“No Pleasanter Place”: Reading with Rose

As many of our readers know, January 11th, 2016 marked Rose Standish Nichols’ 145th birthday. In celebration of this fiercely intelligent, independent woman, we will take a look at one of her own published books in this month’s ‘Reading with Rose:’ Italian Pleasure Gardens.

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Rose Standish Nichols in her garden in Cornish, New Hampshire. Courtesy Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Rose Standish Nichols was not only a distinguished landscape architect, but a world traveler, too. She did not travel merely for pleasure, but conducted thorough research during her trips to Europe so that she could supplement her landscape commissions with firsthand experience in sprawling estate gardens. In 1931, Rose published her third book, this time focusing on Italian gardens in the aptly-titled Italian Pleasure Gardens.

In her book, Rose details the histories and contemporary features of gardens throughout Italy, including villas in Tuscany, Siena, Perugia, Florence, the Riviera, and the Lake District. We can trace Rose’s experiences within these cities through numerous letters she sent home during her many trips to the country. At times, she was accompanied by friends; she writes to Margaret below:

“This morning Frances Arnold Anita Dible and I have been to the Villa Papa Giulio, which is about ten minutes walk beyond the Porto del Popolo.  We had a very good time and took lots of photographs.”

Rose Nichols to Margaret Nichols [Shurcliff]- February 4, 1899

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One of the many images of Italian villas Rose included in Italian Pleasure Gardens.

After “Italian Pleasure Gardens” was published, Rose continued to enjoy travelling to the country where she conducted her research. Indeed, we can read Rose’s words with sincerity when she writes “to those travellers who are weary of cities and who love both art and nature I can recommend these gardens as a joy to the eye and a balm to the soul.”

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“It is cold and rainy here and I feel rather swallowed up by the immensity of this old city – after the cozy intimate atmosphere of Florence.  Before leaving there I spent a week in Mrs. Davis’ pleasant old villa where I had a suite of three rooms.”

Rose to Marian Nichols- March 4, 1931

“I am to spend tomorrow night at the heavenly Villa Sante and shall push on the following afternoon to Florence where Mrs. Lathrop is expecting me at the Villa Tomegiani.  From there I shall go to visit the Tomegianis at their handsome Lucca villa, at least it is four or five miles outside Lucca on a hill with a beautiful view.  After that I shall go to Venice to stay until the last of June.”

Rose to Marian- June 5, 1931

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An illustration from Italian Pleasure Gardens.

It is clear that Rose imbues into her writing the firsthand experience of traveling through these Italian pleasure gardens. Before the close of the book, she includes a “Garden Itinerary” that guides readers through their own tours of the country, through the very cities and gardens she herself visited. The book, as a whole, serves as simultaneously as a history lesson, as Rose takes us through the history of the  gardens in view of the country’s political and social cultures; a  guidebook; and a testament to the love Rose had for the career she devoted her life to: the garden, in all its splendor.

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Rose concludes her book with many tips and suggestions for readers seeking to visit Italian villas and their gardens.

Bibliography

Nichols, Rose Standish. Italian Pleasure Gardens. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1931.

 

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.

Unitarian in the Winter and Episcopalian in Summer

In Rose Standish Nichols’ parlor, a room that was home to much intellectual, political, and religious discourse, hangs a painting depicting Mary, Jesus and Saint John the Baptist. The oil painting is a nineteenth century interpretation of a common scene in religious art during the Renaissance, the rural landscape featuring the Holy Family in the foreground and a shepherd with his flock in the background. The work is unsigned and the artist is unknown, though the nineteenth century painter was likely studying similar scenes by Raphael, Leonardo, Giorgione and Titian in the sixteenth century. 

 

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Leonardo, The Virgin and Child with Saint Ann, c. 1503, The Louvre.

 

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Titian, Madonna and Child with Female Saint Ann and Saint John the Baptist, c. 1530s, Kimbell Art Museum.

Rose’s belief system has often been the subject of discussion, especially with such a religiously charged painting displayed in a very public room in her home. However, by all accounts Rose Standish Nichols was not a traditionally religious person. Her friend Southard Menzel wrote, in an article entitled Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, that Rose considered herself, “Unitarian in the winter and Episcopalian in summer” simply based on the fact that King’s Chapel, the family’s local Boston church, was Unitarian and the neighborhood congregation close to their summer home in New Hampshire was Episcopalian. [1] The Nichols family attended King’s Chapel when the girls were young and according to Margaret, the family had their own pew “in the front row of the balcony near the choir.” [2]

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Interior of King’s Chapel, Emmet Collection of Manuscrips Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library.

