Archives for October 2015

Early Nineteenth Century Massachusetts Landscape Illustrated Modern English Garden Design

Recently I spent an afternoon at the Boston Athenaeum in the center of the city. This grand old library, founded in 1807, has long provided Bostonians a wonderful spot for reading and research. I am happy to be a member.

Boston Athenaeum ,10 1/2 Beacon Street, in 1855

Boston Athenaeum ,10 1/2 Beacon Street, in 1855

What I came across was the plan for the early nineteenth century property of Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) who lived in Brookline, a town just outside of Boston. Perkins had provided funds to build the Boston Athenaeum.

Brookline has its own identity as a town, dating to 1705, with its own local government even though it is just a short drive to downtown Boston when traffic is low.

The plan illustrates the modern form of landscape gardening, begun in England in the eighteenth century. The extensive lawn, and the many greenhouses, are what I remember most in the plan.

Thomas Handasyd Perkins (XX-XX) [Courtesy of Wikipedia]

Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) 

Boston horticulturist Marshall Wilder writes in his book of 1881 called The Horticulture of Boston, “For fifty years Col. Perkins’ estate was kept in the best manner by experienced foreign gardeners, and at an expense of more than ten thousand dollars annually. He frequently received trees and plants from Europe, the products of which were prominent at the exhibitions of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.”

England’s Sir Joseph Paxton, head gardener at Chatsworth, gave Perkins a grape that Perkins grew in his orchard in Brookline.

Like other prominent men who owned large estates, Perkins illustrates how wealthy landowners chose to garden both for growing fruits and also for illustrating the modern landscape style, popular in England.

Historians Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson  write in their biography of Perkins called Merchant Prince of Boston that at the Perkins’ garden “Encouragement was given to ornamental gardening, with an eye to the art of landscaping.”

The property, with its white house, was located at the corner of Warren and Heath Streets in Brookline.   Today Tom Brady lives not too far away. That area in Brookline has long been known as home to the wealthy and powerful of Boston.

Eventually, the Perkins’ daughter Eliza married Samuel Cabot, whose son Lewis built another mansion in 1895 on the same property. It became known as the Cabot estate.

In the early 1970s I lived in the Cabot estate after it had first passed into the hands of the Henry Lapham family in the early twentieth century, and then later in 1942 purchased by the Discalced Carmelites, a Catholic religious order, which I joined.

Perkins’ nineteenth century landscape in Brookline iIllustrated the modern English garden design in America.




The Eighteenth Century English Garden Stourhead Still Enchants

How I remember the day I visited the garden at Stourhead, a couple of hours drive west of London. The landscape of 2,650 acres dates to the mid 1700s. The day I walked around the garden felt like a history lesson.

David Stuart in his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy writes about Stourhead in these words, “A Georgian landscape garden, with its groves, lakes and temples, is immediately recognizable; quite as easily as a high-Victorian one, with its bedding schemes, rustic seats, iron urns, and statuary.”

Stourhead takes on a special glow in the fall. The colors go on forever. I found this image, for which I give thanks to Great British Gardens. [below]

Stourhead in the Fall [Courtesy of Great British Gardens]

Stourhead in the Fall [Courtesy of Great British Gardens]

The modern landscape gardening that emerged in the early 1700s looked on landscape as an art like painting and music.  So it’s no surprise that you walk the garden at Stourhead to view the surprises that await you in the landscape.

In his book The English Garden Edward Hyams calls Henry Hoare (1705-1785), the genius behind Stourhead. Hoare who had inherited the property saw to its design according to his own vision.

Hyams writes, “Hoare was the forerunner of the landscape school of the gardener-poet Shenstone and Capability Brown and it is certainly arguable that he was not only the forerunner but the supreme master, and that none of the professionals who came after this amateur accomplished as great a work.”

The grotto and the Palladium bridge make up only a part of the experience around the lake, which forms the center of the landscape.

Nicolette Scourse writes in her book The Victorians and their Flowers that Victorian interest in gardens with temples of Greek and Roman inspiration made visits popular to a garden such as Stourhead even a hundred years after Hoare designed it.

