The Garden as Work of Art
“Respect the site; do not impose your will on it.”
–From The Winterthur Garden: Henry Francis du Pont\’s Romance with the Land, by Denise Magnani
Visit the Winterthur Garden in the heart of the picturesque Brandywine Valley and the artistic vision of its creator cannot fail to impress—and inspire. Scion of Delaware\’s industrialist du Pont family, Henry Francis du Pont enjoyed a lifelong passion for horticulture and the principles of garden design, reflected throughout the 60-acre garden, with its year-round succession of blooms that enhance the natural setting of the family\’s once private grand estate.
The stately home itself is today a world-class museum brimming with a collection of 85,000 American antiques. But it is the garden that was du Pont\’s first, and most enduring, love—a passion that was shared by several generations of his family, even before their arrival in the United States from France.
“The family love for flowers will be, I hope, continued in my children,” wrote Louisa du Pont, Henry Francis\’s grandmother, in 1876. And indeed it was. Both her son and her grandson fulfilled her dreams by developing the garden at the family estate.
Even as a child—and decades before buying the first antique that led to the now renowned collection of early American decorative arts—du Pont was enthralled by the study of all aspects of horticulture, agriculture, botany, and landscape design. In 1893, when he was just 13, the young du Pont wrote to his family from boarding school asking for money to buy plants and flower pots. When his mother died at the turn of the 20th century, du Pont (who was born in 1880 and died in 1969) began to take on more and more of the responsibility for Winterthur\’s garden.
“Most gardens are created by adults, but Du Pont worked on Winterthur from the time he was old enough to hold a trowel until he died at the age of 89,” says Maggie Lidz, Winterthur\’s estate historian. “It\’s exceptional to have such a garden with this amount of continuity.”
Working with his lifelong friend, landscape architect Marian Coffin, du Pont supervised the development of the garden, taking full advantage of the estate\’s natural topography and the native vegetation of the Brandywine Valley to create “wild gardens” that were freed from the constraints of formal beds and planted to create sweeping views that flowed one into another.
“Unlike formal gardens, a naturalistic garden is an impressionistic byproduct of the subtle and ever-changing interplay between nature and man\’s vision of it,” wrote Denise Magnani, author of The Winterthur Garden: Henry Francis du Pont\’s Romance with the Land. “Henry Francis du Pont took his inspiration from the natural landscapes of the Brandywine Valley.”
Despite his studies at the Bussey Institution, Harvard\’s college of practical agriculture and horticulture, du Pont was not a botanist, but rather a landscape designer whose passion for his garden—the canvas on which he painted—led him to search for more than half a century for plants with just the right size, shape, color, and texture to complement Winterthur\’s terrain and architecture.
“Winterthur was du Pont\’s horticultural laboratory,” says Maggie Lidz.
That laboratory began in 1909 with the creation of the March Bank, with its first flowers of spring that were a source of special delight to du Pont. As winter wanes, sometimes as early as February, thousands of delicate bulbs in shades of lavender, yellow, and white appear—giant snowdrops (Galanthus elweisi), spring snowflakes (Leucojum vernum), Amur adonis (Adonis amurensis), winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), Tommies (Crocus tomasinianus), Austrian daffodils Narcissus asturiensis), Siberian squills (Scilla siberica), and glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa lucilae).
March Bank may have been du Pont\’s first “experiment,” but it was far from his last. Among the gardens that now attract approximately 200,000 visitors every year are: Pinetum, with its varieties of conifers and early blooming shrubs such as forsythia and flowering quince; Azalea Woods, with eight acres of lushly blooming banks of azaleas in red, white, pink; the Reflecting Pool, once the family\’s swimming pool, now adorned with floating lily pads, ornamental pots of fuchsia and browallia, and a rockwork garden and waterfalls; the three-level sloping Peony Garden, populated with Saunders hybrids, named for the pioneer of peony breeding Professor A.P. Saunders; the semi-formal Sundial Garden, formerly the du Pont family\’s tennis and croquet lawns, now at its most eyecatching and fragrant in April with Chinese snowball (Viburnum macrocephalum sterile, fothergilla; the bell-shaped blossoms of the princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa); and the Quarry Garden, one of the last areas created by du Pont itself, that blooms from late May through fall, with blue and yellow irises, hostas and lobelias, pink anemones, pink turtlehead, and yellow ligularia.
The riotous ever-changing succession of hues and shades throughout the garden reflects du Pont\’s passion for color. “Color is the thing that really counts more than any other,” he once said. That love of color—especially his favorites, lavenders and yellows—is reflected not only in the gardens, but within the home itself, whose interiors were designed by du Pont to mirror or complement the natural beauty that lay beyond.
“Du Pont believed that if you look at nature, you learn everything you need to know about color,” says Lidz. “He took what he learned in the gardens about color, form, and shape, and applied that knowledge inside the home as well.”
Taking his color palette from his own gardens, yellow silk damask furnishings in the Port Royal Parlor, for example, are complemented by views of yellow witch-hazel and lavender crocus. The soft sage green walls of the Cecil Bedroom reflect the muted gray-green tones of the beech trees seen from the bedroom window, while gold and russet tones of the Maple Bedroom mirror the autumn foliage outside. And throughout the home, would always be strategically placed arrangements of du Pont\’s own garden-grown flowers to further enhance the room\’s décor.
“One of the things that unifies the museum period rooms with the garden is du Pont\’s love of beauty,” says Lidz. “Winterthur is all about beauty—inside, outside, everywhere.”
