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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Winter/Spring 2005 > Garden Ornaments Past and Present

Garden Ornaments Past and Present

ABOVE Around 1900, cast-iron statues flanked the façade of Roseland Cottage, and a pair of urns stood near the enclosed parterre garden.

Many Historic New England properties feature gardens of beauty and historic significance. When visiting, you can enjoy viewing them from the house, studying their overall plans, or observing the particular plantings. But crucial to the overall effect of these landscapes are their ornaments—statues, sundials, fountains, urns or decorative pots, and benches—strategically situated to enhance the design or provide seating for rest, conversation, and contemplation.

There is no record of statuary, urns, or other garden ornaments being placed in the landscapes of the Lyman Estate, in Waltham, Massachusetts, or the Codman Estate, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, when they were developed in the late eighteenth century. Both of these landscapes were designed in the English manner, which aimed to create a natural effect through judicious placement of trees and artificial ponds. In contrast, the nineteenth century witnessed an increasing use of ornaments in gardens both large and small. A variety of cast-iron urns was readily available to consumers, and statues of classical figures and animals populated the landscapes of houses like Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Connecticut. Garden gnomes were in evidence in English gardens as early as 1840.

ABOVE LEFT  Cast iron patio chair.
ABOVE CENTER  A sundial sits on a millstone, one of several placed in the Colonial Revival garden at the Hamilton House.
ABOVE RIGHT  Swan benches at the Codman Estate.

When Ogden Codman, Sr., bought back his family estate in 1862, the landscape had changed little since the 1790s, when his grandfather, John Codman, had redesigned it in the English taste. With his copy of A. J. Downing's A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening in hand, Codman initially planted trees, following his grandfather's approach to garden design. By 1872, however, embellishments had been introduced to the front of the house, in the form of terra cotta urns on the pedestals of the balustrade on the upper terrace. On the lower terrace, ornamental pots sat on large marble Corinthian capitals that had been turned upside down for greater stability. In 1898, Codman's wife, Sarah, recorded these ornaments in several watercolors. A year later, work began in a marshy dell to the rear of the house on what she called simply "the garden." Here, statues, elaborate terra cotta pots, and two fountains played a major role in the original design, which was loosely based on Italian gardens, so popular at the time. Pergolas were erected at each end, one with columns saved from a building and the other with concrete columns made by the Codmans' son Tom. Tom produced other garden ornaments from concrete, including bases for statues and pots and later a table and benches for his sister's cottage garden. The most elegant benches on the property, with seats and backs supported by cast-iron swans, arrived from France in 1949 and replaced the more modest ones on the front terrace. These had apparently been commissioned by Ogden Codman, Jr., for one of his chateaux.

The garden created in 1900 by Emily Tyson and her step-daughter, Elise, at Hamilton House, South Berwick, Maine, also had strong roots in Italy. Despite its Italian antecedents, however, the garden soon became viewed as one of the ultimate American "colonial" gardens. In 1915, Louise Shelton in Beautiful Gardens in America said of it, "In isolation, simplicity, and ripeness the atmosphere of the whole place breathes of olden days, and might well be taken as a model for a perfect American garden." Popular garden ornaments such as a sundial, a birdbath and a fountain were placed on an axis extending from a large elm in the field through an opening in the pergola to the view down the Piscataqua River. The sundial—a required element in the Colonial Revival garden—was also the center of the garden's other axis, reaching from the side door of the house, through an arch at the top of the granite steps, between two columns topped with carved pinecones, to the orchard and fields. Seating furniture was provided in a number of forms, from cast-iron copies of regency-style benches to wooden benches with whimsical scrolled supports.

ABOVE LEFT  Terra cotta pots and statues, including a copy of Jacopo Sansovino's Bacchus, played a key role in ornamenting Sarah Codman's Italian garden at the Codman Estate.
ABOVE RIGHT  A concrete table and bench complement the Arts and Crafts design of Beauport's garden. An impertinent ceramic squirrel perches on the wall overlooking Gloucester Harbor.

The future interior designer Henry Sleeper visited Hamilton House in 1907 and was inspired by the garden cottage the Tysons assembled from elements of a dismantled eighteenth-century structure. Following their example, he incorporated salvaged paneling into his summer home, Beauport, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that was then already under construction. Sleeper's original garden was a series of small "rooms," intimate spaces that related to each other as well as to the style of the house. This concept closely followed the principles of the Arts and Crafts garden. The ornaments that he chose to embellish these spaces echoed both Arts and Crafts design and his interest in early American decoration. Photographs taken in 1910 of the brick terrace overlooking the harbor show it furnished with a large settle, like the one by the fireplace in the Pine Kitchen, and Windsor chairs pulled up to a massive square table in the Arts and Crafts style. On the adjoining terrace, the concrete table and benches are even more decidedly Arts and Crafts in style, with a Tudor rose the only decoration. A ceramic squirrel and bird that once perched on the terrace wall added touches of whimsy wholly in keeping with Sleeper's decorative treatments throughout the interior of the house.

In 1937, when Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little purchased Cogswell's Grant in Essex, Massachusetts, to use as their summer home, they found remnants of an attempt, probably dating from the mid-nineteenth century, to make the front yard of the 1728 farmhouse more formal. Terraces with stone steps led up to the house, and large specimen trees framed the walk at the top step. The Littles were more interested in the farm's agricultural setting than garden design and placed only a few objects in front of the house. For outdoor seating they used an early nineteenth-century English wrought-iron bench and chair and a Windsor settee no longer wanted in the house. They placed two large copper pinecones, probably originally used to top fence posts, by the steps in the lower terrace and propped a large swan cut from sheet metal against a distant stone wall.

ABOVE LEFT The scrolled bench at Hamilton House may have been designed by George Porter Fernald, who painted the murals of Italian gardens inside the house.
ABOVE RIGHT This marble faun, a copy of an original in the Louvre, was probably introduced to the grounds of the Lyman Estate in the early twentieth century.

Garden ornaments are more ephemeral than the bones of a garden. They are subject to changes in taste, breakage, the weather and, alas, theft. Not all the ornaments and furnishings described or illustrated here can be seen in the gardens today. Some no longer exist, some are in pieces, and others have been removed for safekeeping until such time as they can be reproduced.

—Richard C. Nylander
Senior Curator

ABOVE LEFT A cut-out metal swan at Cogswell's Grant.
ABOVE RIGHT A stone model of a Jacobean house, nicknamed "Toad Hall," and an Arts and Crafts planter reflect the eclectic mix of styles Henry Sleeper used at Beauport.
Garden Ornaments Past and Present