Friday, July 25, 2014

Modernist Planters, then and now

Bas-relief from the reign of Ur-Nammu, King of Sumer 2057-2030 BC (first depiction of a potted plant)

'Spindel' planter designed by Willy Guhl and Anton Bee, 1951.  I knew I had seen it somewhere before...

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Garden History of Thomas Edison


Edison ordered agaves in 1886, soon after moving in. [source]
I think about Thomas Edison quite a bit, actually.  The 'Edisonian' method of scientific investigation has been much derided as in the last half-century Science decided it knew enough about how the world worked to proceed on theoretical predictions alone.  But I haven't found that to be true, and I take myself the advice I once gave to my students; that you must, in the laboratory, take care to  "keep your wits about you" as Mark Twain said, because the unexpected results are the important ones.

And now that I have been so fortunate as to say goodbye to the university and establish my own laboratory (in the midst of finishing my book on garden history), I think of Edison alot.


After Menlo Park, there was Seminole Lodge, in Fort Myers, Florida.  He purchased property there in 1885, next door to Henry Ford, and together they experimented with plants that might become a domestic source for rubber.  The Edison Botanic Research Corporation was formed, commissioning botanical collectors far and wide to seek out promising varieties.   He had seedlings sent from foreign countries and tramped around in the swamps himself looking for specimens.  Over 17,000 plants were tested.  In the end, a giant version of the common goldenrod, dubbed Solidago Edisonia, was deemed the best candidate.  Alas, we drive not on golden tires because of the invention of synthetic rubber.


Specimens from the Edison Botanic Research Corporation are still held at the New York Botanical Garden. [source]

Edison made his own garden plan for Seminole Lodge.  It's not particularly good.  Practical, utilitarian.  But it was like him to think he could lay out a garden as well as he could lay out a laboratory.




He used soil from the adjacent Caloosahatchee River to enrich his fourteen acres, and one of the reasons he originally bought the property was that it was already established with bamboo.  Carbonized bamboo was one of the first lightbulb filaments, lasting over 1200 hours before burning out. Other specimens planted by Edison and Ford for their research still grow on the property, some having reached huge proportions in Florida's plant-friendly climate:  a 57 foot sausage tree, a 97 foot royal palm (Edison loved royal palms), a 102 foot ficus, and one of the largest banyans in the United States, now adorned with Edison's likeness.

[source]
    
Edison's second wife, Mina, was the one who went in for ornamental gardening; hiring society designer Ellen Biddle Shipman to make for her a 'Moonlight Garden' of  antique roses, datura, plumbago, pentas and bougainvillea, and contributing to the beautification of the public landscape of Fort Myers.

[source]

[source]
Edison's botanical research, prompted by rubber shortages in WWI, was the last of his large scientific efforts.  It was still underway when he died in 1931.  As he neared the end of his life, Edison tributes were many.  Apparently there was a press release listing his favorite flowers, though I haven't been able to track it down.  In 1929, the Thomas Edison Dahlia was introduced at the American Dahlia Society's annual show in Madison Square Garden (does Madison Square Garden still host dahlia shows?  It so should).

Milan, Ohio floral arrangement honoring Edison, 1929 [source]
My lab is in borrowed quarters for now, thanks to an investor, with no outdoor space to call our own, just a parking lot.  But sometime, sometime there will be a laboratory cum garden, with Thomas Edison dahlias planted in it.

Thomas Edison had 1,093 patents.  I have four. I think about him alot.

[source]
Sources:
Wikipedia's article on Edisonian techniques is a good summary of his practical approach to scientific research.
The Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers are open to the public. 
Don't miss the NYBG article on rediscovering an Edison letter.
See also an article on the Edison gardens  in the Tampa Bay Times.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Worst Gardener's Contract. Ever.




I have a friend who is a head gardener and I know they must sometimes suffer their employers with patience, but...

...witness the "Gardening Agreement" between Talames and her gardener Peftumont, c. 500 B.C, Egypt.

Contents of the agreement which Talames, daughter of Imuthes, has made, she giving her garden, on  his agreement to Peftumont, son of Udjaf: 

If you intend to be gardener for me in my garden, then you are to give water to it. You are to give 8 drawings of water to it, in the proper measure of 28 hins of water to the pot and you are to give 20 drawings at the beginning of the water of inundation and 20 afterward. You are to connect the dike to my garden according to the drawing which you shall cast; and you are to put it behind the gardens; and you are not to cause me to compel you to do it.