Later in her life, however, Rose became interested in the principles of the Bahai, a faith system that advocates for peace and unity, which resonated with Rose, a committed pacifist.

“To be a Bahá’í simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.” –Abdu’l-Bahá [3]

Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the religion’s founder, was an acquaintance of Rose’s and according to Southard Menzel, he visited her home and was “given a platform at her house to introduce his doctrine (‘In that corner between the fireplace and the window’).” [4]

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Abdu’l-Bahá

Despite Rose’s personal belief system, she was still fascinated by the culture and iconography of the Catholic church. Her travel through Europe often included visits to churches and cathedrals where she was very taken with the traditions as well as the aesthetics.

“We have seen larger picture galleries, but no paintings as beautiful as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and those of Raphael, called his Stanze.  We took a last look at them today on our way to the Pope’s auto-chamber, where Margaret and I left a rosary for Bridget with the chamberlain to be blessed by the Pope.  We inquired our way of the Swiss guard, who seem to be everywhere in the Vatican, their orange and black costumes are striking if not picturesque.”

Rose writing to her father Arthur from Rome, November 18, 1891.

Rose also took a specific interest in Catholic monasteries while researching her book, Italian Pleasure Gardens. Her 1928 book includes an entire chapter on “The Cloister Garth”where she explores the horticulture and ornamentation of Italian monasteries.

“The outer walls of the cloister, back of the columns, were covered with paintings…Scenes suggested by descriptions in the Old and New Testaments, or episodes in the lives of saints were chosen as affording religious inspiration to the monks, who would have turned away their eyes in horror from the flippant representations that amused the pleasure-loving Pompeians.” [5]  

Several objects in her collection also suggest her fascination with religious objects including , books, postcards, tiles and even a bust believed to be a reliquary.

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Italian wooden bust, 18th century, possibly used as a reliquary.
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Dutch earthenware tile, 19th century, showing the story of Matthew 9, “Jesus Forgives and Heals a Paralyzed Man.”

She collected dozens of postcards with Catholic iconography, including twenty-five that depict the Holy Family.

Over thirty titles in her library reflect her curiosity in the church, including books of poetry, theology, stories of the saints and the Bible given to her by her father with both their names inscribed in their own handwriting:

“Arthur H. Nichols Boston Jan. 1, 1852 A present from his Mother

Rose S. Nichols from her Father Arthur H. Nichols”

 

Rose Standish Nichols may not have been a conventionally religious person but she was thoughtful about religion both in aesthetics and in theology. Her collecting practices and her proud display of religious art show her affinity for Christian iconography, but it was in her discussions with people she met throughout her life where her fascination with faith becomes clear. Southard Menzel told a story of Rose’s experience encountering a Cardinal on a steamer ship on his way to Rome:

“After much talk and no conviction, Rose had said to him: ‘I suppose you think I am going to Hell.’

‘Not necessarily so Miss Nichols,’ said O’Connell.

‘How can that be?’ asked Rose.

‘Well God may possibly pardon you on the basis of “invincible ignorance,”’ was his reply. 

Rose was charmed with this decisions, and apparently thought the term was invented for her. She loved to think that some day, because of, or in spite of, her ‘invincible ignorance,’ she might continue the pleasant discussion with his Eminence in Heaven.” [6]

 

[1] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

[2] Shurcliff, Margaret Homer Nichols. Lively Days: Some Memoirs of Margaret Homer Shurcliff. Taipei: Literature House, 1965. 25.

[3] Esslemont, J. E. Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era; an Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Pub. Trust, 1970.

[4] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

[5] Nichols, Rose Standish. “The Cloister Garth.” Italian Pleasure Gardens. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1928. 25.

[6] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

By Emma Welty, Head of Collections and Administration.

