Sculptures reign in South Carolina Lowcountry gardens
MURRELLS INLET, S.C. - At Brookgreen Gardens, a 9,000-acre preserve just south of the resort town of Myrtle Beach, both high art and the flora, fauna, and natural beauty of South Carolina’s Lowcountry merge and flourish. It’s a unique setting that includes formal sculpture gardens, avenues of live oak trees, lush expanses of onetime rice fields, and a tidal river that is a magnet for wildlife.
Brookgreen Gardens incorporates four abandoned plantations acquired during the Depression by Archer M. Huntington, a wealthy businessman, and his wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington, a noted sculptor.
Intended to be a showcase for American figurative sculpture, the Huntington Sculpture Garden on the property opened in 1931 and was the country’s first public sculpture park. Shaped like a butterfly, the 50-acre garden is approached down “Oak Alley,’’ lined with massive 200-year-old oaks, which once led to a wealthy planter’s stately antebellum home.
There are now more than 1,200 sculptures on view, most of them representations of people and animals, by American sculptors from the early 19th century to the present, with a particular concentration of works in metal done from the 1880s to the mid-1940s.
Among the artists are Daniel Chester French, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frederick MacMonnies, Paul Manship, and Frederic Remington. Anna Hyatt Huntington is represented by a number of pieces, including a graceful statue of Diana, goddess of the hunt (a teenage Bette Davis is believed to have been the model), and a large bronze work depicting two fighting stallions that is one of Brookgreen’s iconic images.
While there are many monumental statues in the classical style, often depicting figures from mythology, there are also more whimsical modern works such as Derek Wernher’s realistic one of an old man sitting on a park bench reading a newspaper. Brookgreen’s most photographed statuary is “Pledge of Allegiance’’ by Glenna Goodacre, a group of life-sized bronze figures of six schoolchildren gathered around a flag pole.
Almost all the sculptures are displayed in garden settings that include fountains, pools, and flower-, tree-, and shrubbery-lined walkways that show them off to often dramatic effect. Works that cannot take exposure to the elements are displayed in an enclosed pavilion.
Although intended to complement the statuary, the display gardens are planted with a variety of flowering trees, shrubs, and perennials and are themselves a year-round attraction.
Brookgreen is also a nature preserve and there are marked walking trails that take visitors through groves of oak trees, across former rice fields dating to the 18th century but abandoned after the Civil War when they could no longer be profitably worked by slaves, and to the remains of plantation buildings and slave cabins. A small museum, the Lowcountry Center, has exhibits about the history of the area, one of the richest in the South in the days when rice was South Carolina’s “white gold.’’
Guided excursions on the preserve by overland vehicle are also available, as are pontoon boat cruises along the tributary creeks of the Waccamaw River, which teems with waterfowl and other wildlife, including alligators. There is also a zoo with native animals and birds, all either bred in captivity or obtained from wildlife rehabilitation centers after injuries made it impossible for them to live in the wild.
William A. Davis can be reached at email@example.com.