The Impeccable Gardener

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When Beatrix Farrand arrived to work on a garden, clients knew they were in the presence of someone extraordinary. Friends called her Queen Elizabeth, and she sat regally swathed in lap robes, dressed primly in English tweeds, as her chauffeur guided the Fierce-Arrow touring car up the drive. In the twenties and thirties a garden by Farrand was believed to open social doors for its owner, and the people who hired her—people with such names as J. P. Morgan, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Mr. Edward Whitney, Mrs. Woodrow Wilson—were accustomed to the best.

Her actual achievements have for years been buried under this image of Farrand as society gardener to the very rich; only recently has her reputation as one of the best of American landscape designers begun to be restored.

Beatrix Farrand was in fact an exacting professional in a field where women were tolerated only if they more or less promised to remain amateurs. No matter how large or small, from her twenty-six-acre design at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., to the yard of J. P. Morgan’s town house in New York City, she was a perfectionist who brought to all her projects a magical sense of the appropriate.

 
 
Her mentor taught Farrand not to twist the ground to fit a preconceived plan.
 
 
 
 

Between 1896 and 1945 she designed more than 176 gardens. Not all were country estates; she also planned the campuses of Princeton, Yale, the University of Chicago, and Oberlin. Her career coincided with the glory days of landscape gardening in America, when the new rich wanted settings to add tone to their wealth. Those days ended with the leveling effects of the personal income tax, followed by the two world wars. Along with the vast gardens that, unattended, went quickly to seed, the many landscape designers who created them have long been neglected.

But in recent years, the early-twentieth-century masters of the American garden have been rediscovered. Farrand was one of the first to reemerge, partly because of her brilliant sensibility and the sheer volume of her work, but also because more of her projects have survived than those of the other landscape designers of her day. Still in existence are Dumbarton Oaks; Eyrie, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller garden in Seal Harbor, Maine; and the basic campus plans for Princeton and Yale.

Beatrix Cadwalader Jones (1872–1959) was born to a prominent New York family. Her father, Frederic Jones, oldest brother of the novelist Edith Wharton, inherited money and spent his life abroad enjoying it. Mary Rawle Jones, a Philadelphia debutante, had entertained William Thackeray at home and visited Lincoln in the White House. Beatrix as a child traveled often to Europe, usually with her uncle John Cadwalader, a lawyer, who delighted in taking young “Trixie” on Scottish hunting parties because she was such a good shot. In a biographical essay Farrand wrote many years later (which with characteristic forthrightness she intended to serve as her obituary), she traced her first memories to a garden in Newport, where her grandmother taught her, at the age of five, to clip the dead blooms from roses with the aristocratic names of Baroness Rothschild, Bon Silène, and Marie von Houte. Her parents’ marriage, however, was an unhappy one, ending in divorce when Beatrix was eleven years old. To meet the expenses of life in society, her mother was forced to go to work, becoming Edith Wharton’s literary agent, and the acutely sensitive Beatrix absorbed early a distrust of the future that would plague her adult life. Over fifty years later she wrote to her aunt Edith: “It seems unlikely that even you know what cruelty and injustice there was.”

From an early age Beatrix set out to make gardens her lifetime career. As no landscape schools then admitted women, she apprenticed herself in 1892, at twenty, to Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of the Arnold Arboretum, in Boston. Sargent was foremost among those horticultural scientists who were interested in the hybridization and propagation of plant life. When his young apprentice expressed an interest in gardens for their own sake and presented a plan with benches, paths, and plants colorfully arranged, he retorted gruffly, “Don’t waste time on what you call design.” Still, the practical lessons she learned from Sargent were invaluable. He told her to “make the plan fit the ground and not twist the ground to fit a plan … look at great landscape paintings … and learn from all the great arts, as all art is akin.”