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“The Englishwoman’s Garden” has become a seductive catchphrase. Nobody has yet sent me a book titled The Frenchwoman’s Garden, while The Spanishwoman’s Garden would be a very slim volume indeed. What about The Americanwoman’s Garden? It sounds sort of right, but not quite. I have been refining my views of it in New York at an excellent exhibition which presents it in several interwoven strands. It has so much to teach and delight us.

Titled Groundbreakers, the show at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx is an easy train ride from Grand Central station. In this ever alluring setting, it follows the impact that six resolute women had on American gardens in the often halcyon years from 1910 to 1955. Three of them were garden designers, the most famous being Beatrix Farrand. Three, fascinatingly, were garden photographers, dominating an art which they made into a career for women. None was born lower than the moneyed upper middle class, but most of the six were in need of a post-matrimonial income. Two of the photographers fell in love with each other, but then fought bitterly. In the 1950s and 1960s, devoted female gardeners in Britain were still detectable by their down-to-earth taste in hats. The American six were there before them, photographed with cushion-like or flowerpotty hats on their professional heads.

The excellently focused exhibition in the NYBG’s library sets out the subject. The garden is the ideal place for this show because all three of the designers designed gardens for its themed landscape. Marion Coffin’s legacy is still visible in the garden’s fine collections of conifers and lilacs. Ellen Shipman first designed its Ladies’ Perennial Border. Beatrix Farrand designed its Rose Garden, one of the three best preserved of her original designs. These commissions were a small fraction of their total work. Coffin, an astute businesswoman, designed more than 50 gardens, including work at the sumptuous Winterthur, home of the du Pont family in Delaware. Shipman worked on about 600 gardens, rivalling Britain’s own Gertrude Jekyll. Farrand designed 110. Of the three, Coffin was the earliest to train, studying landscape architecture at MIT. Unlike Jekyll, she and Farrand drew architectural features to scale. By associating with the Harvard-trained designer Charles Platt, Shipman, too, soon upped her game.

‘Mrs Rockefeller’s Garden’ in the main conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden

The photographers steal the library part of the show. Born in 1864, their spearhead, Frances Benjamin Johnston, began by training in the arts in Paris. Like Mattie Hewitt and Jessica Tarbox Beals, Johnston was not at first a photographer of gardens. Her early article for the Ladies’ Home Journal is on show, titled “What A Woman Can Do With A Camera”. The answer is to photograph other society women looking dreamy. In Britain, the great photographer of gardens was a man, AE Henson, who was deployed by the magazine Country Life. In the US, Johnston and the others realised that garden photography was an ideal niche career for women. It was not just a dainty game. Heavy cameras, boxes and tripods had to be lugged into the open. “More than a fad,” wrote Johnston, “it is a vocation that calls for the highest imagination.” Like modern garden photographers, they favoured the “golden hours”: early morning and late evening.

Here, the NYBG has had a coup. In its archives, the curators discovered the complete set of glass slides that Johnston used to accompany her lecture at the NYBG in the 1920s. Her black-and-white slides were cleverly coloured by her assistant artists, acting on her detailed field notes. They give us a rare view of American private gardens, so lavishly designed in that jazzy era. How our range of plants and subtleties of design have expanded since then. The solid pergolas and garden features look heavy and the flower beds tend to run round the foot of garden walls. These female “groundbreakers” coincided with a golden era of building and garden design. Clients ranged from suburban businessmen to grandees in the age of American Versailles. “They were all very spendy,” the show’s assistant curator explained to me.

English garden historians never seem to use coloured lantern slides. In the library’s storerooms, I appreciated the chilled conditions that have helped preserve them so well. Are there equivalents lurking in the British Library or have these lecturers of the 1920s bequeathed a special legacy?

Beatrix Farrand, 1943

In its main conservatory, the Groundbreakers show has its high point: an evocation of one of the era’s greatest gardens, The Eyrie in Maine. It was designed by Beatrix Farrand for Abby Rockefeller, and August was the month when the Rockefellers decamped there. Farrand’s garden had to delight them with August’s flowers in colour groupings. This remarkable part of the exhibition is the work of a present-day groundbreaker, Francisca Coelho, curator of the NYBG glasshouses. She is my confident nomination as the best female head gardener at present working under glass. On one side of the conservatory’s long main axis, she has grouped paler coloured flowers, from flat-headed Ammi to white lilies, foxgloves and so much else. On the other side she has grouped the warmer colours, from near-black hollyhocks to red dahlias and cleverly arranged strong yellows. The two beds lead up to a transplanted pine tree, evocative of the big pine that was centrally placed at The Eyrie. Shaded beds then back on to a replica of The Eyrie’s celebrated Moon Gate, installed after one of the Rockefellers’ visits to China. In 1928 the family heard that parts of the Forbidden City’s Great Wall were being demolished. They had the yellow tiles from its top shipped to the US where they still cap their Moon Gate wall.

Coelho told me that she staggered the flowering of 50,000 to 60,000 plants in supporting greenhouses so as to keep her show looking fresh until mid September. She was so calm about it all, calling it “Chelsea, but for months”. Everything on show is hand-watered at her direction, even in its hidden pots. Monday is her weekly changeover, when up to half of the flowering plants are removed for revitalising. “What else would you like to change?” I asked under the midday glare of Tuesday. At once she pointed to offenders that she, not I, had observed on our walk. Lobelia Cambridge Blue was damned to exile.

Moon Gate at NYBG

Throughout last summer, Coelho took careful note of The Eyrie’s summer plantings on invited visits. Her aim was to evoke a similar feel under the challenge of indoor glass and the scrutiny of hundreds of thousands of visitors. Soon after the gala opening, the garden was visited by the senior Rockefeller, David, now aged in his nineties. To Coelho’s delight, he referred to her plantings throughout as “Mother’s garden”.

On open days her plantings are accompanied in the garden by jazz music and by one of the NYBG’s celebrated poetry walks. Poems by Edna St Vincent Millay are displayed on boards beside the outdoor walks. “She was so bohemian,” the garden’s president, Gregory Long, assured me, the flipside of the groundbreakers’ lives. She smoked when smoking in public was illegal for women and, according to the catalogue, “she slept with men and women with a sexual daring that captivated the nation”. In older age she retired to a 700-acre estate in the Berkshire Hills near New York. There she wrote poems on nature, flowers and herbs. I wonder what our own Jekyll would have made of her.

‘Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them’ runs at the New York Botanical Garden until September 7; nybg.org/exhibitions

Photographs: Robert Benson; Beatrix Farrand Society

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