Isabella Stewart Gardner and The Book of Tea – Part 1

June 8, 2018 by Bruce Richardson

Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent

Isabella Stewart Gardner was a Boston legend, even in her lifetime. She was known as “The Queen of Back Bay,” but she had not always been a queen. She was far from beautiful and, in the age of Vanderbilts, only moderately wealthy. She kept her charities private while tales of her indiscretions, true or false, were often much too public.

Upon her marriage to Boston’s Jack Gardner, her father bought the newlyweds a fashionable home on Beacon Street, just a few doors away from poet Julia Ward Howe, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Isabella and Jack Gardner embarked on a grand tour of the East in 1883. They spent much time in Yokohama and Tokyo visiting their Boston friends Sturgis Bigelow, Percival Lowell, and Ernest Fenollosa. Following treks through China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaya, Burma, and India, they ended their tour de force back in Isabella’s favorite city—Venice.

Jack Gardner died in 1898 and Isabella set about building her dream, a museum designed in the style of a Venetian Palazzo in which she would live. Her palace would sit at the end of the Fenway, Boston’s new central park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and house her ever-growing collection of art from around the world.

She called her house/museum Fenway Court.

It sported three stories of balconies overlooking an interior courtyard roofed over with glass and filled with mosaics and statuary. Her private residence was on the fourth floor. This pleasure palace devoted to art was finished in 1903, four years before the Boston Museum of Fine Arts broke ground on their new location just down the street. Fenway Court opened with a grand celebration featuring a performance by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a menu that included both champagne and doughnuts.

 

Isabella Stewart Gardner House Musem, c. 1904

Gardner originally planned to open to the public only 20 days each year with no more than 200 museum visitors each day. At first, she wanted no admission fee, but later decided to charge a token $1 admittance in order to “keep out the lookers.” Fenway Court immediately became Gardner’s personal gathering place where Boston society encountered luminaries such as T. S. Eliot, Henry James, Henry Adams, Edith Wharton, John La Farge, James McNeil Whistler, and John Singer Sargent.

The house/museum was a heady environment of sight, sound, and society where the animate and inanimate combined to bring to life Isabella’s vision of a perfect aesthetic environment.

Okakura Kakuzo in Japan

On March 27, 1904, the newly-appointed director of Asian Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts Okakura Kakuzo, dressed in formal Japanese attire and holding a letter of introduction from John La Farge, appeared at Fenway Court’s front door. The text of the letter in part read,

I should like to add to any knowledge you may have of him my statement that he is the most intelligent critic of art, and I might also say of everything, that I know of. I think that he is one of the very few persons whom you should not miss enjoying…

The Queen of Back Bay, now sixty years old, had found her spiritual mentor. And Boston’s second greatest tea party was underway.

 

 

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Author: Bruce Richardson
Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum

Accomplishments
MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 20 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the country. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo. He is the author of over a dozen books on the subject of tea. Mr. Richardson serves as Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.