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Style · August 26, 2016

He curates Bunny Mellon’s legacy of garden and design

Photo/Middleburg Photo
Peter Crane, who has traveled the world for horticultural research, leads the Northern Fauquier foundation that Mrs. Mellon left a reported endowment of $400 million.
Who wouldn’t love this landscape? This wonderful land is preserved with great consideration, thanks to Mr. Mellon, who put so much of it in conservation easement.
— Peter Crane, Oak Spring Garden Foundation president
By Vicky Moon
Contributing Writer

Many Fauquier County residents have morning commutes that pass dry stone walls down winding country roads, which eventually lead into a nightmare of traffic congestion heading east toward Washington.

British native Peter Crane, the new president of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation near Upperville, has the opposite extreme — an enviable five-minute walk to work.

From his cottage, near a broodmare barn under renovation, Mr. Crane passes a stately sycamore and magnolia, along with apple, cherry and peach trees dotting a swath of 250 pristine, verdant acres once owned by the late philanthropists, Paul and Bunny Mellon.

Mr. Crane’s short journey concludes at a whitewashed stone building, once the Mellon home, where he recently has settled into his office to oversee the Oak Spring Foundation and its astounding library.

“Who wouldn’t love this landscape?” he said. “This wonderful land is preserved with great consideration, thanks to Mr. Mellon, who put so much of it in conservation easement.”

The horticultural collection, housed in a nearby building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes in 1980, with a newer wing by Thomas Beach in 1993, is tucked into this well-known pocket. The library was a long-time project of Mr. Mellon’s wife, devoted gardener Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who died in 2014. Upon her death, according to, she left more than $400 million to a foundation named after her father, Gerard Barnes Lambert, “to establish an educational institution for the study of botany and horticulture.”

Open only to scholars, the facility includes materials on plant history, exploration and science, as well as the culture of gardens and landscape along with an extraordinary collection of botanical artwork.

The collection includes 10,000 reference books on botany, horticulture, landscape design and countless other gardening topics. An additional 3,500 rare materials — scientific notes and manuscripts, for example — date as far back as the 15th century. All reside against a backdrop of works by artists ranging from Mark Rothko and Beatrix Potter to Andy Warhol.

There are stacks of books on tables and even personal photos, including one of Miss Charlotte Noland, headmistress at Bunny Mellon’s alma mater, Foxcroft school for girls near Middleburg, and paintings by her daughter, Eliza Lloyd Moore, who died in 2008.

Mr. Crane, 62, grew up near Kettering in the Midlands of England about an hour north of London. His early interest in archeology led to a distinguished career as an expert in plant life. With a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in botany from the University of Reading in England, he served on the facility there from 1978 to ’81. From Reading, Mr. Crane came to the United States to pursue his research briefly at Indiana University, before moving on to the Field Museum in Chicago in 1982. He directed the science programs there from 1995 until 1999.

“Basically, I’m a researcher, and that’s what drives me,” he said on a recent morning, sitting at a round white oak table in a natural light-filled room at the library. As he chronicled his career, a visitor noted that “your resume/CV [curriculum vitae] must be 10 pages?”

For the record, it’s actually 36 pages.

Garden aficionados will appreciate Mr. Crane’s tenure at the most esteemed garden in the world, the 350-acre Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where he served as director from 1999 to 2006.

After three years as the John and Marion Sullivan University Professor at The University of Chicago, Mr. Crane arrived in New Haven, Conn., at Yale University in 2009 as a professor of botany and Carl W. Knobloch Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Mr. Crane’s most notable research over the years involves the paleontology of flowering plants. Some of his more notable work began not far from Hopewell, southeast of Richmond, where sifting through sediments 120 million years old, he found miniscule ancient flowers perfectly preserved .

“The seeds, stamens, fruit and petals can all been seen,” he said. His collaboration with Professor Else Marie Friis and Professor Raunsgaard Pedersen has revealed new details about the evolution and fossil history of many plant species. In 2004, he was knighted for service to horticulture and conservation.

Mr. Crane has traveled around the world for research, from Virginia and Georgia to India and Portugal, and most recently Mongolia. For now, Sir Peter Crane is deep into the administration of the Oak Spring Foundation, which he refers to as “a philanthropic start-up.”

“Kew is 250 years old,” Mr. Crane noted. He considers his recent move to the Virginia countryside a significant opportunity to transform a private estate, where champion race horses once grazed, into an international research mecca for students and academics.

As steward of the foundation, Mr. Crane said he also looks forward to finding ways to encourage world class scholarship while also involving the local community. Future programs might present pruning and landscape seminars while following the traditions of Bunny Mellon.

“I never met her,” Mr. Crane said. “I knew her only by reputation and had never been here.”

Mrs. Mellon’s practical garden knowledge has been well-documented, including her design for The White House Rose Garden and the adjacent Jacqueline Kennedy east garden, completed 1965, after the death of President John F. Kennedy.

Her other work included Mrs. Kennedy’s summer retreat on Martha’s Vineyard, where Mrs. Mellon intentionally left out a few apple trees in an orchard to give the illusion that the grove was old and some trees had died. At the Kennedy gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, visitors can view Mrs. Mellon’s strong sense of tasteful restraint. And, at the Kennedy Library near Boston, she used masses of dune grass.

A collection of her garden trugs and accouterments remains in a workroom not far from Mr. Crane’s office. Touches of Bunny Mellon appear all around the library.

A voracious reader, Mrs. Mellon once revealed her favorite book in the library was the Le Jardin fruitier Paris, 1821, three volumes by Louis Claude Noisette. The library also has also published four books: An Oak Spring Sylva, An Oak Spring Pomona, An Oak Spring Flora and An Oak Spring Herbaria. The Fauquier-based Piedmont Garden Club recently donated collections to the public libraries in Marshall and Middleburg.

“It is a working library where mystery, fascination, and romance contribute to centuries of the art of gardening as a source of discovery,” Mrs. Mellon wrote in an exhibition catalogue, An Oak Spring Garland” in 1989.

The writer is an author and journalist who lives near Middleburg. Vicky Moon has written several books, including her 2016 novel, EQUAL Parts: A tale of ambition, politics and passion inspired by actual events.
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BJ · August 28, 2016 at 10:45 am
Oh, what a lucky man he is, who worked and educated himself for this wonderful opportunity. Hope some day it will be open to the public for tours and workshops!
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