Brookgreen Gardens

Thursday, January 7

We explored a beautiful sculpture park in Murrells Inlet called Brookgreen Gardens.

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Brookgreen Gardens was created by sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington and her husband, Archer, the only child of the Huntington of the Transcontinental Railroad fortune. When Anna was diagnosed with tuberculosis as a young bride, they left Manhattan to winter in Myrtle Beach, buying three rice plantations between the Waccamaw River and the Atlantic. They transformed it into their version of paradise, with gardens, fountains, connected by allées of 200-year old live oaks, a sprawling house made in the pierce-work brick and exposed mortar style of Spanish architecture that Archer so loved from his travels. He even built a zoo for Anna, so she could study animals who were her favorite subjects. Now a highway, Rt 17, divides the estate: one side being Brookgreen Gardens, and one side being Huntington Beach State Park (leased to S.C.) which contains the house and the ocean-side beach.

 

The Huntingtons were avid collectors of representational American sculpture, and the estate is still acquiring with that guideline, from larger-than-life mythical figures, to scores of medals from the Society of Medalists. Sculptures range from Mount Airy granite (above left), bronze, marble, and after WWII, Anna decided that bronzes tended to be dark, largely-ignored pieces in museums, so she had her outdoor pieces cast in aluminum. The two fighting horses at the entrance of Brookgreen are a bit surprising, looking like sand-blasted aluminum with no particular shading or contrast provided by oxidation. They made us think of the Chrysler Building. We, who live in an aluminum cocoon, should love it, but after the rich patinas of the Hellenic Bronzes at the National Gallery, it may have to be an acquired taste.

A side note: When I was a teen, I had the privilege of visiting Anna Hyatt Huntington in her CT studio, where a massive model of General Putnam, astride his horse, descending steps, was shaking his fist at the British. This would later grace Putnam Park, but at that moment, it utterly dwarfed the tiny personage who had created it. Then, in one corner of the studio, I saw an exquisite life-sized marble bust of a young woman, a drinking glass holding a fresh rose in front of it. I asked Anna about it and she said that it was a bust of her at 19, done by her sister, Harriet. I since learned that Harriet had died not long before our visit and the rose was a tribute. I was struck by the genius of her artistry. Anna’s work was beautiful, heroic, and certainly well-funded in its execution, but this little bust was beyond superb! I asked Anna about Harriet and she said that she’d married and had several children and hadn’t pursued her art as a career. Technically, neither had Anna, who ceased accepting commercial commissions after her marriage to Archer, but endowed by his fabulous fortune, she went on to create over 500 works in her lifetime.

At Brookgreen, we passed through a roofed outdoor gallery and I spied a small sculpture of a boy seated on the ground, feeding a chicken.(above right) It possessed such vitality, spontaneity and genius, that I just KNEW. Yes, it was by Harriet Hyatt Mayor, Anna’s sister. It made me feel so sad, and made all of the perfect, beautiful, idealized sculptures around me appear so bland. In the catalogue, there is a bronze and a marble bust of Anna, by Harriet. I want to go back and see if it is the one I remember.

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Was Brookgreen a healthy winter refuge for Anna? Yes. She lived into her nineties.

 

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