I am to ask you for your work at evening, and you are to give it to me, when it is complete and whole. And you are to twist and splice 200 cubits of rope...and you are to stitch 4 earth-baskets; and you are to give them rims; and you are to give them their handles. And you are to make them as your work at evening, and you are to give them to me, when they are complete, for the cutting which is to be made to my garden.

 And you are to go to "The Island of the Atum," and you are to bring fibers of palm-leaf to my garden. ....for sparrows and [food] for crows. And you are to cause that I find them hanging above me... 

 And I am to ask you for your dung three times daily; and I am to probe it with a stalk of flax. The grape seed which I shall find in it, I am to take one silver coin to the seed among them. 

Yes, his bowel movement was examined to see if he was eating her grapes.  Plus he only got his wages in wheat (which he had to pound and grind himself) or bread, and he had to bring a spear and a sword to defend himself from the hyena and the wolves.

On the plus side, she promises to bail him out if he gets arrested.

Read the whole contract (there are gaps in the translation) here.

Appropriately, the contract is inscribed on the clay pot (above), now in the collection of the Oriental Institute of Chicago.   Some Egyptologists think it might be satire.

 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

On Planting by Cannon


Craigybarns, image available at redbubble
"The Duke of Athol consulted my father as to the improvements which he desired to make in his woodland scenery near Dunkeld.  The Duke was desirous that a rock crag, called Craigybarns, should be planted with trees, to relieve the grim barrenness of its appearance.  But it was impossible for any man to climb the crag in order to set seeds or plants in the clefts of the rocks.  A happy idea struck my father.  having observed in front of the castle a pair of small cannon used for firing salutes, it occurred to him to turn them to account.  His object was to deposit the seeds of the various trees amongst the soil in the clefts of the crag.  A tinsmith in the village was ordered to make a number of canisters with covers.  The canisters were filled with all sorts of suitable tree seeds.  A cannon was loaded, and the canisters were fired up against the high face of the rock.  They burst and scattered the seeds in all directions.  Some years after, when my father revisited the place, he was delighted to find that his scheme of planting by artillery had proved completely successful; for the trees were flourishing luxuriantly in all the recesses of the cliff."

And according to contemporary photos of the now-climbable cliff, they still are.


Inspiration for your spring planting from the famous engineer James Nasmyth (inventor of the steam hammer), who was writing about his father, Scottish landscape painter Alexander Nasmyth.  The cannon-planting took place about 1788.  Both Nasmyths were polymaths with wide interests.  Alexander was considered the founder of Scottish landscape painting, but he was trained in architecture and  dabbled in engineering and in the formation of actual landcapes,  providing designs for the pump room that still stands over St. Bernard's well in the center of Edinburgh, a picturesque plan for the landscape at Inveraray (including a 'beehive cottage' for the gamekeeper), and advice for turning the ruined Colinton Castle into a folly.

[source]

[source]


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Remnants of William Blake's Garden at Lambeth


From the Spectator, 6 May 1916.

"And there is the little red-brick house in Poland Street, No. 23— the Blakes' first settled married home—standing as Blake must have known it, shabby and dark now with the London smoke of a century and a half, a strange setting for the radiant beauty of the Songs of Innocence which were written and designed within it.  In 1793 Blake and his wife migrated to Lambeth, , to a house known now as 23 Hercules Road.  It makes one of a terrace which has been condemned, and which waits, blackened, untenanted, glassless, behind its hoardings, for the coming of the housebreakers. Even in its present ruin it is worthwhile to cross Westminster Bridge to gain a last sight of it before it disappears, for it is without doubt the most interesting of all Blake's homes. 



The front door of Blake's house is nailed up, and anyone fortunate enough to gain an entrance must make his way through the passage of the house next it, and so into a tangled garden, all overgrown with vine and fig tree—the descendants, doubtless, of those trained by Mrs. Blake with so much loving care into the arbour famous for its apocryphal legend of Adam and Eve, and for the prettier story of the Flaxman visits to the Blakes, and their tea-drinkings and music together."

[n.b. The apocryphal legend: ""Visiting the Blakes while they lived in Lambeth, [Thomas] Butts found the couple nude in their garden summer house. ‘“Come in!” cried Blake; “it’s only Adam and Eve you know!” Husband and wife had been reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character’ (Gilchrist, 1.115)."]

