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John Dixon Hunt

Oral History Interview with John Dixon Hunt, undertaken by Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent on Tuesday, July 14, 2009, at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. At Dumbarton Oaks, John Dixon Hunt was a Fellow (1984–1985), a Senior Fellow (1985–1992), and a Visiting Scholar (2010–2011) of what is now called Garden and Landscape Studies. He was Director of Studies in Landscape Architecture (1988–1991).

JS: Good morning. 

JH: Good morning.

JS: My name is Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent. Today is Tuesday, July 14, 2009.  We are at the campus of University of Pennsylvania at the School of Design, and I have the pleasure this morning of interviewing professor John Dixon Hunt, and I am very happy to speak with you this morning. I wondered if you might tell me your first connections with Dumbarton Oaks and your first impressions of the place and how you first came.

JH: I must have come to conferences there in the 1980s, and I subsequently became a Senior Fellow there, and from Senior Fellow I came to be Director of Studies in Landscape Architecture. My first memories of the place were probably like everyone else’s. For me it was a very good library because it was separate from all the other libraries, and it was presented and opened in ways that were very useful for researchers to use, and the rare book room was exceptionally well stocked and had most of the stuff that I wanted.

JS: And what year was that?

JH: I can’t remember. You can look it up.

JS: For how long were you the Director of Studies?

JH: For three years.

JS: How did things change, or what was the tone of the program when you first got there, and how did things change or evolve during your time?

JH: Well, I think I left because they probably didn’t change or evolve. When I arrived, the program was the smallest of the three. It was kept very firmly down to size. We were allowed only three Fellows in any one year, which was, as I and several of the Senior Fellows made the point – this was really not a critical mass to have any kind of research community in landscape studies. I did institute some monthly Friday afternoons in which I brought landscape architects into Dumbarton Oaks to discuss topics and issues of interest, because I felt that the study of landscape was not just a historical, let alone an art historical project, but was something that impacted the design and people using landscapes today. So, although I did make that small extension of the program, neither in the fellowship members nor in any other developments was there much room to maneuver. The Byzantine program and the Pre-Columbian were the big ones, and one felt in fact that landscape architecture was very much thought up as a sort of pollination or Cinderella, often I thought for invidiously intellectual reasons.  So, after three years and after realizing in a sense that I was not going to get anywhere with, at that time, the current director, I went to where I could in fact do much better work, to another research library down in Virginia, Mrs. Mellon’s. 

JS: Right. And as you see it, what role has Dumbarton Oaks played in the field of Garden and Landscape Studies?

JH: That’s a very difficult question, because on the one hand I don’t think it has played a very big role, but then the second problem is, what is the field? If the field where it began – basically an extension of art historical studies – then it has had a certain success in attracting people in a particular field. But the problem in Landscape Studies is exactly, in fact – as Byzantine Studies and Pre-Columbian Studies had long since recognized – it is the study of a sort of cultural materialism. And as such, Landscape Studies is able to pull in cartographers, practitioners, planners – and that was something that Dumbarton Oaks, at least at the time when I came into directorship, or even before that, when I was Senior Fellow – when I came to directorship, it seemed to me that during the three years that I was there it really wasn’t interested in moving into this much larger field. To that extent I think it has had an insufficient role in the field. In the last few years, and I have not been back there for six or seven years, the heavily theoretical bias of its summer symposia have put off an awful lot in practice of landscape architects who really were looking to Dumbarton Oaks under my directorship for three years, and then I think also very happily under the directorship of Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, were looking for a way of stimulating their own professional practice. And I’ve heard from many landscape architects that that was not what they felt was being offered during the directorship of Michel Conan. 

JS: Did you ever, during your time there, have a sense of what had been envisioned at the foundation of the program and how it actually happened to develop?

