Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Two Garden Book Reviews: Vizcaya and Hidcote

In a recent issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine, I read the story on Vizcaya, the amazing garden estate that is now a must-see garden museum.  The article reminded me that I had reviewed a book about Vizcaya a few years ago for my local Garden State newspaper, "The Two River Times."

I thought I'd dust off that book review and "revisit" Vizcaya since it seems so topical :)   Plus my garden review also includes the book "Garden at Hidcote"  so you'll enjoy two gardens!

Garden Book Reviews:

Whether you think of snow flurries as winter reality or fantasy, cold temperatures help the plant kingdom hibernate till the glory of spring adjusts our color contrast screen!  In the meantime, let’s use our garden passport: books -- and head out for this month’s garden tour.  Like many a snowbird, it seems appropriate to make the first stop tropical Florida.  We’ll visit the palatial Miami estate, Vizcaya.  Then we’ll head to Cotswold, England to tour what is arguably, the most influential garden of the last century.

Vizacaya: An American Villa and Its Makers

Named for a Spanish Baroque province – Vizcaya was the winter home of Chicago industrialist James Deering.  Today it is a museum.  As told in Vizcaya: An American Villa and Its Makers by Witold Rybczynski, professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and Laurie Olin, Practice Professor of Landscape Architecture there, as well as a principal in the Olin Partnership, his landscape architecture firm, these two experts masterfully document the making of this extraordinary home and its garden.  Architectural Digest’s Steven Brooks lends the book the intimate view of the garden today that balances the images, blueprints, maps, plant lists, and correspondence included from the Vizcaya Museum and Garden Archive.  Reproduced for the first time in the book – and not surprisingly, on the book’s cover --are the rich watercolors rendered by the famed portrait artist, John Singer Sargent, who was a guest at Vizcaya throughout much of 1917. It is said that the glory days at Vizcaya were from that year through 1923.

The story of this Gilded Age mansion is a unique collaboration among Deering, Paul Chalfin, artist, F. Burrall Hoffman, Jr., architect, and garden designer, Diego Suarez—all neophytes in their fields.  Other country house mansions like San Simeon, the “cottages” in Newport, or the Biltmore, were all designed by leading experts, such as Carrere & Hastings.   Vizcaya is also unique as it was the first grand estate located on the water’s edge. In contrast, contemporary mansions were located perhaps with a water view, but featured great expanse of lawn separating house from water, whereas Vizcaya’s frontage sat right on Biscayne Bay.

Located on 180 acres on Brickell Point in Coconut Grove, Vizcaya was artistically researched and painstakingly compiled: “a lens through which readers learn about architecture, landscape and garden design, interior decorating and art” threaded through the personal story of the design team and the times in which they lived. The book notes the influence on the design team of Sir George Sitwell’s On the Making of Gardens: “To make a great garden, one must have a great idea or a great opportunity…” and in this book, the reader learns that there is indeed an abundance of both those elements.

Chalfin had been an assistant to the socialite interior decorator Elise de Wolfe but saw the opportunity when Deering asked him to act as his artistic director. Deering’s immense wealth from the merger of McCormick and Deering to create the International Harvester Company, allowed him to indulge in collecting art. Chalfin helped him to build a collection that included Tiepolos and Manet. This was the time of Edith Wharton. And the wealthy of the period were obsessed with Europe.  The first part of the book narrates the touring and research trips Deering and Chalfin took there to determine first, what style of house they would find most inspiring, and then later to collect many items for the house and garden as was the custom of the day.   The building of the house and the interior design is also included in this part of the book. 

According to the authors, the two selected an odd choice of house style; finding their inspiration in the 17th Century Villa Rezzonico in the mountains of Italy, rather than a seaside or lake house – which, considering Vizcaya was to be located on the water, would have been a more apparent or logical choice. 

The second part of the book details the design and construction of the gardens at Vizcaya.  James Deering and his brother were both naturalists and ecologists, which helped to make the garden unique.  Botanist David Fairchild worked with Charles on his nearby estate, Buena Vista and later that of the gardens at Cutler, whose work anticipates the work of noted Brazilian landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx.   A frequent guest at Vizcaya, Fairchild was later instrumental in establishing a botanic garden there, and today, the Fairchild Botanic Garden is named for him.  James embraced the outdoor living environment and respected the frailty of the environment, and according to the book, sought to preserve the surrounding “hammocks” – what we call ridges, as well as the lagoons and water, in addition to producing the manicured, European-influenced gardens surrounding the house and dock areas. 