"In summer time this jungle of greenery is thickened by a small forest of Jerusalem artichokes, left by later tenants, and by lilac bushes and bright double dahlias and marigolds. At every step the foot is caught by the trailing vine, and broken glass and waste rubbish lie everywhere underneath the tangle. And so we get to Blake's garden door...



"The Vale of Lambeth "—" Lambeth the Lamb's Bride," as Blake speaks of it in one of his prophecies—with fields and gardens, and open views over to the river and the towers of Westminster and the wide western sky, must have been a pleasant quarter at that time to live in. There is Wordsworth's Westminster Bridge sonnet, written in 1803, three years after the Blakes had left Lambeth, to bear witness to the beauty of London "open unto the fields and to the skies."  



The Songs of Experience belong to this time, and it was on the stairs here that Blake had the great vision of the Ancient of Days with the measuring compass which was to become one of the most famous of his designs...No one can stand before this blackened shell of a home, once alive with so much fire and passionate vision, without a sense of awe, as they think of the "treasure in earthen vessels," of this great spirit.  It is not perhaps quite fanciful to think that the open skies and sunset clouds of Lambeth had their influence on this outburst of visionary power. 


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Where was born Kim Il-Sung?

Mangyongdae is the birthplaceof Kim Il-Sung.   This is what it looks like.

Image source Taedong Travel
But this is what it looks like to North Korean School children.

Image by Raymond Cunningham

The majestic conifers!  The candy-colored blossoms!  And all in bloom at the same time! An Eternal Spring for the dear leader.  On anniversaries of Kim Il-Sung's death, flowers are said to bloom out of season, just like the picture.  (But those white gates and pickets look strangely well, western.)

Kim Il-Sung even has his own flower, the Kimilsungia, a violet dendrobium cultivar that he took note of on a 1965 trip to Indonesia's Bogor Botanical Garden with his neighbor autocrat Sukarno.  Its origin is rated by Pyongyang as one of the Top 100 Important Events of the 20th Century:

He stopped before a particular flower, its stem stretching straight, its leaves spreading fair, giving a cool appearance, and its pink blossoms showing off their elegance and preciousness; he said the plant looked lovely, speaking highly of the success in raising it. Sukarno said that the plant had not yet been named, and that he would name it after Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung declined his offer, but Sukarno insisted earnestly that respected Kim Il Sung was entitled to such a great honour, for he had already performed great exploits for the benefit of mankind.

Kimilsungia festivals may be, by visitor attendance, the most visited flower shows in the world.

Image by Joseph A, Farriss III
Kimilsungia was joined by Kimjungilia, a bodacious red begonia created in 1988 by a Japanese botanist (neither plant can be said to be North Korean in any way) for Kim Jung-Il's 46th birthday.

The red flowers that are blossoming over our land
Are like hearts: full of love for the leader
Our hearts follow the young buds of Kimjongilia
Oh! The flower of our loyalty!

Floral displays mingle these impresa of the two leaders with...tanks and test missiles.

Image by Joseph A, Farriss III

"Someone in my group asked why the Kimilsungia was a smaller flower than the Kimjongilia, our North Korean guide simply said that that was not a wise question to ask." [americaninnorthkorea]

But I'm most fascinated by the miniature landscapes placed in North Korean schools along with those pastel-ized prints of the birthplace.  They personify the leader as much as his portrait,  placing him in pure and abundant and beautiful nature as a stage set for narrative and myth.

photo by Eric Lafforgue

"In a school in Pyongyang, the room dedicated to Kim Il Sung, the father of Kim Jong Il.
The teacher asked the kids "where was born Kim Il Sung?"
They all answer, loudly: "Kim Il Sung was born in Mangyongdae!"
In the center, the native house of Kim Il Sung."  [eric lafforgue]

The 'best' schools (the ones in which they allow Western tour groups) have three rooms, and three gardens.  One for Kim Il-Sung, and one for Kim Jung-Il, and one for Kim Jong-suk (first wife of Il-Sung, mother of Jung-Il).  The trinity of North Korea.  And these are their gardens of origin, their Gardens of Eden.

Photo by Raymond Cunningham

Photo by Raymond Cunningham

See the pointer?  "And here Kim Jong-Il gave his winter boots to another child.  And here Kim Jong-Suk washed Kim Il-Sung's socks and dried them in her bosom."

