Views of Naumkeag

Once the summer retreat of New England blue bloods, an estate in the Berkshires retains its elevated status

Can you say that a 44-room Shingle Style cottage “perches” on a hillside? Maybe “presides over” is the more accurate description of Naumkeag’s presence just up the road from the center of Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

It presides, yet recedes into the surrounding landscape. What makes this Trustees of Reservations property one of the Bay State’s “irreplaceable natural and cultural treasures,” as that nonprofit puts it, is its gardens and grounds—and its views of the Berkshire mountains beyond.

Naumkeag was originally the summer home of the blue-blooded Choates. The family trees of both Joseph and Caroline Sterling Choate, who built it, includes New England’s first white settlers, Revolutionary War veterans, and U.S. senators.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Joseph made his name and a vast fortune as an attorney. He argued cases before the Supreme Court and served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of Saint James in the early 1900s. Caroline, a member of New York’s social elite the Four Hundred, was an advocate of women’s higher education who helped to found Barnard College. She was studying art and considered herself wedded to that calling when she met Joseph, then a young lawyer “winning his spurs at the bar,” according to her New York Times obituary.

Materially, their marriage in 1861 got off to a modest start, but with certain amenities, listed in a letter Joseph wrote his mother: “a bed, two tables, four chairs and a sofa, a cream pitcher, an asparagus fork, six salt cellars and a rug, and there might be a much meaner stock to begin upon than that, you know.”

By 1884, the Choates could afford to hire Stanford White, of McKim, Mead & White, then on its way to becoming the premier architectural firm of the Gilded Age, to design a summer home for them. Over time, Joseph and Caroline, and later their daughter Mabel, acquired antiques, art, and oriental rugs (as well as a 1930s-era Frigidaire for the kitchen) to keep that lonely asparagus fork company.

Prominent Boston landscape architect Nathan Franklin Barrett laid out the grounds on the steep slope of Prospect Hill, previously a favorite picnicking site of the family. His plans spared a favorite oak tree and introduced the copper and European beeches that are now majestic specimens.


Mabel Choate became Naumkeag’s guardian after her mother’s death in 1929. Like many socialites of her time, her life was a mix of purpose and privilege.

In the “privilege” category: A few months after her mother’s death, and the Stock Market Crash, she bought a 15-room duplex on Park Avenue. In the “purpose” category, she was a philanthropist and an active advocate for such causes as maternal health, neurological research and treatment, and historic preservation. She seems to have lived her life with energy and flair (that hat!), traveling in Europe and Asia, collecting fine art, furniture, and decorative art objects, entertaining—the Baron and Baroness Rosenkrantz, in Hot Springs, Virginia, the Condé Nasts in Stockbridge.

Mabel Choate, left, in the early nineteen-teens, with the original Gibson Girl. (Library of Congress photograph, from a glass negative)

And she had a passion for gardens. According to the Trustees’ archives website, she was a member of the Garden Club of America, the American Peony Society, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and the Lenox Garden Club.

In 1926, at the Lenox Garden Club, she met the master landscape architect Fletcher Steele, then in the early years of his career. That meeting was the start of a nearly 30-year collaboration in the reimagining, remaking, and expanding of the estate’s gardens. Steele had his own room at Naumkeag, with a bell connected to the kitchen, and Mabel gave a birthday party for him every year.

“In my mind, Naumkeag is now a work of art,” Choate wrote Steele in 1950, when she was 80. “Thanks to you. I am more interested in it and excited about it all the time.”

Eight years later, Mabel Choate died and through her bequest, Naumkeag became a Trustees property.

Steele combined a modern approach to design with the belief that gardens should have a “patina,” according to a Spring 2016 Preservation Magazine article. (He said of Naumkeag some 20 years into it, “Nothing gets right until Time gets in its work.”) In the decades after 1958, the gardens’ patina-making outran Choate’s endowment for their maintenance. A million-dollar matching gift to the Trustees in 2012 made an extensive restoration possible. During the process, workers unearthed a lost rock garden and determined that the famous blue steps were originally navy, not the bright blue they had been repainted over the years.

About designing the Blue Steps, Steele said, “I figure that comfort in going up a steep hill depends on variety of leg action, the lack of which makes a long flight of steps intolerable … So I put up four ‘divisions,’ each one having a couple of steps and turns, two ramps of different steepness and a graduated flight of half a dozen steps to a platform.”

When you see the steps, their gracefulness, more than their engineering, is what stands out. Google “Naumkeag,” and their image is everywhere, but by exercising some leg actions of your own when you’re there, you can discover several other dramatic settings: the re-created linden allée, the Chinese Temple Garden entered through the Moon Gate, and the Afternoon Garden, with a parterre bordered by Venetian gondola poles.


I went to Naumkeag most recently for its Tulip and Daffodil Festival, a succession and a profusion of spring flowers, more than 130,000 bulbs in all, that goes from mid-March to mid-May. During the festival, if you can tear yourself away from all that floral glory, you can also tour the ground floor of the house.

In the heat of the summer, the somewhat shadowy interiors (lots of dark woodwork, antique tapestries on the walls) must have offered a cool refuge. It’s a showplace, but not terribly showy. Like Steele’s garden designs, the house has a patina, too: from the soft golden glow of a miniature Chinese screen on a mantel, the glimmer of the dining room’s tin-leaf ceiling.



I enjoyed my look-round, but the spring light was calling, and I wanted to see everything outside before I ran out of steam. So, I moved on to the Chinese Temple Garden to admire the aged marble paving, the young ginkgos, a comical trio of watering cans, and the copious peonies (plus a shocking-pink art installation in the temple that seemed made to be Instagrammed).

My last stop was the fountain where artificial bubbles floated on the water, and real ones into the air, a delightful, mysterious reminder that the beauty of gardens, even those that endure, is ephemeral and evanescent.

The tulips are all just a memory, but Naumkeag’s gardens are open for the summer season, Thursdays through Sundays. At the nearer end of the linden allee, there’s a terrace with tables and chairs and a food kiosk offering drinks and snacks. Find the Naumkeag website here.

