Archives for January 2010

Who Is She?

IMG_0169The history of figurative sculpture in the landscape is long, varied, and certainly well documented.  That history is part of the attraction for me; any object in any garden has the potential to organize a planted space, create a mood, or strike a chord.  Antique garden ornament makes much of the aura that comes from age; what is preserved from one generation speaks to its value.  My house is eighty years old-I like that, and I like that I am doing my part to maintain it properly.  However figures in the landscape need not be old to strongly resonate with a viewer.  Any human face, whether from another time, that place, or right next door, engages me.  It seems a lot like preaching to the choir to say that what comes from contact with people is personal, but bear with me.  �
Euorpe20020068To my mind, a landscape or garden that does not personally engage the viewer, or provide opportunities for people to engage each other, lacks soul.  A figurative sculpture or bust in a garden will immediately attract and hold the eye.  When I buy them, I am first and foremost interested in the expression on the face.  An assessment of the condition, the surface, the material, size and price are all secondary considerations.  I like faces with complicated, mysterious, or striking expressions-some signs of life.  This is easy-what face do you know that is not full of contradictions? 

July10 005Though I see lots figurative sculpture whose faces I find beautiful and interesting, there are not so many I would want to live with – nothing surprising here. Any face in my garden needs be a face I would want to see every day-whatever my reasons. I have lots of objects in my shop that appeal to numbers of different people.  The faces are different; the purchase very personal.  Some people look many times, before making a decision.  This antique French carved stone face has a very strong and compelling expression.  Though not so many expressed interest in it, the person to whom it now belongs likes it a lot.   

Euorpe20020060I have some clients who come to the shop multiple times; they say they miss seeing things in a single visit.  But it is easy to spot a face, no matter how busy the background.  From a design standpoint, placing a figure in a landscape will guarantee visual attention.  A very shady garden spot, an area requiring a very strong focal point, an unexpected placement that rewards a viewer with surprise or delight can be vastly more effective given the right sculpture. 

statuaryThis very fine Austin and Healy sculpture dates from the late nineteenth century in England.  Her expression is serene, the sculpting is fluid, the age of the piece greatly adds to its cache.  I would read her expression differently any time I took the trouble to really look.  Though for obvious reasons I would call this a classical sculpture, I would bet the person who purchased this piece sees her very differently than I.  This is why I encourage my clients to consider sculpture in a garden.  Sculpture makes a landscape a personal landscape. 

statuary (15)This concrete reproduction of the classic fisher girl was not expensive.  The casting was not detailed-but the expression was good.  I have a very strong memory of the garden in which she was placed.  The client spent more than a few moments talking to me about her garden, where she hoped to go with it, and how this sculpture was going to help her get there. 

DSC00003This fresh face belongs to one of a pair of nineteenth century American hermes I purchased some years ago.  Hermes, sometimes known as terms, were commonly placed to mark the end, or terminus in a garden. Who is she? This figure of a young woman, who recalls the vitality that is nature, or spring, or youth, has such a strong and engaging expression. I doubt I would ever tire of wondering.

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Her counterpart-who is he?  An aging and world weary faun or bacchus, pained by the assault on his beard by a baby? His wordly expression is in great contrast to hers. 


 I imagine these two figures once faced each other, at opposite ends of a garden. From her eyes to his, and his eyes to her- I would never tire of these people in my garden-would you?

The Hoarfrost

hoarfrost 009Hoarfrost is simply frozen dew. Though this form has none of the romance of a dewy June morning, it is lovely. If we are going to get hoarfrost, it usually appears in January, after a rain.  We have had intermittent rain for several days, with freezing temperatures overnight; this morning was 24 degrees.  As a result, everything was coated in fine white ice crystals barely visible in the fog.  This made for a beautiful January morning. 

hoarfrost 012The frost on these forsythia branches was very subtle-just enough to greatly soften their appearance.  Deciduous shrubs in winter have a quiet beauty all their own.  The winter is one of the best times to evaluate shrubs for your garden; their winter appearance should be as important a factor in your selection as their summer dress.  The frost in particular makes their shape and habit clear.    

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If I had property of size, I might plant honeysuckle. They have a fairly uninteresting summer presence, but their dense thicket of dark brown stems are very attractive from a distance in the winter.  Growing robustly to 10-15 feet tall, they can screen a poor view as well or better than an evergreen.  They only need room, and lots of it.  Large shrubs that have been pruned poorly, or pruned to fit a small space tell that story in the winter.

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These spirea in my neighborhood are never pruned at the right time of year. This person invariably prunes them only a few weeks before they flower, and never, as he should, right after they finish flowering. The benefit to me-the long and lacy spent flower stems are lovely in the winter.  Luckily he does no pruning on his junipers; they have a naturally loose and pleasing shape.  The frosty tips reveal the shape clearly; if you like the winter shape of any tree or shrub, you are doing something right. 

hoarfrost 019Trees can be a nuisance to prune, as most of the activity is a long way from the ground.  But the winter silhouette will make clear where a branch could be cleaned up, or headed back, in a good and beautiful way.  The stub pruned branch in the middle of this picture-I would take it all the back to the big branch.  Whatever shape you are trying to encourage makes itself known now.

ice white 027The hoarfrost sticks to ice as well as any other surface. A single fall leaf frozen in the ice may be a melancholy reminder of the dormant garden, but the colors, textures and shapes here are quite beautiful.

hoarfrost 002Every bark has its own brown. The crabapples are grey and black, the forsythias a warm yellow brown.  Choosing shrubs and trees for their bark has its winter rewards.  Now is the perfect time to look at bark; is a dominant feature of the winter landscape. With every bit as much variation as leaves or flowers, there is actually a lot to see.

hoarfrost 037The field next door was breathtaking this morning.  The white frost, the blue white snow, and the dark rock may lack the romance of May, but there is this alternate garden universe which is worth seeing.  Though not in active grown, woody plants, and the remains of perennial plants have a lot to say, even in the winter. 

