British gardening? I believe we do.
While most of these histo- ries feature fairly large, well- maintained country places, all products of sophisticated taste in design and planting, Uglow’s Little History offers a remarkably wide range of British gardens and the peo- ple who worked in them, lin- gered in them, wrote or sketched or painted in them, amassed their treasured collections there, or planted vegetables there during times of war and depression. She quotes from familiar sources – the Roman de la Rose, translated by Chaucer in the fourteenth century, and Lutyens’s inscription on the tombstone of Gertrude Jekyll – as well as from lesser known works, including Thomas Tusser’s Hundred Good Points of Husbandry (1557), and passages from Charles Dickens, George Orwell, and Robert Louis Stevenson. One photograph is entitled “Londoners in a back garden during the Blitz, 1940.” In another, “The new Mughal gardens in Bradford, 2003,” smiling, dark-eyed children dressed in traditional silks and cottons from India stand by a little jet of water above a pool or runnel – a hint that the British garden-
ing tradition is growing wider still.
For the uninitiated, Uglow’s Little History could offer an engaging intro- duction to the history of gar- dening in Britain – or gardening anywhere – for we all know some otherwise well- informed person who has no idea that there is such a thing as garden history. But beware. This book, published in 2004 by Chatto & Windus in Great Britain, could have been better served by the copy editor. Some lapses of atten- tion are peculiar; the names of John and Jane Loudon, for instance, are repeatedly (but not consistently) misspelled. And yet how many histories of gardening read so grace- fully, so little like a survey? Uglow writes with equal enthusiasm of Christopher Lloyd’s gardens at Great Dixter and of a garden by the sea at Dungeness created by the ailing filmmaker and author Derek Jarman. Within sight of a vast power station and a few shacks, his blazing red poppies run freely among upright stumps, sticks, clay pots, old kettles, pebbles, wild grasses, and sea lavender – a bit of color amid the chaos. “Yet Jarman’s garden speaks to nearly everyone,” Uglow writes: “in her late eighties my mother spent hours there, gazing out across the English Channel, invigorated by this challenge to emptiness and death.”
Moving on to English Pleasure Gardens by Rose Standish Nichols, we enter a more rarefied world where anything garish or jar- ring remains unseen. It is the dawn of the twentieth cen- tury. Gardeners have access to a wealth of plants from around the world, and the craft of horticulture has been perfected. But the art of gardening has not kept pace, according to Nichols. “In fact,” she writes, “until within the last few years it has gone backward rather than forward in England, ever since the period of the Italian Renaissance.”
This bold indictment, appearing at the outset of Nichols’s first book, disarms a reader who might question the leap from Chapter 9, “Eighteenth-Century Extremes” (on the work of Brown, Repton, the Marquis de Girardin, Carmontelle, and others) to Chapter 10, “Modern Gardens” (on William Robinson, T. H. Mawson, Reginald Blomfield, F. Inigo Thomas, Gertrude Jekyll, and others). Were any pleasure gardens created in
England between, say, 1820 and 1870? Of course. But Nichols would have dis- missed some without a word; others she discusses under the heading “Italian Villa Gardens” in Chapter 8. Apparently what mattered to Nichols, the designer, was not when, exactly, some particular gar- den or garden feature was created but its form – and the tradition to which that form could be traced.
Until recently Rose Standish Nichols (1872–1960) has generally been known by association with other people. Rose’s mother was the sister of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s wife. Rose’s youngest sister married Arthur A. Shurcliff, once an apprentice in the Olmsted office. Rose’s friends among the artists, writers, and designers of Cornish, New Hampshire, included Charles Platt – her mentor in garden design. In her mas- ter’s thesis on the writings of Rose Standish Nichols (Dartmouth College, 1989), Margery P. Trumbull reintro- duced the little-known “Miss Nichols,” but the thesis was not published. Now, with Tankard’s concise introduc- tion to English Pleasure
Gardens, along with other bio- graphical sketches in print, Nichols will become better known – and not for garden design alone.
At a time when most women did not seek profes- sional careers, Nichols stud- ied both architecture and garden design at MIT. While living with the Saint-Gaudens family in New York she studied under the architect Thomas Hastings of Carrère and Hastings. In the Chicago area, Nichols worked on resi- dential garden designs with the architects Howard Van Doren Shaw and David Adler and with the landscape archi- tect Jens Jensen. When the managing editor of McClure’s Magazine, Willa Cather, planned to publish some of the correspondence of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Nichols edited the letters and wrote an introduction. Her friends included several “Henry James Americans” (Jane Brown’s phrase), such as Isabella Stewart Gardner, Bernard Berenson, the Cornish circle, and James himself. Other friends and colleagues were activists, including Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago and leaders in the movement for women’s suffrage. In Cornish, along with First Lady Edith Wilson and a few other women, Nichols found-
ed “A League of Small Nations” some time before President Woodrow Wilson proposed his League of Nations. In Boston, Nichols served as a director of both the Cooperative Building Association and the Boston Society of Decorative Art.
Today, the home where Rose Standish Nichols lived since the age of eight is the Nichols House Museum; the address is 55 Mount Vernon Street on Beacon Hill in Boston. The Nichols family home in Cornish is also open to the public in summer; for- merly known as “Mastlands,” with a stone-walled garden that Rose designed, it is now the Cornish Colony Gallery and Museum. (See Alma M. Gilbert and Judith B. Tankard, A Place of Beauty: The Artists and Gardens of the Cornish Colony, 2000.) And in Milwaukee, a water cascade that Nichols designed for the Lloyd R. Smith residence now forms part of the Villa Terrace Museum of Decorative Arts. Inevitably, these houses and gardens will have changed somewhat, and yet a visit might reveal something of Nichols’s affinity for classic form, understated, “rather like a rosebud about to unfold,” as Trumbull put it. Better yet, read English Pleasure Gardens and see how one designer worked her way through centuries of tradition that she meant to carry on.