The Eclectic Collector–Ornamenting gardens with Barbara Israel
Elephants with obelisks. Chinese musicians. Copies of Canova dancers.
With the fortuitous yet unanticipated purchase of 40 garden statues including these at an estate sale in the mid 1980s, “the seed was planted,” as Katonah resident Barbara Israel likes to say.
Today, Israel is widely regarded as an authority on antique garden ornaments and one of the foremost dealers in the field. Her meticulously researched book Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste, published in 1999, remains a critical catalog of early American houses and their original ornaments, from 1740 to 1940.
“A scholarly voice has emerged which is bound to have great impact in the field,” wrote Town & Country in its review of the book at the time it was released, calling it “the first serious look at U.S. Garden history and design as they relate to their manmade decorations.”
But it all began with the purchase of those 40 pieces from the Locust Valley garden of Adele Lovett, wife of Robert A. Lovett, who served as Secretary of Defense under President Truman. Israel had the ornaments delivered to her home and then staged a sale where she “broke even. And I was like, wow, that was amazing,” she says with a laugh. Indeed, she was hooked on finding and selling antique garden ornaments.
Israel divides her time between her Manhattan apartment/office and the 19th century Katonah farmhouse she shares with two disabled dogs and “a very patient husband.” The home’s grounds continue to double as an outdoor showroom where Israel displays a rotating selection of period sundials, fountains, urns, gate finials, furniture, fencing, and wellheads amid the formal gardens she tends. Well-known collectors, landscape designers, and private clients with “fabulous gardens” come to her for “rare and wonderful” antique outdoor objects.
Catching up with her during a winter cold spell, she had her sights set on spring, talking about perusing seed catalogs filled with rose blooms and getting ready to set up her display for the Winter Antiques Show in New York City. She first participated in the show in 1994, “and it changed everything,” she says. Using her booth space to create a fantasy garden to showcase her statues has become an annual challenge. This year, she was busy creating an Italian garden outside Rome, showcasing four antique Venetian pieces amid lighting set to feel like sunshine. “You need to create a fantasy of what the pieces would look like in my garden,” she says.
With a keen eye and a willingness to follow an object’s research wherever it may lead, Israel built a business around a love of gardening and discoveries. “I care enormously about researching the pieces, knowing what they are,” she says as she describes following an object’s trail to such out-of-the-way places as the Anthracite Heritage Museum. “I’m a preservation type.”
She has just finished 20 years serving on the board of Historic Hudson Valley and is now passionate about her membership as vice chair of the board on the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy (photo below), dedicated to the revitalization of Samuel Untermyer’s once great gardens, now a city municipal park in Yonkers. Working with the City of Yonkers, the Conservancy will showcase the horticulture and landscape of the grounds.
“It’s a most fun project,” she says, “and it is coming along magnificently.” She begins touting some of the beautiful details they are working to reveal. One, the Temple of Love, is a fantastical rock garden with running water and a stone bridge, capped by a round temple. The Indo-Persian Walled Garden includes frescos and a mosaic amphitheater, along with classical elements and four waterways.
As for the future, Israel says she is “looking forward to never retiring. My husband and I have a deal that we’re not going to retire, even though we are both in our 70s,” she says. “I care about education. That people understand that garden ornament is a true decorative art and deserves attention.”
As we spoke, she was also navigating the delivery of a sundial she had discovered at an auction in County Tipperary, Ireland. But before she can get it shipped to New York, she has to have it excavated from the Irish garden where, she eventually discovered, it is cemented to the ground. “It is behind a locked gate, and the guy who is supposed to chip it out can’t get in,” she laughs. “You better have a sense of humor in this business.”
But it is the story behind each object that intrigues and inspires her, and so this is all just another day in the garden with Israel.