June 26, 2009

There are Gardeners, and there are helpers

There are a handful of paintings that bring an instant smile to my face when I see them. They’re the kinds of painting where the artist has recognized some deeper truth about the objects before him (or her) and managed to convey that ‘something’ onto the canvas. One such painting is John Singer Sargent’s “Mrs. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes”, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Edith Minturn and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes were married in 1895, and one of the couple’s weddings gifts was of a portrait to be painted by Sargent. Sargent's first intention was to paint a single portrait of Edith during the summer of 1897 in Venice. After numerous posing and preparatory sessions, the artist decided to paint her as if she were just returning from a brisk walk outdoors, with a greyhound at her side. After Edith’s part of the portrait was finished, however, the greyhound was no longer available and I. N. Phelps Stokes suggested that he take its place. Sargent agreed, and the single portrait became a double portrait.

But, if it is a double portrait, it is one of the most lopsided ever done. Edith is radiant and forthright. It would not be an overstatement to say that she glows. Her husband, by contrast, is consigned to the shadows. Yes, he’s there, but he’s a stand-in for the greyhound. In another fifty years, I have no doubt that he will fade and the pentimento of a dog will take his place.

But the painting, in turn, captures the reality of the two. Both were from wealthy ‘reformist’ families. Edith threw herself into women’s suffrage and housing reform, among other noble causes. I.N. (he hated ‘Isaac Newton’) turned his attention to writing the definitive history of the City of New York – six volumes and over 7,000 pages. She was the sparkplug in the family, his role was to be supportive and to write large checks. Sargent saw it and captured it on canvas.

I was reminded of that portrait Sunday afternoon and evening as I attended a Master Gardener Open Garden. There are several hundred people in the Boston area who have gone through the Master Gardener program at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Several times each summer, a Master Gardener will open his or her garden to other Master Gardeners. These tend to be spectacular gardens, all them designed and tended by the homeowner rather than by some ‘name’ landscape designer.

Most Master Gardeners are women. Until this year, the courses were given all day, one day a week, which makes it difficult for anyone who worked full time to gain the accreditation. People who go through the same class tend to become friends.

There were probably thirty people at the garden in Quincy on Sunday afternoon and evening. Many Master Gardeners brought spouses. And, throughout that afternoon and evening, I could not help but be reminded of the Sargent portrait. The women – the Master Gardeners – were in charge. They talked of gardens and of plants. They dissected plant diseases and growing problems and evaluated landscaping choices. Their talks were animated and full of energy. They spoke for hours about their own plans for new beds and rare and unusual cultivars. Master Gardeners also get a heavy dose of environmental awareness as part of their studies and these women discussed organic and pesticide-free laws care and composting as though it were second nature.

The men… drank beer and ate guacamole. They were appendages in the spirit of Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. They acknowledged readily that their responsibility is to dig holes and move plants when requested, and to be supportive, including the occasional writing of a large check.

The garden is stunning. It’s a quarter-acre lot with a 1930s-era house in the middle, but packed into that lot is enough landscaping for an estate. The lot slopes steeply making it possible to build multiple garden ‘rooms’ that are functionally invisible from one another. The owner - one of the rare male Master Gardeners - is a pharmacist by training who managed to become a Master Gardener in the same class as Betty by working extra shifts. Paul is also married and, in the true spirit of I. N. Phelps Stokes, his partner, John, says his contribution to the garden is to ‘suggest accessories’.

I never thought of myself as an I.N. Phelps Stokes but, being around those Master Gardeners and listening to them talk about plants and ecosystems as fervently as Edith Phelps Stokes surely talked about housing and universal suffrage, I knew how he felt. The best thing you can do is be supportive. Who knows, I may even write the next definitive history of something.

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