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Musings » On Foreign Soil: American gardeners abroad
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Hill, Mary Brawley
New York
Harry N. Abrams 2005

A very special subset of Americans is represented in this impressive, richly illustrated volume. The author is concerned primarily with American artists who went to live in Europe. In general these were the people who wanted to create gardens and had the imagination and flair to do it. In several cases they were helped by finding local spouses who already owned property or who inherited it during the course of their marriage.

Some wealthy American expatriates preserved important estates both in the British Isles and on the continent of Europe which might otherwise have been doomed to neglect and destruction. The chapter headings give some idea of Hill’s approach: Palazzos in town and villas by the sea; Artists’ gardens in France and England.

One of the best known expatriate American artists in the mid- nineteenth century was the sculptor William Wetmore Story who lived and worked in Rome. Nathaniel Hawthorne became his very good friend and used his personality as a start for “The Marble Faun.”

Most of the artists left the United States unglamorously because it was much cheaper to live in Europe. An additional incentive was advanced instruction. The best known teachers were all in the Old World.

The gardens were often quite traditional to the locale, but many Americans complained they could not grow some of their favorite foods abroad. Hill quotes from quite a few letters about the inability to grow good corn on the cob!

In the wealthy category, few Americans left such a strong legacy as Lawrence Johnstone of Hidcote in Gloucestershire. He was not in robust health so his mother bought him the estate as an inducement to settle in the countryside and pursue a quieter life.

In London he was among the entourage of the fascinating Violet Gordon Woodhouse who lived in a menage a cinq quite unselfconsciously: complacent husband and three lovers. Mrs Johnstone Sr did not approve.

Johnstone developed a hitherto unknown skill in landscape design. He worked with Norah Lindsay, the finest of English garden designers in her day but it is quite clear he was in charge. They both revelled in the doctines of Gertude Jekyll and William Robinson. Hidcote is now on the list of heritage gardens in England and a place of pilgrimage for all who revere fine landscape.

James McNeil Whistler is another artist who had a garden in his adopted France. One of his most famous paintings is set in an English garden belonging to friends: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.

Mary Brawley Hill has searched for illustrations in many places. She is a very scholarly art historian by trade. The book abounds in archival photographs, watercolors and oil paintings, as well as useful plot maps.

One can only hope she will turn her attention to Asia in her next book. One famous American expatriate in Japan was Lafcadio Hearne. He immersed himself in all things Japanese and must have had a superb garden.