Painting with Plants
Brush Hill Gardens is an artist’s palette for this couple
The first impression of Brush Hill Gardens, created by Barbara and Charlie Robinson at their home in Washington, is one of enchantment. Entering through a charming gate, one passes an equally charming Lord & Burnham greenhouse, imported from Charlie’s mother’s house. Beyond, a series of outdoor “rooms,” each with distinctive characteristics, invites exploration.
When the Robinsons first bought the property in 1971 after a summer renting a friend’s home nearby, their priorities were far more pressing than gardening. They had young children to raise, and the property needed a lot of work. The barn was sliding off its foundation, although it could not be seen due to a forest of lilacs that had overtaken it. Much of the farm had reverted to scrub woods, hence the moniker, “Brush Hill Garden.” According to Barbara, the only garden potential to be found was an ancient peony, some irises, and a single, tough, old rose.
Hands-on homeowners, the Robinsons scraped the floors and reglazed the windows of their red 1750s farmhouse. In true pioneer fashion they and their children squeezed into three small rooms up the narrow staircase. The master bedroom, barely big enough for a bed, doubled as a studio for Charlie’s growing pastime as a marine landscape painter. As such, the room smelled of turpentine and cigars, each of which were kept for safety’s sake at opposite corners of the room. Interestingly, the space had been used in painterly fashion by a prior owner of the house, noted artist Eric Sloane. It was he who installed skylights for better illumination, but by the time the Robinsons took residence, they were all leaking.
While Charlie created seafaring landscapes, Barbara began altering the outdoor landscape. She first attacked the lilacs, trimming them to head height. Charlie, however, had other ideas and ripped them out completely, opening a view of the barn. Barbara was left with “a pile of mud,” as she called it, and had no choice but to put in a true garden. She was further bitten with the gardening bug when Charlie planted some vegetable seeds, and the quickly sprouting radishes caught her heart. Stone walls, a serpentine garden, perennial borders, roses, peonies, and an extensive 14-pool woodland waterworks were to follow through the years, punctuated by a folly, a well house, plus various and sundry structures designed and built by Charlie in a unique, whimsical style.
Most of the gardens came about as a result of a five-month sabbatical Barbara took from her tenure at a New York law firm. Specifically, it was a six-week gardening apprenticeship with the illustrious British garden designers, Rosemary Verey (whose clients include the Prince of Wales and Elton John) and Penelope Hobhouse. Perhaps the greatest lesson Barbara learned there was that “I knew more than I thought I did.” The sabbatical was timed perfectly, coming shortly after an addition to the house, affording Barbara the opportunity to use her refreshed vision to design a flurry of new garden spaces. These became the gardens enjoyed by visitors today.
The Robinsons are not boastful but certainly have every right to be. Among Barbara’s accomplishments are being the first woman partner at the prestigious law firm of Debevoise and Plimpton and the first woman president of the Bar of the City of New York. As if having a stellar legal career is not enough, Barbara serves the gardening community, sitting on the boards of the great public gardens, Wave Hill and Stonecrop, and she is an emeritus trustee of the Garden Conservancy.
For his part, Charlie traveled the world for Bankers Trust Company, from which he retired to paint full time. In fact, his first exposure to painting was a class offered in the bank cafeteria for the secretaries. From these humble beginnings, he graduated to the Art Students League and later founded the American Society of Marine Artists. His paintings have been shown at museums throughout the country and reside in the collections of notables like Malcolm Forbes and Thomas Watson. A show of Charlie’s Lake Waramaug series, executed over the past several years, is scheduled this coming August at the Washington Art Association, with proceeds to benefit the Lake Waramaug Task Force.
As the grandson of the builder of the Empire State Building, Charlie inherited the ability to create in both two and three dimensions. Among his clever contraptions are a system for rotating and moving split wood: wheeled bins and a fanciful shed expose the newest wood to air and sun, while seasoned wood is moved to a pickup point close to the house. He also incorporated a sprinkler head atop many garden structures, fed through an irrigation system he designed. And, for painting in inclement weather, Charlie enters his “painting capsule,” a collapsible, portable, phone-booth type enclosure, complete with easel, that keeps out the elements while he captures his impressions on canvas.
In recent years a new vegetable garden was installed in the form of a small raised bed, but when the couple’s four-year-old granddaughter expressed interest in growing things, it became the child’s place to plant. Little did she know when she told her grandfather two years later, “I’m big now, I can have a bigger garden,” that he would triple its size and install paths with curved edging. Today, the vegetable garden would put most grownup efforts to shame. Lucky for her, the Robinsons’ granddaughter has an abundant living legacy at her disposal as she grows into a “big” gardener like her accomplished grandparents.