Putting the "Sister" in the Sister Arts

The Portland Rose, from Henry Charles Andrews, Roses, Or, A Monograph of the Genus Rosa (London: Printed by R. Taylor and Company and published by the author, 1805-28). As a leading botanist, the Duchess of Portland had many plants named for her, including this rose, which Mary Delany called an “emblem of Friendship’s sacred tie.” Courtesy of the University of Illinois Libraries.

Associate professor of English and women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Lanscapes

I always dreamed of writing a book that looked like this.

From the moment I first sent my query letter to editor Richard Morrison (asking, “Would you like to read a lush, sexy book about lesbian gardens?”), University of Minnesota Press has been making my dreams come true. Richard’s own interest in gardens and poetry (did you know he has an MFA and is an accomplished garden photographer?) as well as Minnesota’s distinguished queer studies and landscape architecture lines appealed to me when I was choosing a publisher. Now, holding the finished book in my hands, everything from the texture of the paper to the eye-popping design to the typeface does justice to that first description, and to the stories I tell in the book of bold women artists expressing desire and creating relationships with one another through landscape art.

I grew up hiking, trail-riding and skiing in the foothills of Southern Alberta, where my father is a retired horse vet and rancher and my mother is a nature writer. I ventured East for college in search of culture, not nature, studying English literature and art history and working for a couple of years as an art writer for a Canadian magazine. I became a feminist, came out as a lesbian, and got my PhD at Cornell at the crest of the poststructuralist theory wave in 1991. My first book was on love between women in the early novel (think Emma and Harriet in Jane Austen’s Emma), and I was hired by the University of Texas English department to teach feminist theory, gay and lesbian studies, and eighteenth-century literature. These disparate interests all came gloriously together when I began the research that led to the publication this month of my new book, Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes.

As British imperial power grew over the eighteenth century, English artists were no longer content to take second place to the trend-setting French and Italians. Perhaps the French were the best painters and the Italians the best poets, the two elite art forms that Leonardo da Vinci and others placed in competition in a revival of the classical debate known as the paragone. But the emerging masterpieces of English landscape design, critics argued, deserved pride of place in this pantheon. Paintings could be poetic, poetry could be picturesque, landscapes could be painterly: “poetry, painting and gardening,” decreed the influential tastemaker Horace Walpole, “will forever by men of taste be deemed Three Sisters.”

“Men of taste” turned out to be no mere anachronism, however. Standard accounts suggested that women had not participated nor influenced the English landscape arts, and that the well-known tradition of the bawdy or erotic garden (for example, designing lakes and hillocks to resemble the body of a reclining nude) was always designed by and intended for men. Skeptical of the completeness of these accounts, I set out to research women in the English landscape arts, to put “sisters” into the Sister Arts.

To do so, I had to find and even create new archives. I spent weeks in England, Ireland, Wales and Connecticut (for a chapter on an early American landscape poet named Sarah Pierce), unearthing correspondence, manuscripts, drawings, budgets, plans and crafted objects that would help me tell my story. I eventually settled on four protagonists: bluestocking wit, botanical illustrator and garden designer Mary Granville Pendarves Delany; her beloved friend, the famous naturalist Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Bulstrode, who opened the first public museum in England to showcase her collection; Romantic poet Anna Seward, an early conservationist famous for her elegies to a lost love named Honora; and Pierce, who wrote what is often considered the first lesbian poem in American literature in the form of the georgic, or farmer’s poem. I was delighted to discover not just that these women had created works of landscape art—including botanical illustrations, landscape designs, natural history collections, and nature poetry—but that they had known of and been influenced by one another’s work in a tradition that stretched across the eighteenth century and across the Atlantic. In the final chapter of the book, I describe how this alternative sister arts tradition, in which women use the inspiration of the natural world to create works of art that celebrate (and sometimes critique) love between women, persists to the present day.

One of the joys of doing this work has been my immersion in the world of garden writing. I’m not willing to give that up, so I’m continuing in blog form, which allows me to write about local gardens as well as English ones, popular music, the politics of the poetry business, and much more. Check it out — it’s called (what else?) Sister Arts: Gardens, Poems, Art, Community.


Find out more about Sister Arts.

“As its lyrical title suggests, Sister Arts, Lisa Moore’s loving account of the unusual and haunting works produced by her four subjects—elegiac friendship poems, picturesque landscape designs, leaf collages and scrapbooks, collections of flowers, shells, and butterflies—at once illuminates and charms, deepening our understanding both of female-female intimacy and the elegantly subversive means women in past centuries found to express such devotion.”
—Terry Castle

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