In honor of March’s celebration of Women’s History Month, it seems fitting to admire the many women who have made contributions in one way or another to Winterthur.
Marian Cruger Coffin (1876–1957) was one of the first American women landscape architects and a lifelong friend of Henry Francis du Pont. When H. F. was studying horticulture at Harvard’s Bussey Institution, he reconnected with Coffin, who was pursuing a degree in landscape architecture as a special student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the only professional program opened to women at the time. After inheriting the estate, in 1929, du Pont planned an expansion of the house; at this time he commissioned Coffin to design the formal garden. Coffin, drawing inspiration from the great gardens of the Italian Renaissance with axial symmetry, classical proportions, and refined architectural features, created this formal garden that has been called a serene oasis. The triumph of the project was the grand staircase leading down to the swimming pool, which is now the Reflecting Pool.
In addition to the formal garden at Winterthur, Coffin designed the Glade Garden adjacent to the Reflecting Pool. This area with naturalistic pools and waterfalls is a shady summer refuge. Her most prominent project at Winterthur is notably the Sundial Garden, which du Pont asked her to help design in 1955. In the interest of making an April garden as appealing as the azaleas in May, du Pont wanted the garden to be “all pink and white.” The style for the Sundial Garden was known as a “room garden.” Coffin’s plan featured fragrant shrubs including magnolias, cherries, quince, crab apples, viburnums, spireas, fothergillas, lilacs, pearlbushes, and roses arranged in concentric circles around an antique armillary sundial. This garden created expressly for the public, was a room made of flowers, hence the term “room garden.”
While their approaches were different—du Pont leaned more to a natural landscape inspired by the writings of William Robinson while Coffin’s approach was more formal—together they would create the beautiful garden that visitors still explore today. Coffin’s papers, architectural plans, and photographs of her many gardens, not just Winterthur, are preserved in the Winterthur Archives, such as this 1933 letter.
May 4, 1933. Letter from MCC, “My dear Harry, Every moment spent at Winterthur was a pleasure as always, but this spring to see so much beauty was balm to the spirit…You have been such an extraordinarily understanding client and have given me such a marvelous [sic] opportunity to help in creating the new development of the grounds that I can never be grateful enough, so at this time when we are all economizing please accept the suggestions I made as love-taps to Winterthur…My love to you all, As always, Marian Coffin” (She may have meant love pats as she was a rather careless typist.)
Marian Coffin stands out as one of the most influential women to contribute to the aesthetic of Winterthur, but the contributions by women certainly do not stop at the garden. The outstanding collection has many pieces made by women. Here are a few examples.
This sampler was made by Sophie Bailly (1807–92). The daughter of Joseph Bailly, a successful French fur trader, and Angelique McGulphin, a French/Native American woman who was known as Bead-Way-Way, Sophie was 21 years old when she worked on this sampler. She was most likely a teacher and not a student as her earlier education on Mackinac Island enabled her to support herself before marriage. This chamber table made by Rachel H. Lombard in 1816 can be found displayed in the Portsmouth Room in the house. The rectangular table with rounded corners is ornamented with flowering vines, anagrams of names, and the signature and date “Rachel H. Lombard./ Bath, January, 1816.” Bath most likely denotes that Lombard was enrolled in the Bath Female Academy where furniture embellishment was taught.
Women have made exquisite contributions to Winterthur from the artful and elegant garden to the many women-made objects in the collection. For more insight into the contributions of women at Winterthur, please join us for the May 13 My Favorite Things Tour: Behind the Scenes with Winterthur Curators, “Remember the Ladies,” which emphasizes historic objects used and created by women. Post by Hilary Seitz, Marketing & Communications Department