An Infinity of Graces - a book review

My latest horticultural obsession has been Cecil Ross Pinsent (1884-1963). I first became aware of him while watching "Monty Don's Italian Gardens". In Part 2 of 3 episodes, Monty visits I Tatti, the remarkable garden Pinsent designed when he was only in his early 20s. Later in the program, Monty visits and one of Pinsent's last and most famous garden La Foce. Both of these gardens are discussed in Ethne Clarke's book "An Infinity of Graces" that covers Pinsent's remarkable work, which sadly has been overlooked in garden history. Remarkably, many of the traditional elements that comprise an Italian garden were started by Pinsent, who was an Englishman.

Pinsent was born in Uruguay and lived there for five years before his family moved back to England. As an adolescent, he enjoyed photography and developed an interest in architecture. Despite his father's objections (who wanted him to follow in the family tradition of law), he gave in to Pinsent's desire to attend the Royal Academy and study architecture. Pinsent was a successful student and in his senior year, he won an award for a measured drawing he submitted of the Lord Mayor's residence. He used the award money, around $2,500 in today's funds,  to finance a 10-month tour of Italy.

Pinsent's passport photo (1906)
Italy proved to invoke a powerful pull on Pinsent, in part due to the influence of his travel companions, Edmund and Mary Houghton. The Houghtons were close friends of the Pinsent family and a bit older than Pinsent. They were antique lovers and world travelers. They also owned a medieval tower in Florence. The couple encouraged Pinsent to pursue an architectural business in Florence, where they could introduce him to their wealthy friends in the ex-pat community. The Houghton's would eventually refer to Pinsent as their "adopted son". Pinsent, who had been working as a draftsman in the office of Charles Mallows (an Arts and Crafts style disciple), eventually quit his job in England and moved to Italy.

The players in Pinsent's life and career are as fascinating as the gardens he created. Enter Bernard and Mary Berenson, friends of the Houghtons, who lived in Settignano, just outside Florence. They were both art historians and highly influential in the community. They were living in a villa called I Tatti, which needed extensive remodeling and a garden. The Houghtons introduced Pinsent to the Berenson couple and they would eventually hire him (somewhat reluctantly as Mary reflected in a letter to a friend) to execute their vision of what they wanted the villa to be, one that would reflect their refined taste in Renaissance art.

Bernard and Mary Berenson

Into this scenario comes another major participant, that of Geoffrey Scott. He was the same age as Pinsent and also had an interest in architecture although he had dropped out of his classes and was more interested in writing. According to the book, he was a bit unfocused on a specific career. He would eventually write a much lauded work titled "The Architecture of Humanism" that remains in print today.  At the time, however, he was working as Bernard Berenson's secretary and librarian. 

Mary Berenson has an ulterior motive in keeping Scott on the premises- she had a crush on him. In addition to the cheap cost of living and beautiful surroundings, Italy offered another advantage to expatriates - the country was very lax when it came to sexuality and personal matters. The Berensons practiced an open marriage. Monty Don states that there was an affair between Mary and Scott going on. The book is a bit more reserved on the matter and doesn't confirm this but it was well known that Mary was fond of Scott and wanted to keep him near her. 

Mary suggested that Scott and Pinsent form a business partnership and this is what they did. However, it appears Scott did very little garden design work and eventually the partnership dissolved. By now, Mary had tired of Scott's lackadaisical demeanor. Scott would eventually marry the very rich Lady Sybil Cutting (Pinsent would design their garden at Villa Medici) but that marriage ended badly when he had an affair with Vita Sackville-West (apparently Lady Sybil did not look too kindly on such indiscretions). Scott and Pinsent remained friends and traveled together often. Scott died at the young age of 45 of pneumonia following a bout with influenza.

Mary Berenson and Geoffrey Scott on a picnic

We finally get back to Pinsent and his magnificent garden creations. The first, I Tatti, the Berenson's garden, is also known as the "Green Garden" because there are no flowers. Pinsent later remarked that he knew very little about flowers. He obviously did understand form, symmetry texture and brilliant executions of layering. (Keep in mind that he was only 23 when he started work on this!) The garden and house are now home to the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies.

Photo: Wikipedia/Sailko

Photo: Wikipedia/Sailko

As work on I Tatti was nearing completion, Pinsent was commissioned by American expatriate philosopher/psychologist Charles Augustus Strong to design a villa and garden in Fiesole. Villa Le Balze was situated on a difficult spot - a narrow space on a steep slope overlooking the city of Florence. Today it is owned by Georgetown University.


Pinsent's most well-known garden is probably La Foce, built for Iris Origo, who was the daughter of Lady Sybil Cutting (mentioned earlier). Origo's father was Cutting's first husband, William Bayard Cutting. There is an entire book devoted to this garden and I'm eager to get my hands on it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. It is well researched and generously illustrated with black and white photos. 

Text by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy


  1. I watched Monty D's videos some years ago. I will have to go back and watch this one. I would like to read the book too. It was a different world they lived in. Those Italian gardens are so geometrical. Amazing to see that they have survived so long.


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