Garden-as-propaganda.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Constantino Nivola's Artist Garden, c. 1950



I am snowbound here in the Midwest and thinking of Constantino Nivolo's sunny midcentury garden.  It had a fully enclosed solarium (accessible by ladder and block-staircase) with mural-covered concrete walls that must have been scorching in summer but was designed to allow sunbathing even in a New York winter.

When I think of the Hamptons, I mostly think of conspicuous celebrity house parties and overpriced lobster.  But in the 1950s, when a "postwar wave of artists, architects, and writers" swirled out of New York City, "East Hampton was a vital center of the American avant-garde. Back then, before all the traffic, people in the Hamptons argued about art, not real estate."

The best documentation of the uber-cool landscape where Jackson Pollock,  Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and  Franz Kline hung out--smoking and lounging in Bertoia chairs, natch--and the house where Corbusier painted a mural on the living room walls is a 2001 New York Times article by Alastair Gordon from which the quotes in this post are taken, and the book Weekend Utopia: Modern Living in the Hamptons also by Gordon.


After restoring and painting the 18th century farmhouse he had purchased in 1948 (with white walls and New York taxi-yellow floors, and Corbu painted his mural with leftover house paint over a long weekend in 1950) sculptor 'Tino' Nivola turned his attention to creating a pleasure garden, an outdoor gathering space for friends, in the grounds.   Bernard Rudofsky (author of  ''Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture,'' and a lecturer with the best presentation title EVER:  "How Can People Expect to Have Good Architecture When They Wear Such Clothes?")  helped with the layout, suggesting "a sequence of ''rooms'' using paths, free-standing walls, fences and landscaping to create what he called an interplay of wall surfaces, sunlight and vegetation. ''The garden became an extension of of the house -- an open-air house,'' said the Nivolas' son, Pietro, 56, who grew up in the house with his sister, Claire" .

It seems very British, the garden room ideal.  But Nivola was Sardinian, and originally a mason, and these rooms are sketched out in grape arbor and stucco, with bread ovens and fireplaces and a very Mediterranean mood. He did most of the work himself, including planting a tight circle of cedars that eventually grew into its own narrow, shady chamber.   'My father was always creating these kinds of intimate spaces,'' Claire Nivola said. ''It's a bit like Orani, his hometown in the central part of Sardinia. Every wall and roof is at a different angle and height, with very narrow streets and little piazzas everywhere.'"





"Near the center of the garden, a whitewashed fence of horizontal slats defines one room. Perpendicular to it is a concrete wall where, before it set, Mr. Nivola inscribed allegorical figures that appear to be marching to war. A third wall is suggested by a line of evenly spaced trees, while a sculpted fountain rises from a bed of lilies of the valley."



A terrace with a free-standing fireplace, a tall chimney and barbecue grill forms the next space. Another wall has a square window through which the branch of an old apple tree was allowed to grow.







The "tree window" wall was designed so that shadows fell across it like a kinetic mural.  Rudofsky said that it was both a foil and a projection screen.  

''That's where we would have lunch parties every weekend,'' Mrs. Nivola said."  For twenty or more of their artistic friends, because then "The Hamptons weren't filled with restaurants and bars...People went to each other's houses for dinner. There was a lot of dropping in.'' [Pietro Nivola] remembers Pollock coming around. ''He gave me my first bike, and I remember driving around in his Model A Ford.''




Over time, the garden was filled with Nivola's concrete sculptures and later his sand-casts, a patented process he developed while playing at the beach with his children.  "My father was very good at making sand castles,'' Pietro Nivola said. ''He loved to sculpt with wet sand on the beach. Then one day he wondered what would happen if he poured fluid plaster over the forms he had made.'' He painted the castings with different colors. This technique made for a fairly primitive and rough-edged kind of work..." eventually used in his most famous works, large bas reliefs for the Olivetti typewriter showroom in New York.  See, Apple wasn't the first to realize that design sells what are basically office tools.


But in the Hamptons, it was all much more casual...Nivola mixed batches of concrete and let the children sculpt with him, and intentionally used a paint for the murals that would wash off after a couple of years so they could be painted again.  And Corbu wandered down to the beach and to make his own sandcasts with the kids.  Golden moment, indeed.



After Tino's death in 1988, the garden continued to live and breathe with the addition of his daughter Claire's own sculpture.  In 2012, the house and grounds were renovated and preserved and at the time of this writing they remain in the Nivola family.

Other sources:
All the photos are via the blog mondoblogo; see lots more there.
See the story of the renovation and contemporary photos of the house here.
See also the foundation and museum devoted to Nivola's works.

