Ellen Biddle Shipman

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This article is about Ellen Biddle Shipman, the landscape architect. For other people and places with the name Shipman, see Shipman (disambiguation).
Ellen Biddle Shipman
Born (1896-11-05)November 5, 1896
Philadelphia, PA, United States
Died March 27, 1950(1950-03-27) (aged 53)
Warwick Camp, Bermuda
Education Radcliffe College
Occupation Landscape architect
Known for Landscape architecture, garden design
Notable work Longue Vue House and Gardens, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site
Children Evan Biddle Shipman
Parent(s) James Biddle, Ellen McGowan Biddle
Willard Metcalf, a fellow member of the Cornish Art Colony in Plainfield, painted this while staying with the Shipman's at Brook Place. Ellen and her Husband renovated the house in an Italianate Style. Painted here is the original part of the house.

Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869–1950) was an American landscape architect known for her formal gardens and lush planting style. Along with Beatrix Farrand and Marian Cruger Coffin, she dictated the style of the time and strongly influenced landscape design, as well as breaking into a largely male field.[1]

Commenting about the male dominated field to the New York Times in 1938, she said “before women took hold of the profession, landscape architects were doing what I call cemetery work.”[2] Shipman preferred to look on her career of using plantings as if she "were painting pictures as an artist.” Little of her work remains today because of the labor intensive style of her designs, but there exist preserved spaces, including the Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University, often cited as one of the most beautiful American college campuses.[3]

She is buried in Plainfield, New Hampshire, near Brook Place, her estate there.[4]

Early life[edit]

Shipman was born in Philadelphia, she spent her childhood in Texas and the Arizona territory. Her father, Colonel James Biddle, was a career Army officer, stationed on the western frontier. When the safety of his family was threatened, he moved them to the McGowan farm in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Shipman attended boarding school in Baltimore, Maryland, where her interests in the arts emerged and by her twenties she had already started drawing garden designs.[5]

When she entered the Harvard annex, Radcliffe College, Shipman met a playwright attending Harvard named Louis Shipman. They left school after one year, married, and moved to Plainfield, New Hampshire, near to the Cornish Art Colony, which included Maxfield Parrish and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The colony is said to have been landscaped by artists who were not by any means landscape architects. However, through their artistically trained eyes and awareness for an aesthetics of repose, they built gardens based on the simple geometrical shapes of the colonial garden. This was the style that Shipman took strongly to and with it created her own style – a style which did not go unnoticed.


Shipman designed The Moonlight Garden at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida for Thomas Edison's wife Mina.

Shipman's colleague and fellow member of the Cornish Art Colony, Charles A. Platt, was an artist and architect known for his interest in Italian gardens. Platt recognized Shipman's talents. He did not know much about horticulture, but was highly respected and thought of as “the man who could design both house and garden for a country estate”, for he had recently made a trip to Italy and wrote a book about the gardens there.

By the time the Shipmans divorced in 1910, Ellen Shipman was well on her way to establishing herself as a talented garden designer nationwide. She and Platt played off their mutual requirements: Platt needed Ellen for her knowledge of horticulture and Ellen needed Platt for his knowledge of drafting and design. Shipman was also heavily influenced by Gertrude Jekyll's brilliant use of borders, as well as memories of her grandparents’ farm. By 1920 she was working independently of Platt, though they continued to collaborate on his residential projects.

Among Shipman's earliest collaborations with Platt was the Cooperstown, New York estate of Fynmere in 1913, owned by the Cooper family on the edge of the village. This project, for descendants of William Cooper and his son, the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, provided significant visibility for Shipman. While the stone mansion was demolished in 1979, a few elements of the landscape work survive. The Cooper family was impressed enough to award Shipman the landscape work for the adjoining estate of Heathcote, which is extant today in private hands. Her other gardens include Bayou Bend Gardens, Longue Vue Gardens in New Orleans, Stan Hywet Gardens, the Graycliff Estate (now under restoration),Stranahan Estate (also under reconstruction), Middleton House and Robert M. Hanes House at Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Duke University's Sarah P. Duke Gardens, which is often named one of her finest works. The courtyard gardens of Manhattan's Astor Court Building were another Platt/Shipman collaboration.[6]

Shipman created her own residential gardens all over the United States, collaborating with many architects. This included gardens in Plainfield and Cornish, New Hampshire, notably Aspet, the home and studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, which is now the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. Her planting plans softened the bones of geometric architecture with planting designs that were muscular enough to speak for themselves. She once said, "Remember that the design of your place is its skeleton upon which you will later plant to make your picture. Keep that skeleton as simple as possible."

Public recognition and solo work[edit]

The reflecting pool at Stan Hywet Hall, Akron, Ohio, 1929

Shipman's gardens often appeared in magazines, including House Beautiful. In 1933, House & Garden named her the "Dean of Women Landscape Architects". She lectured widely, and completed over 400 projects. Her archives are at Cornell University. Because much of her work includes labor-intensive plantings and borders, many have not survived. However, it was because of these borders that she was able to connect with her female clientele. Her intent was to provide privacy and a place for interaction with the surroundings. Women found the gardens provided familiarity and comfort.

It is said that throughout the 40 years she practiced landscape architecture, Shipman would only hire graduates from Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Gardening, and Horticulture for Women. Although it is not thoroughly understood why this was her hiring practice, it is widely believed that because of the time, women were not being given apprenticeships in male offices.


Further reading[edit]

  • Judith, Tankard. "The Gardens of Ellen Biddle Shipman." bkGwinn. 2006. 29 Oct. 2006 [1]
  • Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens. Ellen Biddle Shipman. 2006. Stan Hywet Hall and Garden. 29 Oct. 2006
  • [2][dead link]
  • The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. "The Italian Garden." Art and Gardens-Italian Garden. 2006. The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. 29 Oct. 2006 [3]
  • Fynmere garden; January 15, 2004