Francis (Frank) Cabot was a patrician U.S. financier and self-taught horticulturalist whose enduring legacy is an enchanting 15-hectare private garden in Cap l’Aigle, Que. Known as Les Quatre Vents, the garden was personally maintained by him for more than 50 years on the family’s historic estate on the North Shore of the lower St. Lawrence.
Even though the property has been open to the general public for only four days each summer, the gardens are world renowned. Hilary Weston and Nicole Eaton featured them in their book In a Canadian Garden, and Reader’s Digest once referred to them as “Canada’s best kept secret.”
Cabot also served as an adviser to the Royal Botanical Garden in Burlington, Ont., was chairman of the New York Botanical Garden in the 1970s, and was founding chairman of the Garden Conservancy, a non-profit foundation that helps preserve threatened public and private gardens around the world.
He was 86 when he died in Malbaie, Que., on Nov. 19 following a lengthy illness.
“He was a formidable character and an inspiration to gardeners, both amateur and professional who work to emulate his horticultural prowess,” said Alexander Reford, director of the renowned family-owned Jardins du Métis, across the river. “His wit and wisdom were a welcome addition to our lives, his erudition encouraged many to take up gardening seriously, and his irony made sure that we did not do so excessively.
“He inherited the land, but he made the garden; it was his from start to finish. Whenever I saw him he was in jeans, his rubber boots, knee pads, dirt under his fingernails. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of plants.”
Francis Higginson Cabot Jr. was born in New York on Aug. 26, 1925, into the Cabot family of Boston Brahmins who arrived in Salem, Mass., in 1700. He was educated at St. Bernard’s school in New York and at Groton in Massachusetts. From there he went straight into the United States Army and served with the Signal Corps in Japan.
When the war was over he enrolled at Harvard. After graduating in 1949 he joined the family engineering and investment firm, Stone & Webster.
He became a partner at Train, Cabot & Associates, an investment and venture capital firm, in 1959.
Two of his uncles, Edward Matthews, and Patrick Morgan were gifted landscape designers and in the early 1950s, Cabot, too, started gardening at his home in Cold Spring, N.Y., to relieve stress. “I was a good promoter of ventures that didn’t always work out,” he once told a reporter, “So I threw myself into gardening.” That initial garden, Stonecrop, is today a public garden.
In 1965, Cabot inherited the Malbaie property, part of the original Fraser Seigneurie that had been given to his grandmother as wedding present in 1902. He then turned his attention to developing the 15-hectare spread. His vision was inspired by gardens around the world, such as Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden in Sissinghurst, England, the Pin Mill in Bodnant, Wales, the Taj Mahal in India and Japanese gardens.
The terrain was laid out with obsessive exactitude, but is not without eccentric, whimsical touches. Among the trellised walkways – resplendent with stands of delphiniums, white lilacs, 100 varieties of rare primulas, and the even rarer Himalayan blue poppy – are various pavilions, a Chinese moon bridge, two rope bridges suspended over a ravine, copper frogs playing musical instruments, as well as a giant mosquito sculpture. He incorporated various tricks of landscape design to create inspirational focal points, panoramic axial vistas and moods.
“He was an avid gardener, rumpled and dishevelled even when he was in a business suit and bow tie,” said Diana Thébaud Nicholson, a member of another of the so-called Murray Bay families. “He was one of the nicest, most courteous people I have ever met. Everyone credits him for the gardens, but not for everything else he did for the community. He established a non-profit foundation, Héritage Charlevoix, to protect historic properties, like the mill and bakery in Baie-Saint-Paul, and he and his wife imported livestock to Charlevoix – Highland cattle, Jacob sheep and Norwegian Fjord ponies. He loved to ride.”
Cabot was one of the few foreigners to be invested as an honorary member of the Order of Canada, and was also a chevalier in l’Ordre national du Québec.
His gardens were the subject of his 2001 coffee-table book, The Greater Perfection (Hortus Press, W.W. Norton & Co.), which the Oxford Companion to the Garden described as one of the best books about making a garden ever written by its creator.
“There is no more agreeable challenge than adapting someone else’s good idea to one’s own surroundings,” Cabot wrote. Like many gardeners, he was of the opinion that no matter how much anyone enjoys gardening, nature sometimes does a better job. “More often than not, serendipity rules and there are brilliantly successful combinations that were never intended, while the most deliberate juxtaposition turns out to be disappointing.”
Cabot leaves his wife of 62 years, Anne Perkins, their son and two daughters.
A celebration of his life will be held at Les Quatre Vents in the spring when the primulas are in full bloom.
Special to The Globe and Mail