At A Glance: Sweating It Out

Flambeau Finials

 In one of their garden ornament auction catalogues published nearly a decade ago, Sotheby’s offered a pair of early twentieth century stoneware lidded urns.  The cataolgue description was as follows: “each lobed body with boldly modelled ram’s heads beneath egg and dart moulded everted rim, and flaming lids on rising circular foot and square base, stamped A Brault File, Choisy-le-Boi.”  Flaming lids?  This alone was enough to make fall for them.  More formally speaking, a flambeau is a torch, or flame.  As a decoration, a flambeau is a flame shape; one sometimes sees these flames springing from an urn, or finial.

The flame was often used as a decorative element in antique urns and finials.  This Coadestone lidded urn has the date 1795 stamped into the base.  The word finial comes from the latin-finis, or finish.  A garden finial is a sculpted ornament that terminates or finishes some architectural element, such as gate piers, or fence piers.        

This quartet of cast iron finials auctioned at about the same time are late nineteenth century.  Voluptuous in shape with fluid and gracefully rendered drapery, the flaming lids look more to my eye like some fabulous hairdo.  At 49 inches high, they are not for the faint of heart.  Even the color is spectacular-for all the world they look like they had been painted with aluminum or silver paint.  It would take a garden of considerable size and self assurance to take take them on.  Though I cannot imagine placing them, I would have them in a heartbeat.  They are rowdy, and outrageous.  Gorgeous and elegant.

Happily, a pair of antique English sandstone flambeau lidded urns arrived on this container.  They were of a size and age that made careful crating necessary.  A good bit of the cost of any garden ornament is the expense associated with the shipping.  In this case, a piece of furniture needed to be built to get the pieces here safely. 

My flaming lids are carved in a similar fashion to the aforementioned French finials, but in a less refined style.  This pair of antique English sandstone flambeau finial urns came originally from a Victorian manor house in Derbyshire, England, in Chatsworth House county.  Afficianados of anything English are familiar with Chatsworth; it is a  much celebrated and admired garden.   

The handles are very large, and simply carved from a single piece of sandstone.  Small chips on the sharp edges of the stone consistent with its age reveal the original ochre color of the stone.  The shape of this finial, the handles and long narrow neck bring to mind the shape of an amphora.  From the Greek, “amphi”, meaning on both sides, and “phoreus”, referring to the handles by which the vessel would be carried.  This is strictly my imagination at work here.   
The body of the finial is unexpectedly, and beautifully fluted.  All five foot 6 inches of the stone rests on a waisted socle and circular foot.  The stepped square base at the bottom is generously proportioned and thick.

Statuesque comes to mind.  I find the simple shapes and proportions very pleasing to the eye.  Though massive and heavy, I could see these finials fitting into a landscape quite gracefully.  I could not be more pleased to have them. 

 I did not post this picture of a capodimonte porcelain lidded urn solely from worry that this essay might be making you sleepy.  If you look at the picture, and squint your eyes enough so the cherubs and surface decoration fades, you will see the flame finial and this urn share certain common elements.  They could not be more different in material, surface, effect, size, color, texture and purpose-but they do share a certain something.      


I have given them a special place at the front door.  I think the 1920′s stained glass doors set off my flaming lids quite well, don’t you?

The Garnkirk Fireclay Company

It has been three years since I have shopped for garden ornament in England.  This past October, Rob travelled to England and shopped furiously over the course of 2 weeks; just 2 days ago, our first container was finally delivered.  The shipping has always been an arduous experience, but this shipment was a lesson in the new world order.  No dirt, unknown organisms or moss could be imported. My customs broker requested a crew to come to their warehouse-to dry brush any and all soil and moss from our antique and vintage garden items.  I was reluctant to remove all of the beautiful evidence of age, but I complied.  The rare Scottish Garnkirk fireclay urn circa 1860-1870 pictured above-I just wanted to have it in my possession, along with all of the other things aboard our container.


 Antique garden ornaments have that history that guarantees a story.  What are those stories? The Garnkirk company was founded opened for business in 1832, by Mark Sprot.  He had purchased Garnkirk House in 1811; the Garnkirk Colliery and Brickfield was created nearby.  The name was later changed to the Garnkirk Fireclay Company.  Their fireclay, used to manufacture firebricks and firebrick products, quickly gained a reputation for very high quality and an exceptional light color.  A business in brick, glazed water pipes and other architectural items expanded into beautiful objects for the garden.   By 1833, it became apparent that the ornamental products they made for gardens were a growing and important part of the company. Garnkirk garden ornament was said to “exhibit pleasing forms and a soft mellow shade of color, harmonizing admirably the hue of foliage and turf”.  This reference comes from the Horticulturist, in an article published in July of 1848.  My source for this?  A Sotheby’s auction catalogue from 1999. 