The eighteenth century English garden Stourhead still enchants.


Paintings of Flowers like the Cabbage Rose Flourished in Victorian England

Recently I received an email from a nursery simply called Cabbage Roses that sells such roses which stand apart from the popular hybrid tea variety.

Since I do not have much sun in my garden, the number of roses I grow is small, but I do love the color and fragrance they can bring to the garden. 

Then I remembered that cabbage roses were important in the early Victorian period of flower gardens in England. 

Nicolette Scourse writes in her book The Victorians and their Flowers, “In the Romantic era early in the nineteenth century, roses climbed artificial ruins and classical columns, while high Victorian taste preferred strongly scented, full-faced flowers straddling gothic trellises and arbors.”

She even quotes from Rebecca Hey’s book of poems The Moral of Flowers, “Gem of the bower, sweet rose! the fairest, brightest of the gay tribes which drink the summer beam.”

Scourse features in her book this image [below] called ‘Group of Roses’ painted by Robert John Thorton (1768 – 1837) . Included in the group of flowers appear three types of Cabbage or Provence Rose: double pink, white and striped. Notice the fullness of the flower thus explaining a bit of the reason for its name ‘cabbage.’

Cabbage Rose by Robert John Thornton from Temple of Flora

Group of Roses by Robert John Thornton from his book Temple of Flora (1799)

This painting illustrates how important flowers were to Victorian England, and eventually to America.

And among that group of flowers appeared the cabbage rose.

Paintings of flowers like the cabbage rose flourished in Victorian England.


Gardening Advances the Good of the Community

America’s nineteenth century landscape designer A. J. Downing (1815-1852) in his books talked about the landscape of mansions and large country villas.

Yet in his magazine The Horticulturist, which came out monthly, he wrote about gardening and landscape design more for the middle class. He said that gardening, particularly landscape gardening, improved the community by adding a sense of well-being in the town or city, and it did that for all classes of people.

Judith Major in her book To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and American Major, Judith To Live in the New WorldLandscape Gardening points out that Downing’s goal in his writing was to guide country gentlemen – with enough money, time, and taste – in the creation of ideal homes and pleasure grounds.

She notes however that in his magazine, “Downing promised the reader who gave to the public ‘a more beautiful and tasteful model of a habitation than his neighbors’ that he would be ‘a benefactor to the cause of morality, good order, and the improvement of society’ in his community.”

Reflecting Downing’s words on improving society, Mrs. Lydia Sigourney in the October 1840 issue of the woman’s magazine Godey’s [below] wrote that “he who beautifies a garden for the eye of the community, is surely a public benefactor.”

[Courtesy of Wikipedia]

[Courtesy of Wikipedia]

Motivating citizens to garden for the common good inspired Downing to see the landscape as much more than simply the ground outside the four walls of the house. 

Gardening advances the good of the community.


Andrew Jackson Downing Considered the Lawn Essential

Now that the summer is over I don’t hear the sound of a mower running across a lawn for that perfect cut.

The past few months California with its water crisis has had to confront the very idea of cultivating a lawn in the home landscape.

According to Andrew Jackson Downing, nineteenth century New York nurseryman and landscape gardener, the lawns of England served as the model for the American lawn.

Judith Major in her book To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and the American Landscape Garden  writes that Downing “admitted that the sunny American summer did not, like the moist and humid conditions of Britain, favor fine lawns; nevertheless, Downing offered the perpetual softness and verdure of the English lawn as the ideal.”

According to Downing, the necessary conditions were simple: deep soil, the correct kinds of grasses, and frequent mowing. His own home featured a lawn. [below]

The home of Andrew Jackson Downing in New York, circa 1850.

Home of Andrew Jackson Downing in Newburg, NY in 1841

Major writes that Downing also specified that the mowing could be done only with an English lawn scythe with a broad blade “of the most perfect temper and quality.” His words appeared in print just a few years before the lawn mower in America.