JH: Yes, certainly. When the program was just being established, I actually gave a lecture for Mrs. Bliss in Dumbarton Oaks when she was still alive. She introduced me.  So, I know really about the program from the very beginning. I think the program obviously had the vision of studying, and making a respectable field of study, the study of garden design and garden art. At that particular time, the people who were looking to do this were mainly coming from art history. I think a bit later people like myself, coming from literary studies, began to be interested. But I think the program began and maintained itself over the years of Betty MacDougall’s directorship, as by and large an art historical project. And whether that was where Mrs. Bliss wanted it to go, I don’t really know. MacDougall did a wonderful job in setting it up, in making it a scholarly and respectable subject, and extending, if you like, the study of patronage and iconography, which is what art historians generally do, and also the study of bio-history, the history of plant collections, which was one of her interests. So, in those two realms, that is to say, in the patronage, in iconography, the plant collections, in earlier Renaissance and post-Renaissance field, it was very successful. I think, and I thought certainly when I came into the directorship of studies, it certainly needed by then a much broader base. It needed certainly to reach out to landscape architects. One of the extraordinary sort of oddities of the program is that it has had no relationship with the GSD [Graduate School of Design] and the Department of Landscape Architecture up at Harvard, which ideally it should have done. So, that one of the things that I started, and I think that Wolschke-Bulmahn was able to take on, being himself a landscape architect by training – he was to take much further – was trying to involve people who were not trained scholars. And that was looked upon as a sort of rather dubious activity by some colleagues at Dumbarton Oaks and by the field of scholars who were generally going back into home departments of scholarly research activity. Some of the people that I wanted to involve were intelligent, thoughtful, well read, but not researchers, not scholars, who were in the field of practice. 

JS: Aha! That’s very interesting. And it’s fascinating that you were able to meet Mrs. Bliss and that you were a part of those early days.

JH: Well, I was part of it only to the extent that through a mutual friend called Peter Willis, who was one of the very early Fellows appointed by Mrs. Bliss before the program got started up – I was in Washington, I think – no, I know, I was working at the Folger Library. Peter Willis must have written to Mrs. Bliss, told her that I was there. And I had gotten an invitation from her to give a lecture. And I did give the lecture. She introduced me personally. I remember, I think I remember, it was a rather intimidating audience, because all of the front row in the newly finished music room was almost entirely composed of members of the Kennedy family. But that was really my only connection. I gave a lecture, and I forget what it was on, but it is probably on my early work in writing about English landscape gardens. But that was really my only connection with the early program. And I think that must have been in the ’60s some time. It was just two years before she died, so you’d be able to find out when it was.

JS: Right.

JH: And then the actual program got started, and I think I really got involved at the time in 1980 when I was asked to edit the Journal of Garden History, which is something that Dumbarton Oaks should have started itself. It was not very honest really about its field. Anyhow, I was asked to edit a journal in England, so I’m editing that journal. And I said that I would – [background noise] – should we go somewhere else for this? Yes, I was asked to edit this journal and I was organizing an editorial board. Betty MacDougall was one of the two people at the time whom I said, “Look, I will do this, I will edit this thing, but I really need to get them on board.” Well the first issue came out in 1980, so it would have been in about ’79, early ’79, that I got back in touch with Betty whom I had met before. And from then on we were often in contact. And it was not – I forget when I did have the fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks, but it was quite some time later. But we’d been in contact, and I did go to some of the symposia before I either had a fellowship myself or became a Senior Fellow. 

JS: I see. And if you were say – in which you, as a scholar, would prefer the direction to go in terms of the field, or how better could Dumbarton Oaks be of service to the field – what would you recommend, or what would you say would be a better vision, in terms of the resources that are present there?

