I love the way the title of this book sits in American garden history. America's strongest landscape tradition is not of its private gardens but of its national parks; and 'Beautiful America' is most often, even today, its unique wildernesses. In 'My Country 'Tis of Thee', the nation's de facto anthem, it is
"Thine inland seas, Thy groves and giant trees,Thy rolling plains;Thy rivers' mighty sweep,Thy mystic canyons deep,Thy mountains wild and steep,--"
of which we sing, and where stronger 'garden' histories arise (of the garden as opposed to the natural or presumed natural landscape) they are generally in more urban regions of what remains a sparsely populated country, for its size.
|from the online history of Frances Benjamin Johnston at clio, which also lists her main biographical sources|
But Frances Benjamin Johnston--pioneering photographer, photojournalist, visual artist, whose garden photography, 1895-1935 is the subject of a truly beautiful new book by Acanthus Press--was a city girl and saw the making of gardens as a way to improve urban conditions, presaging modern trends like the urban farming movement and guerilla gardening.
She was a member of the first city garden club, The Society of Little Gardens, founded in Philadelphia in 1915, which promoted 'the love of growing plants and making gardens within small city limits'. Her goals are still laudable today:
"...to turn unsightly backyards into gardens, to beautify all waste places, to plant trees near important buildings and on long treeless streets, to encourage window-box planting, and to be observant of the workings of the park department, in order that we may make city life richer by fostering the love of beauty..."
(gardenhistorygirl detects a bit of suspicion of the nefarious park department there), and her photography was part and parcel:
"...we feel that it is very necessary to have photographs for successful developments so that people can clearly see the possibilities of their own backyards, and receive inspiration".
|Laura Stafford Stewart house, 205 West 13th Street, New York, New York|
|Grey Gardens in the Hamptons in 1914, later to be famous as the home of Big and Little Edie|
A celebrity photographer, FBJ shot the wedding of Alice Roosevelt, portraits of successive US Presidents, and produced vanity garden spreads for wealthy homeowners as well as photographing gardens for 'magazines of class'. But she used that access and patronage to further her own goals, to do things like documenting vanishing colonial architecture or the success of the agriculture college in Hampton, Virginia, where Booker T. Washington went to school.
|Cupola House, Edenton, North Carolina; in the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.|
In these efforts she was catholic in her taste, photographing both hovels and plantation houses. Her garden photography, though heavily weighted toward the rich and famous, shows this same expansiveness, an appreciation of the beauty to be found on the stairs to a basement apartment, as in my favorite photograph of the collection, the Janitor's Garden.
Most of the photos are something of a Social Register for Gardens, with hand-coloring in FBJ's preferred Ruskinian idealism to boot. So you'll find the Vanderbilt estates here, and some of England and Italy's most famous gardens, but I am more enamored of the Rhode Island Farmhouse and the sandbox in the back of a doctor's townhouse and the California adobes (present day Californians could learn much from the appropriateness of these landscapes to their settings).
The lovely folks at Acanthus Press have made a copy available to give away to you, dear readers! Just leave a comment to this post by midnight CST on Monday, May 14 to be eligible. You can leave any sort of a comment, but of course I always like to hear nice words about the blog. Nice or not, though, all comments will be numbered and the winner selected by random number generator on Tuesday. Bonne chance!