Early American Women Garden Designers and Horticulturists – a brief summation

Despite scholarly work and books, the contributions of American women in garden design and landscape architecture have not received their recognition as those of their overseas contemporaries have. Perhaps due to United States’ European colonial history, Americans have looked towards Europe for inspiration and with varying degrees of success attempted to replicate the styles here. And there is no discounting the romantic appeal of the Edwardian flower borders, the Italianate waterworks, and Grecian ruins, all of which were not created in a nascent country. Well-do Americans increasingly made the trans-Atlantic journey to visit and see them, and certainly returned home, buoyant from their travels and receptive for a piece of ‘Europe’.

During my research into the ‘tropicalismo’ or ‘Victorian subtropical bedding’ in North America, I began to note the regularity with which the same female names appeared in magazines and books. These women boasted distinguished careers as strong as Gertrude Jekyll who was a major influence. Some, such as Beatrix Farrand and Rose Standish Nichols, were highly qualified landscape architects, a feat at a time when women were not permitted as apprentices in a male-dominated profession. These women not only practiced their profession, but also published books, which document a rich era of American horticulture.

Beatrix Farrand writing at her desk in the reef Point Library, Maine (image courtesy of UC Berkeley Environmental Design Archives)
Beatrix Farrand writing at her desk in the reef Point Library, Maine (image courtesy of UC Berkeley Environmental Design Archives)

Beatrix Farrand and Ellen Biddle Shipman are perhaps the best known among the female American landscape architects and garden designers. The former is famously associated with Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, Washington, D.C now managed by Harvard University, although she was too responsible for Princeton’s campus and NYBG’s rose gazebo. At 27, Farrand was a founder of American Society of Landscape Architects in 1899. She had attempted to establish a school of horticulture and garden history at Reef Point, Maine, but the lack of institutional and financial support led to the project’s closure. It is to Farrand’s perspicacity that rescued the documented summation of Gertrude Jekyll’s career now housed in University of California Berkeley. Had these papers and photographs been destroyed, scholars would not have been able to consult them for garden restoration. Farrand herself kept her work available for public use.

Ellen Biddle Shipman (Image courtesy of Stan Hywet House & Garden)
Ellen Biddle Shipman (Image courtesy of Stan Hywet House & Garden)

Some parallels can be drawn between Ellen Biddle Shipman’s early collaboration with Charles Platt and other architects and Gertrude Jekyll’s association with Edwin Lutyens. Just as Jekyll’s plantings enhanced and matched Lutyen’s geometric flourishes, Shipman’s plantings too enlivened Platt’s architectural commissions. They were unusually robust, not blowsy or flowery as her contemporaries preferred, to hold up to the hardscaping. Eventually Shipman struck out on her own, opening a successful New York City practice that supported women in the profession, all more the remarkable for she was a divorced mother of three children and landscape architecture was. Her career was an illustrious one that spanned Long Island’s Gold Coast to Washington State, and Shipman counted among her clients the prominent wealthy Astor, Ford, and du Pont families. Along with layered plantings, strong vertical axes and geometrical layouts that brought the house and garden together characterized Shipman’s gardens, some of which survived remarkably well to this day.

Rose Standish Nichols (Image courtesy of Nichols House Museum)
Rose Standish Nichols (Image courtesy of Nichols House Museum)

Faded into obscurity, but significant in her era was Rose Standish Nichols, one of the first certified landscape architects. Like Ellen Biddle Shipman, Nichols trained with Charles Platt before taking on her own projects, which approximated 70 gardens in United States. Her style was Beaux-Arts, classical and geometrical with impressionistic embellishments. Nichols wrote three informative books on European gardens: English Pleasure Gardens, Portuguese and Spanish Gardens, and Italian Gardens. Their prosaic titles betray the wealth of information and lessons from these gardens Nichols articulated to her audience. Fortunately these books are easily available with a modern edition of English Pleasure Gardens sold on amazon.com. The Nichols residence in Boston’s Beacon Hill is now a museum. Of her female contemporaries, Standish may be the least known since very few of her gardens survived and no archival material exist to piece together and restore the lost ones.

Helena Rutherford Ely (image courtesy of Meadowburn Farm)
Helena Rutherford Ely (image courtesy of Meadowburn Farm)

The flowery plantings of Helena Rutherford Ely have much in common with Gertrude Jekyll’s, but Ely, a founding member of Garden Club of America, was astute to recognize the climatic limitations of ‘copying’ Jekyll’s plantings in eastern U.S. And like William Robinson, she railed against the garish Victorian bedding schemes of annuals and subtropicals, arguing for an informal look of herbaceous perennials, roses, and shrubs. It was this look telegraphed from her 5-acre New Jersey garden Meadowburn Farm into her first book A Woman’s Hardy Garden (1903), which sold approximately 40,000 copies and gained Ely a fan base. Two more books, Another Hardy Garden Book (1905) and The Practical Flower Garden (1911) followed. Little survives of the original plantings at Meadowburn Farm, but talented Quill Teal-Sullivan is leading the way to restore them to their original grandeur.

Perhaps it is not too long before the early American female trailblazers in garden design, landscape architecture, and horticulture are recognized. Numerous books covering their historical and biographical lives have been published and the digitalization of archives should invite more future studies. Coincidentally the New York Botanical Garden recently mounted an exhibition paying tribute to American female garden designers and horticulturists earlier this year. The exhibition recreated specific garden styles unique to each figure. The era in which the women lived had societal and professional limitations, but it was an enlightened one with rich patronage of the arts and cultural cross-pollination with Europe that enabled art and horticulture to come together in their work.

~Eric

Categories: Gardeners, Gardens, Horticulture, Plants, ScrollTags: , , , , , , , , ,

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