SUSAN SHEEHAN AND John O’Callaghan didn’t know a thing about gardens when they bought Robin Hill, a 93-year-old neo-Georgian brick mansion set on 20 rambling acres in Norfolk, Conn. But a decade later, Sheehan, a pre-eminent dealer of postwar prints in Manhattan, and O’Callaghan, a rug trader, preside over a seemingly endless expanse of beauty: At a glance, the grounds appear nearly wild, but the unruly swaths of meadow and shaded forest are, in fact, as carefully considered as any of the great landscapes by Capability Brown or Gertrude Jekyll.
Positioned high on the north end of the estate, the 10,000-square-foot house — with a high-ceilinged ground-floor enfilade of rooms and a servants’ wing turned guest quarters — is worthy of a Fitzgeraldian idyll. Built by George Lister Carlisle and his wife, Leila Laughlin Carlisle, a Pittsburgh steel heiress who named it after the manor in the 1922 series of novels “The Forsyte Saga,” by John Galsworthy, a number of the 19th-century cottages bordering the property are still owned by Laughlin Carlisle’s extended clan. (Her nephew, James Laughlin, founded the publishing house New Directions here in 1936 and lived in a farmhouse across the road until his death in 1997.)
In the early 1980s, the celebrated American interior designer John Saladino purchased Robin Hill and lived there for about 20 years, decorating it with his trademark neutral-hued neo-Classical furnishings and abstract art and transforming Laughlin Carlisle’s bold, Japanese-influenced gardens into a more symmetrical European style, with pergolas, terraced expanses and walls made from local stone. But by the time Sheehan and O’Callaghan bought the house from its new owner, a doctor who hadn’t maintained the grounds, a radical rethinking of the landscape was in order. While Sheehan was certain what to do inside — she has honored the house’s classical heritage with historical paint colors, antique Asian and British ceramics and traditional floral and geometric fabrics from Europe — the outdoors flummoxed her. “We fell in love with the house, bought it and moved in during the winter,” Sheehan says of the couple’s weekend retreat. “Then we looked outside and realized we had no idea what we’d gotten ourselves into. I stood on the terrace and thought to myself, ‘Out there lies a world of terror.’”
As the couple sat by one of the house’s seven fireplaces, waiting for spring, they leafed through the 2009 book “Spirit: Garden Inspiration” by the British landscape designer Dan Pearson. They had never heard of Pearson but picked it up after learning that he had included the nearby cabin of their friend John-Paul Philippe, an Oklahoma-born designer and artist, as one of the places that inspired him. Pearson described how Philippe’s modest, even stark, log cabin — built in the early to mid-19th century in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina — was moved plank by plank in the 1970s to Connecticut by an ornithologist who had spotted it from the air as he paraglided. Each winter, Philippe, who bought the five-acre property in 2006, culls the native trees and shrubs to maximize the presence of birds and wildlife, turning the place into a natural observatory.
The grass in the old fruit orchard is left to grow long in the summer. By the spring, it will be filled with bulbs, including narcissus, erythronium and pale crocus.Credit…Ngoc Minh Ngo
Sheehan figured she had found just the person to help her with Robin Hill: someone low-key who had good taste and perhaps needed the work. “In my imagination, Dan was like John-Paul, a lone guy sketching by the wood stove,” she says. While in London on business, she made an appointment to meet him at his Waterloo studio.
It wasn’t until she stepped inside that she realized her miscalculation. Not only were there about a dozen employees, managed by Pearson’s husband, Huw Morgan, but the walls were hung with sketches for vast properties everywhere from Hawaii to San Francisco, Greece, London and Shanghai, discreetly labeled with the names of some of their respective owners: the former Apple designer Jony Ive; the German fashion photographer Juergen Teller. The 58-year-old Pearson, she discovered, had a Zeus-like stature in the garden world. Known for designs that burnish nature rather than taming it, he started gardening at 6, trained in the Royal Horticultural Society Garden at Wisley at 17 and set up his own practice in 1987. After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, he reconfigured the grounds at Althorp, the house where she spent her teenage years, and recently reimagined the Mediterranean Delos garden begun in 1935 by Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst Castle. For the 1,000-acre Tokachi Millennium Forest on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the newspaper mogul Mitsushige Hayashi hired him to work with the local landscape architect Fumiaki Takano to create an ecological public park that has taken more than 20 years to nurture.
Despite his professional reputation, the designer is equally known for his humble, calm demeanor. “I immediately loved Susan’s force-of-nature approach and the vigor of her eye,” he says. “I knew she could teach me something.” Pearson believes that a garden should be a path to self-discovery, that every human needs to decide where they stand in the face of nature. He encouraged Sheehan to gather some images, not necessarily of gardens but of anything she found inspiring at all. It wasn’t about the plants; it was about what she wanted to feel when she stared out at the land.
