Magazine article Insight on the News

Du Pont's Gardens Spring to Life Again

Magazine article Insight on the News

Du Pont's Gardens Spring to Life Again

Article excerpt

"I'm only a visitor at the museum these days," Henry Francis du Pont said in 1991 after opening his family estate and collection of American antiques to the public. "But I'm still head gardener at Winterthur." Until his death in 1969, du Pont continued to exercise his lifelong passion for the 60-acre garden surrounding his home in Delaware's Brandywine Valley.

In the years after du Pont's death, the garden declined. "His idea was that you walk through the garden led on a journey by the placement of plants, that you're pulled through by the various things coming into bloom, the color combinations at your feet, the vistas," explains Denise Magnani, director of Winterthur's landscape division. But the magnificent views that du Pont so carefully composed were closing off. The paths, some of them only implied, that connected the various sections of the garden began to disappear. Vegetation filled streambeds, and ivy crept up stone walls and ironwork. By the late 1970s, du Pont's design nearly had been obliterated by nature's aggression.

Fortunately, an intensive restoration program begun in 1988 has led to the rebirth of the Winterthur garden. "Like a great painting, the garden is a personal creation and a work of art," says Magnani, who curated an exhibition that opened in February, with an accompanying book published by Harry N. Abrams.

Du Pont, the only son of Delaware industrialist Henry Algernon and Pauline du Pont, was born at Winterthur in 1880. The family long had had an interest in horticulture. Du Pont's father was particularly interested in trees, planting the estate with the "greenery" endemic to the 19th century. His mother taught him to garden, giving him his own plot where he grew flowers. "If you have grown up with flowers," du Pont later said, "and really seen them, you can't help to have unconsciously absorbed an appreciation of proportion, color, detail and material." After studying at Harvard (where he took courses at the university's college of practical agriculture and horticulture) and traveling abroad (to study gardens), du Pont returned to Winterthur. The farm, its garden and the collection of American antiques consumed him.

Du Pont began his experiments in an English-style garden close to the house. He kept copious notes on color, observing flowers under various light conditions throughout the day and through their bloom cycle. Over the years, he established trees, landforms and shrubs to provide structure for his naturalistic compositions, functioning much like the walls in a room. …

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