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Today’s post combines the splendor of summer, the loveliness of gardens, and the foreboding beauty of gothic architecture. How can we accomplish such a juxtaposition? By featuring a small gallery of Gothic summerhouses from estate gardens of the great and powerful (mostly in England).
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A summerhouse is a garden feature found in grander gardens than mine! It is a sort of folly building: a small open building in a garden or park where someone can sit during the summer time. Of course great aristocrats of yore had a different idea of what constitutes “small” or “open” than I do, so some of the summer houses in European gardens are practically houses in their own right. Looking at certain examples here makes me realize that for an Earl or Duke, summerhouse probably means “surplus house where you can party with a viscount and 20 retainers.” Still some of these houses are actually on the smaller side and could almost be gazeboes, playhouses, or “cots” (as simple huts were sometimes called).
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My old roommate Jennifer has decamped to the great Smokey Mountains to work remotely for a month and I am told she is doing all of her work from a splendid summerhouse. I wonder if she has something like these. Unfortunately the lords of Wall Street won’t let me out of the building during summer (which is most wise, since I would undoubtedly wander off or start drawing or gardening if not shackled to my workstation). Still one can dream about these beautiful structures and lazing away the golden months on high summer in such opulent magnificence!
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The ornamental cherry tree in the back yard circa present!

The ornamental cherry tree in the back yard circa present!

It’s cherry blossom season again!  Every year for a magical week, the ornamental cherry tree in the back yard garden blooms and the world is filled with happiness, joy, and beauty.  In past years I have already explained the historical roots of the Japanese hinami festival (which celebrates the beauty of the cherry blossoms) and rhapsodized about “Mono No aware” the awareness of transient beauty.  This year maybe we don’t need to read a philosophical post to appreciate the beauty of the blossoms.  We can skip straight to the garden pictures.

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In case you are wondering, the big strange mummy/fish/monster thing at the bottom of the 2nd picture is a sculpture project which I am working on.  It is the subject of my next post (but I need to put some glitter and fluorescent paint on it first, so that it doesn’t look like it crawled out of a forgotten tomb).  In the meantime, savor the pink blossoms.  It’s all so fleeting and exquisite…

Um...who could be unmoved by such splendor?

Um…who could be unmoved by such splendor?

cool-space-wallpaperI was looking at a list of color names when my eyes lit upon “cosmos pink.” Wow! What color could be more amazing than a glowing shade of pink named after all of creation? Surely cosmos pink must be the color of pulsars as they wink out, the ineffable shade at the heart of a supernova…the color of god’s polo shirt! However when I looked more closely into the matter, I discovered that I had jumped to a dreadful misapprehension. Cosmos pink is not named for the swirling firmament of all that is or will ever be: instead it is named after a small Mexican flower somewhat related to the sunflower.

A field of cosmos flowers

A field of cosmos flowers

This is a disappointment, but not a crushing one, since I love flowers nearly as much as I love cosmology! Botanically speaking, Cosmos is a genus of flowers which live in the Americas from Paraguay in the south up through Central America, Mexico, and into the United States southwest. They have naturalized to various other parts of the world by means of escaping from gardens or even from contaminated livestock feed. Since cosmos are members of the aster family, they tend to be extremely hardy. There are about 40 species which range in size from 30 centimeters to 2 meters (1 foot to 6 feet 7 inches).  They grow easily and can be planted in vast colorful fields (which is probably what I would do if I had vast farmlands and endless resources).

Looking at these more closely, I recognize them from....everywhere

Looking at these more closely, I recognize them from….everywhere

Cosmos flowers look very much like the classic daisy-type flower which all schoolchildren draw. They have a ring of ray shaped petals around a central eye (which is actually a disc of tiny florets). Cosmos flowers come in a variety of colors such as blue, white, red, yellow, orange…and, of course, pink. The color cosmos pink is a bright medium pink with a dash of blue. Come to think of it, who is to say God’s polo shirt is not that color?

A circular cosmos pink cosmos

A circular cosmos pink cosmos

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It is early September: the golden beauty of summer is still much in evidence, but summer is now being touched by the first stirrings of autumn. It is a beautiful time of year here in Brooklyn—maybe the prettiest of all. What better time to combine two of our obsessions—gardens and all things gothic?

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When I fantasize about limitless personal wealth, I imagine building a garden which perfectly combines the spooky angular beauty of Gothic architecture and decoration with the luxuriant fecund beauty of flowers and plants. Of course we have already seen how lovely Gothic garden structures are in this well-received post about Gothic greenhouses. Today we are looking instead at Gothic gazebos.

