Almost as long as Americans have been creating gardens, they have sought to enhance them with benches, statues, fountains and a variety of other decorative items. But until recently, American styles have been sorely neglected in favor of the English and Continental models.
If you ever longed for more information or inspiration on historic garden furnishings in this country, Barbara Israel is the person to ask.
Her new book, "Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste" (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1999, $49.50), is rich with photographs and illustrations that will delight as well as inform the reader.
One of the foremost dealers in the field today, Israel will be speaking at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. Her lecture will focus on some of the more practical issues of garden antiques. Besides having pieces to show, Israel will explain ways to detect if an item is actually an antique and how to maintain pieces to preserve their value.
Israel got her start in the business in 1985. Although well primed by a childhood that included visiting many public and private gardens around her home in New Jersey, she says that her leap into the antique-ornament business was almost an accident.
"Shortly after I got seriously interested in gardening, a friend called and said she had found a wonderful statue which she thought I should buy. When I went to look at it, I found it was one of 40 included in an estate sale. It ended up that I bought the entire lot and then, of course, the only thing to do was to sell the rest -- so I got into collecting and the business all in one fell swoop," she says with a laugh.
Whether a stroke of luck or genius, Israel's venture has led her to become one of the most respected authorities on antique garden ornament today. She has served as a consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and has had pieces purchased by the Smithsonian, Winterthur and the Baltimore Museum of Art, as well as by many private collectors.
Israel says that one of the most exciting things about 18th- and 19th-century American ornament is that it is still undervalued today.
Like many other aspects of gardening, prominence has long been given to English and European antiques, while the American contribution has been largely overlooked. Because of this, she feels that the hobby is ripe for discovery and acquisition, even by those without a fortune to spend.
"Plenty of fine American pieces are out there, unappreciated. This is certainly a hot new market opening up for dealers and collectors alike," Israel says. She says the best places to look are estate and tax sales as well as antiques cooperatives, which have multiple dealers sharing space.
"Almost every one will have one piece of garden decoration or furniture they've picked up somewhere, and where dealers are grouped together you have a better chance to find something you like," she says.
Garden and large antiques shows are other prime hunting grounds. It is not unusual to find American pieces greatly underpriced compared to imports, but this is not likely to last as the public becomes more savvy, she says.
Israel also says that there are many different levels of collecting. "The older the item, the more expensive it is apt to be," she cautions. "The best thing is to start mainly by looking around to see what's available and learn what it's valued at."
As for what's popular now, Israel is unhesitating. "Armillary spheres," she says. Ancient astronomers used them to calculate the solstices and equinoxes, among other things. "I can't keep them in stock. They're easy to use and come in all price ranges. Hardly anyone knows how to use them, but most have been adapted to become sun- dials. They just look great and make fine focal points," she says.
American metalwork of the early 20th century is one of her own favorites. Many outstanding artists turned from making fine art to making garden art as private patronage disappeared between 1900 and 1940. Their work is refreshingly original, full of expressiveness and spirit. "Truly wonderful, original statuary," says Israel, "and much of it is still moderately priced."
Victorian cast-iron work is another genre destined to attract increasing devotees, she says. Intricately designed benches, fountains, fences and statues were widely produced by companies such as J.W. Fiske. Dogs, deer and urns were popular sentimental subjects. "The Victorians loved cast iron. It is whimsical and fascinating, and even working-class families could afford it," she says.
Meet the author
Barbara Israel will speak at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. She'll sign copies of her new book, "Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste." Ladew is located at 3535 Jarrettsville Pike. Tickets are $20. To register or for more information, call 410-557-9570.