The Child Garden where Dreams are Distilled

December 7, 2014

Beyond continuing Howard Pyle’s American tradition of illustration, Sarah S. Stilwell (1878-1939) employed elements of symbolism, naturalism, and decorative ornamentation from Art Nouveau. A series of vignettes called “A Garden of Childhood,” appeared in the December 1900 issue of Harper’s Magazine, and in it Sarah defined gardens as places where doll and fairies come to life. The first illustration, “The Spirit of the Fairy,” appears with the caption, “There is a garden where the dream thoughts of children go, and whither they carry none of their troubles with them…” Sarah’s illustration depicts a lady, “the Mother of Wisdom,” who tells the children “wonderful things,” she can be found in gardens where nature is subdued, ordered, selected, and enclosed. Here, the spirit of the child was thought to emerge. Here, Sarah’s imagery suggests symbolic objects or spirits in the garden are forever on the threshold of becoming or being whatever the child breathes into them. They are private vessels (similar to dolls) into which hopes, fears, sorrow, and magic make-believe dreams are distilled.

In many cultures play serves a functional purpose in learning adult roles and life skills. Sarah may have grown up in rural Delaware County, Pennsylvania, but as an adult she enjoyed apartment living in Philadelphia. Her caption for “The Pine-tree” reveals a pragmatic philosophy of play: “Children played amid the branches in the pine-tree house… It seemed to the children that their play was very real, and they were inclined as seriously to it as grown-up people are serious about things in their life.”

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