If, in the garden of your mind's eye, you see yourself spending lazy afternoons meditating to the sound of water dancing in marble fountains; catching sight of Pan and Diana, captured in stone, as you stroll a woodland path; or admiring your perfect parterre from the seat of a Neoclassical bench, then call on Barbara Israel.
You will find her at Steepway Farm, her home in Katonah, New York, whose elegantly landscaped grounds are the backdrop for Barbara Israel Garden Antiques. Here, artfully placed amid the formal perennial beds and the allée, the meditation garden and the orchard, are extraordinary pieces of antique garden art gathered from here and abroad by one of the country's foremost authorities on the subject. The author of Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste, whose list of discriminating clients includes the Smithsonian and Winterthur museums, Israel personally guides visitors through her well-edited collection—each piece of the very finest quality and unambiguous provenance.
As the passion for gardening has taken hold in America, such works have become highly prized collectibles. And, says Israel, "finding quality pieces from known sources is becoming much more difficult"—leading to scandals involving supposedly reputable antiques dealers selling items stolen from cemeteries and estates. As Hugh Johnson explains in his classic The Principles of Gardening, garden statuary once "encompassed some of the very greatest works of art, and countless copies so good as to be precious in themselves. Very few of these survive: weather eventually destroys lead and marble. Those that do remain have the quality of splendid antiques, with enough presence to dominate any garden scene."
Since the day when, as a child, she sneaked onto a gated estate near her home and discovered a hidden wonderland of fountains, mosaic paths, and marble busts of Roman emperors, Israel has been enchanted with garden ornament. Its use, she says, can elevate a well-designed garden with beautiful plantings to art, heightening the experience. Ornament compels attention and directs focus. It asserts itself in a winter landscape. When form, scale, and placement are just right, it harmonizes the mood of a garden. Helping achieve this balance is where Israel excels.
Pieces are placed in her garden to inspire thoughts of where they might go in your own: a Victorian urn at the end of a vista, a Renaissance-style table under an ancient elm, a sundial in an open spot. Each has a story, which she's happy to share—with discretion, of course. The magisterial lion rampant centering her oval drive once guarded the entrance to a British stately home. The pastoral couple in Vicenza stone? From the New Jersey estate of a former First Lady. Stopping at an Italian marble wellhead, Israel recalls: "An American film star had been considering one of my 17th-century wellheads, but I didn't hear back from him and sold it to someone else. His people called about it later and were upset to hear it had gone. But I've found another for him." After all, she says, every courtyard in medieval Venice had one.
Except for an open house on Memorial Day weekend, visits are by appointment only: 212-744-6281 weekdays, 914-232-4271 weekends; www.bi-gardenantiques.com. Prices range from $650 to $65,000.