 

“Unvegetative Ornaments”

 

In the late seventeenth century, garden statues, obelisks, dials, and other ‘unvegetative’ ornaments seemed to take the place of flowers. [1]

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Illustrations from Rose Standish Nichols’ first book “English Pleasure Gardens”

Rose Standish Nichols was a landscape architect by trade. She designed dozens of gardens on large plots of land, including her parents’ estate in Cornish, New Hampshire, but she never had much of a garden at her home at 55 Mount Vernon Street.

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The Nichols family garden in Cornish, New Hampshire

In her article, How to Make a Small Garden she classifies a “small” garden as one that “covers from about 1200 to 2500 square feet of ground.”[2] Since her Beacon Hill garden is little more than a stretch of grass that frames her brick walkway, she needed to be creative when bringing her passion for gardens home.  Her house is richly furnished with floral and horticultural imagery, from tapestries, to prints, to small needlework pictures. However, it is an object in the entrance of her home that references the style and scale of gardens she loved to visit and design.


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A nearly life-size sandstone statue of a young woman adorned with an empire revival dress and a brimmed hat stands in the portico between the house’s two front doors. The statue is English and dates to the 19th century but Rose understood the history of outdoor sculpture dating back much further. In her first book, English Pleasure Gardens, published in 1902, she explores garden design dating back to the classic tradition of ancient Italy and Greece to modern English gardens (at this point “modern gardens” refers to late 19th century). Rose suggests that some of the most successful gardens are those that blend a range of styles.

In some of the best modern English gardens there is a combination of classic statuary, Renaissance fountains, French perspectives, Dutch topiary work and flowers from all over the world. But in such a garden, when there is breadth given to the masses of colour and a proper regard to scale and proportion, the effect is not always incongruous.[3]

While Rose was not displaying “classic statuary,” she placed her statue in the portico, which not only referenced the outdoors, but also connected it to classic architecture, as the entry hall is the only part of the Federal townhouse that was designed in the Greek Revival style.

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The statue in the portico

Throughout her garden design and scholarship Rose suggested that outdoor sculpture was at its best in the Baroque period in Italy. She even utilized Baroque Italian figurative statues in one of her Illinois garden commissions.

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Garden designed by Rose Nichols in Lake Forest, Illinois

In her 1925 article, Rhythm and Punctuation in Design, she argued that when the original foliage of Baroque gardens has faded, there is still beauty in the skeleton of the garden’s architecture and ornamentation,

Badly kept up as are many of these 17th and 18th century gardens they might have appealed to us less in their palmy days than in their present decadence. Still, however, walls, balustrades, fountains, and statuary of stone, mellowed by age, pattern an ancient pleasuance. And even if the former flowers have disappeared, clipped laurels, oleanders and potted orange trees accent the parapets and the parterre. Here poets will again and again find inspiration and garden-lovers delight. [4]

This sentiment suggests that even without a full, lush garden behind them, the sculptures that are associated with pleasure grounds can still inspire a “garden-lover” like Rose.

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The walkway at 55 Mount Vernon Street in 1959, with the statue showing through the portico window

 

[1] Nichols, Rose Standish. “Gardens of the Stuarts.” English Pleasure Gardens. Boston: David R. Godine, 2003. 163.

[2] Nichols, Rose Standish. “How to Make a Small Garden.” House Beautiful 1912: 88.

[3] Nichols, Rose Standish. “Modern Gardens.” English Pleasure Gardens. Boston: David R. Godine, 2003. 252.

[4]Nichols, Rose Standish. “Rhythm and Punctuation in Design.” Horticulture Feb. 1925: 49.

By Emma Welty, Curatorial and Administrative Specialist

“Please return to R S Nichols”

In the 20th century, postcards had a fascinating role in the culture of travel, correspondence and personal record keeping. In the 2012 MFA publication, The Postcard Age, collector, Leonard A. Lauder writes, “Postcards did not just record or represent this dynamic era–they also participated actively in it.” [1] Postcards were simultaneously a popular means of communication, as well as an inexpensive and accessible type of image collecting. Before the invention of cellphones with cameras and the ease of communication and research created by the internet, postcards were a way of keeping visual records of things that you had seen in your travels and either sending them to your friends and family, or developing a collection of small, mass-produced artworks. The practice of collecting and sending postcards became very popular at the turn of the 20th century. In 1895 an estimated 314 million postcards were mailed, compared to the 880 million postcards sent in 1914. [2] 

Along with her house and furnishings, Rose Nichols left her collection of over 1,200 postcards to the Nichols House Museum. Some of the postcards were sent by friends and relatives, some were mailed home by Rose to keep in her own collection, and most of the cards acquired by Rose never saw a mail-box at all. The collection includes images of natural landscapes, architecture, interior design, and artworks including paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and tapestries. The variety of subjects offers some perspective into Rose’s interests and travel experience, ranging from Egypt to the American Southwest.