Since Downing influenced America’s sense of rural art, or landscape design as art, it was no surprise that others especially seedsmen and nurserymen across the country also encouraged the lawn.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in the 1861 issue of his magazine Gardener’s Monthly, “The management and care of the lawn is of first importance. It is to the lawn more than to any other part that we owe the highest pleasures of gardening.”

In 1870 Ohio artist and landscape designer as well as Downing’s protegé Frank J. Scott wrote The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent which adopts a similar tone about the need for an English lawn. His  book went through several editions in the nineteenth century.

Downing’s early insistence on the need for a lawn influences the meaning of the home landscape to this very day.



Nineteenth Century Dahlia Mania Swept across England and America

It is fall and time to see dahlias blooming in all their glory.

One reason I love dahlias is that they flower here in the Northeast almost until Thanksgiving.

At one time dahlias took the world by storm and created in England what historians called ‘dahlia mania.’  That mania spread to America as well.

Kate Colquhoun writes in her book A Thing in Disguise: The Visonary Life of Joseph Paxton, ” ‘Dahlia Mania’ had swept through the English gardening community at the end of the first decade of the [nineteenth] century…Within ten years, it was being cultivated in most plant collections and by the 1830s, dahlia frenzy approached that for the tulip in the seventeenth century.”

Professor of Hoticulture Allan M. Armitage in his book Herbaceous Perennial Plants notes that the same dahlia mania struck early nineteenth century American gardeners as well. 

American Dahlia Society 100 years oldHere in the United States the American Dahlia Society celebrates it 100th birthday this year. That is some long time romance with a flower.

The seed and nursery companies of the nineteenth century of course sold dahlias.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) included a colored chromolithograph in the 1878 issue of the magazine he published called Vick’s Illustrated Monthly. [below]

Chromolithograph from Vick's Illustrated Monthly, February 1878

Chromolithograph from Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, February 1878

Vick writes in that issue of the magazine, “About one hundred years ago a Spanish botanist introduced seeds of the Dahlia [from Mexico] into his native country, and named the genus in honor of a Swedish botanist, Dahl.”

After a few decades of hybridizing, by the mid 1800s growers in England and America displayed dahlias at flower shows. Vick writes, “Dahlia exhibitions were held in England and on the Continent, which were crowded by enthusiastic admirers of this wonderful Mexican flower.”  American flower exhibitions sponsored by such groups as the Massachusetts Horticultural Society also displayed dahlias.

I have many fond memories of attending Dahlia Flower Shows both in Rhode Island and in Connecticut.

Vick summed up our fascination with the dahlia in these words, “A well-formed Dahlia is a wonder of perfection.”

Nineteenth century dahlia mania swept across England and America.


A. J. Downing Changed His View on Native Plants

At one time America’s most famous nineteenth century landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) recommended exotic trees and shrubs for the landscape.

Later in his life he changed his mind.

He realized that our native plants possessed their own special qualities that made them ideal for an American landscape.

Andrew Jackson Dowing

Andrew Jackson Downing, NY Nurseryman and Landscape Gardener

Downing reflected the thinking of John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) English writer, horticulturist, and landscape gardener. Loudon wanted a place for the hundreds of new plants that were arriving in England in the early nineteenth century. He advised to use them as the primary source for a landscape design.

Over time Downing however came to appreciate the trees and shrubs of the American hills and forest.

Judith Major in her book To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and American Landscape Gardening writes, “Downing’s former encouragement of the use of exotics became an embarassment as he realized that adopting Loudon’s thinking in this regard made neither practical nor aesthetic sense in America.”

For example, Downing recommended bypassing the fast growing and ‘odorous’ Ailanthus, or Tree of Life, a plant imported from Asia to England in 1751 and then brought to America. Instead, he wrote about the need to plant America’s “more noble native trees.”

Downing wrote, “We look upon it [the Ailanthus] as an usurper in rather bad odor at home, which has come over to this land of liberty, under the garb of utility, to make foul the air, with its pestilent breath, and devour the soil, with its intermeddling roots.”