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The internet defines a gazebo as “a roofed structure that offers an open view of the surrounding area, typically used for relaxation or entertainment.” Since they are pleasure buildings built entirely for aesthetic reasons, gazebos are often made in elaborate ornamental styles—including the Gothic style of ornate arches, pitched roofs, and intricate detail. Here is a little gallery of Gothic gazebo pictures which I found on the web. Unfortunately I really mean little! For some reason, people do not wish to post large images of Gothic revival garden structures (maybe they are rightfully afraid that I will steal them).

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19th century cast iron collection (Morning Glory Gazebo with eagle), Belmont University-large

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You can put these amazing buildings in your fantasy garden and wonder into them in your imagination whenever you need a break from the opprobrious ugliness of the real world!

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White Crested Black Polish Rooster

White Crested Black Polish Rooster

Allow me to present a truly magnificent breed of show chickens! Polish chickens are known for their plumage—especially their splendid bouffant crests.  Despite the name, Polish chickens were apparently bred in the Netherlands (although there are some apocryphal stories about how they first arrived in Europe with Mongol raiders!).  Some historians speculate that they are known as Polish chickens because their feathery crest resembles the flared hat of the Polish lancers, but the real reasons for the name are lost in time.

A Polish Lancer of the Imperial Guard (re-enactor)

A Polish Lancer of the Imperial Guard (re-enactor)

Bantam Frizzle Polish

Bantam Frizzle Polish

Bearded White Polish Hen (from Cackle Hatchery)

Bearded White Polish Hen (from Cackle Hatchery)

Like many of the truly chic, Polish chickens suffer for their beauty: their feathery crests impede their vision—which often makes them skittish and flighty. They have good reason to be anxious: because of their reduced eyesight, they are easy prey for foxes and other predators (and, if kept with other doughtier breeds of chickens, they fall low on the pecking order).

Tolbunt (Beard) Polish Hen

Tolbunt (Beard) Polish Hen

Golden Laced Polish Chicken

Golden Laced Polish Chicken

 

Silver Laced Polish Rooster

Silver Laced Polish Rooster

Polish chickens are mild-mannered and can make good pets (if you happen to want a pet chicken). Additionally they can be decent egg-layers–though nothing like modern egg-laying breeds like the leghorns.  As you can see from the images included in this post, there are many different colors and varieties of polish chickens to suit your palette and your ornamental tastes!

Buff Laced Frizzle Polish Hen

Buff Laced Frizzle Polish Hen

Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post last Friday: the sad exigencies of the world prevented me from finishing my week-long overview of ornamental knot designs (which included the valknut, knot gardens, the Saint Jame’s arms, and the endless knot).  Today I am returning to the theme for a final post concerning Celtic knotted designs– which represent the beautiful apogee of decorative knots (with the possible exception of certain gorgeous Islamic calligraphy and artwork).

Like leprechauns and shamrocks, ornate knot designs are an iconic and instantly recognizable aspect of Gaelic culture.  Yet the history of how these designs came to be synonymous with all things Hibernian is far from clear.  Interlace patterns have been found in mosaics and tile work from many different parts of the Roman Empire during the fifth and sixth centuries.  It has been speculated that these designs may have originated from Coptic Egyptian manuscripts, but whatever the case, the sinuous interconnected ribbons with animal heads certainly appealed to the people of Northern Europe in the waning days of Roman hegemony.

During the so-called Migration period (the period from 400 AD to 800 AD) waves of Germanic, Slavic, Mediterranean, and Steppe peoples intermingled and pushed into each other’s territory.  As these peoples intermingled (and battled), looped, braided, and geometric styles of decoration grew in popularity throughout what had been the Western Roman Empire.  Frequently these designs were elaborate knotted ribbons which terminated in interlocking animal heads.

A Sword Hilt Fitting from the Staffordshire Hoard (Mercian, ca. 7th century)

By 700 AD, the style was becoming less prominent on continental Europe, however it continued to evolve in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia.  The insular art of Irish monasteries produced unrivaled treasures such as numerous ancient stone crosses and the world famous Book of Kells, an illuminated Vulgate gospel from around 800 AD, which defies belief due to the microcosmic intricacy of its knotwork men, animals, and sacred figures.

Detail of Serpents, lions, and vines from the Book of Kells (ca. 800 AD)

Although the Book of Kells marks an apogee of lacework illumination, geometrical knots continued to be popular in Ireland thereafter.   Right on down until today, intricate ornamental knots are a hallmark of Irish culture.  For your enjoyment here is a little gallery of Celtic knots, ancient and modern.

