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Beatrix Farrand

A thoroughly efficient dirt gardener

Much to the chagrin of today’s landscape architects, our profession is often misidentified as landscapers, gardeners, or, in Farrand’s case, by a client intending an affectionate tease, "dirt gardener."  In a culture that loathes vagueness and loves labels, it can be disconcerting to dedicate years of academic study, apprenticeship, and career building only to be reduced to dirty fingernails and comparative competition with untrained crews and wheelbarrows.  Nonetheless, the profession as we know it is relatively new, having received its name in the 19th century. In contrast, architecture has been around since cut stone was carved into Roman structures (and honestly, much earlier). Yet, the diversity of the profession lends credence to what we can probably define as public confusion about what it exactly is that landscape architects do.  Farrand’s career path typifies this example, as author Judith B. Tankard clarifies in her book Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect.


Tankard’s comprehensive biography of Beatrix Farrand provides a glimpse into how landscape architecture historically evolved from gardening to landscape architecture despite following a professional path from the start.  Tankard quotes directly from Farrand that the impetus for considering a career in landscape architecture “was a trip to the World’s [Columbian Exposition], taken in company with Prof. and Mrs. Sargent of Boston” (p. 18).  For anyone studying the history of arboriculture and landscape, Charles Sprague Sargent will ring the proverbial bell as the influential first director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard and supporter of women seeking careers in landscape design.  Farrand would subsequently study botany and surveying under Sargent, which was rare for women in this period.


Farrand’s studies must have felt incomplete, for she earned great insight into the field, knowing she needed to understand how to construct her future designs. “She then engaged private tutors from Columbia University to help her learn about civil engineering” (p. 25).  Private tutors, or author Elizabeth Barlow Rogers provides us with more detail in Landscape Design, A Cultural and Architectural History: “She enrolled in Professor William Ware’s course at Columbia University’s School of the Mines to learn drafting to scale, elevation rendering, and such aspects as surveying and engineering as she would need to grade slopes, lay drives, and provide proper drainage systems for designed landscapes” (Rogers, p. 393).  While men could follow a formal, programmatic study, Farrand cobbled together an education that few other women would have or could have pursued, whichever way, either by tutors or formal university enrollment.  Academia taught her about horticulture, engineering, and construction, but what about her sense of aesthetics? Another subject entirely, but aesthetics pulls together the complete landscape design. To qualify as someone with refined taste, one would have to embark on a European Grand Tour.


We must preface this discussion with greater insight into who Beatrix (Cadwalader Jones) Farrand was at this time in American history.  On the surface, she was a socialite surrounded by the affluent social circles that directors and producers imagined in The Gilded Age (2022), an HBO miniseries focusing on the old versus new wealth with such name drops as the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. Indeed, the Rockefellers would become one of Farrand’s many clients.  When you were from the upper crust of society, you did as European aristocrats did: take the Grand Tour as part of your cultural education.  Think of a gap year from university studies to travel across Europe to refine your standing, but also learn about art and other cultures, sketch the wonderous classical architecture and landscapes, and meet others from your social circles.  This exposure was Farrand’s influence, where she observed the gardens of Great Britain, France, and Italy in great detail, to name just a few.  You can see these influences in most of her design work, and fortunate for us, the University of California Berkeley holds a collection of Farrand's work.

Beatrix Farrand designed garden at The Mount, Lenox

Her clients had also experienced the Grand Tour, observed what European aristocracy defined as posh landscape design, and adopted similar expectations for their gardens: enclosed Persian or Moorish quadripartite gardens with central fountains are primary examples.  Farrand would build relationships with influential garden designers as well, particularly in England, where we would find Gertrude Jekyll for one.


Much of Farrand’s career exemplifies how many landscape architects started within the industry, which I still see today: discovering the profession as unique or unusual, diving into academic studies, but equally important, documenting, observing, and sketching influential landscapes and details.  Yet, we also need to give women landscape architects from this period our admiration for pursuing a career when society questioned their motivations. Inequalities persist; the 2021 study by Data USA identifies just over 34% of the landscape architecture workforce are women.  While women landscape architects today do not have to cobble together their education and work under the guise of gardeners, and while landscape design is no longer exclusively dedicated to wealthy estate owners, the profession needs more diverse voices today and into the future, representing the interests of everyone. Beatrix Farrand exemplifies that journey.


References


Rogers, Elizabeth B. (2001). Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History. New York: Abrams.

Tankard, Judith B. (2022).  Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect.  New York: Monacelli, a Phaidon Company.


Attributions


Garden Image: "A garden at the Mount in Lenox, designed by landscape architect Beatrix Farrand" by unknown photographer as presented from The Berkshire Edge. Accessed from The Berkshire Edge on 2/23/2024.

Portrait: "Beatrix Jones Farrand Cabinet Card" by unknown source. Accessed from Wikipedia on 2/23/2024.


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