But all this Philly fun aside. I was here to work!
I had been invited to attend one of the open days in conjunction with a collaborative exhibition project between the Bartram Gardens (the US’s oldest botanical gardens) and the Center for Art in Wood. I knew very little about John Bartram and this legacy before I left Bayarea but I’m a always intrigued by a tale of internationalism and the dawning discipline of science during the Enlightenment.
I was excited to finally get there along with a gaggle of folk who I really respect (Albert LeCoff, Matt Hebert, Merryll Saylan, Mark Sfirri, Don Miller Jr., Jack Larimore, Leah Woods) and some others who I’ll get to know soon I hope. We met and talked and then went on a rambling, meandering stroll through Bartram’s garden down to the shores of the Schyulkill River.
The restored barn and house were very surprising to me having spent little time on the East Coast. So humble and hard hewn, but with touches of common luxury showing in some of the careful (if haphazard) details. I’m such a sucker for the vernacular!
I have to admire the heroic rough hewn columns of local stone, the window trims and the carved motto – affirming Bartram’s revolutionary and enlightened stance against the orthodoxy of the Quaker faith.
But we were here to do a bit of botanizing and hypothesizing. The gardens themselves are exquisite. Gone of course, are Bartram’s own crops, livestock and orchards – he was a working farmer after all. But still here are some of the trees that he or his son’s John Jr. and William Bartram planted
John Bartram purchased 102 acres here in 1728 and started to farm, build and explore. He wisely or fortuitously found a parcel of land at the junction of different geological groups that enjoyed diverse microclimates. Through his building of terraced stone walls and buildings he created sun-drenched hollows protected from the winter chills to enable him to grow an increasingly broad range of plants. These he found locally, or transplanted from further afield following a series of increasingly adventurous and ambitious expeditions and then finally through a fertile exchange with fellow botanists and horticulturalists in England. The whole wonderful tale of his commercial, scientific, camaraderie and friendship with Peter Collinson in England is told in sumptuous detail by Andrea Wulf in her tale ‘The Brother Gardeners – Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession,” which also deals in detail with my old friend and life companion Sir Joseph Banks. Read it!
But let’s walk first!
Later we went on a small tour of the house itself. Very relaxing and easy going – a comfortable life here is easy to imagine! A rambling and idiosyncratic interior, with a great Y-shaped staircase branching two two separate 2nd floor landings. I’ve only seen another like it in the Wharton Esherick house in Paoli, Pennsylvania. You can get a glimpse of that staircase here!
The highlight of the inside tour was to catch a glimpse, in the gathering evening dark, of a small medicine chest used by James Howell Bartram (John Jr.’s son). most likely it was built for grandfather John Bartram, by John’s brother James (a local cabinetmaker). Nice piece! Got me thinking in earnest about what I might make for this exhibition. More on that later!