18 Years


18 years ago, on March 29, Rob and I were hosting a party to celebrate the opening of Detroit Garden Works.  My landscape design and installation firm was the ripe old age of 10.  I had always had a dream of a place where clients could find beautiful and intriguing objects to ornament their garden.  No such place existed in my area.  So Rob and I decided to create one.  Crucial to the mix – my accountant.  He also represented a gentleman with a machine shop for sale.  Jeff was able to persuade his client to sell the property and building to me on a land contract.  This proved to be crucial to the mix.  Had I gone to a bank asking for a commercial mortgage to open a retail garden ornament business in an area zoned for light manufacturing, I would have been politely swept out the door.  A shop retailing garden ornament?  What exactly is garden ornament?


A garden group came to the shop Saturday for a talk on garden ornament. I pointed out that garden ornament – as in furniture, tables and chairs, benches and other seating- provides a place for a person to be in a garden.  It is one thing to observe or review a garden, but garden ornament can provide a place to spend time in that garden.  After work.  Before work.  To watch the birds.  To entertain friends. To relax.  To think things over.  To rest.

antique-iron-trough.jpgA garden ornament can provide a focal point for a garden.  An old galvanized washtub overstuffed stuffed with lavender or rosemary can be the star attraction of an herb garden.  A sculpture in the landscape can organize a garden, endow it with atmosphere, and make an invitation to interact.  Pots positioned on either side of a front door say welcome to my house.  And welcome to my idea of making you feel welcome.  Gardeners place birdbaths in their gardens for obvious reasons.  Gardeners also have very different views about what constitutes a beautiful birdbath.  Finding a garden ornament that suits your garden in particular is what gives that garden a personal and individual feeling.


A structure in a garden, as in a pergola, can enclose a space, and give it a sense of intimacy.  A fountain brings the sound and sparkle of water to the garden.  An arbor or trellis provides a home for climbing plants. A vintage bootscraper, rain barrel or garden umbrella is utilitarian.  I could say that any non-living element in a garden would qualify as a garden ornament, but that is not exactly true.  Some objects trigger a memory of an experience, a special occasion, or a person. Those memories are very real.  Some vintage or antique garden ornament come with a feeling of history or culture attached to them.  Some ornament is whimsical.  Some is repurposed from old farm implements and tools. But no matter the origin, I am still interested, 18 years later, in how garden ornament can endow a garden with a little magic.


Interested in more on that moment which was so magical to me 18 years ago?  Here you go.

The Eagles


Some years ago I ran across an extraordinary pair of hand wrought and cast iron armatures resembling birds. I must have come back and looked at them 4 times, before I approached the dealer. He told me he believed they had been eagles, gracing a building in Paris. He went so far as to tell me they had been on the Palais Royale, but had no proof of that provenance. They were obviously very old; the iron was deeply pitted from exposure to the weather and environment. The heads were long gone, as were most of the wought iron feathers.  One patch of feathers, one piece of feathers long detached, and the hand wrought iron legs and talons gave a small indication of what they might been in their prime.  

But the most striking of all that remained were their massive iron armatures.  An armature is the underpinning over which a sculpture is created.  The armature provides strength and support-a framework upon which to build the final piece.  These old armatures-visually arresting.  Emotionally arresting.  I kept coming back. Buck encouraged me to speak for them.      


I visited them many times over the course of 3 days.  Buying them could not be undertaken lightly.  It would require a considerable investment.  No doubt they were like nothing I had ever seen.  In the end, I gave in and bought them, as they were like nothing I had ever felt.  It is entirely possible that I would not have responded as strongly to the sculptures in their prime as strongly as I did to the aged and deteriorated version.  They had a very powerful presence, though I could see through them.  With almost every shred of ornament stripped or worn away, they were still incredibly beautiful.  There was ample evidence of the hand of the artist.  They were of imposing scale.  I never tired of looking at them.   

I did at one point have a client with a serious interest.  Buck made a pair of painted plywood pedestals, so we could display them in the air.  She decided against them.  I had not a worry in the world about this.  I had fallen for them hard.  I liked having them around, every day.  They might be the most beautiful garden ornament it has ever been my pleasure to own.  This is my personal opinion.  People respond to art in very different, and very individual ways.  I could never buy art for a client, nor would I ask someone to buy art for me.  I cannot really explain why this ghostly pair of birds wrapped their talons around my heart-but they did. 

Why this story now?  A designer from New York, who looked at them at the same show where I bought them years ago, called last week to inquire if I still owned them.  He had a client with a garden whom he thought would appreciate them.  I was surprised that he had taken note of where they had gone.  He responded much like I would have.  There are those garden ornaments that make an indelible impression.  He had not forgotten them.   

