Auricula Theaters


The other day I was on bookstore business in West Hartford, so, being just a few miles down the road, I slipped over to Farmington for an hour to hear Steve Silk talk about the Sunken Garden at Hill-Stead. It was the first of Hill-Stead’s three-day May Market, so white tents filled with horticultural goods surrounded the beautiful farmhouse mansion designed my Theodate Pope Riddle for her parents.  There were perennials and shrubs, look-at-me straw garden hats that could only be worn to a party but that were attracting a lot of attention, antiques, paintings, whimsical cement statues, bulbs (I bought three Mondriaan Oriental lilies), jewelry, and amazing scanner photography by Ellen Hoverkamp.

But I was not there to shop. I am of course including the Beatrice Farrand garden at Hill-Stead in my book on sunken gardens and was interested to hear what Silk, a garden designer and writer and world traveller, had to say about it. He made it clear that he was not going to talk about the plants or even much about the history of this notable garden but “share his impressions.” We (the audience) sat in the shade of the summerhouse in the center of the garden. The talk was worth listening to, and I took a few notes. After a walk around the garden, I headed to the edge of the lawn on my way to the field where my truck was parked.

That’s when I noticed the lovely, rustic Auricula Theater with pots by Guy Wolff. Wolff is the subject of my other writing project. I could not believe my luck. I realize it’s a bit self-serving to be writing about books I am working on instead of reading, but really this was quite a day.

Auricula Theaters are tiered displays of primroses in pots. They probably originated in 17th century France or Belgium and spread to the rest of Europe, particularly 19th century England. They were designed as a way to show off one’s collection of these colorful mountain gems and give them some protection from harsh wind, rain and sun. They could be simple affairs, with open boxes such as the Hill-Stead display, but wealthy estate owners often created elaborate Auricula Theaters with fancy woodwork, gold leaf, even curtains and painted backdrops. They have lately regained popularity. In fact, the April issue of Gardens Illustrated features one.

However plain or fancy the theater, it’s the pots with the primroses that are the show. Wolff, surely the most important horticultural potter working today, has interpreted the Auricula Pot for the Hill-Stead.  His pots, perfectly sized for the bold yet diminutive flowers, are subtly flared with thickened rims. They are show showstoppers. The volunteers told me they were selling very well.

Visions of Auricula Theaters appearing in gardens all over New England popped into my head as I pulled my truck onto the highway. I suppose though, many people will keep just one or three Auricula Pots rather than a theater full, or even plant something other than a primrose.

No matter.

What I really like about the Auricula Pot, and Wolff’s in particular, is the idea of the humble flowerpot as drama. Not the prop; half the show. Yes.

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