Magazine article Humanities

Winterthur Inside Out

Magazine article Humanities

Winterthur Inside Out

Article excerpt

H.F. du Pont's masterpiece

HENRY FRANCIS DU PONT (1880-1969) WAS AN INTENSELY SHY, private man, so likely he wouldn't have minded being overlooked. But as a horticulturist, the situation outrages me. Du Pont has never received the recognition he deserves as one of America's greatest gardeners. Indeed, what he created at Winterthur, the family estate outside of Wilmington, Delaware, remains nearly forty years after his death a quietly revolutionary masterpiece, still far ahead of contemporary American landscape design. To overlook this is more than an injustice; it is for all who love gardens an opportunity wasted.

Harry, as he was known to friends, is of course hardly an unknown. A pioneer in the appreciation of Early American decorative arts, du Pont included in his collecting not only furniture, ceramics, and textiles, but often whole houses when he found a structure with architectural features, plasterwork or wooden paneling, perhaps, he felt were outstanding. All of this, tens of thousands of objects, each one personally and carefully selected, he assembled in a designed-for-the-purpose, one-hundred-and-seventy-five period-room mansion he built on the Winterthur estate.

Characteristic of du Pont' s genius is the way in which he displayed his finds. He assembled selections of furnishings that were related not only in period and provenance but also aesthetically, playing one off against the other in roomscapes that ranged from subtly powerful to the brilliantly unexpected. Always, in du Pont's hands, the sum was far greater than the parts.

This is why Winterthur has been, ever since it opened to the public in 1951, a place of pilgrimage not only for historians and curators but also for interior decorators. It's also why Winterthur's sixty acres of a gardens should be a destination for those who want to incorporate natural beauty into their personal environments.

The fact is that H. F. du Pont worked on the gardens even longer than he labored over his collections of decorative arts. He planted and maintained his own garden while a teenage boarder at prep school, and borrowed space in a nearby commercial greenhouse to grow sweet peas and other flowers for cutting. As an undergraduate at Harvard he enrolled in the Bussey Institution, a division of the university that offered practical instruction in horticulture, and began his lifelong association with Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, whose famous director, Charles Sprague Sargent, was then dispatching expeditions all over the world to seek out new plants to enrich American gardens.

Some of these prizes went to the Pinetum that Harry was then planting at Winterthur with his father. In fact, correspondence between the du Ponts and Sargent reveal that the arboretum director treated Winterthur as a southern outpost, relying on reports from its gardens to help clarify what climate and conditions best suited species newly imported from abroad. Nor did the association end with the deaths of du Pont senior and Sargent. One of the most remarkable plant specimens in the Winterthur gardens, in fact, is a huge dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). This tree, which had previously been known only in fossils, was discovered in 1943 still surviving in a remote area of central China. In 1948, the Arnold Arboretum received some of the first samples of seed to reach the outside world; in 1951, Harry in turn received one of the seedlings raised from these. Today the Winterthur metasequoia stands over one hundred feet tall with a trunk that measures almost five feet through at chest height.

Harry's introductions were more than just botanical, however. During trips abroad before the First World War he visited Gertrude Jekyll at her pioneering garden, Munstead Wood, in Surrey. Du Pont's color-sensitive eye delighted in the painterly way that Jekyll combined flower and foliage colors - you can see the evidence of this today in such areas of the Winterthur landscape as the peony garden, a superb collection of herbaceous and tree peonies, and Winterhazel Walk, where in early spring the soft greenish yellow blossoms of winterhazels (Corylopsis globrescens) play off the lavenders of Korean rhododendrons. …

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