In the world of celebrated American gardens there may be none more modest than that of Celia Thaxter on Appledore Island, ten miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Just 750 square feet in size, the garden was immortalized in the book, An Island Garden, written by Thaxter and illustrated by American impressionist Childe Hassam in 1893, the last year of Thaxter’s life.
Hassam was one of many artists and literary figures who summered on Appledore, where Thaxter’s family operated a popular summer resort. As Thaxter’s spiritual center, the island is where she cultivated her precious garden and a famous salon that attracted the writers and artists of her day.
I was drawn back into the world of Thaxter and Appledore when I visited the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem to view the exhibit, American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals. On view until early November it features more than 40 oil paintings and watercolors painted by Hassam from the late 1880s to 1912 and is the first exhibition in more than 25 years to showcase Hassam’s island paintings.
In the off-chance you think twenty-five years is a long time, I happened to have seen that previous exhibition, Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisited at Yale University in 1990. At the time I was deep into Thaxter’s world researching By Pen and by Spade, published in the gardening journal Hortus. In the piece I chronicled the friendship of Thaxter and author Sarah Orne Jewett, examining the role that gardening and the New England landscape played in their evolution as regional writers.
Thaxter’s island cottage had a covered piazza that ran along its front with the garden located below. Surrounded by a board fence to keep out the ocean spray, the plan which illustrates An Island Garden lists 57 species of flowers and vines. These include sunflowers, hollyhocks, sweet peas and California poppies all gloriously illustrated by Hassam.
Island life wasn’t easy and Thaxter goes through great lengths to share how much work went into tending her precious garden. She battled slugs and snails, infertile soil and the challenge of transporting tender seedings from the mainland where she spent the winter months. Her solution for transporting poppies, which she dearly loved, was to plant them in egg shells for protection during the harbor crossing
With an abounding zeal, Thaxter arose early each morning to tend her garden and gather bouquets for her parlor while the dew was still fresh on each petal. She filled vases, bowls and baskets with flowers, creating arrangements on every conceivable surface in her parlor.
Her reverence for her flowers was mystical and she described herself as both worshipping and being worshipped by them. Her romanticism ran so deep that even weeding was described in luminous terms, as an act of nearly erotic “pleasure.” I only wish that it were so.
Like her garden, Thaxter carefully cultivated her artistic persona, becoming the center of a literary and artistic circle that included invited guests. Along with Hassam, William Morris Hunt, Ellen Robbins, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, Annie Fields and Ralph Waldo Emerson all spent time on the island.
Both the Appledore House hotel and Thaxter’s cottage burned in 1914, twenty years after her death and both Thaxter’s popularity and the island fell into decline.
The garden was reestablished, using dimensions provided by Thaxter, in 1977 through a joint effort of the The Shoals Marine Laboratory, the Rye Beach and Little Boar’s Head garden clubs and Cornell Plantations. In the preface to the edition of An Island Garden published in 1985 upon the 150th anniversary edition of Thaxter’s birth, this process is described by John M. Kingsbury a professor from Cornell who helped conceive The Shoals Marine Laboratory.
I visited Thaxter’s garden in the 70’s and my abiding memory is of the vast colonies of rather aggressive seagulls that nest there. Visiting the island has become a lot easier than my solo journey and tours can be booked through the Shoals Marine Laboratory at https://www.shoalsmarinelaboratory.org/event/celia-thaxters-garden-tours.
I’ve included a few links that include a downloadable copy of An Island Garden, photographs (mine in this piece have been converted from slides) and additional information.
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