Biddle, Ellen McGowan "Nellie"
- Born: 5 Nov 1869, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, USA
- Marriage: Shipman, Louis Evan on 17 Oct 1893 in Berkeley Springs, Morgan, West Virginia, USA
- Died: 27 Mar 1950, East House, Warwick West, Bermuda at age 80
Cause of her death was Pneumonia.
Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869-1950)
Ellen Biddle Shipman, hailed as one of America's greatest "flower-garden makers," belonged to
a generation of women landscape architects who were pioneers in a field that had been
dominated by men up to the turn of the century. Daughter of Ellen Fish McGowan Biddle and
Colonel James Biddle, she spent much of her youth on frontier outposts in Nevada and Arizona.
When the uprising of a local tribe threatened their safety, Ellen, her mother and her brothers
took up residence on her grandparents' farm in New Jersey. It was there that she first became
acquainted with apple orchards, white picket fences, and old-fashioned flower varieties.
In 1893, Ellen Biddle left Radcliffe College after one year to marry Louis Shipman. In the
summer of 1894, Ellen and Louis moved to an artist colony in Cornish, New Hampshire where
she was exposed to gardens that rejected tight Victorian bedding schemes popular at the time.
Shipman began gaining practical experience at their home, Brook Place. There she created a
Colonial style garden with straight paths and fragrant, hardy plants close to the house.
After some financial difficulties and other conflicts, Louis went to London with another woman in
1910, leaving Ellen and their three children -- Ellen, Evan, and Mary -- without support. It was at
this time that Shipman's career as a landscape architect began. Many of the women in Cornish
worked in design-related occupations, and landscape architecture was one of the few fields
open to women.
Shipman and other women were able to enter the profession of landscape architecture largely
because of stereotypes of women and gardening. Images of women tending to home gardens
had become very popular by the turn of the century and pointed to a larger, gender split in
domestic responsibility. This division originated with the notion that women were nurturers,
providers of beauty, and nest-builders. As such, women were thought to be temperamentally
suited to horticulture and endowed with "natural talents" in the field. These widely held beliefs
allowed women to enter this professional field at a time when others were still off limits to them.
Charles Platt, a landscape painter who later became an architect, admired Shipman's practical
experience, self-taught knowledge of plant materials, and design sensibilities. He said that he
"liked the outcome of [her] efforts at Brook Place," and asked her "to do the planting for the
places he was building." Platt had an assistant train Shipman in professional drafting, and then
hired her to design flower gardens.
Between 1912 and 1919, Shipman moved from cautious competence into her own personal
style of expression. She adopted the principles that had led to Platt's success, including axial
layouts, carefully proportioned relationships between house and garden architecture, and strong
visual and physical connections between a house and its gardens. Shipman's collaboration with
Platt sharpened her design sense, established a base of contacts and clients, and helped her
master architectural skills and intricacies of large-scale planting. Shipman favored the Colonial
style she had become acquainted with in Cornish over the European models which Platt and
other landscape architects were using.
Ellen Biddle Shipman/Page 2 of 3
In 1920 Shipman moved to New York City and opened her own office. During the almost 40
years she practiced landscape architecture, Shipman would only hire graduates from the
Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Gardening, and Horticulture for Women.
Although there is no documentation of the reasoning behind this employment policy, it is likely
that Shipman wanted to help women in the field. Females were generally refused
apprenticeships in male offices, and male applicants to female-run offices were probably scarce.
An all-female office like Shipman's ultimately led to the success of a generation of female
Shipman's client list primarily included wealthy industrialists interested in creating a "country
place" that symbolized their status. She dealt mostly with women, as wives were often
gardeners themselves, and generally more knowledgeable. Shipman allowed their horticultural
interests to play a role in the design saying "I feel strongly that each garden that I do is like a
portrait of the person and should express their likes and dislikes."
Throughout her career, Shipman stressed the importance of privacy and enclosure in her
gardens: "...privacy is the most essential aspect of any garden, what ever type or period."
Shipman's garden designs gave her women clients what many of them wanted -- a walled and
secluded area for retreat. Her gardens provided areas of quiet domestic intimacy for women to
escape from the "trials of life" and their hectic public schedules.
Much of Shipman's acclaim arose from her borders. She discovered that borders impacted her
female clients emotionally. Borders allowed for intimate interaction with the garden because
they required the domestically based activities of planning, planting, cultivating, and arranging
flowers. They also provided a simple and effective means of growing many different kinds of
flowers. Shipman used old-fashioned plant varieties to create the feel of the "grandmother's
garden" like the ones she had been exposed to on her grandparents' farm in New Jersey and in
the Cornish artists colony.
After 1929, Shipman earned most of her income from a few extremely wealthy clients who had
weathered the stock market crash. Work was scarce during World War II and her business lost
money. When post-war residential work declined, Shipman sold her New York residence,
office, and furnishings in October 1946. During her final years, she divided her time between
Brook Place and East House, a home she had purchased in Warwick West, Bermuda. It was
there that Ellen Shipman died of pneumonia on March 27, 1950.
Of the more than 650 gardens that Shipman designed between 1914 and 1946, few remain
intact. And yet, her accomplishments are still with us today. At a time when landscape
architects and other design professionals were looking to European models, Shipman
championed the American style. Perhaps more importantly, Ellen Shipman helped to open the
door for women into a male-dominated profession. She overcame many obstacles before
finding success as "the dean of American women landscape architects."