 The Garnkirk Fireclay Company was the largest of its kind in Britain.  The seam bed of fireclay varied in thickness from four to nineteen feet, located some 150 feet below the surface.  The clay was of a composition such that objects made from it had great strength and beauty.  The same could be said for the clay found in Impruneta, Italy;  entire local industries developed from the availability of beautiful and strong clay.  Garnkirk products were shipped all over the world, including the US.   

In 1869, their employees numbered close to three hundred.  Some 200 tons of clay were used daily.  By 1895, the fireclay pits were exhausted.  The company continued production until 1901, when it closed.  It is easy to see why this particular clay was so prized.  It has a dense and smooth surface which reflects light beautifully.  I am sure that density has much to do with the fact that these urns have relatively little damage, considering that they are 151 years old.   

The urns have been colonized by moss, and have patches of black typical on garden ornament from this period.  The engine powering the industrial revolution in the British Isles was coal.  I have seen limestone pieces completely blackened from coal smog.    

None of the research I have done on these urns has revealed who designed them.  The petalled rim is quite beautiful and sculptural, and clearly derived from natural forms.  The incised detail is crisp and dramatic.  The proportions are handsome.  Some very talented person designed these-would that I could know something about them. 


I only know where these urns were for the past year; this leaves 150 years unaccounted for. I do so wish that story could be told; I am sure it would be a tale worth listening to.

The Sylvan Lake Effect

 Rob called me at home early this morning with a weather alert.  A spectacular hoarfrost had built up at his house overnight; in minutes I was on my way.  As a result, I have a much better understanding of why people so prize lake living.  I have had lots of clients with lake properties.  They are an amazingly homogeneous group.  Nothing in the landscape must obstruct even a fraction of the view.  Every element in the landscape must be subordinate to, and in celebration of that view.  Some lake communities have specific ordinances that restrict any obstruction of the view.  Rob has no lake front, but he does have a beautiful lake view.  Lake properties are highly prized and expensive.  Today reminds me why that is.  This morning, the fog hovering over the water and the frost on the lake front trees-spectacular.  I am also seeing why a lake environment demands a very specialized design discussion.   

The temperature at 7 am-1 degree. The pin oak in his front yard was clothed in spicules of ice.  I know this sounds creepy, but it was incredibly beautiful.  The bark of the tree was even colder than the air, as it was loosing heat like crazy.  The warmer wet air around those branches condensed on every surface.  A large and lacy coating of ice was a first time in person hoarfrost weather event for me.  

Even the chain link fence was coated in frost. Chain link fence ordinarily reads dark in a landscape, much like a window screen.  Even though most screens are bright galvanized metal, they appear dark, and permit a view through. The pattern of this fence is graphically rendered in white-visually graphic, and new.  How rare to see the dark and delicate branches of trees thickly rendered in white. 

The lake effect-I have a picture.  This hedge of carpinus tells the story.  Those trees open to the lake are covered with frost.  Those trees sheltered by the house have none.  Anyone who designs formally in long runs has lots of issues to consider.  Do the soil, light, or exposure conditions exist equally start to finish?  Maybe not.  The patience to grow hedges level with the horizon, the skill to cultivate them for a uniform effect-a job for a committed gardener.  The variation I see here-I have seen it in countless other forms.  This hedge-challenged by nature.  I would expect to see a different pattern of growth based on the level of exposure to the lake. 

These lilacs in Rob’s yard screen him from his lake front neighbor.  I would be hard pressed to decide if these lilacs in bloom are better looking than this winter rendition.  As much as I dislike the winter, these branches coated with frost were incredibly beautiful.  Beyond the beauty, the wind and weather that comes off a lake can be very tough on plants.    

This horizontal and wild thatch of stems on an ornamental tree-enchanting.  Identifying the tree would add nothing to the discussion.  What would add?  In my zone 4-5, the winter appearance of the landscape is equally as important as the summer.  Bare branches and ice have their day-as they did today.  If this tree belonged to me, on this day, I would be delighted.


The old willows on Sylvan Lake were much more astonishing than this photograph suggests.  I am sure the stub ends of these giant branches were created in a strong storm. The thin branches were so coated in frost, they just about described the meaning of vertical.  The larger Sylvan Lake view this morning-I understand what it means to have a long and wide view of a natural phenomenon.  The lake effect-substantial.  From my kitchen window, I have an excellent winter urban view of M-59. I have a pair of dogwoods planted just outside these windows for good reason.   

Everywhere and anywhere the sun struck the willows, the frost melted.  These upper branches are yellow, and yellowing up more and more as spring approaches.  The lower branches, frost laden. As much weather as I have been exposed to, a view like this was a first.  


Almost every day of all of the years that I have been a gardener, and a landscape designer, I see something new.  I regularly experience something I neither planned for or anticipated.  How great is this?