The restoration of the gardens is a fascinating story in itself. You can learn more about it in the Preservation Magazine article mentioned above and this photo essay from the National Trust for Historic Preservation website.

Robin Karson’s Fletcher Steele, Landscape Architect: An Account of the Gardenmaker’s Life, 1885-1971, University of Massachusetts Press, is an excellent account of his life and career.

And to read more about Joseph Choate, who led a full and interesting life, take a look at this American Heritage article.


R.I.P. Jan Morris

A little tribute to a brilliant, prolific writer who loved and wrote eloquently about Venice. And some photographs of same.

Although by and large the obits about Jan Morris, who died November 20 at age 94, described her as a travel writer, she didn’t consider herself one; in fact, in a 2015 interview, she told The Guardian:

“I hate being called a travel writer. I have written only one book about travel, concerning a journey across the Oman desert. I have written many books about place, which are nothing to do with movement, but many more about people and about history. In fact, though, they are one and all about the effects of everything upon me–my books amount to one enormously self-centred autobiographical exposure! So I prefer to be described as simply–a writer …”

That’s how I enjoyed her: as a writer, of tremendous style, perception, curiosity, and joie de vivre. When I was learning about writing and about the world, reading her accounts of places, in particular, Venice, gave me great pleasure and taught me about how to look, how to live, how to think, how to write (all interconnected).

And revisiting Venice to write this post, I was impressed all over again by how much research Morris had done into the city’s history, by her powers of observation, how skillfully she drew connections between past and present, how generous, receptive, how willing she was to meet the Venetians on their own terms. Hardly “self-centred” (or self-centered).

During an extraordinary career as a journalist and the author of “fortyish” books (the Times of London described her as “a bit hazy on the exact number”), Morris covered a variety of subjects over a range of genres. She was also notable as a “transgender pioneer,” in the words of the Los Angeles Times; about half her life she was James Morris.

Her career got a jump-start in 1953 when she sent a coded scoop to The Times of London reporting Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent of Mount Everest, dispatched via messengers from an expedition camp at 20,000 feet. She went on from there to, you might say, even greater heights, capturing the Zeitgeist covering Adolph Eichmann’s trial, interviewing Che Guevara.

Her trilogy Pax Brittanica is an acclaimed history of the British Empire. There were essay collections, novels, and memoirs, including Conundrum, published in 1974, about her 10-year transition from man to woman.

And the “non-travel writing” writing, including that book about La Serenissima.

In a 2015 Vanity Fair essay, Morris wrote about how she got into the Floating City for the first time in a back-door kind of way, at the end of World War II. At that time, she was still James, “an officer of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers (founded 1715), […] my menial job would be helping to run the motorboats of Venice, almost one and all requisitioned by the army.”

Here’s her description of the first time she went to the legendary Harry’s Bar during that original visit:

“I paused on the doorstep there, but as I did so I caught the eyes of the Venetians behind the bar, one at the cash desk, two others busy with trays and glasses. They all looked up, too, but their expressions were different. Their look seemed at once speculative, interested, amused, kind, and collusive. I loved that look, and it was, I came to think, a true look of Venice. It put me both at ease and on my guard, and it has kept me going back to Harry’s Bar, with more or less the same sensations, from that day to this.”

And to give you just a taste, here’s an excerpt from Venice, written in 1960:

“It is very old, and very grand, and bent-backed. Its towers survey the lagoon in crotchety splendour, some leaning one way, some another. Its skyline is elaborate with campaniles, domes, pinnacles, cranes, riggings, television aerials, crenellations, eccentric chimneys, and a big red grain elevator.

“There are glimpses of flags and fretted rooftops, marble pillars, cavernous canals. An incessant bustle of boats passes before the quays of the place, a great white liner slips toward its port; a multitude of tottering palaces, brooding and monstrous, presses toward its waterfront like so many invalid aristocrats jostling for fresh air. It is a gnarled but gorgeous city […] the whole scene seems to shimmer–with pinkness, with age, with self-satisfaction, with sadness, with delight.”

In that Guardian article, Sam Jordison ended the interview with a great question, “Is there a question you haven’t had before that you’d like to be asked?” Morris’s reply was equally good:

“Yes, I would like to have been asked if there was any moral purpose emerging from my 40-odd books, and I would answer yes, my gradually growing conviction that simple kindness should be the governing factor of human conduct.”


I took these photographs of Venice in 2008. Morris’s book helped set me up to fall in love with the city on my first visit years before, and I was not disappointed my next two, either.

I was entranced each time by all its magical elements: the architecture, the art, the votive shrines, the vaporetti, the traghetti, the piazzas, the vivid, tingling presence of the sea and the evidence everywhere you look of the city’s long, glorious, and inglorious history. By its elegance, its dog-eared corners, the thrill of hearing music at La Fenice, the shopkeepers’ curious but charming custom of propping open their doors to let in the sea air, even when it was wet and cold as a dog’s nose…

As a tourist, you hope that by being courteous, open, and appreciative, the locals will cut you some slack, but on each of my stays in Venice, I met people who went beyond, who extended courtesy to me, who were interested in finding common ground, even if it was just for a few minutes. Simple kindness.

For further reading, follow these links to The Guardian article, the Vanity Fair article, and The New York Times‘ Jan Morris obituary.

Back at The Clark

Returning to the re-opened Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts

The last time I wrote about The Clark, I talked about the particular cocktail-party appeal of mingling again with art familiar from earlier visits.

I didn’t know then–who did?–that two years later museums would shut their doors for months. Stepping into The Clark’s soaring entry hall this time, I was even more grateful to see old friends.

I said hello to “Sleigh Ride,” “The Bridal Path, White Mountains,” and all the other Winslow Homer dazzlers in the first of the American Art rooms. I greeted George Inness’s bucolic “New Jersey Landscape.” I caught the eye of Sargent’s Madame Escudier.

Then, in the dreamy violet gallery with its laylight ceiling, I surprised myself.

