Harbor views and exotic plantings mix with striking sculptures in a one-of-a-kind Southport garden.
photographs by: stacy bass
styled by: skye kirby
Great gardens are living sculptures. So it’s only fitting that a collecting couple in Southport have fused art and nature to turn their 3.5-acre property into an inspired landscape. At their historic Greek Revival mansion, built in 1843 by Oliver H. Perry (who later served as Connecticut’s secretary of state), specimen trees and exotic plants mingle with some of the best contemporary art in the world.
“We have always been collectors,” says the homeowner, adding that she and her husband focus on masterworks by current German and American neo-Expressionists. “I adore sculpture in the garden. Some of the sculptures were selected specifically for our garden, but sometimes we purchase pieces and select a place for them later.”
The result is a provocative, meticulously curated landscape that never fails to draw attention—and comment. Fifteen major works by artists as diverse as Richard Long, Per Kirkeby and Anita Huffington have been planted around the property, which includes a woodlands garden, a perennial garden, a formal English garden, a freestyle swimming pool, a cottage and a carriage house that serves as a private art gallery.
The arrangement starts in the front yard on a manicured swath of grass facing the sailboats in the harbor, where a pair of Julian Opie full-size, aluminum compact cars—one fire-engine red, the other snow-white—face off. “All the neighbors think it’s hilarious,” says the homeowner. “They always joke, ‘Why don’t you jack them up on cinder blocks to make them look more authentic?’”
Marc Quinn’s 20 foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of a Phragmipedium sedenii orchid, which looks as though it could polish off Little Shop of Horrors’ Audrey in one swift bite, is a neighborhood icon that towers above the treetops.
Poolside, Atelier Van Lieshout’s fiberglass “Bacchus,” a trio of intertwined human forms, cavorts, while Franz West’s hot-pink pretzel-like “Laokoon” poses by the roses and rhododendrons near the back patio.
Other works—by Nigel Hall, Jörg Immendorff, Kenny Scharf and Gavin Turk—round out the horticultural masterpieces that range from an Alaskan weeping cedar and Carolina silver bell to a parrot tree, lily-of-the-valley tree and yellow-leafed honey locust. “There are a lot of rare and exotic trees on the property,” says Russ Janisch, owner of Newtown-based R. Janisch Services, who has been tending the garden for a decade. “There’s a golden alder behind the pool that is 40 to 50 feet tall. I’ve never seen another of that size or one that has such vibrant yellow leaves.”
Water features, including an elaborate 19th-century fountain and a contemporary waterfall that splashes into the pool, add to the serenity of the space.
As the art collection has grown, so has the garden: The woodland garden was added when the owners purchased an adjoining one-acre plot. “We have tried to bring the garden into the house more, and we have divided the garden into rooms so there’s a sense of privacy,” says the homeowner, who is a member of the Sasqua Garden Club. “I love having the doors open.”
Among the notable plants just outside those doors are an espaliered dogwood by the kitchen, a scented viburnum adjacent to the cottage and the fringe tree on the terrace. The English-style perennial garden, planted with lupines, irises, peonies and asters in ladylike hues of blues, pinks and yellows, is one of the homeowner’s favorite outdoor “rooms.” “I adore flowers I can cut and arrange,” she says. “We’re quite hands-on gardeners; we planted some of the trees ourselves. My husband is involved with the trees, some of which are a century old, and I’m involved with the perennials and smaller plantings.”
Documented in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Gardens, the garden would be noteworthy even without the sculpture. “It’s so intense. It’s so heavily planted that the plants are peeking out from each other,” says Janisch. “For instance, there’s a weeping beech growing through a blue spruce. It’s a challenge to keep everything going and make sure the plants get enough light.”
Those who plant gardens— and for that matter, those who collect art— are merely caretakers, the homeowner says, adding that the idea is to preserve everything for future generations to enjoy. “I’m hoping we can put more and more in it,” she says. “The garden is lovely without sculpture, but the sculpture makes it very special.”
R. Janisch Services, Newtown, 203-426-8315
Lillian August, Norwalk, 203-847-3314; lillianaugust.com