The Impeccable Gardener

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Sargent also advised her to travel widely, and in 1895 she set sail to study the old gardens of Europe. On her return, Beatrix, at twenty-three (an age when most women were supposed to be concentrating on their marital prospects), was confident enough to open her own office. She found space in the attic of her mother’s East Eleventh Street apartment. Almost immediately she was flooded with commissions referred by Sargent and by family friends who populated the fashionable neighborhoods along the Eastern seaboard from Tuxedo Park to Bar Harbor, where her own family had an estate called Reef Point. Within three years she was the only woman invited to become a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. She objected to the term architect , which she felt belonged rightly only to the designer of buildings, and always signed herself in the British style as “landscape gardener.”

Beatrix was not awed by the reputation of established practitioners in her field. Once, after a tour of Frederick Law Olmsted’s work in Boston, she noted in her diary that his azaleas were “of fearful color, one blueish pink and the other bright orange.” Nor did she care for his work at the Boston Public Garden: “The planting is very bad” and the trees did not “show up for much as they are not led up to in any way.” Robert Patterson, a close friend and an architect who sometimes collaborated on her projects in Maine, once wrote that her sharp mind “could unerringly spot a needle of excellence in a stack of mediocre hay. The hay was not for her, neither in gardens nor in any other field. Throughout her life, she refused to compromise with the second rate.”

 
 

When Beatrix went to work on a garden, her first step was to study the lay of the land. “Scrutinizing every corner and angle, setting up her stakes, taking meticulous notes, planning, planning every hour of the day and night” is the way a contemporary described the landscape designer’s approach to Darlington Hall in Devonshire, England. She liked to think of a garden composition as a stained-glass window where a multitude of pieces contribute to a singular effect, or as an impressionist painting. Her own palette was a bundle of white labels on which she carefully wrote out the names of plants and which she then parceled out to the garden staff. The picture, says Patterson, was “painted on the spot in a forest of white sticks.” Such was her passion for working directly on the site that she never learned how to prepare architectural plans, leaving that inside work to her office designers. Occasionally she even found herself apologizing to clients for spending so much time on the job.

She became very adept at winning clients over to her own way of seeing things.
 

“Whenever you walk into a place she’s been, you can tell right away who did it,” says Don Smith, superintendent of the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. After pulling scrubweed and filling birdbaths for Beatrix as a youth up at Reef Point, Smith came to Dumbarton Oaks over thirty years ago and has been there ever since. Her characteristic designs, he says, always incorporate “huge walls with tiny ribbons of stone breaking up the lawns; box hedges, yew hedges, and all kinds of benches. Every time you go around the corner, something’s just a little different. If a hillside, she’d space the steps so there would be three, then a landing, then you’d go up five the next time, so it’s never one-two-three. It’s in the design mostly, not so much the flowers. Even in the dead of winter, it’s really nice just the way she laid it out.”

The principles that Beatrix applied to even her earliest gardens included pleasing asymmetry, masses of a single flowering plant (she loathed “flowerbeds with intricate patterns…”). and the use of native plants. Though hardly revolutionary, her approach was fresher, more dynamic than the replicas of Italianate and Chinese gardens that were so much in demand. In Europe she had absorbed the lessons taught by Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, the best practitioners of the garden arts in England. At home she translated their ideas into a particularly American idiom that was much in tune with the new classical spirit beginning to assert itself in the arts.