Stone Softened in Blossoms
The Katonah garden of Barbara Israel shows a delicate balance between beautiful blooms and antique appointments.
The Katonah garden of Barbara Israel, a top authority in garden ornament, shows a delicate balance between beautiful blooms and the antique appointments that best accent them.
Story By Tovah Martin
Photography by Todd Shapera
A pair of lions crouches in Katonah. More wise than ferocious, the long-faced beasts frown from below their bouffants at anyone with the gumption to slip past into the perennial borders. Not far away, a Buddhist monk stands guard over a secluded glade while, here and there, various well-endowed maidens flaunt their curves.
Welcome to the world of Barbara Israel, widely recognized as one of the foremost experts in the field of antique garden ornaments.
In a way, it’s predictable. You’d expect that Israel’s own five acres would be dominated by incredible statues of a classical nature. And sure enough, when you stroll her Katonah grounds, you meet up with some incredible characters—animal and mythical—strategically placed.
In the informal garden, spring is dominated by tulips, ‘Mt Everest’ alliums, hostas, and white clematis enshrouding the entry arbor.
Yet when it comes to her own backyard, Israel is willing to take some risks. Her roots in classical ornament remain firmly grounded, and everything is done with the utmost taste. But it isn’t as clipped and controlled as one might imagine. That’s because she is fond of horticulture, and her botanical bent takes its own lead in her landscape.
Further from the house, the woodland retreat garden is muffled in green along with the granite tortoise fountain (formerly a grave marker, now drilled for water) and a zinc cherub wrestling an eel (American, 1870-1874).
Israel carefully balances ornament against horticulture, generally giving the gardens the upper hand. In fact, if asked which she loves more—plants or the distinctive accessories that dress up a garden—the query might give pause. Although Barbara Israel arguably is this country’s primary authority on antique garden ornaments and author of the standard reference on the topic—Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste (1999, Harry N. Abrams)—it all started with her hands in the soil. And she’s been grounded firmly in the earth ever since.
Access to the cutting garden is through an arch shouldering ‘New Dawn’ roses.
“Distinctly American” is the cast-iron bench (1895) beside a crop of daisies for cutting.
It’s a brilliant design, but it wasn’t particularly fun. Israel has a black-and-white photograph, circa 1940, of the original serious and rather self-conscious affair hemmed in by dainty boxwood edging corralling a stretch of carefully disciplined plants, like icing on a cake. She introduced romance into the configuration. The same is true of the garden ornaments that she sells.
Barbara Israel’s realm is populated by a diverse collection of characters, including a Greek mythological figure eternally doomed to pouring water from her vessel.
And while the call to cultivate wasn’t answered until 1980, when she came to Katonah with her husband, Thomas, and their two young children, Israel was born to the intuitive taste that gives her an eye for both incredible classic gardens (in the English sense) and the appropriate appointments to accent them properly. She talks about growing up in Peapack, New Jersey, and sneaking over the wall into the fantasy-like neighboring estate—originally Blairsden, renamed St. Joseph’s Villa—to see the lines of classical busts, water rills, and cascading fountains escorted by clipped hedges and flowering fruit trees down sloping vistas. Although Blairsden was undeniably over the top, her own childhood setting probably wasn’t half bad. The laughing Shishi lions that flank her back door came from her parents’ property. Israel clearly has great instincts, but she grew up in surroundings that informed her sensibilities.
In her otherworldly statuary display garden crouch a pair of greyhounds, faux-painted cast iron to look like stone, among other creatures great, small, and improbable.
To get up to speed on gardening, Israel struck a deal with a new neighbor. Her area of expertise at the time was tournament golf, in which she excelled. So she made a trade with a seasoned gardener down the street. “I taught her golf and I got gardening lessons,” Israel explains. “I came out way ahead.” The fact that she’s a compulsive researcher also spurred the cause and rendered her an instant insider. “Looking at Latin names over and over, I learned them by heart.” But none of that explains the archways smothered in hardy jasmine and lonicera or the billowing beds bursting with sedums, anemones, eupatoriums, Siberian iris, alliums, phlox, hostas, baptisias, and everything else, lapping at the heels of salubrious heirloom roses. That sort of footwork takes more than just research knowledge, it utilizes sensitivity and the courage to break away from the pack.
The original wish-granting Buddhist monk (reproduced by Israel’s newest venture—Garden Traditions) stands benignly on a lotus pod, offering gifts.
Israel took her stern formal garden and softened it in perennials. She let the edging grow up, clipping the boxwood promenade into flowing lines punctuated by a series of four boxwood shrubs on either side of the central beds. The side stone paths are muffled in lily-of-the-valley, and that alone shows the liberal hand of someone who is brave enough to let something roam even though it could get out of control. There are connoisseur plants everywhere, and the scene is immaculately groomed but totally seductive. It’s blowsy, it’s beckoning, it’s the way a classical garden should be. And the romance is infinitely enhanced by the pair of wise lions with their big hair and heavy jowls, crouching as you enter from the side.
