Speaker: Radha Dalal (Virginia Commonwealth University, Qatar)

In 2006, the Bakewell Ottoman Garden opened its doors to the American public within the precincts of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Fascination with Ottoman gardens, as exotic novelties, was a common subject in travel literature, prints, and painting from early modern times. The Bakewell garden’s genesis is embedded within these representations. Indeed, its roots are deeply enmeshed in romantic lore connecting the eponymous benefactor’s lineage to Ottoman sultans through the story of a lost princess. Unlike the garden’s Japanese companion, which showcases living customs, the Bakewell Garden offers a tranquil journey into a reinterpreted and revivified aesthetic space. Its claim as the “only known public Ottoman garden in the world” hints at differing readings of social consumption in the cultivation of a domesticated foreign landscape as opposed to the centuries-long distinction between, and development of, private and public spheres in the Ottoman realm. Furthermore, the transplanted garden’s accessibility elides class, faith, and gender-oriented discourses connected to public space and prevalent through the end of the Ottoman Empire. This paper, based on travelers’ observations during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and scholarship on Ottoman garden culture, explores the Bakewell garden’s spatial dynamics as a creative facet to suit its contemporary adoptive culture. It is argued that the positioning of the garden, its intimate size, its architectural features, and the choreography of organic elements straddle Ottoman conceptions of private and public space while maintaining a democratic and gender-neutral appeal within its American context.

Radha Dalal is Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture and Interim Director of Art History at VCUarts Qatar. She researches visual cultures of mobility and urbanism with a particular emphasis on the Ottoman Empire and its socio-political interactions with other European and Asian polities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her research projects have received funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the Kress Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Qatar National Research Fund. She is the co-editor of the Seas and the Mobility of Islamic Art (Yale University Press, 2021). She is working on a VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund supported monograph project titled The Khilafat Movement and Print Media in British India and Ottoman Turkey, 1919-1924. Currently, she serves as the vice-president of the Society for Global Nineteenth-Century Studies.

IHR Seminar SeriesHistory of Gardens and Landscapes