JH: Well, I think Dumbarton Oaks – well, I have a vision of what landscape should be.  But it’s partly because I now have fifteen years experience teaching history and theory of landscape in the School of Design. So, I am teaching practicing landscape architects. But even as I went as director to Dumbarton Oaks – let me go back. When I was a Senior Fellow there were occasionally interesting applications for fellowships from landscape architects who simply wanted, in a sense, to come for a semester and immerse themselves in historical reading. But this was really not considered suitable material for a scholarly fellowship, and those kind of applications were never really successful. And I think it was in those years as a Senior Fellow that made me realize, was that one of the things that Dumbarton Oaks – not just the library and a scholarly library, but also a wonderful and historic American garden – should be doing more to pull in people who were practitioners. I mean accredited landscape architects mainly, but also there are quite a lot of perfectly intelligent and interesting landscape designers, who are not professionally accredited to the American Association of Landscape Architects [sic]. And I felt that somehow we should be giving these people the opportunity to sort of plug into the resources and the combined sort of intellectual – although as I said earlier I always felt that three Fellows were an insufficient critical mass. But when I did start these round tables on Friday afternoons the Fellows were always there. There were a few people who came up from CASVA like Therese O’Malley. So, there were some professional scholars in the room with a lot of people who were really hearing and discussing aspects of modern landscape architecture. And then, for example, we had a session in which the Parks Department and the Chairman of the parks from Baltimore committee came over, and we had a discussion about what open space was happening, about how it is being designed in the city of Baltimore, what was needed – and there were a couple of very articulate people from the community saying what they needed. This was, it seems to me, exactly one of the things that could be done. And, I think, this is something that, if my memory is correct, Wolschke-Buhlman certainly maintained. And, as I say, he was a practicing landscape architect, and I think he saw his own excursions and workings, scholarly research fields, as something that really helped and augmented his professional, practical life, or it had done and it would do. And therefore he saw the same thing. The last six or seven years have seen, I think, Dumbarton Oaks in its symposia and publications take a much more scholarly research line, with some, yes some, invitations and openings out to landscape architects. But largely those who would perform within the very sort of theoretical, conceptual world that Michel Conan created at Dumbarton Oaks.  And this is another way of doing something in Dumbarton Oaks. I think that one of the problems really is either Dumbarton Oaks has never adequately established a profile of what it thought landscape studies should be, or it has not accepted the fact that every director will try and do something different, and therefore that you are going to have a very different notion of landscape architecture every six or eight years. And that, given the length that the field has, that’s not a bad thing. So, I think the fascinating thing about landscape studies is exactly – and this, at least it was never in my day appreciated – it had exactly the same scope as Pre-Columbian or Byzantine. It involved economic historians, anthropologists, archeologists, art historians, in the case of Pre-Columbian Studies, geographers, and it really is a field that is multi-disciplinary. And that, I think – and the difficulty there is, who do you bring in? Who do you bring in as Fellows? And if you’ve got just a very small group of Fellows, it’s got larger I gather in the last couple of years, but if you are bringing a large group of Fellows in you want a good mix, and you want a good mix of disciplines. And then I think that one of the other issues that Dumbarton Oaks has faced and taken on, I see it only from the outside so I really can’t comment upon its success, but is to take in the whole business of non-Western gardens. There were in the early days symposia on Persian gardens, and I think that was it. But under Michel Conan there was a considerable reach out to China and Chinese gardens. And that opens another whole dimension of, you know, if you are providing a library for people who work in that field, a very large area, you will need some competence somewhere in the building, if not the director, of reading Chinese. And Senior Fellows are a wonderful group of advisors, but they are not there the whole time. And therefore the day to day, sort of weekly intellectual life of the place is mainly sustained by the Director of Studies and three or four Fellows.