In college I loved the paintings of Renoir, Monet, and co. Then, other artists, other periods nudged them out. The pastel surfaces, the misty landscapes, the rosy nudes: “chocolate box” is the adjective their detractors have used. Without ever rejecting the Impressionists, I admit I treated them rather nonchalantly. This visit, I went for the bonbons.

“Paint generously and unhesitatingly,” advised Impressionist Camille Pissarro. It’s also important as a museumgoer to look generously. To stop, step in, step back, give a painting its due, especially if you have tended to breeze by it before. But I wasn’t thinking this all through at the time. I just followed my feet to Renoir’s “At the Concert.”

Mother and daughter or sisters? One corseted, in black, hair up; the other, in white, in short gloves, hair still unconstrained, streaming down the length of her back, the curve of her cheek still showing a trace of childhood plumpness. Both bandbox perfect and bringing to mind those adjectives—fresh, dewy—long applied to girls.

But what about that big, mottled, wine-dark section? At first glance, it looks hastily done, as if Renoir were eager to get on to the more interesting parts or ready to put his brush down. Yet that smudgy, swirly suggestion of a maroon velvet curtain lends motion, texture, contrast, some mystery.

A quarter of the canvas, it keeps things from getting too fussy, and it sets off the faces, drawing attention to the most precisely rendered area of the painting: the older one’s eyes. Is she listening, watching, waiting, dreaming? In the midst of a sensuous material world, she seems to have gone somewhere else.

“People are crazy about Renoir,” Sterling Clark, the museum’s cofounder, wrote in his diary. Well, the artist could make an onion look sensuous, as another jewel in the Clark’s collection demonstrates. Part of my pleasure of looking at these works was feeling the pleasure Renoir took in looking and painting.

And pleasure was what I was after, my first time in a museum in seven months.

I spent time with other portraits. Its ornate gilded frame aside, the Degas self-portrait seemed very modern; he could be a Brooklyn hipster.

Rembrandt’s “Man Reading” struck me as a portrait of Every Reader. The label bolstered that impression, noting that the painting may be a tronie, done as a study of a subject, not a representation of a specific individual. (I wonder, did every reader wear a big, black hat in 17th-century Holland?)

Rembrandt’s common-law wife, Hendrickje, and Titus, the only child of his to reach adulthood, both died of bubonic plague. It may have killed Saskia, his first wife, too, that or tuberculosis. Plague broke out in Amsterdam again and again during Rembrandt’s lifetime. Whether or not it was Rembrandt’s intention, “Man Reading” captures the comfort of retreating to intimate, interior experiences during terrible times.

Shelter from the storm? Onto a Joseph Mallord William Turner masterpiece, “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water.” Turner’s lengthy title is more literal than the painting: a commotion of sea and sky; blurry figures huddled in a corner, blotches of paint, bursts and pinpoints of light.

It’s like looking into the eye of a hurricane (a metaphor for our time). And the closer you look, the more the imagery disappears. Turner’s signature sinks and merges with the surf.

Find the signature.

Meanwhile, outside the museum, the calm, crystalline fall day was calling.

The setting of the Clark is so beautiful that, on a nice day, you’re tempted to linger by the vast reflecting pool, designed by landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand, before you step inside, and you should always give yourself time to explore the grounds (140 acres in all) and trails, which are free and open to the public.

The afternoon I visited, a shiny flatbed truck stood next to sculptor Eva LeWitt’s “Resin Towers A, B, and C,” at a spot halfway up Stone Hill, which looms behind the museum’s main buildings. The colorful, nearly 11-foot-tall totems and works by five other contemporary artists comprise Ground/work, the museum’s first outdoor exhibition. Jenny Holzer’s stone benches inscribed with statements that are witty, disturbing, and provocative all at once, as well as work by Thomas Schutte, William Crovello, and Giuseppe Penone, are also on longterm display en plein air.

You can climb Stone Hill straight up a steep path or take a trail that winds more gently through woods and brings you out by the Lunder Center. I was there on one of the last days of the solo exhibition Lin Mae Saeed: Arrival of the Animals (now closed). I confess, every time I see a show in this part of the museum, I fantasize about setting up house in the spacious galleries.


At any party, the time comes when you have to go home, and after a dash into the Manton Research Center to wave at the Constables, I went. I didn’t have the chance to thank my hosts, but I am grateful. Spending time with art has never been more nourishing.

The pandemic protocol for visiting The Clark is painless: You buy your ticket in advance for a specific entry hour. Masks and social distancing are required.

Once I was there, I realized that museums are pretty safe places to be: the ventilation systems are excellent; the spaces are big and airy, with a minimum of surface (even fewer you’re permitted to touch); and staff is on hand to monitor things. I relaxed and enjoyed the art.

On my way to The Clark, I stopped to see “Big Bling,” the Martin Puryear sculpture on the edge of the Mass MoCA campus in North Adams. Forty feet tall, made of wood and chain-link fence, it’s terrific from every angle.

At the Apex

An orchard with a view

I’ve been buying Apex Orchards’ peaches and apples for years at a farmers market, but I hadn’t been to the orchard itself in Shelburne, Massachusetts, since they opened their farm store in 2016.

Located on Peckville Road, no less, the store is stocked with local foodstuffs and products: goat cheese, honey, vinegar, maple syrup, barbecue sauce, soap, ice cream, yogurt, squash and other fresh produce, and of course, the fruits of its orchards: peaches (the season’s almost over), pears, and numerous varieties of apples, including Macoun, McIntosh, Gala, Golden Delicious, and Honey Crisp.

It also sells cider from a neighboring orchard, and because no self-respecting farm store in New England can be without them in October, bins and stacks of pumpkins. Last weekend, a food truck was dishing up fried dough.

You can walk or ride the tractor-towed trailer down the hill to pick your own. Or you can do what people were doing on the perfect fall day just past when I was there.

Loll on the grass. The sign in the photograph above reads, “Go no further,” and I take that as an invitation to recline. Breathe in the crisp, clean air, and don’t forget to smell the asters (but don’t inhale the bumblebees!) in the colorful garden outside the store.

