Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Monday, May 28, 2012

Following in the (Horticultural) Footsteps of Edith Wharton

There is something incredibly restorative about being in a garden. Don’t you think? Like many of my friends, I came to gardening late in life. Before I turned 25, I was more of a fashion girl. The only flowers I really cared about were those on Gucci’s floral frocks. But then something happened. I went to the Chelsea Flower Show one year where, in the space of three wonderful, fortuitous hours, I met the legendary gardener Rosemary Verey, glimpsed Karl Lagerfeld approving Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden for Chanel (an exquisitely beautiful miniature version of Versailles), inhaled the scented poetry of David Austin's new tea roses and fell under the spell of Prince Charles’ Highgrove garden (or a fantastic replica of it). Enthralled, I took it all in with the wide-eyed wonder of a virginal teenager in a Las Vegas brothel. It was, quite simply, the most seductive thing I’ve ever seen.

Since then I’ve grown to love gardens with the passion that my partner has for vintage cars. It has become an addiction, an addition that has seeped into the soul and stayed there – much like compost in a vegie bed.

So it was an enormous treat (and a long-held wish) to visit an historic property called The Mount in Massachusetts.

The Mount is the creation of the American author Edith Wharton, a woman who readily admitted that gardens greatly affected her, too. The author of Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country, The House of Mirth, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence (among many others), Wharton was better known for her books than her horticultural talents, but – curiously – she believed she was a better gardener than a writer. “Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than a novelist,” she once wrote in a letter, and you may think she’s jesting – until you see the grounds of The Mount. They are as grand and as beautiful as any of Le Nôtre’s masterpieces.

The interesting thing is, Wharton started her writing career with an interior design book – one of the first ever published – called The Decoration of Houses. (A superb book; it was published in 1897 but is still relevant today.) Then, in 1904, she penned Italian Villas and Their Gardens. Around the same time, she decided to design her own home and garden, and set to work designing the gracious mansion and grounds that is The Mount. It was perhaps her greatest achievement.

Walking around The Mount was an inspiring insight into the cross-pollinization of interiors and gardens. Wharton believed that the inside and outside of a house should sit in harmony, and The Mount merges formal lime walks, sunken gardens and elegant horticultural symmetry with rooms that are a sheer pleasure to sit in. What is more amazing is that she was able to do it without any training. All she used were her instincts, her experiences of visiting gardens in Europe, and her philosophy that good architectural expression should be based on “order, scale, and harmony”.

I would like to show you The Mount, to show you just what a woman can do if she sets her mind to it.

The forecourt. Wharton believed the exterior entrance to a house should be as welcoming as the interior hall, and liked the idea of an enclosing forecourt – which almost cosseted the visitor as they drove up in a carriage, much like an architectural embrace. However, she didn't design this side of the house with much embellishment. The 'wow' factor was left for the other side, in order to surprise visitors when they passed through the interior and emerged the other side. (See image below.)

The main side. Wharton designed the exterior of the main side of the house, built on a stone terrace overlooking a lake and woods, with striking white stucco, dramatically set off by black shutters. Clusters of gables and white chimneys rise from the roof, which is capped with a balustrade and cupola.

The stables. The main house was augmented by a Georgian Revival gatehouse and stables (shown above). Wharton wanted these stables to be as grand as the house itself.

The doors. Wharton believed in making an entrance – architecturally speaking. The doors at The Mount are wondrous designs that emulate the French chateaux the writer had visited during her travels.

The gallery. Notice how the colour palette is drawn from the garden? Look at the lamp. Isn't it incredible?

Edith's boudoir. My favourite room. I loved the colour of the walls. Unfortunately, the estate's trust decided to embellish this room with bright raspberry drapes, which I think detracts from the lovely delicacy of the pale turquoise.


The stairs. Wharton believe that stairs should never be the centrepiece of a house but rather a utilitarian space. Which is why she preferred hers to one side of the floor plan. But that doesn't mean that they were neglected and under-decorated.

The library. Edith Wharton rarely wrote in this room, as she preferred to write in bed. But she loved this space nonetheless, using it for entertaining beloved guests such as Henry James. The books are Wharton's own.


  1. Marvellous post, thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Just stunning, Janelle. Thankyou so much for the erudite and thoughtful assessment of such a delightful place. J x


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