landscape. Wharton wrote of a “secret retreat” within her where words and cadences “haunted it like song-birds in a magic wood.” She hoped “to be able to steal away and listen when they called.” Farrand said gardening was akin to “composing in French alexandrines with their measured rhythm and subtle caesura.”

I look forward to exploring gardens created by these two immense talents during the next few months, as well as to finding my own way of expressing the intermingling of the literary and botanical arts. I promise to share the adventures with you in the fall. Farrand’s legacy includes a number of gardens in the United States—Dumbarton Oaks; the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden; the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the NYBG; the White House East Garden; and sections of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

She experimented throughout her life at her family’s residence in Reef Point, Maine; and has four extant gardens in Connecticut, one at Yale University, and a sunken perennial garden she designed for Theodate Pope Riddle at Hill-Stead in Farmington. She also collaborated with Wharton at The Mount, though her aunt didn’t always support this claim.

Given the richness of Wharton’s exchanges with her niece, it’s no surprise the novelist wrote she had the desire to “wallow in flowers” all the year round. Trumping her competitive aunt, Farrand found a way to do just that, never tiring of the push for more knowledge, which she notes in the close of The Garden as Picture: “And after all this notice and study and care many of us may feel that the more we learn about gardening the more there is left to know…”

To see more of my images from my day in at the Garden, visit my Pinterest board, “Gardens of Earthly Delight.” And if you’d like to experience Italian architecture and the gardens surrounding beautiful villas, Wharton’s book Italian Villas and Their Gardens, which she co-authored with Maxfield Parrish is an excellent read. I’m tapping the Villandry Faux Bois bench as a Signature Piece for the home (or garden, in this case) in my DesignStudio series.

The Modern Salonnière and Beatrix Farrand Gardens © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.

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