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The hoarfrost variegation on the boxwood had disappeared by 9 am.  I am glad I did not miss it.

Sunday Opinion: The Authenticity Of Place

I met three new people yesterday.  A couple with a sizeable property working with an architect on designing a large open conservatory space and terrace that would allow them to spend more time and entertain out doors, were equally as interested in addressing their landscape.  I spent several hours with them, discussing the scope of their project. They were very interested that I understand why they had bought the house. He was very clear in comunicating that the house was relatively unimportant in their decision process; they bought on the strength of his keen interest in the property.  It is large, has many mature trees, and a very interesting and varied topography.  The house sits quite high; the view driving up almost suggests the house sits on a cliff.  He discussed at some length how much the placement of the house suited him.  Those of you familiar with Julie Messervy’s book, The Inward Garden, will recall her discussion of what she calls “archetypal gardens”.  Each child’s physical experience of “place” later in life culminates in a psychological concept of the world. ( This is an unfairly condensed version of her ideas; If you are a gardener, I could not too highly recommend reading this book.)  He feels a genuine connection to this particular place. 

He went on to discuss the importance of his family, and his relationships with them.  This in and of itself is not remarkable; many people value family above all else. What was interesting was his description of that life.  His interaction with friends and family was very much intertwined with his interaction with the natural world.  He wanted everyone in his immediate sphere to experience nature in some way. His children would be exposed to and learn about nature.  As to benefits, many people talk about a need for peace and serenity at home.  I can so well relate to that feeling.  He was especially articulate, describing how wearing the demands of  public life can be.  He emphasized how important the landscape and garden was in restoring and maintaining his sense of well being.  In conclusion, he told me that a house and home was no doubt a wonderful thing.  But no matter how nice a house might be, in the end, it would always be a cave. He would be happiest, outdoors.  His interest that the landscape be beautiful and well looked after is a personal and proprietary interest of his. He is interested that the landscape spaces flow such that he is able to entertain, teach his children, entertain and enjoy the beauty and excitement of every square inch of it.  Though I do not expect to see him turning soil, this person is a gardener. 

What interested me the most about meeting the two of them was how they had organized their first meeting with me.  They had thought a lot about what the landscape meant to them, and felt that this discussion was the first order of business. They made a distinction between the big scheme of things, and and all else that came under the heading of details.   I like when I see people thinking personally, abstractly, intelligently and passionately about the prospect of a garden.  They genuinely represented themselves.  I share with them an interest as a designer that the sculpture which is the landscape have an authenticity of place. 

Though I only know enough to be dangerous discussing the idea known as “genius loci”, the words translate literally from the latin as the genius of place.  I interpret this to mean that a landscape, authentic to the environment and culture from whence it comes, has a genuine and special beauty. In classical times, the actual meaning of the phrase meant not so much the place, but the guardian divinity of that place. Clearly nature is the guardian divinity of the property under discussion; they both made reference to this with as much delight as conviction. An idea much discussed in England in the 18th century, this distilled bit from Alexander Pope;  “Consult the genius of the place in all…”  The large landscape parks in England from this time period were designed with the idea that a truly successful landscape was a more civilized, less savage, and virtually indistinguishable version of what nature might herself create. Much later, Lawrence Durrell would say ” …you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all the spirit of place.”  As much as I (The aforementioned came largely from an article on genius loci from The Journal of Urban Design written by Jiven and Larkham) am interested in philosophical underpinnings, I am much more tuned in and trusting of the judgments made by the eye.  I think landscapes that don’t look or feel right, that are not seated in the environment in which they are made, that are disconnected, and lack a sense of authenticity, have that movie set aura about them to which I could never belong.

A sense of belonging is not so easy to come by, for anyone.  However, I clearly belong to my garden, and the gardens I make for others.   The third person I met at a dinner party last night.  I was introduced to him by both name and profession; he spent a few minutes talking to me about his landscape.  He said when he came home at night, and closed the car gates behind him, there was not a single visual clue anywhere on the property or in the landscape that would reveal that he lived in Michigan.  He had a classically formal French garden, perfect in every detail.  Every bit of this delighted him. I have not seen the garden, so I have no opinion about it.  But were I ever asked to do any design work for him, I would want to understand what would provoke such an intense longing for another time, and another place, that he would find such a dislocation beautiful.  I have designed plenty for people with a penchant for formal and edited French design.  Or perennial borders with an English flavor. But none the less, these are American gardens, set in Michigan. I happen to think Michigan is a very beautiful place, as do the clients I just met.  That we treasure our place is common ground.

At A Glance: In The Mood

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Annuals 2006_09_19 (14)

Annuals 2006_09_19 (13)

DGW 2006_08_10 (37)

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August 13 pictures 107



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