Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Elizabethan Gardens - Like A Step Back In Time

Statue of Elizabeth I by Jon Hair, The Elizabethan Gardens
Entering the Great Gate of The Elizabethan Gardens, Manteo, NC, is like stepping back in time. The Elizabethan Gardens, on the north end of Roanoke Island, is very near the site of Fort Raleigh, known as "England's First Home in the New World."

In the late 16th century, Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) tried to establish an English colony by charter of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) on Roanoke Island. Though he organized and financed the project, Sir Walter Raleigh never visited North America himself. After one failed effort, a group of 150 colonists under Governor John White (1540-1593) was dispatched to the Chesapeake Bay, but stopped at Roanoke Island to gather the remaining men. None were found. White, a friend of Raleigh's and an able artist, attempted to proceed to Chesapeake Bay, but the fleet's Portuguese commander and part-time pirate, Simon Fernandez (1538-1590), nicknamed "The Swine" by his men, inexplicably refused to allow the colonists to re-board ship, insisting they stay to establish the Roanoke colony. (Fernandez's despicable reputation is doubted by E. Thomas Shields, Jr.) White and colonists, including his daughter and son-in-law, had to make the best of it.

Bad relations with the Indians had begun a few years earlier over an alleged theft of a silver cup. In retaliation, the Indian village had been burned. The incident was not forgotten. August 8, 1587, a subsequent, mistaken attack upon friendly Indians worsened the situation.  "We were deceaved", wrote White in his journal, "the savages were our friendes".  The colonists' situation became desperate. White's granddaughter, Virginia Dare, was born August 18, 1587. The first English person born on North American soil, Virginia was baptised the following Sunday.

The colonists urged Governor White to return to England appealing for aid. His return to Roanoke was delayed for three years by unfortunate circumstances, not least of which was England's war with Spain. All worthy ships were enlisted to repel the Spanish Armada. When White, after a harrowing voyage, did make it back on Virginia's third birthday, he found the settlement long-deserted. The only traces were cryptic carvings, CROATOAN and CRO, on a post and tree. The colonists' fate remains a mystery.

The Elizabethan Gardens was conceived in 1950 by Mrs. Charles Cannon (1891-1965), wife of the North Carolina industrialist/philanthropist Charles A. Cannon (1892-1971); Inglis Fletcher (1879-1969), noted North Carolinian, historian and author; Sir John Evelyn Leslie Wrench (1882–1966), Founder of the English Speaking Union, and Lady Wrench, aka Hylda Henrietta Brooke (1879-1955), when they were visiting Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and The Lost Colony outdoor drama on Roanoke Island. The following year, the idea was presented to The Garden Club of North Carolina, which voted to build the garden on property leased from the Roanoke Island Historical Association.

As plans were being made, objects to furnish the gardens were being acquired. Mr. E. W. Reinecke, a North Carolina construction contractor, informed the Garden Club that he was removing some valuable statuary from the Greenwood Plantation of The Honorable John Hay "Jock" Whitney (1904-1892) in Thomasville, Georgia. The statuary seemed to be headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He also suggested that Innocenti & Webel, the noted landscape architect firm headed by Umberto Innocenti (1895-1968) & Richard Webel (1900-2000), be retained. The Garden Club took Reinecke's advice.

Construction began on June 2, 1953, the coronation date of Queen Elizabeth II, and formally opened August 18, 1960, the 373rd anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare.

The impressive iron gates at the entrance to The Elizabethan Gardens, a gift of The Honorable C. Douglas Dillon (1909-2003), Ambassador to France, Undersecretary of State and later United States Treasurer, once hung at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. Dillon, who had a knack for acquiring things, was also a long-time trustee of The Metropolitan Museum, and later its President.

The Great Gate and Gatehouse certainly gave the feeling that we were entering 16th century England. A formal box garden and Shakespeare's Herb Garden contributed to the effect. A couple dozen of the herbs are documented in a booklet, Shakespeare’s Herbs in the Elizabethan Gardens. Written by Huntington Cairns, former secretary of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the booklet may be purchased in the gift shop.

If there's anything like being trapped in time at The Elizabethan Gardens, it's entering the gift shop. We found an intriguing display of lovely objects and interesting literature I never knew we wanted before. I don't like entrapment, so I tried to hurry us into the gardens as soon as we'd paid our admissions fee.

A solidified gravel walk led through the Rhododendron Walk, the Fragrance Walk, and into The Queen's Rose Garden. Since we were visiting in March, none offered the flowers or fragrances of other seasons. However, seasonal plantings of bulbs and spring annuals were enchanting.

Tulips and viola, The Elizabethan Gardens, Manteo, NC

Then we came face-to-face with the statue of Elizabeth I, Good Bess, the Virgin Queen. The sculpture, by Jon D. Hair, is monumental, yet meticulous in detail even to the lace of her gown.

From Good Bess, we strolled to The Mount and Well Head. The well head, carved of porphyry, is one of the items donated by Whitney. The elevation provided good views to the west of The Sunken Garden, and The Virginia Dare Statue to the east.

The Virginia Dare Statue was carved circa 1859 from Carrara marble in Rome, Italy by Maria Louisa Lander (1826-1923). But Virginia Dare, undoubtedly named for the virgin queen, apparently died before the age of three. So the voluptuous figure of a tempting, barely draped woman with really fine legs, said to be "the sculptor’s idealized version of what Virginia Dare would have looked like had she grown to womanhood", doesn't actually represent Virginia or any respectable American Englishwoman of purity and refinement. Perhaps Miss Lander dared to reveal more of herself.

North of the Well Head, I could glimpse Roanoke Sound. The views from The Water Gate and from The Gazebo were very pleasant. The Gazebo is constructed of hewn beams and roofed with thatch in traditional English style, giving somewhat the sense of a colonist's hovel.

Behind The Gazebo, a small terrace garden charmed, and The Overlook Terrace impressed us with views into the Sunken Garden. An ancient Italian Renaissance fountain framed by well-pollarded crapemyrtles and a nearby walk flanked by hornbeams perfected the scene.

As I mentioned earlier, we visited in March, so camellias and Magnolia x soulangiana were in full bloom. The woodland was carpeted with flowers.

Near an ancient Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) probably pre-dating the colonists' arrival, the marble Lion Couchant Bird Bath surrounded by benches provided a fine place to rest and enjoy scenes of The Great Lawn.

The Elizabethan Gardens is a member of the American Horticultural Society's Reciprocal Admissions Program. The AHS RAP allows members of one participating botanical garden to enjoy special privileges at others. At the time, we were members of The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond, VA. You'd think that membership in The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and The Elizabethan Gardens being part of the RAP program, The Elizabethan Gardens would allow free entrance. But that's not the case. For us and the admissions attendant, it was a matter of confusion and disappointment. The attendant's supervisor advised we were allowed free parking and 10% off any gift shop purchase. Parking was already free, and I was determined to avoid entrapment in the gift shop. We paid full admission and enjoyed the garden.

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1 comment:

A. Joseph Marshall said...

This is the most interesting history of a garden I've read yet.