While on a trip to the University of Delaware located in Newark I visited the nineteenth century Gothic mansion called Rockwood near Wilmington.
In 1851 after 20 years in the import/export business in Liverpool, Joseph Shipley returned to his native Delaware and built a Gothic home with a picturesque landscape, modeled after the style he had treasured at his home in England. He called his home Rockwood. It still stands today with the help of volunteers to preserve it.
The design of the naturalistic rather than formal landscape followed the recommendations of Edward Kemp, English author and garden designer who worked with the famous head gardener at Chatsworth Joseph Paxton.
Among his books Shipley also had Andrew Jackson Downing’s, the American landscape designer whose ideas on the garden and the landscape came directly from the English plantsman and writer extraordinaire John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843). Landscape designer and historian Wade Graham wrote in his new book American Eden: “Downing brought the exalted taste of England to American soil.”
The curved driveway that hides the house until you are almost on top of it, the signature trees spotted carefully, flowering shrubs, a flower garden, a walled kitchen garden, and, of course, an extensive lawn make Rockwood’s landscape an early example of the English picturesque style in America.
The catalogs and magazines published by the nineteenth century seed and nursery industries would also recommend that same style of landscape.
Shipley bought plants for his property from Robert Buist, a Philadelphia seedsmen. Landscape historian Jennifer Grace Hanna wrote in her Master’s thesis from Cornell that “Buist had definite tastes, and clearly promoted the picturesque landscape aesthetic.”
Like other wealthy estate owners on the East coast, Shipley became an early advocate of the English garden style. As the style evolved later in the century into a Victorian design with showy flower beds on the lawn, American middle class would take up that practice as well.
A trip to Rockwood takes you back in time and illustrates an early example of the English landscape on American soil.