P.S.  Apologies for the lack of blogging lately; I have been deep in The Cave of The Writing of The Book.  But I think I've written enough now that I can breathe again.  I feel like I haven't breathed in six months.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

"They've Found Another Bloody Cascade!"




Lord Cobham to Joe, hand on wallet.

And indeed they had;  giant men in giant cranes digging with the delicacy of bare hands had discovered yet another of the 'other rills' recorded by Thomas Whately in his Observations on Modern Gardening in 1770.

When he went round Hagley (as I and some garden historian friends did this week) he observed

:...a narrow vale divided into three parts; one of them is quite filled with water which leaves no room for a path, but thick trees on either side come down quite to the brink; and between them the sight is conducted to the bridge with a portico upon it which closes the view: another part of this vale is a deep gloom over hung with large ash, and oaks, and darkened below by a number of yews; these are scattered over very uneven ground, and open underneath; but they are encompassed by a thick covert under which a stream falls, from a stony channel, down a rock; other rills drop into the current, which afterwards pours over a second cascade into the third division of the vale, where it forms a piece of water, and is lost under the bridge.  The view from this bridge is a perfect opera scene through all the divisions of the vale up to the rotunda..." 




And we saw it too, emerging phoenix-like from a hundred years of silt that descended the valley and eventually completely covered its chain of ponds, its rills and its cascades.

A year ago, this narrow vale was so grown in with trees that it seemed a clear path to the rotunda (barely visible behind its scaffolding at the top) couldn't be recreated.  Joe and helpers shone torches from the top to the bottom at night to prove it was possible.

Soon you'll be able to see again the Rotunda and the Ruined Castle, and the view from Milton's Seat (below); the monument to Alexander Pope (a friend of the Lord Lyttleton that created the park), the Palladian Bridge and the Obelisk:  all of this landscape where Horace Walpole said he wore out his eyes with gazing, his feet with climbing, and his tongue and vocabulary with commending.

Many thanks to Joe Hawkins and Lord Cobham for giving us a delightful preview; the restored Hagley Hall park will reopen to the public in 2016.




[The other major seventeenth century description of Hagley is by Joseph Heely (1775), available on google books here. See also a BBC slideshow of the Hagley park restoration here.]

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Ogden Nash, Superman and Batman in the Victory Garden




MY VICTORY GARDEN
by Ogden Nash

Today, my friends, I beg your pardon, 
But I'd like to speak of my Victory Garden.
With a hoe for a sword, and citronella for armor,
I ventured forth to become a farmer.
On bended knee, and perspiring clammily,
I pecked at the soil to feed my family,
A figure than which there was none more dramatic-er.
Alone with the bug, and my faithful sciatica,
I toiled with the patience of Job or Buddha,
But nothing turned out the way it shudda.

Would you like a description of my parsley?
I can give it to you in one word--gharsley!
They're making playshoes out of my celery,
It's reclaimed rubber, and purplish yellery,
Something crawly got into my chives,
My lettuce has hookworm, my cabbage has hives,
And I mixed the labels when sowing my carrots;
I planted birdseed--it came up parrots.
Do you wonder then, that my arteries harden
Whenever I think of my Victory Garden?

My farming will never make me famous,
I'm an agricultural ignoramus,
So don't ask me to tell a string bean from a soy bean.
I can't even tell a girl bean from a boy bean.


Nash's contrarian view of gardening for victory was printed in House and Garden magazine in November, 1943.  That year,20 million home gardens produced over 80 million tons of food; about 40% of the vegetable consumption of the US.  Impressive, but this was my grandparents era and they grew all their vegetables at home anyway, Victory or not.  So I've always wondered about these statistics.  

The DC comic book in which Superman, Batman, and Robin labor in a Victory Garden was released around the same time, in September of 1943.  I've only been able to locate the cover...if you know the inside story of why exactly these superheroes have found themselves toiling in the garden (to defeat the dark powers of eggplant, perhaps?) do get in touch. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Parterre de Broderie, now and then



Correspondence I and II, Louise Despont, 2008

Bridge Organ, Louise Despont, 2008

And speaking of parterres, the lovely contemporary sketches of Louise Despont (graphite on antique ledger book pages, 2008) appeared, magically, when I was searching for parterre de broderie images from D'Argenville (1709).  A lovely garden now-and-then arising from an image similarity algorithm.

Google, you are too, too clever.






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