Beyond going to New York as a general expedition, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to a specific exhibit: An Island Garden, the Impressionist exhibit at New York Botanical Garden inspired by Celia Thaxter’s book of the same title.
Who’s Celia Thaxter? Celia Thaxter (1835 – 1894) was a poet and hotelier who ran a resort-type hotel on Appledore Island, off the coast of Maine, popular with American artists and other creative types. “ A lonely child, living on the lighthouse island ten miles away from the mainland, every blade of grass that sprang out of the ground, every humblest weed, was precious in my sight, and I began a little garden when not more than five years old,” she wrote in the introduction to An Island Garden.
As she grew older and took over the running and maintenance of the inn (originally run by her parents), Celia’s interest in gardening continued to grow. Frigid winters off the Maine coast made it impossible to live on Appledore in winter. Celia would start growing out her summer annuals in early spring on the mainland, then transport them out to the island by boat when the weather warmed in the spring. Out on the island, she’d plant the sturdy seedlings into the ground - where they flourished, to the delight of the many painters, musicians, and poets who visited her hotel in the summer. Childe Hassam, one of the few American impressionists painters to still be celebrated today, was a frequent visitor to Celia’s hotel and garden on Appledore Island. I first became acquainted with Hassam’s work through his incredibly vibrant image of the Street of the Great Captain in Cordoba that’s on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum. His paintings that illustrate An Island Garden (see image to left) display the vibrant summer light and saturated colors of Thaxter’s plantings.
The horticulturists at New York Botanical Garden didn’t have to transport their plants by ferry across the ocean, but the effect was still entrancing. Few gardens in our modern culture are primarily composed of large and showy annual flowers. Drifts of larkspur, nigella, iceland poppy, snapdragons, and queen anne’s lace filled the exhibit hall with sensational soft and rich shades of blue and orange.
The exhibits picked up on the romantic, flickering style displayed in Hassam’s paintings. Just look at the diffuse textured foliage and starry blue blooms of the nigella, clouds of pale blue scabiosa and pillars of ice blue larkspur. For someone who gardens in the south, where these annuals won’t tolerate the summer heat, it’s unusual to see these plants in the shimmering summer light rather than the softer light of spring.
I often don’t like garden exhibitions, typically finding them precious and contrived. But with the diffuse habit of so many of the plants in this display, like the Nicotiana mutabilis above, helped the garden feel real. This exhibit reminded me of why An Island Garden convinced me to fall in love with annuals. These elegant varieties, with rich colors and graceful habits, live up to Thaxter’s incredible descriptions of flowers. Here’s Celia writing about a poppy: “There is a kind of angry brilliance about it, a sombre and startling magnificence. Its large petals are splashed near the base with broad, irregular spots of black-purple, as if they had been struck with a brush full of color. The seed-pod, rising fully an inch high in the centre, is of a luminous, indescribable shade of green, and folded over its top, a third of its height, is a cap of rich lavender, laid down in points evenly about the crown” (Thaxter, An Island Garden, g 85).
Directly outside the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory where the Island Garden exhibition was displayed, there’s a giant perennial border designed by Piet Oudolf. Unlike the plantings in the exhibition, this bed is made up almost entirely of perennial species. However, this bed has a similar flickering impressionist quality - that incredible use of light and color which has made Oudolf projects famous around the world. The plants used may be different, but the aesthetic affects carry on a proud tradition of bringing an artist’s eye to the garden. It might be a crinkly scarlet poppy or a flickering screen of salvias, but those intense moments of color and light will glow in visitors’ memories long after the gardens themselves have faded away.