Take in the jaw-dropping 50-mile views and pick out peaks on the horizon (Mount Monadnock, Little Monadnock, Mount Grace, Mount Toby, the Notch…)

Stroll, scamper, herd your kids, or walk your dog.

Fling yourself from the split rail fence. The last is perhaps best left to people this tall and under.

And watch the clouds cast shifting shadows over the range. In a couple of weeks, those hills will be hosting the “carnival of autumn”–I’m borrowing that felicitous phrase from one of Marsden Hartley’s brilliantly colored landscapes of New England in the autumn.

“Carnival of Autumn,” Marsden Hartley, 1908, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

If you’re in the area, a 10-minute drive takes you along the Mohawk Trail, a leaf-peeping destination for more than a century, and to the villages of Shelburne Falls and Buckland, separated by the Deerfield River and connected by an old iron bridge. There’s a really sweet quality to the downtown. For example, when I visited, Baker Pharmacy on Shelburne Falls’ main street was displaying first-graders’ science projects, complete with papier-mâché blue eggs, in its window. And how many local shops offer you a means of making your own Tintin rocket ship or Eiffel Tower figurine?

Here’s a link to the Apex Orchards website. If you’re within driving distance of Apex or another orchard, pay it a visit to get some fresh air and support a local farmer.

If you’re in the Hilltowns of western Massachusetts and looking to go deep into fall foliage, try this wonderful trail in Ashfield that I wrote about here.

Touring Tower Hill

A botanic garden in central Massachusetts offers dramatic plantings and lots of breathing space

From its first display of fruit and flowers at a Massachusetts cattle show in 1840, the Worcester County Horticultural Society (WCHS), one of the oldest active horticultural societies in the U.S., “flourished like a tree planted by the rivers of water,” according to an 1848 report about the society.

Over the next century and a half or so, the society produced crowd-drawing annual exhibits, awarded prizes, built exhibition halls, and grew a library of books about gardening and related subjects. In 1986, established the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts.

Eight years after the society’s incorporation, its 1850 show boasted “1,200 plates of beautiful fruit … 400 plates of pears, more of apples, and 30 varieties of peaches,” according to Frances C. Earle’s 1923 lecture on the history of the society.

In 1846, among the varieties “plated” were such familiar ones as Bartlett pears and Baldwin apples and others less so: Red Cheek Melocoton and Snow peaches; Brown Beurre, Louise Bonne de Jersey, and Duchesse d’Angouleme pears; Rambo, Blue Pearmain, New York Spice, Praiseworthy, Lyscom, White Sheep Nose, also known as Black Gilliflower, Roxbury Russet, Tilly Chaffin, Friar (“apt to be knurly”) and Hog-pen apples, the last sensibly renamed Holden Pippin. Pictured above, Rambo, Snow Peach, Roxbury Russet

Accounts of WCHS’s premier show and those that came after, singled out dahlias for mention as “the most numerous and most important portion of the exhibition of the flowers.”

How remarkable is it that dahlias, grown by the Aztecs, “discovered” in Mexico by 15th-century conquistadors, and taken to Europe some 200 years later, should have made their way back to the Western Hemisphere in the 19th century to flourish in a rural pocket of New England? “By the 1840s garden writers in America were hailing scores of new varieties every year,” according to Old House Gardens’ online dahlia catalog. Globalization is old hat when it comes to flowers.


In 2020, the WCHS is again displaying dahlias. They’re just one genus among the hundreds of flowers—as well as Black Beauty tomatoes and other exotic-looking vegetables—I saw at Tower Hill recently.

The dairy farm cum executive’s estate that the WCHS began transforming 34 years ago is now a full-blown, spectacular botanic garden and arboretum.

The extensive grounds, 171 acres, has several garden beds close to the cluster of buildings that includes the visitors center, two conservatories, the Orangerie and the Limonaia, and the original farmhouse. There’s a cottage garden, a reading garden, a “garden within reach,” a secret garden, a systematic garden. The last groups plants taxonomically, that is, according to their various families.

You can experience the gardens, though, as unsystematically as you like, dallying like the monarch butterflies dropping by, giving yourself over to the pleasures to be had from zeroing in on an amaranth.

You can linger under the pergolas or by the reflecting pool, with dueling turtle fountains and primordial-looking aquatic plants. Admire the palm trees, the chubby cherubs and other assorted ornaments, planters, urns, and statuary in the classical style.

You should make an effort to look up once in a while at the beautiful views. From certain vantage points, you can catch sight of the Wachusett Reservoir winking its big blue eye and Wachusett Mountain on the horizon. Or you can ponder perspective from one end of Pliny’s Allee, a broad walk framed by oak trees underplanted with oak leaf hydrangeas.

Venture farther, along Pliny’s Path, the Quarry Path, or one of the trails, and you’ll come across the shade garden and the wildlife garden, Frank’s Column, the Temple of Peace, the Folly, the Moss Steps, and the Friendship Urn. Currently undergoing restoration is the Frank L. Harrington, Sr. Orchard, which over the years has been home to 100-plus varieties of heirloom apples, including Rambo and Blue Pearmain, mentioned earlier. It’s scheduled to reopen in 2021.

Stupidly, I wasn’t expecting everything to be so lush and beautiful. In late summer/early fall, ordinary gardens tend to sag, maybe because ordinary gardeners tend to sag. But, of course, these are no ordinary gardeners.

And this is not your garden-variety garden; it’s one glorious blooming party. Glowing like they just came from the spa, perennials, annuals, vines, and shrubs of complementary and contrasting textures and colors—chartreuse and purple-black, tassels and ripples—mingle companionably and sidle up to one another for an intimate chat. (I think I saw a couple of succulents doing the tango.) No wallflowers here.

After even the hardiest of hardy annuals succumb to the cold, Tower Hill’s beautiful, unusual trees and shrubs, boxwood hedges, stone walls, brick walkways, and other structural elements come to the fore.

Tower Hill is a great leaf-peeping destination. In fact, Yankee Magazine just mentioned the garden in an article about “the 10 prettiest fall foliage villages in Massachusetts.”