There was a certain excitement and usefulness in there being scholars in the other fields there, and certainly there were times when there was real dialogue and sort of cross fertilization, but it was more the exception than the rule.  So, I think that the landscape people, and I certainly as director felt not socially isolated because one got on quite well with one’s colleagues and made very good friends there, but intellectually isolated, within the field. In a sense, the field consisted of fellowships, three a year, an annual symposium, and the publication of the annual symposium. And that was it. If you look at the publications under Michel Conan the last six or seven years, they’ve been exponentially developed and enlarged. And that certainly spreads the word about the field. But I still feel that my instinct was right, that Dumbarton Oaks ought to, and in this it should have been able to liaise much more with GSD at Harvard, it should have been talking to the people who are making the gardens and landscapes that future scholars will want to discuss, and in fact, more and more garden historians of the last ten years who are working on contemporary or modern landscape architecture. And that was not really the problems of the program when I got there. I think the – I am just trying to think, Beatrix Farrand was probably the only symposium topic in the years of Betty MacDougall’s directorship that was anything in the modern field. “J. C. Louden in the 19th century” was the next earliest, and that was way back. And I think that, I gather that Dumbarton Oaks has been hoping to collect archives of leading landscape architects, but it’s rather odd to do that in an institution where landscape architects don’t readily think of being able to go.  I mean, I even remember in my years as director having to, I won’t say fight for, but argue for a reader’s ticket for a student of a Master of Landscape Architecture program. I can’t remember now where they came from. It couldn’t have been Harvard, because that presumably could have been organized – just to have a reading ticket, because they weren’t sort of advanced in their scholarship. But they were probably doing, they were just sort of reading. I remember one of the arguments was, well, “Couldn’t this person just do that reading in a main library?” And I think my answer was, “Maybe they want to see what’s been written in English, for example, on André Le Nôtre.” I don’t know whether that was it. But all of the books are here. And that’s a good place. And also they go down to the open stacks and see that there are, you know, twenty-five books on André Le Nôtre – to realize what they take on has to be done in that already established scholarly spread. And that would be very useful, even if all they ever wanted to do was to find out a bit more about, I don’t know, how Versailles was constructed, which they could perhaps have done from publications elsewhere. But it was the opening of the awareness of garden history to interested people. I mean obviously the worry of my colleagues at Dumbarton Oaks was that they didn’t sort of want hoards of people of a sort of Sunday-colored-supplement interest in sort of gardens coming in. But it did seem to me that there were opportunities that could be offered to people who wanted to do some serious but not scholarly work. Let’s make that distinction, on something that was interesting to them as their professional life. I forget who this landscape architect was, but they certainly weren’t going to go out into the world designing for a patron, but I thought it was a perfectly good thing that worked in the end. But just to have to sort of confront that mentality was odd. And it may have changed as I say; I have not been back. One of the other things that I thought was a great feature of Dumbarton Oaks was a rare book room of open stacks that were essentially devoted to our field that could be browsed, and the Fellows were down in a room right by the open stacks. There was a rare book librarian who was always available to let them into the rare book room. And the open stacks down below were very rudimentarily but rather usefully divided into a design section and a horticultural section. If I was interested in the shape that Versailles took, I knew which part of the stacks to go into. If I was actually interested in the planting that was available at Versailles, it would probably be stuffed in the botanical classification. So, in a way it was a very wonderfully easy library to use, and I think Fellows appreciated that. And the other difficulty was that – and that’s going to be a difficulty with any such institution – is that applications for Fellows always invited them to say how they would use the collection, and they still are I would imagine. I mean, I’ve sent at least five or six graduate students down there since I’ve been at Penn, and at least, shall we say, with 50% of my graduate students whom I was backing and writing recommendations for it wasn’t so much that the library would be better than what they could find at the University of Pennsylvania library, which is an excellent library, especially in the design field, but it was the fact that they would be able to wander into the library, find things that they had never thought of, that they would be able to talk to people. So, the Senior Fellows I think always had the difficulty of adjudicating out of, you know, sometimes twelve or twenty applications, to choose three people, on the basis of, were they doing the scholarly work, which was always the main criterion. And then very much more sort of down the list of requirements or pre-conditions was, would the collections be useful to them. And I think that in the three years that I was there, I had, what, nine Fellows? Probably there were only five out of the nine that really used the collection. Otherwise what it was that – people with a sabbatical wanted to come to a place where they would have a stipend and have a place where they could write. In my last year it was particularly frustrating, because I felt that at least two of the Fellows really, they were very interesting people, but they were really not interested in a collective talking about the field of landscape architecture. They were into their own three totally different things, and they really couldn’t talk to each other. One of the things that I did, and I know that it has been kept up in some way or another, was that I gathered the three Fellows together once a week, we had a glass of sherry together in my office, and then we went to have lunch together. And in my first two years that sort of did work quite well. The people sort of exchanged ideas a bit more, and they were building up the field of garden and landscape studies more. It was bigger than their own particular contribution of a little field or chunk of the field. And in my last year, that simply didn’t work at all, and I suppose it may have been the final push for me to feel that it really wasn’t working. And the other thing, I suppose I can say this myself, I’m a fairly energetic person, and there really wasn’t enough for me to do. I mean to organize one symposium, edit the proceedings, and organize monthly round tables on various subjects was fine, but it really wasn’t what I felt the only research institute in landscape and garden studies in the world should be doing. I thought we – I don’t know quite what – publishing a lot more, perhaps. I would have thought a journal would have been a wonderful thing. But that was certainly not something that anyone then or now wants to take on. And certainly journals in the field have grown and prospered since then, so probably now there is no need for it. But it’s been very encouraging to see the amount of publications that under Michel Conan’s directorship were got out. 

JS: And if you could pinpoint perhaps one exciting project that you were particularly happy to be a part of during your time there, or symposia?