The book literally takes the reader on a tour of the garden today.
There is a map detailing the 29 garden rooms, including the Garden Theater, Barge, Rose Garden and Fountain, and the Maze.  The reader can’t help but ooh and ahh at the artistic design of runnels, statues, obelisks, and loggias with fireplaces fronting the lagoon. It is noted that Deering’s lagoon designs were influenced by the Duke Estate in Somerville, NJ, having consulted with James (Buck) Duke.  There are also delightful, whimsical touches, such as the rococo garden swing that can only come from the passionate, hands-on care of Chalfin’s artistic oversight.  The thoughtful presentation of the layout sets a mood and makes this an enduring garden classic.  The authors note that by1920 Deering had already spent more than $334,000 on Vizcaya’s garden and more than $3 million on the house. 

The Garden at Hidcote

The Garden at Hidcote, authored by Fred Whitsey tells the garden story of the creation of one of the world’s most admired and imitated gardens. The book is 150 pages, with lavishly appointed photographs of the American owner, designer, and gardener, Lawrence Waterbury Johnston.  The book offers a garden tour that is also an analysis of garden design.  The author readily demonstrates how the disparate elements of this expansive garden offer inspiration and guidance, no matter how humble a garden space may be.  Gardens tell a story, and the fact that the more than 21 garden rooms at Hidcote are arranged as unique cottage gardens, they appear more like “episodes” or “chapters” in this brilliantly-told garden story.  There is a sense of exploration as the reader is taken from one garden room enclosure to the next. There is a theatrical quality to how the views and perspective are presented at Hidcote.  Reading the book offers a garden enthusiast a model of what an exquisite garden can be: given a love of plants, patience, and a keen artistic aesthetic that is both inherent and learned.

The exuberant perennial plant borders Johnston designed were those that wealthy Edwardians favored over the fussy, clipped carpet bedding of the Victorian era.  Described as a reclusive, well-heeled bachelor, Johnston was widely admired.  Russell Page said Hidcote influenced him more than any other and the director at Kew Gardens called Johnston a “genius.” 

The book documents how he came to influence the use of hardy, herbaceous groups of plants that feature dense companion plants.  Today, this is a most admired and sought-after garden look that to many, defines the English garden look, and is a mainstay of many Two River gardens.

Hidcote was the first garden to be named a National Trust Garden in the UK. The irony is that Johnston was a Yankee transplant!

He possessed an innate style that promoted the artistic use of plants arranged by color: more blends than contrasts, size, texture.  Also, for the first time, the garden beds were designed using plants with varying bloom times so that there is a succession or near-constant display of bloom – as one group’s seasonal luster fades, there is another to capture your heart.  Besides the aesthetic, it is noted that Johnston believed this intense planting scheme reduced the need for water and eliminated a lot of weeds, as there wasn’t room for them to grow in the beds.

The reader can see Johnston's shrewd use of surprise throughout the gardens at Hidcote.  Whitsey shows how Johnston was an illusionist: concealing the art of the garden, referred to as a “Gallery of Plants.”  At the same time, Johnston weaves the relational threads to make a seamless whole from the independence of the various cottage gardens.

The book also tells the story of Johnston, although there are some unavoidable lapses due to his reclusiveness and extreme reticence.  He never wrote or kept records. Even those who worked for him rarely recall conversations. He was an only child, born in Paris in 1871 to wealthy Americans.  His father died when he was a young teenager and he and his mother moved to New York.  His mother soon remarried – to Charles Winthrop, a successful lawyer. All too soon, she was a widow again.  After graduating from Trinity College in Cambridge, Johnston became a British citizen.  His mother was able to fund his purchase of more than 280 acres in Cotswold and by 1907 he was an English country gentlemen. His mother lived with him until she died.  And except for two stints in the military and the occasional plant exploration, he only left Hidcote for his home in Menton on the Mediterranean. His garden there, Serre de la Madone was the first garden in France to receive a monument historique designation from the Ministry of Culture.
My husband and I visited this garden on a trip to Monaco.  It is truly magical.

For the next 50 years Johnston’s total preoccupation were the gardens.

The author speculates that his inspiration was possibly the many travel books he read and the burgeoning Arts & Crafts movement he studied.  Also inspiring were his neighbors and visiting guests.  It seems Johnston hosted a "plant salon” of sorts.  From his neighbors Norah Lindsay and Heather Muir, plants women and acclaimed garden designers, to Edith Wharton, a frequent guest, Johnston hosted compelling get-togethers of like-minded garden aficionados.  Wharton described Hidcote as “tormentingly perfect”. 

Some of the planting hallmarks at Hidcote are the tapestry hedges—which are green and copper beech or yew and holly -- grown together.  And a peacock topiary – both of which are beautifully illustrated in full color photographs.

The book offer planning tips, too. The rich, colorful photographs are stunning, personal views of the garden’s planting schemes so that the dripping purple wisteria, yellow tulips or Red Borders and Fuchsia and White Gardens jump off the page.

Johnston was 86 years old when he died in 1958.  But the gardens at Hidcote – and Serre de la Madone live on.  And if your schedule prevents you from visiting on-site, enjoy this book about a master garden artist and his passion. Next best thing.

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