I’m hoping to get back there next spring, when the Field of Daffodils is in bloom. It’s “a crowd, a host,” of daffodils, to quote Wordsworth’s poem: 25,000 bulbs’ worth. Early narcissus varieties open in April; others take the show into May.


Last spring, when Tower Hill was closed because of the pandemic, it donated bucketfuls of its daffodil crop to area hospitals, as a gesture of support to health care workers. Every summer, Tower Hill harvests tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, kale, basil, and more from its vegetable patch to give to local food banks. According to the garden’s blog, this year it expects to beat its previous record of 1,000 pounds of donated produce.

George Jaques, a 19th-century Worcester horticulturalist and nurseryman produced what he termed “a little book” with a big title: Transactions of the Worcester County Horticultural Society From Its Formation to the Commencement of the Year 1847. In it, he wrote that the society was “still but a nursery plant, and these few leaves can give only a faint idea of what its foliage, flowers, and ripened fruits may be in the years to come.”

I think Jaques would be pleased by the society’s evolution into an exceptional botanic garden that produces fruits, flowers, and foliage with the best of them—and shares them with its neighbors.

Like so many public places, because of the pandemic, Tower Hill has changed how it accommodates visitors. I bought my ticket beforehand and presented the scannable version on my phone (a printed-out copy is also accepted) when I drove up for “touchless” admission. Its entry policies may change, so check its website before you go. (And, yes, there are bathrooms.)

The two beautiful botanical drawings of apples above are from the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection and can be found here. And ’tis the season for apples: You can read about heirloom varieties here.

A Nutshell Kingdom

An often-quoted line of Shakespeare is Hamlet’s assertion, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

During this current, collective bad dream, I have gone looking for a sense of infinite space. Masked up, I walk around my neighborhood and neighboring neighborhoods. In Queens, Key West, Santa Cruz, and Riga, Instagram friends are doing the same. I’m building out my nutshell kingdom.

On the one hand, what has caught my eye are examples of off-kilter, happenstance beauty, orchid meets barn red, for instance, or a patch given over to wildness.

A dot of color at the vanishing point and the last relic of Serio’s, a sweet neighborhood grocery store that closed a while ago.

Imperfection, a little disorder, too. At this moment, there are more people out and about, but in the spring, the streets were pretty empty. A trio of scooters, laundry on the line, a recycling bin by the driveway, even a pile of bricks with a tarp over them looked like signs of life to me.

On the other hand, I am drawn to what shows care, a lovingly tended spot, a pocket garden, a chartreuse vine flowing across a doorstep, a porch made into a breathing space, places made mysterious and lovely by nightfall or a streak of light.

Front yards, backyards. Tucked-in sanctuaries, small oases of calm. With a blue chair (there seem to be a lot of them) and the occasional golden hen.

Once I even came across a short story: “Please Love This Chair.” ( Full text: “Comes from home with guinea pigs. Original upholstery, wow! My studio can no longer contain it.”)

A sense of infinite space, I’ve decided, is the feeling you have room to move, but also that you are anchored, connected to the universe, at least a tiny dot of it. It comes from seeing that nature keeps going, doing its best, sometimes even flourishing, on its own path, in its own way. And seeing people figuring out ways to keep going, even persist.

Black Refractions

Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem

History of Application: Talking to You, 1977, McArthur Binion (detail below)

One reason we look at art is to see ourselves reflected; I know that place, we say, that light, that joy or pain, that’s part of who I am. It’s reassuring, that affirmation that we’re not alone. Art is also revelation, showing us what we don’t know about ourselves and the lives of others.

Since the murder of George Floyd and the international protests, I’ve been thinking about Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem, a traveling exhibition I saw at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) in Northampton, Massachusetts, this winter, and its power to reflect and provoke reflection, as in “consideration,” as in “light returned from a surface.”

Nwantinti, 2012, Njideka Akkunyili Crosby

Black Refractions spans a near century of art-making by nearly 100 artists of African descent, with Bill Traylor, born in 1853, at one end of the spectrum and Jordan Casteel, born in 1989, at the other. It has a star-studded lineup: Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Aboud Bey, Mark Bradford, Juliana Huxtable, Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili, Faith Ringgold, Bettye Saar, Lorna Simpson, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Ann Weems, Kehinde Wiley, Fred Wilson …

Spirit of the Elements, 1979, Betye Saar
Echoes of Harlem, (detail) 1980, Faith Ringgold

… And one international in scope, featuring artists from or working in Africa, China, Europe, the United Kingdom, and the Caribbean as well as the United States.

Untitled, diptych from Afro Muses series, 1995-2005, Chris Ofili, living in Trinidad and Tobago

Previously hosted by The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, and the Kalamazoo Institute of Art, it was scheduled to make two more stops after leaving SCMA in April. The show closed early because of the pandemic and is scheduled to open in May 2021 at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.

Festive Vista, 1980, Hughie Lee-Smith

Beautiful, inspiring, stimulating, it’s not the kind of show where you kick off your critical faculties and take everything in from the aesthetic equivalent of an overstuffed chair.

With some exhibitions, you can dive deep or drift. That might mean taking a show of Constable’s admittedly superb, revelatory landscapes, for instance, at face value, treating it as a day at the beach, a vacation from your own troubles and what the poet Matthew Arnold called “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery.” It might even deliver a dose of hope that the world is better than it seems, a “land of dreams,” to quote Arnold again.

Space, 1966, Alma Thomas

Beauty, nourishment, hope, an escape route to dreamland: All that can be found in Black Refractions, but also sorrow, struggle, pain, and dislocation. It’s not easy being face to face with harsh realities, but more than ever, it feels essential. And because the show presents the sensibilities of so many artists, it also manifests resilience, strength, assertion, courage, resistance, and transcendence.

