Gardens, Landscape History, New England Gardens

Augustus Saint-Gaudens: A Sculptor and his Garden

August 31, 2015

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As summer slips away I have been working on my list of local garden visits which, like my summer reading list, is often overly ambitious and unfulfilled. Most recently I traveled to Cornish, NH where at the turn of the century an artist’s colony flourished with American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens at its center.

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Painting of Saint-Gaudens by Kenyon Cox, 1908

For those of us who live in Boston Saint-Gaudens is revered for the magnificent Shaw Memorial, sited on the Boston Common across the street from the Bullfinch-designed state house. Deemed “sculptor of the American Renaissance” his portfolio of civic projects is complemented by his other work which includes portrait reliefs, medals and coins.

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Studies for the Shaw Memorial (seen above) as well as a plaster portrait relief of author and poet Robert Louis Stevenson (seen below) are examples of Saint-Gaudens’ work displayed at the site.

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Saint-Gaudens summered in Cornish beginning in 1885 and purchased Aspet, named after his father’s birthplace in France, in 1892. In 1900, after being diagnosed with cancer, it became his permanent home. The view below, of the Pan fountain, is from an undated postcard.

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During the time Saint-Gaudens lived at Aspet he and his wife, Augustus Fisher Homer, transformed the grounds adding gardens, hedges and recreation areas including a golf course, bowling green and swimming pool.  According to his son, Homer Saint-Gaudens, “. . . there was hardly a week in all the time my father spent on this place during twenty
-two years that he did not have something rebuilt or regraded to his intense enjoyment.”

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His niece, Margaret Shurcliff (wife of landscape architect Arthur Schurcliff) wrote “Uncle Augustus took a great deal of joy in landscaping the grounds, and was the first to plant rows and rows of pine hedges. He surrounded the flower garden, the vegetable garden, the clothes yard and the swimming pool with pine hedges, thickened with a few scattered hemlocks. Like many a genius, Uncle Augustus was never satisfied. He was always rearranging his sculpture, and he liked to rearrange the hedges.”

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The complex of buildings on the property includes the house and an ensemble of studios and galleries. All are connected by a series of outdoor rooms which provide the setting for sculptures sited within the landscape.  The simple elegance of the plan, seen below, shows the contrast of the formal landscape with its natural setting.

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While the grounds reflect the personality of Saint-Gaudens they also collectively embody an example of the style of house and garden popular in Cornish during this era in which the indoor and outdoor environments of the many artists and writers living in the region served as an extension of their art.

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The complex of buildings and the various components of the landscape, including views of Mount Ascutney, recall the artist and his way of life.  The intimacy of the natural world and the beauty of the changing landscape provided Saint-Gaudens ongoing inspiration.

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The gardens are a well-preserved example of the type of garden favored in this country in the early years of the 20th century which, as noted in the property’s cultural landscape report, were Italian in inspiration but highly personal in detail, where flowers and other plants were used profusely more for “aesthetic effect than as collections of horticultural rarities.”

A plan of the garden, along with several photographs, was included in the 1908 book American Gardens, edited by Guy Lowell.

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More than one hundred years later the white curved bench that terminates the formal garden remains.

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The Italianate styled flower garden is formally aligned with the rear of the house and enclosed by pine and hemlock hedges.  Old fashioned perennials line each side.

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Designed by architect George Fletcher Babb the Little Studio, seen below, replaced a studio originally built in 1884.  It is here that Saint-Gaudens worked independently creating sketches to be enlarged and completed by his assistants.  The piazza was designed by Saint-Gaudens following a trip to Italy and lined with Doric columns.

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Allées of birch trees connect the Little Studio to the Picture and New Galleries and Atrium.  Sited within are sculptural elements from the Shaw and Adams memorials.

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These include a detail from a recast of the bronze funerary sculpture of Clover, wife of  historian Henry Adams, seen below. The original is sited in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Cemetery and called by Adams,”The Peace of God.” “The Mystery of the Hereafter …..beyond pain and beyond joy” was the name given the work by Saint-Gaudens.

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The New Gallery, Picture Gallery and Atrium are an ensemble of buildings connected by a circular courtyard. Remodeled in 1948 to include exhibition galleries they feature a Roman style atrium and pool.

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Formerly the vegetable garden, the cutting garden is planted with historic varieties of annuals.  These are used by volunteers for floral arrangements throughout the house and studios.

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A rustic ravine studio was used by Saint-Gaudens’ assistants for marble carving and sculpture production.  Built about 1900 it is sited at the beginning of a self-guided quarter-mile ravine trail following an old cart path along the Blow-Me-Up Brook which culminates at the Temple.  Designed in 1905 the Temple, originally a stage set for a play celebrating the 20th anniversary of Saint-Gaudens arrival in Cornish, houses the family ashes.

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In 1902 Saint-Gaudens served on the MacMillan Commission charged with the beautification and redesign of the Mall in Washington, D.C. and the selection of a site for the Lincoln Memorial.  In 1904 he was chosen as one of the first seven members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  The photo below taken at the Little Studio is from 1906 and is found in a brochure celebrating the Lincoln Bicentennial.

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In 1965, Saint-Gaudens home and studios became the first site in the National Park Service to commemorate a visual artist and remains the only National Park site in New Hampshire.

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The park is open daily from Memorial Day weekend through the end of October and exhibits more than 100 of Saint-Gaudens works.  During the summer series of 2 p.m. Sunday concerts, sponsored by the Trustees of the Saint-Gaudens Memorial, continue a tradition begun by Saint-Gaudens, who often held concerts in his studio for family and friends. The concerts are included with the paid admission to the site of $7.00 per person.

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For additional information visit the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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No Comments

  • Reply Samter August 31, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    Great pictures and text. Now I want to visit. Not sure why I have never been there.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco September 1, 2015 at 12:21 pm

      Thanks! Put it on your list and try and visit during the annual garden tour.

  • Reply Samter August 31, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    Great pictures and text. Now I want to visit. Not sure why I have never been there.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco September 1, 2015 at 12:21 pm

      Thanks! Put it on your list and try and visit during the annual garden tour.

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