In 1930 du Pont established the Winterthur Corporation, a nonprofit educational organization charged with maintaining Winterthur in perpetuity as “a museum and arboretum for the education and enjoyment of the public.” Du Pont turned his beloved home over to the Corporation in 1951, and moved into a smaller house on the estate as the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum opened to the public that same year.
“Du Pont meant for the public to visit Winterthur,” says Lidz. “He was a very visual person and created the museum and the garden so that other people could look and learn as he had.”
Du Pont\’s devotion to his gardens continued until he died, and while he remained true to the elements of design that he began to formulate as a young man, the gardens still continued to evolve—as they do today. “Climates change, trees grow, plants die,” says Lidz. “Gardens aren\’t static”
But when du Pont died in 1969, without his guiding hand, the gardens lost the clarity that his vision had created. Plants became overgrown, vistas were hidden from view, and details were obscured.
In 1988, Winterthur began restoring the garden in which du Pont had worked so tirelessly throughout his life. The garden staff started by eliminating wild seedlings, removing ivy, and pruning shrubs. After the clean-up phase, new plantings were added and the seasons of colorful blooms were extended through summer and fall.
Every design and management decision could be traced back to the artistic principles originally detailed by du Pont, who left comprehensive written and photographic records that guided the process.
In 2001, another addition to the garden—one that would have surely enchanted du Pont—was opened. In the area known as Oak Hill, once the site of the swings of du Pont\’s daughters, now lies, fittingly, Enchanted Woods™, a three-acre children\’s garden complete with Tulip Tree House, Faerie Cottage, and Acorn Tearoom for make-believe tea parties.
Were du Pont to return to his garden today, he would no doubt be pleased that his family\’s legacy—and passion—live on for generations more to enjoy. As Denise Magnani has written in The Winterthur Garden, “H.F. du Pont never wore his heart on his sleeve, but he expressed his feelings for nature in his joyful, lyrical, romantic garden…he put his heart into the garden, and then he gave it away.”
If You Go
While Winterthur is located in Delaware, the Brandywine Valley itself actually straddles both Delaware and Pennsylvania. Whether you\’re interested in gardens, history, adventure sports, wine tasting, fine dining, shopping, or just relaxing, this is an area that\’s well worth visiting over and over. Here are just a few highlights (check out www.brandywinevalley.com for more):
What to Do
Winterthur Museum and Country Estate
5105 Kennett Pike
Winterthur DE 19735
Tours, events, and special programs are offered throughout the year at this historic American country estate and gardens.
US Route 1, 1001 Longwood Road
Kennett Square, PA 19348
More than 1000 acres of woodlands, gardens, conservatories, and fountains are open every day of the year, with special events and concerts planned throughout the year. The Christmas display is especially magical.
Through August 31 the Brandywine Museums & Gardens Alliance are offering a single-rate admission ticket that will give visitors the opportunity to visit all their venues at a significant discount. Along with Longwood Gardens, the other member sites include the Brandywine River Museum, Delaware Art Museum, Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, Delaware Museum of Natural History, Delaware Historical Society & Read House, Hagley Museum and Library, Rockwood Museum, and Winterthur Museum & Country Estate. The museums are all located in the scenic Brandywine Valley area between Wilmington, Delaware and the Kennett Square/Chadds Ford region of Pennsylvania, easily accessible from I-95 and Route 1. Tickets for the Brandywine Treasure Trail are $35 for individuals or $75 for a family of 2 adults and up to 3 children. For more details on the Brandywine Museums & Gardens Alliance and full details on the Brandywine Treasure Trail promotion, visit www.brandywinetreasures.org.
QVC Studio Tour
MC 168, 1200 Wilson Drive
West Chester, PA 19380
Shopaholics will get a kick out of this behind-the-scenes look at the world\’s most popular shopping network (now with productions in Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, and Italy coming soon). You\’ll have a chance to see a live show, and learn how products and hosts are selected. And not to worry—the QVC store, with all your favorite items—is part of the tour.
King of Prussia Mall
160 N. Gulph Road
King of Prussia, PA 19406
The winter encampment of General Washington\’s Continental Army, Valley Forge is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Hiking and biking trails are plentiful, and special events are planned throughout the year.
Thanks to the area\’s varied terrain, no matter the season, there\’s a zip line, ski slope, rock wall, mountain-bike trail or white-water river ready to be conquered. From tree canopy tours to hot air ballooning, or for the somewhat more sedate, hiking and biking, there\’s no shortage of outdoor activities. For more information, visit www.uwishunu.com.
Brandywine Valley Wine Trail
Lewisville, PA 19351
Sip your way through the region\’s eight award-winning wineries!
Where to Stay
Brandywine River Hotel
1609 Baltimore Pike (Route 1)
Chadds Ford, PA 19317
This small (just 40 rooms) hotel is located in the heart of the Brandywine Valley. Enjoy afternoon tea (with homemade cookies), or a pre-dinner drink by the fireplace. High-speed Internet and a fitness center are available.
Where to Eat
1390 Old Wilmington Pike
West Chester, PA 19382
This historic country inn dates from 1780 and has 15 Colonial-era dining rooms. Make sure to include something mushroom-related (the soup is outstanding), as the nearby town of Kennett Square is known as the “mushroom capital of the world.” The Dilworth recently opened The Innkeeper\’s Kitchen, a state-of-the-art culinary demonstration kitchen and offers classes featuring visiting chefs, culinary celebrities, and the Inn\’s own staff.
Simon Pearce on the Brandywine
1333 Lenape Road, Route 52 North
West Chester, PA 19382
This restaurant/glassblowing studio/retail store features the work of renowned glassblower Simon Pearce and the cuisine of his native vermont. Located on the banks of the Brandywine, the dining room offers stunning views to match the innovative menus.