Black Wall Street, 2008, Noah Davis
Lawdy Mama, 1969, Barkley L. Hendricks (next to two Betye Saar works)

Purists might argue that art should be viewed and have an impact without the viewer knowing the artist’s life story. I’m not a purist. I was moved by the stories of people who, against seemingly overwhelming odds, made extraordinary art, Clementine Hunter and Bill Traylor, for example. I wanted to know more about Elizabeth Catlett, James VanDerZee, and others (See the brief bios and links to more information at the end of this post.) I’m not immune to star power, either, as exemplified by 33-year-old Juliana Huxtable, who already has exhibited at MoMA, New Museum, and the Whitney.

Untitled (Man Dying), 1940-45, Clementine Hunter
Untitled (Dog), tempera on cardboard, n.d., Bill Traylor
The Midnight Ramblers, 1925, James VanDerZee

Mother and Child, 1993, Elizabeth Catlett

Anyone who skipped reading the wall labels would still feel the strong narrative pull of, among others, River, Maren Hassinger’s snaking sculpture of chain and rope, Mickalene Thomas’s rhinestone-encrusted Panthera, and Kehinde Wiley’s Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence), a portrait of a man standing amid the floating clouds of his hair.

These and other works can be seen as investigations into history, stereotypes, and social constructs and values but also into the natural world, the nature of painting, and the nature of portraiture.

Portrait of a Young Musician, 1970 Beauford Delaney

In other works, formal considerations seem to be what interested the artist, but that generalization may or may not hold when you take a closer look.

Number 74, Leonardo Drew

If there is a generalization to be made about Black Refractions, (and I know I’ve made some and will make a few more before I’m through), it might be that generalizations don’t do it justice. Quite the contrary, in fact. Take the idea of “black art,” for instance.

In the exhibition catalog, Studio Museum Director Thelma Golden states, “For me, to approach a conversation about ‘black art’ ultimately meant embracing and rejecting the notion of such a thing at the very same time.”

Khee I, 1978, Jack Whitten

So many of the artists represented in the show have come up against institutionalized ideas about what Art is and who can make it.

A related question: What should art do? To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, should it be a mirror held up to reality or a hammer to shape it? (Brecht came down on the side of “hammer.”)

The Room, 1949, Eldzier Cortor, the first painting in the museum collection

The Studio Museum in Harlem started out as a hammer, or maybe an artist’s mallet, an instrument to carve a new vision out of obdurate materials. As Columbia art history professor Dr. Kellie Jones explains in the catalog, the museum was founded as “a place to support artists of the African diaspora, who, throughout history had been largely shut out of exhibition and commercial opportunities … during a time of unbridled protest in the world of culture.”

That would be 1968, a time fraught with protest. The civil rights, antiwar, women’s, and environmental movements were all taking to the streets. Activism and advocacy, a desire to alter present reality and rewrite art history, have shaped The Studio Museum’s development over the past 50 years.

The museum wasn’t conceived as a repository of art, but it now has more than 2,500 works in its collection, reflections of myriad perceptions of reality, social, political, personal: Art as a hammer and a mirror.

Silence is Golden, 1986, Kerry James Marshall

Besides the imagination, complexity, and nuance evinced by the works in Black Refractions, there is wit. Wry, ironic, sometimes sardonic, it denotes the disconnect between an individual’s dead-on perceptions of reality and society’s assertions of what is.

Steam’n Hot, 1999, Willie Cole

The primary definition of refraction is the phenomenon of a ray of light being deflected from a straight path as it moves from one medium into another. It’s diversion; it’s distortion. It’s also what makes a mirage and a rainbow.

This show presents creativity refracted: passing through painting, sculpture, photography, video or another art form, informed by intellectual inquiry, honed by artistic rigor, sometimes forced by the artists’ experiences in the world to take a harder, longer path but not broken. Given form, substance, life.

This post is my attempt to convey my appreciation of the exhibition and show a sampling of the art in it. For those who want to know more about it, the museum website is a great resource and so is the exhibition catalog. The museum itself is closed but has online offerings.

Clementine Hunter (1886-87-1988), the granddaughter of an enslaved woman, began painting in her fifties, using supplies left behind by a guest of her wealthy employer, and went on painting for nearly another 50 years, on whatever material she could find: paper, roof shingles, window shades.

Born into slavery and a sharecropper most of his life, rendered jobless and homeless by crippling rheumatism in his seventies, Bill Traylor started making art in his late eighties, when he was sleeping nights in the backroom of a funeral home in Montgomery, Alabama. He made more than a thousand drawings and paintings using materials he found or was given.

Elizabeth Catlett merged activism with art-making. Born in Washington in 1915, she was denied admission to Carnegie Institute of Technology after the school learned she was “colored.” She went on to study with Grant Wood and Ossip Zadkine, made stylized, sensuous sculptures, such as Mother and Child, designed posters for Malcolm X and Angela Davis. In 1959, the State Department declared her an “undesirable alien” because of her leftist politics (she was living in Mexico at the time) and denied her a visa to return to the United States throughout the following decade.

The photographs of James VanDerZee (1886-1983) captured many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as middle-class blacks and street scenes—the essence of a time and place. The arc of his career was wide, too: in 1925, he did the portrait of the Midnight Ramblers. A year before his death, he photographed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Scottish Spring

Being in a Scottish garden in spring is enough to send you reeling.

 

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Famous for its lochs and tors and braes and burns and sheep on a heath, Scotland has many beautiful, venerable, and unusual gardens tucked among its rugged natural formations.

These photographs were taken a year ago on the grounds of Inveraray Castle in Scotland, and in Crarae Garden and Arduaine Garden, both National Trust for Scotland conservation sites. The three gardens are close to one another in villages on the west coast, in Argyllshire, a few hours’ drive north of Glasgow. 

At a time when they and other public gardens are off-limits, I thought even a virtual glimpse of greenery might be welcome. 

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For starters, the bluebells. Maybe there’s a Pantone number, but there’s no word for their color, a shade that sets vibrating some neuron in the brain dedicated to beauty. When you look closely, the source of the shimmer reveals itself: each bell on the stalk is not one color but two, streaked blue and violet.

The bluebells were flourishing among the trees and in the garden beds, in the woods, in shady spots along the side of the road—everywhere.