JH: Well, I think it was the symposium that was organized by the Senior Fellows in the year before I became director, so that I was the director of the symposium, but a symposium in honor of Betty MacDougall. It was published just as a volume called Garden History, and I think, Issues, Methods, Approaches. But what it was, was an attempt, not just a chance to see where the field had come, but in a sense to say that Betty has done a wonderful job as a first director in setting up this scholarly program. This is the kind of materials that have come out of the program and served quite a few of the people who had been Fellows, and been working – Jashemski would have been one who talked at that symposium, but also we invited – fifty percent were people saying, “This is what the program has been producing and doing.” The other fifty percent were people who had not been at Dumbarton Oaks, and who were invited really to push the field further out into their own, I mean, in fact. So, that is the one symposium I would look to; it was the most satisfying, in part because it was done for Betty. It was the most satisfying because in a sense it was a bigger symposium than normal. If you look at the volume, it’s quite a fatter one than the other ones, than what Dumbarton Oaks was producing at the time. Certainly there were more people involved. I got to know more people. Because the program was so diverse, I think we got an attendance that was more diversified than I had seen in previous symposia. But within that very happy event, I think that one thing that pleased me more than anything was that I drew to the attention of the Senior Fellows a book that has just been published by a classicist at Oxford called Robin Osborne called Figures in the Landscape, which was about really the agricultural agrarian landscape of classical Greece. And I said, “Well, look, this guy has written this very interesting book but he doesn’t mention a garden in it at all.” And the Senior Fellows said, “Okay, well, why don’t you phone him up and say, ‘Look, you’ve written this very good book but you don’t mention gardens. Why don’t you come to the symposium and talk about gardens?’” And so I did phone this person up, who was obviously – we got on and communicated well with each other – he was taken completely aback by this. And he produced what is, for my money, in that volume by far the most interesting paper in terms of material; what can we learn about early classical Greek gardens, domestic, vernacular gardens, on the one hand, and then on the other hand he was sort of a historian from the Annales School in France. He really sifted through I would have thought hundreds of legal documents, finding little bits and pieces, so it was sort of a tour de raison of the classical Greek gardens in the suburbs of Athens, put together from material that no one would ever have thought about using, and that really was a benchmark, and has never been in my view matched for its originality, for the way it in fact pushed the field that was really never quite – been able to take it any further. Maybe there really isn’t much more to say about Greek gardens in the suburbs of Athens, but no one has taken his particular method of research and methodology and used it, that I know of, and maybe someone has and I’m just missing it.  So, that was an exciting thing, and that was a symposium within my first year as director, and obviously Betty was there and then subsequently Dumbarton Oaks published a collection of her essays she had never published before, in her academic career. And we gathered together, or asked her to gather together, a series of very important essays adding to the one very substantial unpublished piece, and that was published I think a couple of years later. It took a bit of time I think to get together and go through the process. So, that was, as it were, part of saying goodbye and celebrating her time, but it wasn’t particularly linked to the symposium.

JS: Well that’s very interesting, and I’ve learned a lot from this interview; this has been very interesting for me, too. And maybe we should wrap things up? Are there any other closing thoughts or – ?

JH: No, I mean, I feel out of touch in two ways. One is that I really haven’t been back for – in fact I can’t remember when was the last symposium I went to, so I haven’t – and this is partly because it has always coincided with graduation. And so I’ve always felt my first duty now is to my current post and the students that I teach. And the other thing is that I have been teaching professional landscape architects as well as other students coming from art history and comparative literature, so it’s not always been just professional designers, but I felt that my own writing and research needed more and more to look at topics and issues that these people – so, for example, from writing on, I don’t know, the iconography and meaning of gardens or forms of their design, I developed very slowly but I think deliberately moved into how gardens were experienced. And really one of the last books I did was called The Afterlife of Gardens, which was very much about how people use and experience gardens, which is not something that historians tend to look at, and it was something that I think was picked up by, I can’t be certain of the chronology, but it was picked up by Michel Conan in one of his editorial things to look at the experience of gardens. But it seems to me, again, falls between the schools of – art historians don’t really do it, geographers don’t really do it, but the reception – and there is of course a whole theoretical literature now on reception theory, and gardens could, I think, be better looked at by seeing how people use them. Because that might actually tell you how you might design them better, if you know that this or that particular site has been well used or abused in some way or another. So, that’s really – and I feel a bit out of touch. I have not needed a library, partly because I have such a good library here, but also because I’ve been working really ever since I left Dumbarton Oaks on a book on Venice, Venetian gardens, which has just come out. And I’ve been going to Venice because that’s where the books and manuscripts would be. So, I think, I don’t – my final thought would be, it’s a – I presume a wonderful place to be and to study gardens. I just wonder to what extent Dumbarton Oaks has thought sufficiently about who it wants to have using those resources, other than simply the people who apply for the fellowships. Or I know, at any point, as a formal director, even though my reading card has lapsed, I could go in, people like myself could go in, but I think there is a way in which without opening itself to hoards of people they don’t want, there’s a way in which it could be – I mean, I have, in the last ten or twelve years, said to a student, “Well, if you are really interested in that, the best place to see a range of materials is to go down to Dumbarton Oaks library and just spend two or three days looking at the shelves, and especially with the open shelves being able to see what the scope of your interest is, and even come back and do an independent study here, knowing what the field looks like in an institution hopefully dedicated to having almost anything that is worthwhile on that particular topic.” So I think that’s it.

JS: Thank you very much.