From the sleeping porch of the house, one can see the formal garden in all its clipped splendor. Within its staid geometry and simple symmetry, Israel has softened the lines with rambunctious perennials.
Meanwhile, Barbara Israel’s introduction into garden ornament followed a similar tangent to her apprenticeship approach to digging the dirt. After taking a course at the New York School of Interior Design, which gave her the inkling that she had an interest, she simply sat in on auctions. Then she shadowed the experts, accompanying them to sales, listening, watching, helping. And of course, the fact that she’s a voracious researcher (“research is the part I like best”) also contributed to her fund of knowledge.
By the time she was invited onto an important estate to purchase, she was confident enough in the field to do a clean sweep. She came home with dwarf Chinese musicians, elephants, and obelisks, and invited a few friends over for a sale. “When I broke even on the first day, I knew that I was on the right road,” she recalls.
Something about the two-tiered cast iron fountain (American, 1890) spoke to Israel, coaxing her to see what it sounded like with water splashing between its basins.
Initially, at that first purchase, she wasn’t focused. “I bought everything, including the tools, hoses, paintings related to the garden, and vases.” It wasn’t until later that she began to concentrate. Although Israel doesn’t limit her inventory to pieces that weigh 1,500 pounds or more, large and heavy is certainly her strong suit. Some of that has found its way to her Katonah residence.
The botany might be billowing, but what Israel does with her own garden ornament-wise is completely discrete. Certainly, she has the resources to plop statues, benches, and urns at every turn. But that’s not the tact she advises for her clients, and that’s not the way she adorns her own acreage. Besides the stone lions quietly sitting sans fanfare at the side entrance, there’s a simple white bench in the formal garden. And that’s it.
The same is true throughout the landscape. There’s a magical secluded glade with the remnants of an old foundation where a Pan lurks and a scowling turtle fountain commands a modest pond. A round bench encircles a particularly august apple tree over by the grape arbor, and the back patio has the finest collection of furniture for lounging that one can imagine. A few benches of different vintages punctuate the grounds.
Wiping his brow and toting a bundle, “Garden Labour” (1895, arts and crafts style) says a lot about the personal garden ethic of Barbara Israel.
Indeed, if asked what she would recommend if someone felt the urge to purchase just one piece of garden ornament, Israel would suggest a bench, an ornament with a purpose that also sends a message to the visitor. “It says that a person has been here,” Israel points out. “It’s a touch of humanity for a garden. It says ‘This is where I like to be, share it with me.’ ”
Still, Israel isn’t an advocate of playing that hand repeatedly. In her garden, statuary and furniture is sparingly positioned. The quality and variety of the ornament-in-residence suggests that someone with great taste is on hand. But otherwise, you’d never guess that the principle at this particular Katonah place is one of the country’s foremost authorities on antique ornament. She never wants to be accused of committing an error that she so often advises against. “Small gardens often have too much ornament, large gardens don’t have enough,” is a line she has repeated often.
There are some surprises. In her own domain, Israel makes some daring moves. For example, the circular driveway leading to the door skirts one of her favorite acquisitions, one that she definitely couldn’t part with: a massive, gnarled Spanish chestnut tree root that she brought over by boat from Europe.
Actually, the tree trunk was slightly off the beaten track, even for a collector with an open mind. Israel saw a photo of the arboreal work of art, decided to take a chance (“I thought it would look great in a booth at a show,” she says) and discovered that it boasted dimensions far beyond what she’d imagined. Its heft (14,000 pounds, to be exact) broke the rigger’s crane and required strapping the stump to the deck of the ship that brought it over. Ferrying it down the dirt road to her house was another tricky maneuver. When all was said and done, it became clear that the tree stump was in Katonah to stay. So, swinging right into Plan B, Israel placed it on its side next to a handsome little circle of stone edging. Sharp, geometric, and rooted in nature, the composition says a lot about the home’s owner.
Israel’s domain is also sprinkled with evidence of her newest venture. In her ongoing mission to bring fine ornament to the people, she is taking a proactive approach. Not everyone is in a position to purchase originals. So, in 2006, she created Garden Traditions (www.gardentraditions.us), an initiative to reproduce and make readily available replicas of some of the finest pieces in her collection. Available at Mariani Gardens in Armonk as well as through other select venues, Israel’s collection features incredibly crafted, cast-stone reproductions of select lions, maidens, birdbaths, benches, and several other pieces both large and small, as well as pedestals for their staging.
Also for the good of the cause, she’s created a line of weather bags in three sizes to protect statuary over the winter (“the worst thing you can do is smother a piece in a plastic garbage bag. It can’t breathe,” she says). Hers are triple-layer polypropylene with grommets for gathering the covering with cording. In winter, those new cover-ups can be seen throughout her Katonah landscape. The statuary remains snug, and it makes a fashion statement. By spring, everything—including the slumbering perennial beds—will be uncovered and in fine form. The lions will have something to guard once again.
Tovah Martin is the author of numerous gardening books, including View from a Sketchbook: Nature Through the Eyes of Marjolein Bastin (Steward, Tabori & Chang, 2004). She lectures frequently about garden stewardship.