The Gardens of the Cornish Colony

During my research for Leaving the Land of Make-Believe, I discovered so many fascinating things about the Cornish Colony, founded by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1885. Cornish, and its nearby sibling, the Dublin Colony, would make for an interesting nonfiction book, but since this is a work of fiction, the story comes first. It was painful to leave so much on the cutting room floor. Luckily, this blog allows me to highlight some of the more interesting items found during the five years of my research.

SP in his garden at Northcote

Stephen Parrish tending his flower gardens at Northcote, in Cornish, New Hampshire, ca. 1913.

The Cornish Colony thrived during a period called the Country Place Era, and unless you’re a landscape architect, you’ve probably never heard of it. It began around 1895, the year Maxfield and Lydia Parrish married, and, like the Cornish Colony, petered out by the Depression. From an intro to the exhibition “A Genius for Place”:

The American Country Place Era evolved during a period of significant upheaval in American history. At the close of the nineteenth century, deteriorating city conditions prompted many Americans newly wealthy from the industrial revolution to spend their fortunes on luxurious country estates. Landscape architecture was a new profession at the time, and practitioners and their clients were eager to develop an American aesthetic. An emerging generation of landscape architects were deeply influenced by the distinctive landscape of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893—a collaboration between architect Daniel Hudson Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted—with its bridges, fountains, and crystalline buildings that evoked a perfect, classical world.

While wealthy city-dwellers built themselves mansions like Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C or Winterthur in Delaware to escape the summer heat and overcrowded cities, artists were drawn to the area just south of Hanover, home of Dartmouth. The great sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens decided in 1885 to purchase a run-down roadside tavern in Cornish, remodel it, and name it Aspet. The property is now a National Historic Site. Saint-Gaudens invited his friends to join him, and little by little, the colony grew. The avuncular lawyer C.C. Beaman had bought up thousands of acres as farms failed and people migrated to the Middle West. He sold the old farms to Saint-Gaudens’s friends–people like Stephen Parrish, an etcher from Philadelphia and father of Maxfield. Another friend was Thomas Dewing, who gets a short mention in the novel. Dewing was a talented amateur horticulturist who encouraged newcomers to plant gardens. Some sources give Dewing the credit for starting the Cornish garden craze, but really, the colony simply went with the times. Country estates were all the rage. With cheap land and labor, most of the artists had “cottages” built, though we would call them mansions.


Harlakenden, home of Winston Churchill and summer White House for Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1914.

One of the main characters of my novel, Winston Churchill (the American novelist), had Charles Platt design a Georgian monster with three wings, all in brick, and named it Harlakenden (all of the cottages had names). Both Platt and Ellen Shipman, in fact, were featured in the above-mentioned exhibition. Platt designed many of the colony homes, and with Ellen’s help, designed their gardens, as well. His designs carried a distinct Italian influence, and his cottages were called villas. His book, Italian Gardens, was very influential. The Cornish Colony was often featured in magazine articles. Maxfield Parrish complained that his home, The Oaks, had been photographed so much, its corners were getting rounded. So it seems the colony was as much about gardens as it was about art. Reading Lydia Parrish’s diary, it becomes apparent that the colonists were extremely social creatures. Nearly every luncheon or dinner was a social occasion. No wonder Parrish complained about the “constant interruptions.”

Further reading:

A Place of Beauty by Alma Gilbert and Judith Tankard

The Artist’s Garden by Anna O. Marley

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