Ellen Biddle Shipman/Page 3 of 3
The walled English Garden, originally designed by the Seiberlings' landscape architect Warren
Manning in 1912, was one of Gertrude Seiberling's favorite places to reflect, compose, and
meet with her children. However, she quickly grew tired of its original harsh color scheme and
haphazard layout. Her dissatisfaction with this part of Manning's work might be explained by the
fact that he generally preferred large scale planning to small-scale gardens.
In 1928 Warren Manning reported to the Seiberlings: "I should be pleased to have you call Mrs.
Ellen Shipman for this garden as I consider her to be one of the best, if not the very best Flower
Garden Maker in America." Ellen Shipman presented Gertrude Seiberling with a planting plan
to redesign the walled English Garden at Stan Hywet with a blue, yellow, pink, white, and
lavender color scheme. Historic photographs reveal that Mrs. Seiberling followed Shipman's
plan soon after 1929.
The walled English Garden contains many elements typical of Ellen Shipman. The garden has
the feel of an outdoor room isolated from its surrounding landscape. Its high walls and the
change in level emphasize this feeling after entering the garden. Its axial layout and the
dropped-level pool lead the visitor's eye to a garden sculpture, a figure group by William
Paddock entitled "The Garden of the Water Goddess." Straight paths are surrounded by flower
borders reminiscent of the "grandmother's garden" and its old-fashioned plant varieties.
The English Garden at Stan Hywet underwent many changes since 1929. Over the years it
grew into a shade garden and in 1990 work began to restore it to Shipman's original design.
What visitors to Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens now see is the garden as it was designed for
Gertrude Seiberling in 1929. It is one of the only remaining, historically accurate gardens by
Ellen Biddle Shipman open to the public today.
Unlike, Farrand, Hutcheson, and Coffin, all of whom pursued careers as young women, Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869-1950) came from another track. In 1910, when she was in her early forties and living in rural New Hampshire, Shipman took up a career to support herself and her children. Her Main Line Philadelphia family reputedly was not thrilled with her decision to take up garden design as a career. Because she was homebound and unable to attend the Lowthorpe School, she trained informally with the country house architect Charles A. Platt. Shipman proved to be an extraordinarily gifted planting artist based on years of hand's-on experience in her country garden long before she turned professional around 1912. After learning the rudiments of design and construction from Platt, she began her legendary collaboration with him, designing lush plantings to harmonize with his classical architectural elements. She soon rose to the top of her profession, specializing in small residential properties that were featured in House Beautiful and other magazines. At the heart of her work was her sophisticated plantsmanship and her ability to create simple, yet intimate garden settings. By the early 1920s she was at the peak of her career, managing a New York office with as many as a dozen female employees. Not until the 1930s did she begin to receive larger, more comprehensive commissions, such as Longue Vue Gardens in New Orleans and the terrace gardens at Duke University in North Carolina.
On the whole, Shipman's work has not fared well. Of her 600 commissions (400 more than Farrand, for example), only a handful are in any recognizable form today due to alterations or destruction. She has no equivalent of Farrand's Dumbarton Oaks or Coffin's Winterthur. The rehabilitation of Chatham Manor, Fredericksburg, Virginia (now a National Park Service site), a number of years ago, as well as the walled garden at Stan Hywet Hall, Akron, Ohio, represent the beginnings of awareness of Shipman's significance as a landscape architect. More recently, her gardens at the Cummer Museum of Art, Jacksonville, Florida, were rediscovered after lying dormant for decades and replanted.
Shipman remains somewhat of an anomoly. Unlike Farrand, Hutcheson, and Coffin, she was not affiliated with the ASLA, as most of her clientele came from the garden club circuit. She was, however, a staunch advocate for women in the profession through her extensive lecturing and her office, which served as a training ground for scores of young women, mostly recruits from the Lowthorpe School whom she guided them through the practicalities of preparing construction drawings, supervising field work, and running a business. One of her earliest recruits was Elizabeth Leonard Strang (1886-1948), who worked in Shipman's office after training at Cornell and later opened her own office specializing in residential garden design. Elizabeth Lord (1887-1976) and her partner, Edith Schryver (1901-1984), who worked in Shipman's office in the mid-1920s, were Lowthorpe graduates; in 1929 they opened up the first female landscape architectural office on the West Coast, in Salem, Oregon.
The careers of countless other women are only now being resurrected from oblivion, but the absence of archives and office records remains the chief obstacle for researchers and writers. My research on Shipman, for example, was facilitated by archives at Cornell University, sympathetic archivists, family members who could provide essential personal information, and extant gardens. 2573
Noted events in her life were:
• Census: John McGowan and family, 15 Nov 1870, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, USA. 2574
• Census: Major James Biddle and family, 26 Jun 1880, Whipple Barracks, Yavapai County, Arizona, USA. 2575
• Residence: Louis Shipman and Ellen Biddle, Abt 1893, Cornish, Plainfield, Sullivan County, New Hampshire, USA. 2566
• Census: Louis Evan Shipman and family, Jun 1900, Plainfield, Sullivan County, New Hampshire, USA. 2567
• Census: Louis E. Shipman and family, 23 Apr 1910, Plainfield, Sullivan County, New Hampshire, USA. 2560
• Census: Louis Evan Shipman and family, 17 Jan 1920, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA. 2561
• Occupation: Landscape Architect, 7 May 1924, Plainfield, Sullivan, New Hampshire, USA. 2561
Ellen married Louis Evan Shipman, son of Hamilton W. Shipman and Caroline Hoops, on 17 Oct 1893 in Berkeley Springs, Morgan, West Virginia, USA. (Louis Evan Shipman was born on 9 Aug 1869 in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, USA and died on 2 Aug 1933 in Boury-en-Vexin, France.) The cause of his death was Cancer.