It’s Not Just About Plants

January 30, 2013 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Gothic Settee, Kramer Brothers Foundry Company, circa 1880-1900. Garden Furnishings Collection, Smithsonian Gardens.

Gothic Settee, Kramer Brothers Foundry Company, circa 1880-1900. Garden Furnishings Collection, Smithsonian Gardens.

In 1973, just a year after it was established, Smithsonian Gardens acquired its first antique garden furnishing for display on the Smithsonian campus in Washington, D.C. Since then, over 2,000 garden furnishings and horticultural artifacts have been collected by Smithsonian Gardens ranging from delicate bouquet holders to towering fountains. While most of the pieces date from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, all help to document important facets of our garden heritage.

The Garden Furnishings Collection includes hundreds of cast iron pieces such as settees, chairs, urns and wickets. Dozens of these furnishings are currently on display throughout a number of the Smithsonian gardens. They are a particularly appropriate complement to the ornate architecture of the Smithsonian Castle and the Arts and Industries Building.

While not much is known about the origins of many specific pieces in the collection, Smithsonian Gardens staff and interns have gleaned general information about some cast iron furnishings from historic trade catalogs that document the wares of numerous foundries operating in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fortunately, one settee on display in the Ripley Garden features a maker’s mark that indicates where it was manufactured and by whom.

With the rise of the middle class in the mid-nineteenth century, many objects made for utilitarian use, such as garden furnishings, saw a dramatic change in the way they were designed and manufactured. Victorian furniture is characterized by a jumbling of styles, often incorporating design elements from previous eras, from High Renaissance to Gothic to Rococo. Makers and buyers would simply pick elements they found pleasing and incorporate them into a piece with no regard to purity of the original designs.

For example, this Smithsonian Gardens’ settee incorporates both Gothic and Rococo design elements at the same time, something that would hardly have ever been done prior to the Victorian era (1837-1901). Overall, the settee is extremely Rococo in its form and design. Characteristics of the Rococo period can be seen in the fluid curl of the cabriole legs and in the “c” scrolls that make up the arms. These two elements are characteristic of the asymmetry and playfulness of the Rococo period of the late 18th century, and would not have been combined with the structure and orderliness favored during the Gothic period (12th-16th centuries).

Interestingly, this settee features more Rococo elements in its design than it does Gothic, which was the name given to the pattern by the manufacturer, the Kramer Brothers Foundry Company of Dayton, Ohio. The only distinctly Gothic element is the back of the settee, which is comprised of four rows of repeating arches. It is this combination of characteristics from different styles that makes this piece unique and interesting, much like countless other objects from the late Victorian period. In pieces like this settee, it is easy to see why the period—which was overwhelmingly influenced by the large variety of revival styles—has been called Victorian Eclecticism.

-Brittany Spencer-King, Research Assistant

Entry filed under: Artifacts, Collections, Garden History. Tags: , .

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