Occasionally, landscape gardening goes well beyond flowers and shrubbery to encompass questions of national identity, culture, even social change. The era from 1900 to 1930 in America was one of those times, thanks to several enterprising and unsung women.
Well before American women could vote, these college-educated few rose to the pinnacle of their fields as garden designers, writers and photographers. Declaring American gardens to be distinct from those in Europe, they took as their mission the beautification of America, whose cities were polluted and whose residents were suffering from decades of grinding income disparity and rampant industrialism.
The New York Botanical Garden — itself a creation of that Progressive “push-back” between the height of the Gilded Age and World War I — explores these women and their work in “Groundbreakers: Great American gardens in the 20th century and the women who designed them,” a suite of exhibits on view through Sept. 7.
“Groundbreakers” explores the work of garden designers Marian Coffin, Beatrix Farrand and Ellen Shipman, and garden photographers Jessie Tarbox Beals, Mattie Edwards Hewitt and Frances Benjamin Johnston.
It combines original hand-tinted glass “magic lantern” slides and the hefty photographic equipment used to make them; detailed drawings of some of the greatest estate gardens of the time; gardening journalism and literary writing; and breathtakingly colorful flower gardens — most notably one evoking the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller garden in Seal Harbor, Maine (complete with Ragtime musical accompaniment).
“These women were the leading lights in their fields. And in a broader cultural sense, the work they did helped elevate the quality of life for many people across America through these landscapes and their photos and writing,” said Todd Forrest, the botanical garden’s vice president of Horticulture and Living Collections.
“This brief Progressive era is especially important to look at now as historians ask themselves how, in our present gilded age, we’re going to get this kind of momentum again,” explained Sam Watters, the historian whose “Gardens for a Beautiful America” book (Acanthus Press) helped inspire the show, and who curated its photographic segment.
Among the nation’s first specialized career women, the women highlighted in the show not only designed gardens for private estates, but educated and informed the public through lectures, writing and photos, Watters said.
Their work helped inspire the construction of landscaped parks and gardens across the country; the expansion of tree-lined streets; and the widespread planting of the lush lawns, bordered by flowers and ornamental shrubs, that remain emblematic of American yards today.
“Garden club women, inspired by the garden photos they saw, started going to prisons. They put a rose garden in the courtyard of Sing Sing. A big formal garden with a fountain was put in a prison in Michigan. And they planted gardens around train stations across the country,” Watters said.
“It really was landscape gardening as social activism.”
On the great estates, the cutting edge of landscape design at the time, photographs were commissioned and schoolchildren brought in with the edification of the masses in mind.
Whereas 19th century American gardens replicated gardens in Europe, these new gardens combined Asian architectural elements, English-style flower borders, European ideas of space and distinctly North American settings for a unique sensibility. And before there was color photography, the lush hand-tinted coloring of Johnston’s lantern slides awed and inspired home gardeners.
The show is ambitious and sprawling, and experiencing it in its entirety requires the better part of a day. Although the exhibits can be viewed in any order, the story flows best by beginning in the garden’s Mertz Library Rotunda with “Gardens for a Beautiful America: The women who photographed them,” curated by Watters. Along with photos, books, magazines and journals of the period, the exhibit features examples of the era’s imposing wooden camera equipment — gardening photography required serious biceps — along with a few original lantern slides.
Two of Farrand’s masterpieces are on view in the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden and in “Mrs. Rockefeller’s Garden,” a dazzlingly colorful indoor horticultural exhibit. Shipman designed the garden’s Ladies’ Border, and Coffin designed the Montgomery Conifers Collection.
The show also includes a “Poetry Walk,” featuring poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, many inspired by her garden in Austerlitz, New York; a section on “Groundbreaking Women in Science”; a series of concerts, films, lectures and poetry readings; a free iPhone app with previously unpublished photos; and a section for kids on the science and art of landscape photography.