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A Life Lived Fully: Artist and Photographer Judy Tomkins in Sneden’s Landing, NY

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A Life Lived Fully: Artist and Photographer Judy Tomkins in Sneden’s Landing, NY

September 12, 2017

For photographer and artist Judy Tomkins, who lived a few miles north of New York City in tiny Sneden’s Landing for nearly 60 years before dying earlier this year at age 90, “her stone and clapboard house was—like her landscapes—just another canvas,” recalls her daughter Jocelyn Jones Watkins.

Tomkins’s garden and 18th-century house have stories to tell of an interesting life lived fully. (The property is on the market, with an asking price of $1.6 million.) Known for her intimate portraits of New York’s art and literary luminaries such as the abstract painter Jasper Johns (whom she snapped in his studio) and Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland (whom she photographed in a high-necked caftan), Tomkins was equally renowned for her garden. Celebrity neighbors Bill Murray, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Diane Keaton, and Al Pacino asked her to design theirs, as well. It’s pretty clear why they were charmed:

Photography courtesy of Sothebys Realty.

A grass path with stepping stones is bordered by lacy perennials and frothy foliage.
Above: A grass path with stepping stones is bordered by lacy perennials and frothy foliage.

George Washington slept here. Possibly. The 18th-century stone and clapboard house (remodeled and enlarged from its original one-room footprint to 2,400 square feet in the 20th century), was “rumored to have served as his office when his men were guarding the ferry service from high up on the Palisades cliffs,” notes Sothebys.

“Silence is my best friend” was one of Tomkins’s favorite sayings, says her daughter. In a screened porch, the main sounds one hears are bird calls and breezes in the trees on the property.
Above: “Silence is my best friend” was one of Tomkins’s favorite sayings, says her daughter. In a screened porch, the main sounds one hears are bird calls and breezes in the trees on the property.
Tomkins’s daughter Jocelyn Jones Watkins remembers moving to the house when she was eight. The family relocated from New Hope, Pennsylvania, to make it easier for her father, the actor Henry Jones, to commute to Broadway. “After three long runs in a row (The Bad Seed, Sunrise at Campobello, and Advise And Consent), he’d had enough of the commute and so found the house, from which without traffic you can get to the Upper West side of the city in 22 minutes,” she says.
Above: Tomkins’s daughter Jocelyn Jones Watkins remembers moving to the house when she was eight. The family relocated from New Hope, Pennsylvania, to make it easier for her father, the actor Henry Jones, to commute to Broadway. “After three long runs in a row (The Bad Seed, Sunrise at Campobello, and Advise And Consent), he’d had enough of the commute and so found the house, from which without traffic you can get to the Upper West side of the city in 22 minutes,” she says.

Tomkins’s second husband was New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins.

 A sunny terrace is just one of many inviting spots to plop down with a book (Tomkins owned so many that her personal library was in 1968 the subject of a newspaper feature story on “living with books.”)
Above:  A sunny terrace is just one of many inviting spots to plop down with a book (Tomkins owned so many that her personal library was in 1968 the subject of a newspaper feature story on “living with books.”)

“I used to play in my mother’s gardens endlessly,” says Jocelyn Jones Watkins. “It began in May when they would be freshly cleaned and the negative space around the plants, and the floor of lush earth, lured me into creating lavish fairy lands in them. The tulips with their long graceful stems not only made for fine fairy trees, they also would offer their petals up for beds, and headboards, and skirts and such. I’d fill a basket with sticks and stones, heart-shaped rocks, feathers, and shells and spend endless hours making steps and fences, tables and beds, and even elevators.”

A welcoming Dutch door is framed by a trellis covered with climbing vines.
Above: A welcoming Dutch door is framed by a trellis covered with climbing vines.

About 10 years ago, writer Jaclyn Vorenkampa from 10964 (the local Palisades newsletter) asked Tomkins to describe her philosophy of landscape design. Tomkins replied (“with energy”): “First, pull out all the pachysandra!”

Step inside the Dutch door, into a kitchen with beamed ceilings and a lovely view of the garden.
Above: Step inside the Dutch door, into a kitchen with beamed ceilings and a lovely view of the garden.
 Tomkins cooked dinner for Julia Child once, and over her signature rhubarb pie the two compared notes on how to make the best pie crust.
Above: Tomkins cooked dinner for Julia Child once, and over her signature rhubarb pie the two compared notes on how to make the best pie crust.

“Whereas Leo Castelli’s gallery became the epicenter of contemporary art, Judy’s house was second home to many of these artists, who came together often to relax and celebrate their communal interests,” says Jocelyn Jones Watkins. “For over a quarter of a century they gathered to celebrate every Thanksgiving and Easter in their ‘favorite house on the Hudson’ with a woman they credited with influencing much of their life and style.”

Flowers from Judy Tomkins garden are in vases on the windowsill over the kitchen sink.
Above: Flowers from Judy Tomkins garden are in vases on the windowsill over the kitchen sink.

See more of the property at Sothebys.

N.B.: For more of our favorite New York area gardens, see:

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