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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Edith Wharton on Italian Villas and their Gardens

Front cover of the 1904 edition of Italian Villas and Their Gardens

Now that spring has finally arrived in the Washington, D.C. area after a very cold and snowy winter, it’s not surprising to have a beautiful book on gardens catch the eye. This gorgeous book, Italian Villas and Their Gardens by Edith Wharton, has been recently transferred from the Smithsonian LibrariesBotany and Horticulture Library to the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. The volume was brought to my attention by our contract rare materials cataloger, Julia Blakely, who incidentally has been doing historical research on the gardens of the British Ambassador’s residence in Washington and who has quite an eye for a great book with a gardening theme.

The gifted American novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937), whose extensive travels included visits to some of the finest aristocratic homes and estates of Europe, was well qualified to describe the glories of Italian villas and their fine gardens. Her book is organized geographically, with chapters on Florence, Siena, Rome and its outskirts, Genoa, Lombardy, and the Veneto.  Keenly interested in landscape design, Wharton included an appendix with short biographies of the architects and garden designers mentioned in her book. Her critical eye for the differing tastes and habits of upper class Americans and Europeans, as outlined in this book, comes across in statements such as this one, from page 11:

[T]he old Italian garden was meant to be lived in —a use to which, at least in America, the modern garden is seldom put.

Italian Villas and Their Gardens includes 26 pictorial plates by Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), one of the greatest illustrators of the early 20th century. His artistry here, emphasizing curved lines, saturated colors, and the beauty of nature, shows the influence of the international Art Nouveau movement that flourished during this time, a style exquisitely suited to a book on grand villas and gardens.

The sumptuous bookbinding, in dark green cloth stamped with light green, blue, white, brown, and gold, features a colorful garden scene with a fountain, an elegant wall, and stately cypress trees, framed by substantial gilt-stamped Italian Mannerist-style banners with lions and coats of arms. The bookbinding was designed by the Decorative Designers company, identified by the mark of two interlocking letter “D’s”( with the second D reversed) which appears on the lower right side of the front cover.

Bookplate of Walter Goodman Chard and Kathleen Stevens Chard

The Cullman Library’s copy of Italian Villas and Their Gardens was formerly owned by Walter Goodman Chard and Kathleen Stevens Chard, and has their bookplate, which is signed in the lower right corner by the unidentified designer “RRMcG” and dated 1907. The volume is inscribed on the front free endpaper by Walter Goodman Chard to Kathleen Brooks Stevens, Christmas, 1904; the couple was later married in January 1907 and then added the bookplate with their conjoined names. Walter and Kathleen Chard lived together on a 350 acre model farm named Meadowood, in Cazenovia, New York, where they were among the first in the area to use sustainable practices in raising a variety of livestock and crops. Walter Chard also served as the business manager for his brother, architect Thornton Chard, who designed the large, gracious farm house at Meadowood. Given the Chards’ keen interest in architecture and landscape design, it is easy to see how Wharton’s lovely book on Italian Villas and Their Gardens would have been a treasured addition to their personal library.

Italian Villas and Their Gardens by Edith Wharton; illustrated with pictures by Maxfield Parrish and by photographs. New York: Published by the Century Company; printed at the De Vinne Press, 1904.

Call number:  DG420 .W55 1904 SCNHRB Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History

--Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, with assistance from Julia Blakely and Daria Wingreen-Mason

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