Brazilian rain forests and their Amerindian inhabitants. As her environmental con- cerns grew, she began to set many of her botanical studies in natural habitats.
After decades of surviving extraordinarily difficult conditions in the Amazon, and while still at the peak of her career, Mee perished in a car accident in England. Following her death, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew raised funds to purchase many of her paintings, as well as her sketchbooks and diaries. The diaries have been published and her works exhibited, but this traveling exhibition, which originated at Kew, is one of the first efforts to bring a representa- tive selection of her work to North America.
Curator Ruth L. A. Stiff has taken the opportunity to juxtapose Mee’s gouache paintings with the sponta- neous drawings in her sketch- books. She introduces the paintings and drawings with a display of implements used by Mee in her travels: from brushes and palette to the lenses and notebooks of a botanist. A presentation of the nineteenth-century explo- rations of the Amazon by Richard Spruce, an original contributor to Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany, and Karl Friedrich Philipp von
Martius, originator of the thirty-volume Flora Brasil- ensis, sets the stage for Margaret Mee’s life work. The selection of Mee’s fine botani- cal art culminates with a case dedicated to the Amazon Moonflower (Selenicereus wit- tii), an ephemeral night- blooming cactus-flower that Mee, after a two-decade pur- suit, finally witnessed six months before her death. Its florescence and her all-night vigil to witness its few hours of bloom are presented in a brief video loop that records the opening of the flower and Mee’s sketching of it by torch- light. – Elizabeth Eustis
in art and nature is excessive and affected. Indeed, the word beauty has become sus- pect, having been polarized by the advocates of mod- ernism who promoted func- tionality and technological innovation as superior values. This modernist ideal – the twentieth-century aesthetic (yes, anti-aestheticism is itself an aesthetic) – valued the pro- gressive future and discredit- ed the historical past. For all forms of art, this has had the effect of eliminating what is ornamental and symbolic, which has struck a particu- larly severe blow to the art of landscape design. Today, with few exceptions, the poeti- cal potential of sculpture as an integral, symbolically significant element in garden design has been abandoned. Instead, landscape architects create gardens as showcases for artworks that are meant to be regarded in formal, con- ceptual, or political terms. In addition, in many twentieth- and twenty-first-century gar- dens, the rich resources of
On the Making of Gardens by Sir George Sitwell with an introduction by Sir Osbert Sitwell and foreword by John Dixon Hunt (Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, 2003) Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener by Dominique Browning (New York: Scribner, 2004)
The word aes- thete has acquired, beyond its orig- inal definition of one who cul- tivates an unusually high sensitivity to beauty, a pejo- rative meaning, implying a per- son whose pas- sion for beauty
the plant king- dom are underutilized. David Godine is thus to be commended for bringing out the four-
times previously republished but largely forgotten minor classic On the Making of Gardens by Sir George Sitwell, a book in which the intentions of the author are from first to last aesthetic.
Who was Sir George Sitwell (1860–1943)? In a 1951 edition of his book, his son Sir Osbert (1892–1969), in what is perhaps one of the most unfilial introductions ever written, describes him as a neurasthenic whose recu- perative sojourn in Italy bore fruit in an excessively researched, overly romantic period piece that failed to win sufficient readers to become commercially successful. Somewhat churlishly, Sir Osbert sets about a post- mortem settlement of old scores, portraying his father as often misguided, easily irritated, and overly broad in his interests to the point of leaving many projects unfinished, including his own garden at Renishaw, the ancestral home in Yorkshire. He concedes, however, with regard to On the Making of Gardens, that his father “knew what he was talking about, having observed, noted and practiced” and that “whatever may be judged of the achievement [this one book] was wholly realized down to the last comma and final full stop.”
Writing his introduction to On the Making of Gardens 42 years after its publication
of in 1909, Sir Osbert viewed that lost golden age, “the days of good King Edward” – when British aristocrats still took for granted the assumption of privilege and the possession of leisure – from a historical perspective in which two world wars, the sinking sun of Empire, and restructured policies of taxation had made the upper-class aesthete’s creed seem quaintly irrele- vant. Nevertheless, the atten- tion that Sir George gives to analyzing old Italian gardens should be of interest to the garden historian today. In the process, he draws on a wide and deep reading of contemporary works on psychology by William James (1842–1910) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) as well as the works of John Ruskin (1819–1900), whose monu- mental Modern Painters was a vast primer of aesthetics for Sitwell and his generation.
It is true, as John Dixon Hunt points out in his fore- word, that Sitwell does not discuss “the role of ideas or the topic of meaning in gardens, which we know was a prime constituent of Renaissance design.” But this defect has subsequently been remedied by the kind of gar- den history scholarship pio- neered by David Coffin at Princeton as well as by Hunt himself, who has admirably
advanced the field for the past 30 years. Coffin’s books on the great gardens of Papal Rome, including one on the Villa d’Este, and recent books by Claudia Lazarro, Mirka Benes, Dianne Harris, and Tracy Ehrlich have interpreted the rich iconographies and underlying messages of Italian gardens. Sitwell can- not be faulted for not doing what they have since done with the benefit of archival research and close examina- tion of historic engravings, for his method and objective were different. His study of Italian gardens was conduct- ed on the spot and based entirely on his own firsthand observations.
After obtaining permission from the owner of a garden, Sitwell – accompanied by his servant, Henry Moat, who was equipped with a wicker picnic box and had the demeanor and physique of a bodyguard – would sit for hours on a portable air cush- ion in some shady spot making notes, a green-lined sun umbrella on the ground beside him. Nor was his intention merely to distill the aspect and mood of the more than 300 gardens he visited throughout Italy. The title of his book – On the Making of Gardens – suggests a differ- ent aim: “namely, that of influencing the newly recov- ered art of garden design.” In no sense is it a how-to-repli- cate book; instead, Sitwell seeks to articulate landscape