Monday, January 21, 2008

Aspet: the gardens of Augustus Saint-Gaudens

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out
Yes! No! The
swan, for all his pomp, his robes of grass and petals, wants
only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier
is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppy
rocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better
than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.

from Yes! No! by Mary Oliver

America’s “Guilded Age” found one of its exemplars in the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. His country home and studio, called Aspet for the French town of his father’s birth, is outside Cornish, New Hampshire, where it occupies a striking site surrounded by woods, with a view of Mount Ascutney at the far end of open fields fronting the elaborate porch constructed on the south-facing side of the house.

I visited Aspet near noon on a sunny day in early September (2007), the worst time of day for photography. I edited the photos in this post to try to ameliorate the harsh light of midday.

This is a formal garden, full of peace, with a sense of enclosure and security given by an easy geometry of design - not a strict formality - and rustic hedges of white pine and hemlock.

A view of the house and studio from the drive gives a sense of site’s “big sky” with open fields rolling up to the house from the entrance elevation.

Views from the Porch

The elaborately ornamented porch entry is screened from the drive by a simple lattice painted black and scaled large to let through light and air.

The porch itself is a miracle of pleasure - spacious, open on three sides for cooling, magnificent views of the fields and woods punctuated by Mt. Ascutney in the distance, and a view from the far end overlooking a garden of soft formality to the right and, on the left, views of the studio and Pan fountain.

This must have been a pleasant and restful place to pass the time in the late 19th century, when the very concept and perception of time was vastly different from our own. There was time to pay attention, to look well, and look again. Take up another occupation for a while, then sit down and look again.

Path to the Formal Garden and Studio

In contrast to the informality of the view over the fields, one end of the porch opens onto a brick path leading to a formal garden on the right that follows an axis parallel to your direction of travel as you step off the porch...

and the Pan fountain and studio on the left...

Continuing on the left toward the studio... pass the Pan fountain in a shady nook to the right...

An elegant bench, decorated by Pan reliefs on each end, faces the fountain, where a guilded statue (another version of Pan) plays a flute overlooking a marble pool...

Looking more closely, you can see the water enters the fountain through guilded spouting fish...

Entering the portico of the studio you might imagine you were in Italy, with the classical colonnade and pergola draped with grape vines, also looking toward Mt. Ascutney.

Turn and you are in, possibly, Pompeii, facing a Pompeian red wall, with a classical frieze ornamenting the top. This is a gorgeous visual moment. The garden, its site, and its buildings all are part of a single fabric, highly ornamented, but a little countrified, a little homespun for all the gilt statuary and formality.

Looking back through the colonnade, toward the house and formal garden, reinforces the unity of the scene - the air, the light, the plants, the beautiful structures, and the space, divided and subdivided by hedges, trees, paths, columns, presences and absences.

The Formal Garden

From the grass lawn in front of the studio a stone bench guides your eye back to the formal garden. In the background you can see the bushy texture of the white pine hedge. (I'd never have thought of using white pine as a hedge.)

As you continue past the bench, the formal garden comes into view, though looking across it its formal structure isn't apparent.

But looking from the house down the central axis (a little off center in the photo) reveals its formal structure, with side borders and centered circular beds.

Looking back toward the house emphasizes the central axis of the garden, with simple brick steps moving up to a faux doorway - the central focus of the view. This is perhaps the most well known view of the Saint-Gaudens garden. I'm showing you the photo in black and white because the noon light washes out too much detail in color.

The genius of the design is the use of a simple trellis to stand in for a missing architectural feature. This is the back of the house, so there's no grand entrance to establish the visual axis of the garden.

The plantings in the garden are adequate. I did see it in late summer, so I may not know what beauties are there in other seasons, but the plantings were not exciting when I saw them. The yellow heleniums and red phlox were certainly colorful in early September.

The Adams Memorial

Exiting the garden through a passage in the hedge, you come to one of Saint-Gaudens' greatest works, the Adams Memorial, designed at the request of Henry Adams for his wife's grave in Rock Creek Park in Washington.

Birch Allee and Gallery

Continuing through the hedges, you find an allee of white birches bordering the entire garden area encompassed by the studio, the Pan fountain, the formal garden, and other garden spaces surrounding the house.

Outside the birch allee is a great lawn...

at the upper end of which is the gallery, a new building in which numerous Saint-Gaudens works and artifacts are displayed. The entrance, with a centered view of the Amor Caritas, presents another of those gorgeous visual moments you can find at Aspet.

Note the details. The turtle fountain spouts, the water lilies, the green frog amid the lily foliage.

When I look for lessons to take away from the gardens at Aspet, I only see abstract ones. Aspet is a far way from my wet prairie in the woods of western New Jersey - space, woodland edge separating light from dark, the formality of repetition and rhythm, garden ornament appropriate to time and place, comfort, quiet, peace.

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