Today you can still see the Ailanthus growing in cities here on the East coast. It has however become a tree that we now avoid and find invasive. [below]

Ailantus Tree [courtsy of Wikimedia Commons]

The fast-growing tree Ailanthus can grow 80 to 100′. 

By the early nineteenth century the English had been cultivating America’s native trees and shrubs for decades. They planted them in a special garden in the landscape simply called the  ‘American’ garden.

Eventually many nineteenth century Americans came to appreciate native plants.

Downing too changed his view on native plants.


The Landscape of the 19th Century Schoolhouse Became A Lesson in Gardening

What I especially like about the nineteenth century Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick’s catalogs has to be the amount of black and white engravings and colored chromolithographs he included.

Vick’s drawing of a schoolhouse before and after landscaping came to mind when I recently read a section of Judith Major’s book about Andrew Jackson Downing called To Live in the New World.

Downing defended the need to improve the outside look of the schoolhouse so that children would have an appreciation of both nature and rural art. Thus they might grow up with a sense of taste in landscape gardening.

Major writes “Architectural requirements for schoolhouses were equally important, and writers competed in sketching out the most idyllic setting. Downing, of course, joined in and described his ideal of ‘that primary nursery of the intellect and sensations’; every good and ennobling influence would be concentrated around those ‘little nests of verdure and beauty’. These ’embryo arcadias’ would act as ‘play-grounds for the memory’ long after everything else in childhood was forgotten and would beget an adult taste for lovely gardens.”

She includes an image of a schoolhouse from Vick’s seed catalog of 1882. Here is the image before any landscaping. [below]

Box of a School. Vick's Floral Guode 1882

Box of a School – Vick’s Floral Guide 1882

The schoolhouse after adding lawn, shrubs, vines, and flowers would provide a child with lessons of rural art that hopefully the child would carry throughout life. Here is Vick’s after illustration of that same schoolhouse. Notice the circle of carpet bedding outside the front door. [below]

Landscaped Schoolhosue Vick's Floral Guide 1882

Landscaped Schoolhouse – Vick’s Floral Guide 1882

Major uses this identical image [above] from Vick in her discussion of Downing’s call to improve the outside look of the school.

She too sees the visual power of Vick’s illustrations, in this case for an improved schoolhouse, or as Downing called it, a “little nest of verdure and beauty.”

The landscape of the nineteenth century schoolhouse became important for learning about rural art.



Civility Inspired Nineteenth Century Landscape Advice

Do you ever feel that you mow the lawn to keep peace with your neighbor?

We live in a community in which others form expectations for what our home landscape should look like.

Such thinking has roots in nineteenth century advice on landscaping from writers like landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing and seedsman James Vick.

In her book To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and American Landscape Gardening the author Judith Major writes about Downing’s insistence on landscaping with a sense of rural art and taste, no matter what the size of the property. At the same time Downing urged his readers not to forget that a home owner cultivated the landscape for the town, the community, the country.

Major writes “As Downing professed, taste once formed became contagious, and he devoted himself to molding the country’s taste.”

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1992) supported the philosophy that pride in a home landscape carried over into a sense of community pride.

Two illustrations from his 1879 seed catalog Vick’s Floral Guide depict that view.  First he showed a house in ruins with a shabby landscape. [below]


Vick Thistles and Roses 1

Then he presented an illustration of that same house cleaned up with an attractive landscape. [below]

Vick thistle and rose2

The idea that by taking care of your own property you are also helping the nation motivated Vick.

Vick wrote, “Our country is becoming very beautiful. Flowers are to be seen almost everywhere in town and country. They adorn both the costly mansion and the little cottage home, and are quite as appropriate to the one as the other. We have tried to do a great deal to aid in this good work, and think we have not labored altogether in vain…Beautiful orchards and lawns, gardens, and tasteful houses abound, where, a few years ago, we saw the crooked rail fence, the trees and stumps and small log cabins.”

Like Downing, Vick advocated taking care of the home landscape to benefit the community.

Civility inspired nineteenth century landscape advice.