Mouth open, staring straight ahead, I sat in a trance in the Bronwynn Theater of the Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center in Worthington. It was dark. Beautiful music played. A slow succession of images filled the screen. And I fell for the “Gallery in a Garden” and its golden burlap-covered walls all over again.
It was December 16, 2016, and I was watching Renoir: Revered and Reviled, an Exhibition on Screen feature-length documentary based on the 181 Renoir paintings in the collection of the Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia museum where utilitarian Pennsylvania Dutch furniture rivals incredible post-Impressionist paintings.
“Just four months to go until I see it,” I told myself as I packed up my uneaten popcorn and returned to Riverlea.
A return visit to the Barnes Foundation figured in my Philadelphia spring break plans, but I was really counting down the days to see the original home of the museum and its founder in Merion, Pennsylvania.
Albert Barnes and his wife, Laura, purchased the property in 1922 from Joseph Lapsley Wilson, who had planted more than 200 trees on the estate since the 1880s. Wilson had one condition: those trees were not to be harmed by any plans for the site’s development. Dr. Barnes hired Paul Philippe Cret, a French architect who taught at the University of Pennsylvania, to design a building to house his foundation. The two corresponded about slightly modifying the placement of the building, constructed of limestone from France and Spanish tile, to accommodate the large Franklinia tree Wilson had planted near the site.
In 1937, Dr. Barnes imported an old stone well from a fishing village in Brittany and reconstructed it on front lawn. Similar old wells are often decorated with bas-relief portraits; Barnes commissioned sculptor Jacques Lipchitz to create music-themed bas-relief plaques on the outside of the gallery. African-motif relief mosaics also surround the entrance to the original Cret Gallery, named in honor of the architect.
Cret also designed a teahouse on the property. Built above a spring, the tea house was a favorite refuge for Mrs. Barnes, who displayed her collection of ceramic frogs inside.
While Dr. Barnes was collecting art, his wife indulged her love of horticulture by designing the surrounding landscape. She selected plants for their color, texture and seasonal changes, even corresponding with noted botanists and arboreta about importing exotic plants from Asia.
Today, the 12-acre arboretum contains more than 3,000 species of rare and unusual plants, including hostas, roses, peonies, camellias, trilliums and medicinal plants. There are also 31 state champion trees on the grounds. Bill Rein, the arboretum’s horticulture programs associate, pointed out some unique items in the collection.
Mrs. Barnes developed an outstanding, extensive collection of ferns, including more than 90 species. Very interested in bark and the winter interest it provdes, she established a grove of Stewartia, Asian trees known for their distinctive bark ranging in color from orange to yellowish-brown.
She also collected nearly 200 lilacs, selecting them in graduating shades of purple. Today, the collection includes Syringa vulgaris “Laura L. Barnes” and Syringa vulgaris “The Barnes Foundation.”
The collection includes many specimens not normally found in the mid-Atlantic region, such as a monkey-puzzle tree (Chilean pine) that Mrs. Barnes obtained from the Brimfield Nurseries in Connecticut in 1960…
and a cork tree from northeast Asia. Its genus name, Phellodendron, comes from the Greek words “Phellos” (cork) and “dendron” (tree), referring to its corky bark, not because it is where cork stoppers come from.
A Japanese raisin tree (Hovenia dulcis, part of the buckthorn family), is another, with club-shaped sweet fruit stalks that the Chinese and Japanese like to chew. A dove tree (Davidia involucrata), also known as a ghost tree or handkerchief tree, is named after Armand David, a French missionary who introduced the tree from China in the 1890s. Part of the dogwood family, the tree’s white bracts drape over the tips of its branches in late spring, recalling doves or handkerchiefs.
In 1940, Mrs. Barnes established a three-year horticulture certificate program at the arboretum, offering a course of study in botany, horticultural practices, garden aesthetics and design. She also developed an extensive horticultural library. Much of the building houses Barnes Foundation office space today, but the library is available for research. On the way to see it, I stopped to admire several “Flora Fantastica” works by MF Cardamone, who completed the horticulture program at the Barnes Foundation Arboretum School in 2005. While researching and collecting the plants for her native Pennsylvania wildlife habitat garden, the artist created her own herbarium. This inspired her to blend specimen-mounting techniques with botanical illustrations from the 18th and 19th centuries and Surrealist collages to create unique works illustrating the science, history and beauty of plants from Pennsylvania, Florida, the Southwest, Peru and Iceland, among others.
When the Barnes Foundation moved from its Merion campus to Center City Philadelphia in 2012, some believed that the closing of the original galleries marked the end of an era — and the historical context that they provided. As Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski wrote, ” Besides painting, sculpture, and decorative arts galore, Merion also embodies and evokes architecture, horticulture, educational philosophy, American social history, and the personality and taste of the founder. It can’t be relocated organically any more than a giant redwood can be cut off at the knees and stuck in a giant tub on the sidewalk.”
Whatever the conclusion about the museum’s relocation, it’s worth experiencing some of that historical context with a visit to the Barnes Arboretum. It was such a special place to me that I made a second trip back to the Barnes Foundation to bring home something equally dear: the Barnes botanical wave pin. Inspired by four distinctive plants at the Barnes Arboretum — Camellia Sasanqua, trillium, Koelruetaria bipinnata seedpods, and larix cones — artisan Cynthia Gale incorporated details on the pin that derive from a decorative ironwork window treatment at the Barnes’s home. A portion of my purchase benefited the Barnes Arboretum — a very worthy cause, I’d say.
For more on the Arboretum of the Barnes Foundation, read Gardens of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, by William M. Klein, Jr. To learn more about MF Cardamone, see Botanical Visions: The Art of MF Cardamone, by MF Cardamone and Julie Sasse.