Detail from the Book of Kells

Stained Glass Celtic Knot (from Paradise Stained Glass)

Fahan Cross-slab (Donegal Ireland, ca. 7th Century AD)

Celtic Knot Handbag

Celtic Knot foot tattoo from “Tattoo and Piercing Gallery”

Celtic Knot Stencil from “The Artful Stencil”

Traditional Celtic Knot (Drawing by by ~cosmic-tool from deviantart)

Snake weather vane, maker unidentified, ca. 1825-1850.

More than usual the future seems uncertain.  The most cunning augurs and oracles can not see whether economic turmoil in Europe and turmoil in the Middle East will capsize the world economy.  The Pax Americana still holds but China’s rise promises a less stable, less happy balance of world power. The world’s climate is changing.  Technology is evolving in unknown directions.

To mark this uncertainty, I am dedicating today’s post to the quintessential symbol of all things shifting and mercurial–the weathervane (a choice which seems even more appropriate in the year when Mitt Romney is running for president).  A weathervane is an instrument dedicated to determining the direction the wind is blowing from.  As the wind changes, an arrow attached to a metal sail shifts to point in the direction the breeze originates.  These devices had a very practical function in the days before up-to-the-minute worldwide meteorological observations and projections were available: they continue to be popular as architectural flourishes.

Sea serpent weathervane (c. 1850) Paint on wood with iron

Sometimes I fantasize about what sort of weathervane I would put on the cupola of my imaginary mansion or at the apex of the folly tower of my non-existent formal garden.  A quick search of the internet reveals that many of my favorite topics are favorite subjects of weathervanes.  Catfish, turkeys, snakes, crowns, and mollusks are favorite subjects for metal sculptors to work in iron or copper.  So are mammals (represented here by whales and deer), farm creatures (goats and turkeys), and trees. Even gods of the underworld make an appearance–in the form of the devil who points to the wind with his pitchfork

A turkey gobbler weathervane from Blackforge weathervanes

Wild turkey with gilded wings weathervane by West Coast Weathervanes

A wild turkey weathervane and a curious wild turkey (amazing photo by Glen Ivey)

An antique copper goat weathervane from last century

Blue Devil weathervane from Duke campus

Magnificent snail weathervane by West Coast Weathervanes

Squid weathervane!

Oyster shell weathervane by Edwin B. Waskiewicz

Two themes at once–a weathervane portraying banana slugs holding up a crown

Pine tree weathervane from Mailbox Shoppe

A catfish weathervane by Copper Top Weathervanes & Cuppolas

A catfish weathervane by Weathervanes of Maine

A catfish weathervane at the National Metal Museum

For the sake of space I left out all sorts of beautiful marlins, swordfish, dolphins, capricorns, poseidons, sea horses, sharks, and clipper ships, however I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t end with a few buxom mermaids and sirens (and with the reminder to all fellow New Yorkers that the 30th annual mermaid parade is happening tomorrow at Coney Island.  Why not take a break from the vagaries of watching the weather and worrying about the uncertain future by participating in a festival in honor of Poseidon and the world’s oceans!

Mermaid weathervane by Barry Norling

Mermaid weathervane by Lakeside Ornamental

Ornamental Adenium Tree

The Adenium genus is made up of tiny evergreen tree from the dogbane family.  The succulent trees come from Africa where they can be found in the Sahel (the semi-arid strip running along the south of the Sahara) and similar dry scrublands down the continent to South Africa.  The most famous species is Adenium obesum, a little shrub which grows from 1 to 3 meters (3 to 9 feet) in height and bears dazzling five petaled flowers that look like glowing stars of pink, red, and white. The flowers are widely cultivated as houseplants known as the desert rose (although they are in no way closely related to true roses).  A whole group of enthusiasts hold contests to determine who can hybridize the prettiest flower or cultivate the most striking ornamental bonsai trees.

In addition to their dazzling flowers, Adenium plants are known for having bulbous interestingly-shaped caudexes.  A caudex is the woody barrel-like stem/trunk in which certain desert trees and shrubs store precious liquids. Adeniums are very lovely but their loveliness should not obscure the fact that the wild specimens survive in one of the more punishingly competitive ecosystems on Earth–where all sorts of hungry grazers are desperately looking for meals.  To survive in Africa’s scrublands, Adeniums are not only hardy plants which can live almost anywhere on very little water, they are also poisonous.  Adeniums produce a cocktail of cardiac glycosides-compounds which affect the electrophysiology of the heart. Although these molecules (and other related cardiac glycosides such as those found in the foxglove) can be therapeutic in very tiny doses for certain heart conditions, in larger doses they are poisonous and cause the heart’s rhythm to fail altogether.  Thus, a plant known to American housewives as an frou-frou ornamental houseplant is known as the source of horrifying arrow poison to many of Africa’s toughest native hunters, who use the compound to kill big game.