Sheehan returned with a 250-page spiral-bound volume. The images ranged from a black Barnett Newman painting to a 16th-century Benin bronze figure. There was an earthenware jar and an 18th-century New England gravestone. “Doing that helped me see that what I wanted was to always be aware that we weren’t that much in control of nature,” she says.
MORE CONVENTIONAL CLIENTS — not the sort that Pearson chooses to work with — want order and perfection: well-defined flower beds, squared-off boxwood hedges, soothing symmetry. Conversely, minimalist architecture often calls for an all-green landscape that is not Pearson’s forte. But in Sheehan, the designer found someone who thinks as he does: that the most compelling parts of a garden are the liminal spaces between cultivation and wilderness.
“You have to be willing to feel brief moments of disorientation followed by great joy,” says Pearson, whose approach to gardening is closest to the late 19th-century Western style, a less structured aesthetic that’s responsive to natural topography and native plants. In part a reaction to the rigidity of industrialization, its emergence was also an acknowledgment of how exotic plants brought to Europe since the time of Marie Antoinette had turned invasive, choking out biodiversity.
Maintaining a détente with an ever-encroaching forest was particularly challenging at Robin Hill, which is in the coldest part of Connecticut, the northwestern corner of the state. Not only is the growing season there exceedingly short, and therefore unusually profuse — lots of things bloom simultaneously — but about half the property is woodland, bordering a 6,000-acre nature preserve. “The woods are the driving force,” Pearson says. “It’s what was cleared and what will always want to come back.”
Once the brambles were removed, it was apparent that the house, which was erected on a plinth, needed to be better connected to the garden — unthinkable in Laughlin Carlisle’s time, when grounds were made to be admired from a safe distance. Fortunately, much of the hardscape that she and, later, Saladino installed had survived: dry stone walls terracing the site and a round reflecting pond overlooking the cobblestone arrival court, as well as several small shingled outbuildings for tools and a groundskeeper’s office. Still, some of the stone walls cut off sightlines and made the property difficult to wander, so Pearson designed ways to access the landscape from the house’s many entrances and elevations: a rounded granite staircase leading from the back French doors down to the meadow; stone steps cut into a high retaining wall by the reflecting pool; a series of sweeping grass-and-stone stairs to parse the downward slope leading to the woodland. “I wanted to liberate the house,” he says.
His goal was to tie all the areas together with a braided network of paths. But for that to work, the fallow sections needed to be resuscitated. Among the more herculean tasks was the revival of the meadow, which the former owner had mowed flat. “People look out at a meadow and think it’s just nature doing its thing, but it’s an incredibly complicated ecosystem,” says James McGrath, who has spent the past five years as the couple’s full-time head gardener, aided by two assistants. Born in the Bronx, he trained at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, then did stints at Great Dixter, the famed Edwin Lutyens-designed property in East Sussex, England, and gardens in Jerusalem, the Netherlands and Madrid, among others. In close collaboration with Pearson (they check in by phone or email monthly), he works to beat back the aggressive species, like Solidago rugosa, and plants more than 1,000 plugs each year — specially ordered patches of native plants. Five years into Pearson’s work on the property, the narrow, mowed path now winds through stretches of fragrant lavender-hued bergamot and the pale pink umbellifers of joe-pye weed.
In place of a conventional cutting garden, usually hidden from view and organized in practical rows of ornamental plants bound for household arrangements, Pearson took down a long pergola that Saladino had built to create an open D-shaped area with a variety of perennials that might be found in a conventional mixed border, blooming in succession — clumps of fluorescent purple irises in the spring, a rainbow of echinacea in July, a stand of tall yellow late-summer rudbeckia. McGrath generally doesn’t deadhead, letting the plants take their course. The idea was to “enable Susan to think she was standing in the midst of a pointillist painting,” says McGrath. Toward the end of July, the goldfinches alight on the tall stalks of purple and yellow meadow rue, setting off ripples of movement.
While such color and profusion certainly seduce, it is Pearson’s modification of the shaded woodland area closest to the eastern side of the house that is arguably his most expressive gesture at Robin Hill. The key to making such dense shade welcoming, says Pearson, is to intersperse human interventions at perfect intervals, just enough “to make the place feel safe.” A few trees were sacrificed to allow others to thrive, and the path is marked by a fallen white pine fashioned into a bench. Beyond, in the shadows, lies a 15-foot-tall conical cairn — a traditional pile of stones in a formation that has ancient Scottish roots — created by Stephen Bundschuh, a local stonemason. Surrounded by a low stand of epimedium that in coming years will spread out amid the understory detritus, the sculpture rises like a mysterious prehistoric marker. Further on, a circle made of logs and stones opens slowly, to the far end of the meadow, with a mowed path leading back to the house. Such in-between moments — the forest canopy giving way to tall pasture, the amber lights of home in the gauzy distance — are Pearson’s favorites. “It’s always the frayed edges that are important,” he says. “That’s where the most interesting things happen.”