Thursday, July 18, 2013

Edith Wharton and The Mount

My introduction to Edith Wharton occurred at age nine. I was the first of my siblings to come down with the chicken pox and was quarantined in my mother's bedroom where she read aloud to me from The House of Mirth. One of my clearest childhood memories, near the end of my convalescence, is of my mother's tears accompanying her narration of the tragic end of Lily Bart's life. While I could not, at nine-years-old, fully comprehend the circumstances of the story, it revealed a rare view of my mother who was a distant figure throughout my childhood, and a fascination with the author was born. In later years I read all of Edith Wharton's best known novels, at least twice, as well as a few of her lesser known stories, and my interest in her has never dwindled.

Wharton lead a curious life for a woman of her time and position in society. In addition to her writing, an unconventional occupation for 'a lady' of her day, she traveled extensively. While the girls are currently at camp, Mr. H and I have decamped to the Berkshires for a few days of exploration. Day One included a visit to The Mount, the house in Lenox, Massachusetts that Wharton built as a refuge and which was inspired by houses she had seen in Europe.

Wharton originally hired her great friend, Ogden Codman, to design the interiors of The Mount - they had co-authored The Decoration of Houses - but she soon decided his taste was too extravagant and a short time after hiring him asked him to leave the project in the hope of preserving their friendship and her financial stability.

The interiors and many of the furnishings in my grandmother's house in Rhode Island were also designed by Ogden Codman (my green bookcases are his work) and although his work on Wharton's house was cut short, I recognized several Codman signatures in The Mount.

The library holds two-thirds of Wharton's personal collection of books. After her death the contents of the library were left to two god-sons in England where one-third was destroyed during World War II. The remaining books were returned to the house almost 100 years later in 2006 following its substantial restoration. The design of Wharton’s library echoes her philosophy that the primary decoration of this room should be its books.

Wharton's boudoir, designed by Codman and which she used as an office, is the most elaborately decorated room on the bedroom floor. Extensive research prior to the house's restoration guided the selection of paint and fabric.

While publicity photos exist of Wharton writing at her desk, the fact is that she did most of her writing in bed accompanied by the small dogs that were like children to her. As they were married for companionship rather than love, in addition to the fact that Teddy Wharton suffered from mental illness, the couple never had children of their own but raised a number of dogs that are buried in a small plot on the grounds. The portraits above the bed are of Wharton's father and two brothers.

The gardens at The Mount are a compact exhibit of beauty and European-influenced symmetry. It was in Lenox that Wharton penned Italian Villas and Their Gardens. Her belief that "gardens should be divided into rooms and planned in concert with the house and the natural landscape" is readily apparent.

Behind the house there are two distinct garden rooms connected by a lime walk. The following photos are of the Italinate walled garden - cool and shady.

The lime walk.

At the other end of the walk, the sunny flower garden and dolphin fountain.

Wharton referred to The Mount as her "first real home" and many of the precepts of architecture and design that she wrote about are evident here; it is a significant part of her autobiography. As it is sited in a beautiful location in the heart of the best antiquing in Western Massachusetts, a visit to The Mount is the perfect getaway for anyone interested in art and design. More information on the house and grounds can be found here.


  1. Have wanted to visit for years.

    Now, when I go, I'll see it a bit thru your prism.

    Love the piled stones in the fountains, and, and, and,


  2. Great "mini documentary";) Have a great day! xob

  3. This was fascinating and I am so wishing I was there now! I think it would be right up my alley! Thanks for sharing it…I am definitely intrigued and would love to learn more about her! Have fun on your vacation!

  4. seriously phyllis - this post was about as good as an episode of downton abbey!

  5. Edith Wharton is my favorite author. This post was such a treat for me! Gorgeous photos and such fascinating information. Thank you, Phyllis!

  6. What a beautiful and well-written post. I love Edith Wharton too and have read several of her books and was very frustrated about the whole Lily Bart ending. :)

    I hope to visit The Mount one day - lovely photos. Have you managed to trudge through "The Decoration of Houses"? I found it overinflated and so pretentious. haha.

    xo Terri

  7. What a beautiful home and a testament to those who loved such an iconic American writer and saved it from rack and ruin! Your images are beautiful and they make me want to visit it even more, thanks for sharing them with us!

    xo Kat

  8. Your photos are just sumptuous, Phyllis! I could spend hours in the house....then more hours in the gardens. While in Maine, Tom and I visited Beatrix Farrand's final home and gardens at Garland Farm. She was immensely inspired by aunt Edith Wharton.
    x Loi

  9. Great writing, great photos... what can I say? Loved this post!

  10. LOVED THIS! Thank you for my morning tour....a lovely place.

  11. So happy to have you posting again! The Mount is on my list of places to go--so it was nice to see someone with such an eye cover it! I so enjoyed last year's posts of Newport RI that you did--you not only include the gardens and architecture, but the little bit of history makes your blog so insightful! Cindy

    1. Thanks so much, Cindy. I am so glad to hear you enjoyed the Newport posts. The town and its history have such a place in my heart.
      All best,

  12. Phyllis,
    This was a very interesting post and to have such great photographs of the Wharton estate to accompany it truly made it feel like a mini-documentary. I will have to add the Mount to my list of things to see in America.
    Thank you and have a great weekend.

  13. Dear Phyllis,
    What a wonderful site to visit and explore this piece of history.
    Thank you for sharing!

    2013 Designer Series

  14. Between loads of beach laundry, I came over to read your blog. Loved the tour of The Mount! I have only read Age of Innocence, but look forward to reading more Wharton after this tour. Also, our landscape designer commented on this post. Truly a small blog world!

  15. suddenly i need a trip to the berkshires and an in depth read on mrs. wharton, fascinating phyllis.
    i will admit however to being intrigued with you and your family legacy, rhode island, codman????

    1. Hi Debra, it is a fascinating family story - one I hope to share with you when I am able to join you on one of your tours! xo, Phyllis

  16. I would love to be able to visit this beautiful the gardens!

  17. I so enjoy learning of beautiful places to tour/visit and the history behind it. Your photos are gorgeous especially the Lime Walk photo.

  18. Hi Phyllis,

    Such an interesting post and beautiful spot to visit. The grounds are spectacular and I love the soft french blue in the top photos. Great photos!


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