San hunters of the Kalahari

Albizia julibrissin leaves and blossoms

At the corner of my block there is a small lovely tropical-looking tree covered with candyfloss flowers of princess pink.  Since I live in Brooklyn (which occasionally gets very cold), I have been wondering if the tree is a hallucination or some cunning model made of plastic, but it turns out that the tree is a mimosa tree (Albizia julibrissin), aka the Persian silk tree.  Like the green parakeets which live in my neighborhood, this little tree is evidently not as tropical as it seems.

A member of the legume family, the small to medium-sized tree has a springy crown which spreads out like an irregular umbrella.  Its delicate bipinnate leaves look like fern fronds (or like Mimoseae plants, to which the Persian silk tree is not closely related).  The tree has smooth olive colored bark which becomes striped as it ages.  It produces dense clusters of down-like pink flowers all summer.  These flowers are attractive to bees and hummingbirds. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the tree 9other than the pretty flowers) is how animated it is—during the evenings or rain storms the leaves close up and the tree takes on a hunched forlorn appearance.  When it is sunny and warm it spreads out like a kid on a comfy sofa.   Because of this habit the Persians call it “shabkhosb”—the night sleeper.  Apparently its Japanese name is similar and the tree has become representative of sleepy summer evenings in Japanese literature and art.

The trees originally came from Asia and are native to a huge swath of the world from Persia to China. In the past two centuries people planted Albizia julibrissin trees everywhere as an ornamentals and, you guessed it, the species has become invasive.  It can be found growing wild in the United States from southern New York west to Missouri and south to Texas.  I wonder if my neighbors even planted their specimen or whether it just showed up like all of the trees of heaven which live around every American city.

Albizia julibrissin tree

A tea made out of this tree is used in traditional medicine to ward off confusion and dark feelings and indeed a clinical study by Korean physicians found that the methylene chloride fraction of Albizzia julibrissin extract produced an antidepressant-like effect in mice (most likely by affecting 5-HT1A receptors—a neural receptor shared by humans).

The Sugarloaf Folly in East Sussex (early 1820s)

Yesterday, in reaction to the many follies in the world news, I decided to write a post about architectural follies–remarkable ornamental buildings commissioned by nobles to add beauty and interest to their estates.

the Forever Incomplete Temple of Philosophy at Ermenonville (1760s-1770s)

Many follies were towers, fake ruins, or ersatz foreign structures (pagodas, minarets, wigwams and so forth) however some follies were heavy-handed allegories about the nature of life.  Nick Ford, an architectural blogger describes two famous allegorical follies in England writing, “The temple of philosophy at Ermenonville was not completed–to symbolize that knowledge would never be complete, while the temple of modern virtues at Stowe was deliberately ruined, to show the decay of contemporary morals.”

The Temple of Modern Virtue at Stowe (built as a ruin)

Other follies actually had a practical purpose.  Connolly’s Folly in Ireland was created to provide gainful employment for the vast numbers of unemployed workers during the Famine of 1740-1741 (unlike the potato famine a century later, the famine of 1740-1741 was caused by a dreadfully cold two year period in Ireland—one of the last severe cold snaps which marked the end of the Little Ice Age).  Other philanthropists in 18th century Ireland commissioned similar projects such as roads to nowhere and great piers built in swamps. In a way follies were the economic stimulus package of the 18th century.  After the workers were paid, the lordly benefactor at least had a pretty building to show for their charity.

Connolly's Folly (1740)

It will be obvious to the practical reader that I have somehow come full circle.  Yesterday to escape the grim news of economic mismanagement and greedy grandstanding elites, I escaped into the fantasy world of eighteenth century gardens.  Today I am writing about how the opulent structures within those pleasure gardens were the attempts of eighteenth century leaders to aggrandize their status while ensuring an economic “trickle-down” would benefit the struggling workers at the bottom of society (who were starting to feel the first pinches from globalism and industrialization—while simultaneously groaning beneath of the ancient regime).  The little historical digression leads to an uncomfortable truth about the economy of the rich world–much of what we do and strive for is really only status ornamentation.

Burj Khalifa (2010)

Walk around today and you will start seeing garden follies a thousand feet tall built of steel (especially if you in Dubai or Shanghai or Manhattan) but with purposes as murky as those of the temple of modern virtues.  You might be reading this as you pretend to work in one!

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