Sunday, February 26, 2012

Garden Diary: Borrowing Saint-Gaudens' Solution

Saint-Gaudens is certainly among America's greatest sculptors. His house and studio, called Aspet, in Cornish, New Hampshire, is a National Historic Site now operated by the National Park Service. The formal garden he created on the private side of his house, though not well maintained, as one would expect at a historic site operated by the NPS, is a rather famous example of a unique solution to the problem of creating perspective where no vanishing point exists.

Two sets of stairs create a central axis in this simple garden, directing the eye to what was then the blank side of the house. Saint-Gaudens' solution was to create a pergola feature that imitates a door into the house, at least from a distance. Up close it's a simple arch with lattice behind and a sculpture of Dionysus.

I think I'll use the same concept, but instead of the small pergola, I'd construct a shallow shadow box affair, probably painted the same slate color as the garden wall behind, about five or six feet high, and fronted by trellis mounted several inches out from the box, to create a sense of depth, and painted a dark green. It would be positioned approximately where I'm standing in the photo below.

Vines will grow on the trellis (not sure what yet) and  some central feature will attract the eye to a single focal point. I have an old ceramic mask of Bacchus glazed in white, bought on our first visit to Florence over 25 years ago. I might use that, though it may be overly "mannered" for my garden.

I'll have to wait and see how it all comes together. A stone architectural artifact may work better.

Though I don't have Saint-Gaudens' embankments to give a sense of rising height, I may also add landscape timbers to create a terraced effect, as shown in this sketch Peter Holt was kind enough to send me.

Below it all will be the leaky "lotus" pool (perhaps) used as a planter, at ground level.

If I could draw, I'd put a drawing here.


  1. I like Peter's sketch. The landscape timbers would definitely bring another dimension to what appears a very flat piece of land.

    Bacchus looks a little frightening. Never thought I'd fear the God of wine. Quelle horreur!

    I'm curious to see the shadow box, I wish you could draw....

    By the way, I think you made the right colour choice for the fencing.

    1. Rob, the land actually rises over a foot (because of that great tree that fell last September) so Peter's design suggestion would be aesthetically pleasing as well as practical (retarding flow of heavy rain water toward the house). My Bacchus, frightening? He's smiling! The shadow box thing with the trellis, yes. Maybe I'll giving drawing a try.

  2. The mask would give your garden history. Swathed in a vine, you will just glimpse it. Shadow box sounds good, we'll have to wait until it's built to see it. That first illusion caught me, I looked at the picture again after I read your explanation.

    1. Diana,

      I read about Saint-Gaudens use of this visual device in a book by a notable American female landscape architect and garden designer, but I read it so long ago, I forget whose book it was in. I thought this would be a modernist garden, but I keep coming up with these traditional elements. We'll see.

  3. Yay...glad you found a color you like! Regardless of what you use to create it, I like the idea of the focal point on the far wall...definitely draws your forward.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Ross,

      I never intended to imitate the arch of the pergola. I was thinking about a rectangular "box" (square top, not round) with trellis mounted several inches in front of it. But I thank you for the link to Kate Gould's article anyway because I love her concept and the concrete planter at the bottom, more specifically, the highly simplified "fountain" motif that repeats across the bottom front--yet another good idea I may steal. The pool will have a gentle jet of water, so that motif would create a pleasing visual theme.

      I had thought of using ivy, and may. In fact, the new fence has a mature form of English ivy on the opposite side that was pushed back only temporarily. I want to bring it back over to my side. The leaf shape is different from immature ivy and it flowers beautifully (but subtly) at the end of summer.

      I can't make out the purple in the photo. I would have guessed it was some kind of clematis blooming. I can't recall ever seeing a purple ivy. Though London has such a mild climate, it might even be some semitropical vine, which can grow with relative ease in London. I follow a London gardener (Victoria's Garden) who has a semitropical garden behind her house in Wandsworth.

      Thanks for the new ideas. I'm intrigued with making a concrete base for the ractangular box and incising a similar motif.

      I've also thought about using a thin copper sheeting as a covering for part of the box feature and giving it a green patina using some strong acid.

      (I can't resist pointing out that Federal Twist has a link on that Guardian web page?)

    2. Hello James, (had to correct the Guardian web-link)

      Lovely color for the fence, well done.

      I find your idea of the pergola intriguing, but wonder about its arch, give the rectilinear forms of your garden.

      Then I thought of Kate Gould's show garden at Chelsea last year, and was able to track down this picture:

      She made a concrete planter whose form almost "turns" the form of your pond ninety degrees. If it were in your garden, the concrete edge of the pond and the concrete base of the planter would echo one another and pick up the lovely gray of the fence. But more to the point, I love her use of an ivy screen, which appears almost as a painting. What is that purple ivy she uses, I wonder: I want it.

      Just a thought -- your garden will be lovely. Ross

    3. Ross,
      You reposted so my reply is now above your comment.

    4. Hello James,

      I note in today's Times that Patrick Blanc has designed a small arched "wall garden" for the Orchid Show that opens this weekend at the NY Botanical Garden:

      best, Ross

    5. Thanks, Ross - I believe I heard it mentioned on NPR this morning. Blanc is "the vertical garden guy" so I'd like to get there just to have seen his work. As a former avid orchid grower, I have to admit, though, that I've lost much of my interest in orchids; I'm much more interested in foliage and plant structure. I've been wondering if that feature in Kate Gould's garden (which you provided the link to in yesterday's comment) isn't something like a green wall, but made more of vines than plants grown in Blanc's complex, sophisticated way.

  5. James,
    Glad to see you are getting some inspiration from a NH garden. The fence looks great in your next post!

    1. Thanks, Michael. I really loved visiting Saint-Gaudens' Aspet. Very special place, even for New Hampshire!



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