Modernizing the Traditional: Furnishing the Sophisticated Garden in the 1920s and 30s

Maggie Lidz, Winterthur Museum

Tuesday, January 10, 2012Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Art of the Garden, 1931

Art of the Garden, 1931

Guests at Winterthur, 1935

Guests at Winterthur, 1935

Guests on the terrace at Winterthur, 1935

Guests on the terrace at Winterthur, 1935

Some of the best gardens of the 20th century were designed in America in the 1920s and 30s. Longwood, Winterthur, Dumbarton Oaks and Filoli are a few of the surviving examples. Although they have survived as popular public institutions, they were created before World War II as private pleasure grounds, horticulturally ambitious and carefully furnished in historic style.

These models of their kind have been largely ignored by garden history because their traditional style appears divorced from the revolution of modernism taking place at the same time. If acknowledged in architectural histories at all, these stately landscapes are viewed as part of what the influential critic Lewis Mumford regretted as the strange interregnum of taste that occurred across the United States and Great Britain in the 1920s and 30s when “an exaggerated respect for the historically accredited … exercised an undue influence.

For decades, critics and historians have arbitrarily positioned modernism and traditional style on parallel and divergent paths, with modernism in virtuous battle with obstructionist tradition. As we move into the 21st century, a reexamination of this widely accepted dogma is in order. Maggie Lidz questions whether we will continue to assign significance only to constructions that conform to certain geometric proportions or whether we will expand our appreciation to include designs of the same time period, designs that served the same function and made use of the same technology but had a more decorative surface.

Maggie Lidz’s stimulating lecture begins with a comparison of 1939 portraits of the Duchesses of Windsor and York respectively to the modernist and neo-regency fashion. She will use everything from children’s books to “Vogue” magazine to illustrate what is a modernist garden.

Maggie Lidz, as Winterthur’s Estate Historian and Curator of Garden and Estate Objects, researches and writes about Winterthur, the du Pont family estate that dates to 1839. Although Winterthur is best known as a museum of American decorative arts, it also provides fertile territory for horticultural, architectural and social history. Maggie Lidz graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in art history from the University of Delaware. Her master’s thesis was on the architectural development of the Winterthur house.

Ms Lidz’s career includes editing for “Art & Antiques Magazine”; researching photographs for “Time Magazine”; serving as a post-production assistant for Point of View Productions; and computerizing a database of historic houses for the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Her publications include Life at Winterthur: A du Pont Family Album (2001) and The du Ponts: Houses and Gardens in the Brandywine (2009). She is working on Back Stairs and Beyond: Service Spaces in America in the 1920s and 30s (working title) with Jeff Groff. Her articles include “The Mystery of Seventeenth-Century Quilts” for The Magazine Antiques (December 1998) and “English Regency Wrought Iron Furniture” for Antiques and Fine Art Magazine (April 2010). Ms Lidz’s articles for “Country Living” are “Garden Rooms” (June 2001) and “A Family Affair: The History of Croquet at Winterthur” (July 2001).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Josiah Wedgwood, in the mid-18th century, exported ceramics to America that had been molded to resemble melons, cauliflowers and pineapples! The human instinct to bring the outdoors inside has continued with prints and paintings, needlework, bough pots, transfer-printed pottery, faux bamboo furniture, quilts, coverlets, upholstery fabric and, of course, human adornment with floral fabrics and jewelry.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.