On my mid-May Topsmead walkabout, a powerfully heady fragrance enveloped me as I neared the cottage. What plant or plants was it coming from? Of course, the lilacs! I had never noticed before that lilacs surround the cottage and a thick aisle of lilacs parallels the lane leading from the welcome center to the cottage front door. Dark purple lilac blossoms cluster around the dove cote; bright white lilac blossoms rise above the walled corner of the dining room garden; light lavender lilac blossoms embrace the walls of the cottage from the western side all the way around southern side to the eastern front finally stopping at the kitchen door.
With my nose still processing the fragrance, my eyes wandered up to the second floor of the cottage as my mind imagined what it must have been like to fall asleep in Miss Edith’s bedroom, which stretched across the second floor from the front to the back of the cottage. With the casement windows open, oh the lilac fragrance that drifted in with the evening breeze must have enveloped her as she drifted off to sweet dreams.
I can imagine conversations between Miss Edith and her landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman as they consulted on the design of the landscape of Topsmead. Surely they planned for that sweet dreams fragrance of the lilacs.
And what a perfect partnership they were! Just as Miss Edith was an independent woman who grew Topsmead to its 500 plus acres of self-sustaining farming and agriculture, so too Ellen Shipman was an independent woman who grew her all-woman landscape design practice and mentored women in the profession. Just as Miss Edith’s travels in England’s Cotswalds inspired her choice of the cottage’s architecture, so too did the fashion of British gardens inspire Ellen Shipman’s garden designs.
Most importantly, both women understood the responsibilities of privilege. While Miss Edith grew up in the wealthy society of her captains of industry father and grandfather, she chose to leave Topsmead for the enjoyment of all. While Ellen Shipman designed gardens for the likes of the Fords, the Astors, and the du Ponts, she believed that “[g]ardening opens a wider door than any other of the arts - all mankind can walk through, rich or poor, high or low, talented and untalented. It has no distinctions, all are welcome" (Tankard, Judith, The Gardens of Ellen Biddle Shipman).
As you stroll through the landscape of Topsmead this May, allow yourself to be led by your nose and allow your mind to reflect on how the lives of these two women demonstrate that privilege and its benefits are a gift to be shared among the less privileged.