Left: Postcard, “The 2nd Pyramid of Cheefren, Cairo.”
Right: Postcard, “CAMEL BACK MOUNTAIN AND DESERT.”

These four-by-six inch images, some in color, some in black and white, gave Rose a way to keep a record of things she saw in museums, or gardens that would inspire her own work in the landscape architecture field.

Left: Postcard, “Hampton Court Garden Tudor Palace”
Right: Postcard showing a garden designed by Rose Standish Nichols, “E.L. Ryerson, Lake Forest, ILL.”

Her postcards even kept a record of some of her political activism. One example shows six members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom at the 1919 Peace Conference in Zurich, Switzerland. While Rose is not among the six photographed here, she was in attendance at the conference and was a long-time member of the WILPF.

PC150Above: Postcard, “Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Second Conference, Zurich, 1919”

While many of the postcards show elements of Rose’s life outside her house, they also give some insight into what is inside her residence at 55 Mount Vernon Street. Rose’s postcards that illustrate examples of objects create a fascinating parallel with her own collection of furniture and fine art. Some of the images show objects that are similar in style or almost identical to many or Rose’s belongings. Whether she collected them as a wish-list, as a way to remember home when she was far away, or as a record that her own home was furnished with objects of considerable status, there are dozens of examples on display at the Nichols House Museum that bring Rose’s postcard collection to life.

Left: Postcard, “MUSÉE DES ARTS DÉCORATIFS -Bergere, Tapsserie au point, fin du XVII siecle-ND”
Right: Hepplewhite armchair with modern upholstery in rose-colored silk damask,[probably New England, United States of America], 1790-1805

Left: Postcard, “NAPOLI – Museo Nazionale DIONISIO (Narciso)- Pompei”
Right: Cast bronze figure of Narcissus, [European], 19th century

Left: Postcard: “GARRISON HOUSE, Exeter, N.H. ‘Daniel Webster’ Desk”
Right: Queen Anne style maple corner chair, [probably New England, United States of America], ca. 1740

Left: Postcard, “American embroidery, 18th century”
Right: Framed needlepoint fragment, likely English, late 17th-18th century

Left: Postcard, “TALL CLOCK, SIGNED BY BARTHOLOMEW BARWELL, WORKING IN NEW YORK ABOUT 1760. MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK”
Right: Mahogany tall case clock, made by Elnathan Taber, Roxbury, Massachusetts, United States of America and Birmingham, England, ca. 1790

Left: Postcard,”BED-CURTIN Cotton, embroidered with coloured wools, English; second half of the 17th century, VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM. Produced by W.F. Sedgwick, Limited”
Right: Crewelwork bed hangings made by Rose Standish Nichols,  ca. 1890

Left: Postcard: “ARM-CHAIR Walnut; said to have belonged to Neil Gwynn. English; Period of Charles II. H. 4ft. 3 in.; W. 2ft. Given by Sir George Donaldson. VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM.
Right: Reproduction Jacobean style armchairs with carved decoration by Rose Standish Nichols, made by Irving & Casson-A. H. Davenport Co. Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America, 1910-1940

Left: Postcard: “Ivory Figure of a Gazelle Egyptian, About 1375 B.C. (XVIII Dynasty) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Collotype by Maz Jaffé, Vienna Austria.
Right: Standing animal figure, possibly an ibex, signed by artist Giorgio Sommer; Naples, Italy, late 19th to early 20th century

[1]Klich, Lynda, Leonard A. Lauder, and Benjamin Weiss. The Postcard Age: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection. Boston, MA: MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2012. Print.

[2]Elliott, Brent. “A Brief Guide to the Use of Picture Postcards in Garden History”. Garden History 31.2 (2003): 218–224. Web.

By Emma Welty, Curatorial and Administrative Specialist