His client decided to purchase them from me.  Several days ago Steve and his crew loaded them into our box truck for a trip to Branch.  Buck will crate them for shipping to a garden in St. Louis.  I was surprised at how very reluctant I was to let them go.  More than once I thought about bringing them home, but my garden is not right for a pair of sculptures such as these.   Yet I could have lived with them all of my life, and been challenged, intrigued, engaged, and awed every time I looked at them.  This is what art does for people.   


I have had other perfect moments with art.  Some of those pieces I own, and look at every day.  I could say these remains of a pair of eagles are everything I ever wanted in a garden sculpture.  But in fact they are a creation of the hand of an unknown artist from better than 200 years ago that I will have a hard time living without.

I am a dealer in  garden antiques.  This means I am committed to offering my clients the best there is, given my best judgment and experience.  But I will admit there are those days when I wish I were just a private collector.  Lacking that, I would wish that I had a certain client, and a certain project that would have asked for this pair.  Lacking that, it has been my pleasure to own them for a while.  This is enough, albeit barely enough.   I feel quite sure they are going to an extraordinary garden.  Godspeed, beloved birds.

The English Horse Troughs

In my possession at this moment, a pair of English cast iron horse troughs dating back to the late 19th century in England. When Rob sent  me this picture-I fell head over heels-instantly.  They are beautiful objects in their own right.  Even more important, they have presence.  A big and considerable presence.  Rob’s photograph of the morning sun shining obliquely on a freshly plowed English field, and this 12 foot long trough set in rough grass makes one thing clear. Some objects come with an aura that just won’t quit. This picture with no horse trough-adrift. 
See what I mean?  Could you not have everything that this place, and these troughs imply?  You may also be wondering about how Rob came to shop next to a field.  This particular person buys and sells garden ornament as a side line to his primary business; he is a farmer by trade.  The objects he he has available are not so many, but always of a certain caliber.  Located close to the Cotswolds, I would guess these troughs were locally made. They were built with a specific function in mind-making fresh water available to horses.  I would further guess draft horses.  Horses who did the heavy lifting, the big work, on farms pre the industrial revolution.  The cast iron is very thick and substantial, as are the legs.  There is an inlet for water, and an outlet.  The feet have holes which would have permitted bolting the troughs to a hard surface.  A draft horse is a very heavy and powerful creature; no doubt they could upend these troughs, should they have a mind to.  Our farmer/antiques dealer thought circa 1880-1890.   I have no idea how much they weigh, but we were only able to move them with a loader. I can still smell the farm on them.  

They are massive, simple, and handsome. I can easily imagine a lineup of draft horses getting a drink.  The cast iron is of very fine workmanship; lichens and mosses have colonized the rusted steel on the outside.  At the water line and below on the inside-lime deposits from the water.     Should you not have a crew of draft horses, I could see an entire collection of meadowlike flowers growing in them, as in dwarf cleome, hyssop, angelonia, verbena bonariensis and annual queen anne’s lace. Oh yes, this list could be expanded; the troughs are big. What about nasturtiums, sweet william, basil, juncus-and what else?   I could as easily see a giant rosemary hedge underplanted with curly liriope.  Heartstopping.  I could see it stuffed with lavender, or Tuscan kale.  I could see something different planted in them every year, for years and years to come.   I could see schemes for more years than I have left.  This, I like.  

It would be a fairly simple matter to outfit them with 3 or four fountain jets that would recirculate water.  They would be great set on gravel, or in a garden bed.  Do not be afraid of ornament of great scale, age, and presence.  This kind of beautiful is a good think for a garden-it gets the old blood moving. 

Would one not look great in a formal vegetable garden with raised planter boxes-planted with herbs?  I think I could draw a scheme a number of different ways.  The trough perpendicular to an arrangement of four boxes. Four parallel boxes, interrupted by a trough.  These troughs are tall and solid enough to provide a wall, broad enough to house an entire community, beautiful enough to enchant.  Can you tell they are my most favorite thing to come off this last container? 

Each trough has a small section at the end-called a baffle.  The hose in the early days, and the pump for the water much later was housed here.  The baffle slowed the flow of water to the trough-so not one drop would be wasted from splashing.  A means to slow the flow.  I see a lot here.  History, utility, agriculture, gardening, landscape-everything that means something to me.  My advice?  There are those things you can manage without.  There are those things you cannot live without.  Shop for your garden accordingly.

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.