What made Charles Cotesworth Beaman Jr., a wealthy New York lawyer, buy 2,000 acres of land in Cornish and Plainfield New Hampshire in the late 19th century? What made him sell this huge piece of land to painters, sculptors, writers, illustrators, photographers and landscape designers with the express purpose of creating a kind of like-minded place to explore ideas? I don’t know what his reasoning was. In his talk on January 18th, Bill Noble of Norwich, Vermont did not go into Beaman’s motivation. He concentrated on the gardens designed in Cornish during this period. The group of artists, who settled and summered in Cornish created what became known as the Cornish Colony.
Charles Platt was one of those guys who settled in Cornish. He also was one of many Americans, who spent time in Europe, especially France and Italy, soaking up the gardens of the Italian Renaissance. The relationship of house to garden, axis points, loggias, terracing and planting style, if not the plants themselves, influenced the gardens they designed in America.
Garden designers of the Cornish Colony were prolific: Charles Platt designed 100 gardens, Ellen Biddle Shipman designed 650 gardens and Rose Nichols designed 70 gardens.
Noble acknowledged the debt these designers owed to their European influences. However, (and I know this well) the landscape and weather of New England has a way of interfering with the desire for cypress, boxwood hedges and mediterranean plants.
What to do? As Oscar Wilde said “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” These men and women looked around their snow infested landscapes and dropping temperatures and figured out a way to deal with their desire for Italian hedges and decor.
White pines could be made into hedges. Poplar trees are fastigiate in habit… they might hold a small candle to the cypress trees of Tuscany. Formal paths and pools could be built. Terra pots could be used, they just needed to be brought in during the winter months to avoid cracking. But what to do about the plants?
The answer was in American plants. Plants that harked backed to colonial days. It was in the study of those 18th century gardens, that Platt and Shipman, especially found their plant palette. Hollyhocks, iris, peonies, delphinium, asters, and more. Bill Noble has been instrumental in refreshing and renovating these gardens. Noble was careful not to use the word restore. His work is interpretative; based on good research and an excellent feeling for intention.
Those lucky enough to inhabit Cornish, New Hampshire created a little paradise. The garden was intended to make “the house smile.” The Cornish Colony was a state of mind. Publishing this on inauguration day 2017, I wish to escape to that state of mind.
2017 Horticultural Lectures:
The Gardens of the Cornish Colony,
Where Classic Gardens take Root in America
Wednesday, January 18, 2017