Today, London’s Garden Museum opens “The Education of a Gardner: The Life and Work of Russell Page,” a retrospective of the British landscape artist considered “one of the greatest garden designers of the modern period,” whose portfolio covers the globe, including the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and West Indies.
As the exhibit opens, a broad-based international community of architects and landscape architects; garden designers, historians, writers; conservationists and museum professionals decry New York City’s Frick Collection’s plan to destroy a rare surviving work—the only one in New York City—by the man considered to be a “founding father” of landscape architecture.
Page’s masterful garden at the Villa Silvio Pellico in Turin, Italy, featured in London’s exhibit, is a stunning example of his ability to introduce a sense of calm into a bustling urban environment. Likewise, in the Frick garden, a quiet pond draws the eye deep into the space, where a raised planter and trees suggest yet another garden beyond. This delightful spatial trompe l’oeuil is a hallmark of Russell Page’s wit and skill.
London’s Garden Museum Director Christopher Woodward notes in a recent article in the Telegraph that it was Page’s Frick garden that attracted philanthropist Anne Bass and her architect, Paul Rudolph, to Russell Page’s talents, and led to his exquisite landscape design for her Texas home. Other celebrated works by Page include Babe Paley’s Kiluna Farm garden on Long Island, gardens for Italy’s Agnelli family, and fashion designer and close friend Oscar de la Renta.
“Russell Page was a talent unlike any other in the profession of landscape design. His deep understanding of horticulture and architecture, his training in the visual arts, and his natural instincts combined to create symphonies of garden art. Russell’s work touches your spirit and leaves a lasting impression,” says Francois Goffinet, the Belgium-based landscape architect who assumed the role of chief landscape architect of Page’s sculpture gardens at PepsiCo headquarters in Purchase, New York, Page’s only public commission in New York State besides the centrally-located Frick garden in Manhattan.Dismayingly, the Frick Collection is advancing a widely-reviled expansion proposal to replace Page’s impressionistic East 70th Street garden with a hulking, 106-foot tower. This plan will transform the Frick —a unique, intimate ensemble of residential galleries and gardens— into a characterless mega-museum.
“The conservation of one of the few American projects of this great man is simply a priority!! There is something of irony about it, that an overseas landscape firm has to protest about it, but so be it,” wrote noted European landscape architect Peter Wirtz.
Emanuele Gamna and Raimonda Lanza di Trabia, stewards of the breathtaking gardens at Villa Silvio Pellico in Turin, Italy, wrote to New York City Mayor de Blasio: “In Italy, the works of Russell Page are treasurers and points of pride, curated and cared for in the interest of benefiting future generations.”
As the Frick’s Horticulturist Galen Lee has observed, the Page garden “is to be viewed—from the street or through the arched windows of the Reception Hall—like an Impressionist painting.” While this quote was once prominently featured on the Frick’s website along with lush photos of the garden, all mention of the Page garden has been deleted from the site by the Frick as its leadership plans for the garden’s destruction. (This “demolition by code” has been cited by architecture critic Alexandra Lange in the New Yorker and documented in a December 2014 blog post by Unite to Save the Frick).
The opportunity remains for the Frick Collection to reverse its actions and champion the preservation – not the demolition – of Russell Page’s elegant urban garden on East 70th Street enjoyed by over 425,000 passersby and museum visitors each year. Creative alternatives exist that would allow for both reasonable modernization and the preservation of the Page garden and its complementary Reception Hall Pavilion. The site, including the beloved Page garden, is protected as a landmark at the City, State and National levels. Thousands of opponents of the proposal are looking to the de Blasio Administration to reject the destructive plan.
Thousands have already signed an online petition urging the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to deny the Frick’s ill-conceived proposal and insist that the legacy of this important global artist be respected and that his garden be protected for the enjoyment of generations to come.
PHOTOS, top to bottom: (1) Guests at the Garden Museum’s preview of “The Education of a Gardner” exhibition, in London, via; (2) the Villa Silvio Pellico in Turin, Italy, one of Page’s most arresting designs, via; (3) Russell Page, via.