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Rhododendrons and their close cousins, azaleas, were blooming, too.

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At some spots in Crarae, they filled the frame, towering overhead, spent blossoms spilled across the paths, each a grove unto itself.

I saw rhododendrons in a lot of places in Scotland, but I don’t think you can have too much of anything flowering in spring, especially in a northern place. Apparently, the three generations of Campbells who cultivated Crarae felt the same. More than 400 rhododendron species grow there.

The rhododendrons at Inveraray Castle are of mythic proportions—you could hide an army under them.

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The trees in these gardens were spectacular, scaling things up, adding rhythm. Their heft and stature turns the design of a garden into architecture.

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Some of the trees in the Inveraray Castle grounds may date back as far as the late 17th century. Mature trees give a garden gravitas and a time line: They say (nicely), we were here before you were born. Flowers are fleeting, and that’s one reason we love them. The hardy mother plants that birth them may be decades-old, but the blossoms last just a heartbeat or two in the pulse of a garden. Planting a sapling as part of a garden scheme is an act of faith, done with the knowledge that you may never see it reach its full glory.

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An Inveraray Castle tree.

 

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These gardens spoke in a voice both rough and soft, the horticultural equivalent of a Scottish burr.

There were astounding effects, such as that of the paved riverbed that borders Crarae.

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DSC00986And charming ones: a circular bed bracketed by arbors, already sporting blowsy creamy-yellow roses, at Arduaine.

There were plants, camellias, for one, that are fragile exotics where I live, cajoled into bloom in the shelter of greenhouses, blooming out in the open at Crarae. And palm trees at Arduaine.

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Hedges as meticulously coiffed as the ladies who lunch.

(But note the missing slat at the bottom of the gate and the stalk coming out of the planter. This is another example of the particular charm of these gardens, mingling the domesticated and the free-ranging, delicate and flamboyant, close care and free rein. The Japanese term wabi-sabi comes to mind: imperfections that make perfection. In fact, that term is especially apt here, as sabi can be translated as “withered.”)

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And there were wild corners and passages, and the fact that the wildness was probably shaped and nurtured by an unseen hand and a keen eye didn’t diminish the thrill of them. It takes tremendous craft to make all the elements of a garden blend and cohere in a way that looks natural.

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I felt I was learning something at every turn from the horticultural artistry that places a few ferns in a clearing by a stony path or conjures a Van Gogh drawing* via squiggly undergrowth at a slant.

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I loved turning down a path and being dazzled by unexpected, poised juxtapositions of colors, shapes, and textures. I’ve been watching a lot of ballet online lately, and it’s the same sort of sudden emotional uplift when Emma von Enck (or Ashley Bouder or Tilor Peck or…) swirls en pointe across the stage.

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And, last but not least, there were moments when I savored the look of a single flower in a lot of green.

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Inveraray Castle, the stately home of the Duke of Argyll, Chief of the Clan Campbell, was built in the 18th century and added to after a fire in 1877. (Downton Abbey fans might recognize it as “Duneagle Castle,” seen in a Christmas episode). It has 16 acres of gardens and extensive parkland (the estate all told is 60,000 acres). The castle itself is enchanting; maybe a post for another time.

In 1895, James Arthur Campbell, back from managing tea estates in what was then Ceylon, sunk a spade into the earth, and started to make a garden. Arduaine Garden (Ard-doo-a-nie), overlooking Asknish Bay, was the result. Like Crarae, 14 miles away, Arduaine has many plants from Asia—including Rhododendron zeylanicum, grown from seed that came with consignments of tea from Ceylon—and from South America. At one, glorious point, six gardeners were employed to tend the plantings; for nearly two decades after World War II, a nanny, Miss Yule, looked after it, according to Historic Environment Scotland. Arduaine remained in the Campbell family until 1971, when nurserymen Edmund and Harry Wright, bought it, and over the next 21 years, restored and added to it. They gave it to The National Trust for Scotland in 1992.

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The path to Arduaine.

Yet another Campbell, Grace, Lady Campbell, initiated the creation of Crarae Garden in 1912, and her son, Sir George, and grandson, Sir Ilay, enhanced and expanded this “Himalayan glen,” as it is often described. Many of its rare specimens were obtained by intrepid plant explorers, including George Forrest, Ernest Wilson, and Grace’s nephew, Reginald Farrer, by venturing deep into the highlands and hinterlands of China, Korea, Tibet, and other Asian countries.

Farrer’s story is a fascinating one. Born with a cleft palate and a hare lip that needed several surgeries to correct and made his speech hard to understand, he was home-schooled, spending a lot of time roaming the forests of his Yorkshire home; he memorized a botany book at the age of 8.  He went to Oxford, traveled, made gardens, wrote 21 books, founded a plant nursery, introduced the threepenny-bit rose (R. Farreri ‘Persetosa’) and several other plants, became a Buddhist in Ceylon during one of his several plant-hunting expeditions, and died, age 40, “working hard among the plants and camping on the high passes,” in his words, of the Minshan mountains of Burma (now Myanmar).

Just before his death, he wrote his cousin Osbert Sitwell: “Right away over on the far side of the uttermost edge of nowhere, I sit in a little bamboo shanty, open at every pore to the winds that blow … no letters, no papers, no news, nothing to remind me of the mad world I hate … It is extraordinarily, incomparably, delicious and restorative.”

 

* For comparison, a Van Gogh drawing, “A Group of Pine Trees Near a House,” 1889:

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Hunter for a Cure

 

Objects in Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum remind us that the fight against disease has been going on for centuries.

 

 

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The term “wet specimens” alone could put you right off, I know.

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That’s the technical term for the body parts on display at the Hunterian Museum. Last spring, I visited this Victorian neo-Gothic pile, part of the University of Glasgow.

The museum is named for William Hunter (1718-1783), the anatomist, surgeon, and teacher who bequeathed thousands of objects, including shells, fossils, minerals, coins, paintings, antiquities, and an extensive library, to the university.

But now that the coronavirus has put us all in storage, I wanted to focus on the jars of preserved medical specimens on display there. I admit, in my weirdness, I was drawn to them even before the current plague made them seem newly relevant.

