A Good Ornament Is Hard to Find


The demise of Smith & Hawken, which actually sold some ornaments that weren't too dinky or ugly for a self-respecting garden, is really unfortunate for everybody who likes their natural mixed with the artificial. 

Here is some incredible garden ornament from Congress Park in Saratoga Springs.

This is one of a pair of painted iron urns done by the Danish neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and placed in the park in 1830.  They are titled "Night and Day."  Here is a closer shot of the day side:

Below is the night side:
IMG00024 I love the Wedgwood jasperware paint job. 

Nobody seems to pay much attention to these things, which have been sitting in place in all weather for almost 180 years.  Maybe I've only paid attention because I already knew the name.  In college, I read Nathaniel Hawthorne's Italian diaries–he was disturbed by all the art and nary a word about the pasta–and I recall a visit to the great Thorvaldsen's studio at some point.

In a museum, these urns would make me shrug. But in a public garden…amazing. They say a lot about the early ambitions of my town and the importance of the park in a resort like Saratoga Springs as a relief from all that gambling and dancing.

They say that maybe we should be buying art for our gardens, too.  And maybe some young and not-so-famous sculptors should be making that easy–even for penniless gardeners who could never afford to spend all summer at a resort.


  1. I agree. There is a lovely garden not too far from where I live in South Carolina, Brookgreen Gardens, that does a lovely job with sculpture in the garden.

  2. Centuries of Italian landscape design rely upon art in the garden. Villas were designed in tandem with the landscape art on axis with key views from inside.

    Landscapes begin inside a home. Art in a garden doesn’t have to be bought. Rescued art is free. It’s within your eye & heart. No need to please anyone.

    Picasso made art from the garbage dump. Good eye with free stuff.

    In my garden the best art is a rescued granite rail road marker. They stopped making them circa 1860. It’s on axis, a terminus, stunning, and free.

    Driving is hazardous on garbage days. I’m always looking at the curb.

    Love art in the garden then the cherry tree blooms or crape myrtles or catkins hang gold & long on the contorted filbert and nature laughs at my efforts.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. I considered a big urn for the recent installation I did on my basement patio, but the big hunk of metal from an old wood stove that looks like a bowl won out. I already had it and the massive boulders that sit with it.

    What I really would like is some massive metal sculpture welded together from discarded junk metal parts. I have seen a lot of those I find quite appealing. There are plenty of not so famous artists and sculptors in these parts. Alas I am more penniless than them.

  4. Michele, you really need to come to Buff and check out some of the salvage places. And a huge complex called Gothic City.

  5. I’m not sorry about the demise of Smith and Hawkins and their blandly tasteful and pricey neo-European style garden ornaments and furniture–(though the aesthetic lives on, in Pottery Barn etc) Gimme a butterfly chair and a planter made out of an old tire painted white any day.

  6. Most artists struggle to make a living. It takes significant time and money to make a sculpture. By all means, support your local artist! Just don’t expect the sculptures to be cheap like the mass-produced made-in-China junk.

  7. I live in the Albany area and about 9 years ago I went to a salvage business [I think called Historic Albany Foundation] and bought two concrete finials from a building in Albany. They’re neat as garden ornaments, not cheap though. I’ve always wanted a garden sculpture that moves with the wind. sigh

  8. Wedgwood has sold the “Night” angel on a single ceramic roundel plaque (perhaps also the “Day” images as well? I’ve not seen those).I have the plaque hanging in a bedroom– I would guess its about five inches in diameter. Perfect for the image of sleep, in a Rossetti-like way. I’m happy to know the sculptor.

  9. Those are painted, with no relief on the urns? A triumph of trompe l’oeil!

    I can’t afford good sculpture or garden ornaments, so I prefer to have none. Except for the kitsch that the kids give me from time to time — I thank them profusely, put the stuff out for a while, then lose it.

  10. Rosella, it’s like Wedgwood jasperware, in that there is both color and relief. I have no idea whether the paint scheme is original or not, but it certainly seems true to period.

  11. A word of caution: stolen cemetery ornaments often contain a combination of antiquity and artistry that can fetch top dollar from an unsuspecting buyer. If you love that weathered, winsome angel and are willing to dig deep to purchase it, do some checking on where it came from.

    In my yard I have an inexpensive copper sculpture from India and an intricately-patterned iron base for a patio umbrella, repurposed as a yard ornament. Prices were right.

  12. Thanks, Michele! On looking harder at the “Night” side, I can see the relief. These are beautifully done, although I suspect there has been restoration at some point since paint would probably not hold up for so long outdoors in a harsh winter climate–or any climate, for that matter. What treasures in your park!

  13. I have to agree that gardens really NEED art of some sort but art is subjective – I have ‘orbs’ placed among my plantings…though some would simply call them bowling balls. Potato/potahto.

  14. Barbara Israel is one of our nation’s experts in antique garden ornaments. Her pieces are not reproduction and are about the highest prices that you can pay. She charges top dollar but you get the top of the line and you can trust that what you are buying is authentic. Many on her offerings are museum quality.She has written a beautiful book on antique garden ornaments.

  15. I stand corrected…a friend of mine says that Barbara Israel does sell high end reproductions…sorry I have only dealt with her with period pieces.

    Also any one near New Hope PA should visit Hobensack & Keller. Larry Keller is another one of our nation’s antique garden ornament experts and he also imports great new English lead ornaments. He also has great old iron work.


  16. interesting to think about the urn in place, and in use for such a number of years. It’s something I’ll have to play closer attention to. I have an urn story – when we moved into our house, we had an aweful cement urn. My husband took the urn into the woods where a creek runs through and buried it in a very serene and secluded location. His intention was for kids to discover it and use it as a “wishing well”. A month later, we did a creek clean up. Our next door neighbor dug it up, dragged it out, and it now sits on her front porch.

  17. Urns are great…I have two that I planted years ago…one with a fern and one with a seedum…year after year they just pop up for the season….

  18. Whoa, Shirley, thanks for that Barbara Israel link! I suppose I’d rather send my kids to college, but I sure had fun looking at that stuff. I particularly loved an American iron oakleaf arch.

  19. Smith & Hawkins ended with pretty people selling wares they could care less about. I looked at their stuff during shows and was ignored by the youngsters who wouldn’t communicate with me. I just wasn’t cool enough to be spoken to.

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