This unusual garden on an estate overlooking Narragansett Bay in Portsmouth, Rhode Island celebrates the art of topiary amidst a vast array of gardens and garden features including a rose garden, formal parterre, an herb garden, arbors, espaliers, and more. The white clapboard Victorian dwelling and accompanying outbuildings that include a barn, greenhouses, and cottage set the stage for this historic garden that has evolved over the years into a unique New England treasure. Started in 1912 by Joseph Carreiro, the superintendent to the then property owner, Thomas E. Brayton, the original animal and geometric topiaries can still be enjoyed today as well as many created in the 40’s and 70’s.
I’m always fascinated by our efforts to shape nature into legible form, be it a carefully stacked and coursed fieldstone wall, a parallel arrangement of planed floor boards, or the improbable shaping of a living plant to resemble a creature or geometric form. Of course shaping animal and geometric topiaries is a more whimsical pursuit than erecting reasoned stone walls, or laying floor boards, and it is perhaps the very absurdity of the undertaking that makes it especially delightful. What exactly does one do with a giant teddy bear or elephant topiary other than smile and encircle it with giddy amusement?
These large green creatures tend to elicit the same joy in young and old that I recall in my six-year-old niece’s eyes when she would ponder her collection of miniature “glass aminals”, as she called them. Make no mistake though; this is not the magic of Disney. The gardens feel more like a civilized English retreat than a mass-market spectator park. Thanks to the diversity of the many gardens, there’s much to savor in addition to the garden’s namesakes.
In fact, the estate’s most notable feature may be the enormous approximately 135-year-old copper beech tree that you’ll pass on your way to check in at the museum store. Once admitted, be sure to head east through the arbors to the top of the gardens to take in the whole scene, looking down toward the Bay, from within the pet cemetery. There you’ll find flush stones for Tango and the like, beloved dogs of Alice Brayton. She inherited the property in 1940, named it, and ultimately left it in the care of the Preservation Society of Newport County. We’re lucky she did. It’s not to be missed.
by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast
To visit go to http://tickets.newportmansions.org/mansion.aspx?id=1003