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They might seem unappealing oddities or at best quaint curiosities, antiquated tools compared to the sophisticated equipment now being used to investigate and treat COVID-19. (Despite having that technology at their disposal, researchers and medical staff feel the frustration of knowing they can’t get answers fast enough.)

Yet these jars hold history. They remind us that the history of medicine is a story of a long slog, of getting down to the nitty-gritty, getting close to the body, in all its stages and states. And of researchers handing on what they learned generation to generation to build a body of knowledge.

Preserving these specimens—a lymphatic vessel, the reproductive organs of sparrows—required patience, precision, and expertise. So does developing a body of knowledge, devising a cure.

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For Hunter, specimens were vital to his medical practice, research, and teaching. He is variously credited with contributing to our understanding of the lymphatic system, obstetrics, cardiovascular disease, rheumatic disease, and bone and joint disease. Written more than two centuries after his death, a 1990 article about his contribution to dental science noted “Hunter’s teaching methods are still influential today, and his specimen collection is one of the most comprehensive in existence.”

Much has been written about the man as well as the scientist; the accounts sometimes contradict each other. He was generous, he was parsimonious; a gentleman, a social climber. By all accounts, he was an interesting person.

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According to a 1968 JAMA article, “Of a contrary temperament, [Hunter] was born in Lanarkshire in the environs of Glasgow on the family estate, Long Calderwood. The family was large, some were tubercular, others were gouty, but the stock was outstanding, and means were available for proper education of each of the children. At the age of 14, William began his studies at the University of Glasgow, where he remained five years and acquired the reputation of a good scholar.”

C. Helen Brock, a Glaswegian physician who devoted 30 years of her life to the study of the man, presented a different perspective on Hunter’s early years, stating that because the farm’s soil was “unsuitable,” his father “lay awake at night” worrying about meeting family expenses—he sold off land to pay for William’s college education—and Hunter grew up in “an atmosphere of financial anxiety.”

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Sent to university to prepare for a career as a Presbyterian clergyman, William chose science over religion and went on to study medicine in Paris and London. In his “darling London,” he seems to have proceeded from one success to another, among them being made Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte. He delivered 14 of  her 15 children.

Thanks to his labors, Hunter became well-known and wealthy. (One admirer said Hunter “worked till he dropped.”) His circle include leading painters and writers, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Tobias Smollett, and Benjamin Franklin, when Franklin was living in London.

In 1767, Hunter moved into his new, expensive Great Windmill Street residence, which also housed his school of anatomy and museum. “Anatomy is the only solid foundation of medicine,” Hunter wrote. “It is to the physician and surgeon what geometry is to the astronomer. It discovers and ascertains the truth, overturns superstition and vulgar error …”

“William Hunter,” by Johann Zoffany, collection of the Royal College of Physicians, London

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He commissioned an architect to design his house but was frugal in other ways, dining out, a friend recalled, on a couple of eggs and a glass of claret. Instead of pouring drink down his gullet, he poured his fortune (£20,000 on coins alone) into acquiring “the trappings of civilisation,” in social historian Roy Porter’s words.

In 1768, Hunter wrote a friend, “My affairs go well. I am, I believe, the happiest of all men. I am sinking money so fast that I am rather embarrassed. I am now collecting in the largest sense of the word.”

Acquiring examples of nature’s astounding diversity and man’s innovativeness. Amassing knowledge. Indulging a soft spot for the lowly violin beetle? A Collector Extraordinary.

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Since arriving at the University of Glasgow in 1807, the collection has grown. In the 1940s, for example, the museum purchased fossils collected by pioneering paleobotanist Emily Dix. (Hers is a tragic tale.)
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Also on display are medical and scientific instruments of a later date, such as the 19th-century lithotrite, above. Their looks, so spare, so machined, so carefully crafted for a specific purpose, attracted me more than their significance. I took their pictures but am a little ashamed to admit I didn’t get their names or note their purpose.

Still, you don’t have to study them long to see they have their stories to tell—and some of the narratives might, well, make your skin crawl. You might not really want to think about how that lithotrite operated (the movie Dead Ringers comes to mind…). Yet, for their time, they were advanced technology.

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The specimens, like the instruments, are beautiful, delicate, mysterious, elegant and, yes, often grotesque. In a way, we’re like them.

Removed from the outside world, suspended, isolated behind glass. Objects to be studied, tested, and traced, and containers of bits and pieces of data that build a body of medical knowledge. What will our own bodies yield up to examination? Will we test positive for the COVID-19 virus? How will we respond to its presence? Will antibodies show up in our systems? And will the accumulation of all the data ultimately lead to a vaccine and a cure?

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The lymphatics of the intestine. Lacteals. Porpoise

We may look with alienation at these “preparations,” at what is normally interior and concealed, just as we suddenly see our fellow humans in a new, unsettling light. We are as unfamiliar, complex, mysterious, survival-intent, and even repellent right now. Understandable; still, how strange it is.

We conceal ourselves, cover our faces with masks, our hands in gloves, dressed for moving through a storm, as if we were guilty of something. How quickly our former ways seem archaic. How quickly we have been transformed.

 

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Assorted postscripts and links:

My post doesn’t do justice to the wonders of an institution that also includes the Hunterian Art Gallery (beautiful Whistlers!), an anatomy museum, a zoology museum, and the exquisite reassembled McIntosh House. More: Hunterian, 

You might find this article heartening: It profiles researchers at just one institution—Stanford University—applying their various and impressive kinds of expertise to the task of fighting COVID-19.

I’m all for that: Hunter’s library contains texts about a terrible plague in 1721, one of which touted coffee as a possible means of warding off disease-ridden pests.

Last fall, I wrote about another collector, not in Hunter’s league, yet interesting all the same: William Skinner. His collection lives on in a former Congregational meeting house in South Hadley, Massachusetts (owned and overseen by Mount Holyoke College).

The end: The 1782 engraving below shows William Hunter in his museum on Resurrection Day, among searchers of their missing parts. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

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