Thomas Jefferson’s English Landscape

Thomas Jefferson’s English Landscape

Thomas Jefferson advocated for the modern, natural, picturesque landscape design at Monticello after his trip with John Adams to tour the estate gardens of England.

In his article “The Picturesque in the American Garden and Landscape Before 1800”  James D. Kornwulf says, “Little documentary, and even less visual, evidence survives to prove that American gardeners followed picturesque principles on a large scale before 1786 when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams made their well-known tour of English (and, for Jefferson, of French) picturesque gardens.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello featured the modern style of the English garden called the picturesque.

As his guide for what gardens to visit Jefferson used the  book by English garden writer Thomas Whatley Observations on Modern Gardening.  Some consider the book the best description of picturesque modern gardening, written before landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752 –1818) became England’s most famous landscape gardener in the final third of the century.

Whatley included the garden at Chatsworth, north of London, which became Jefferson’s favorite landscape.  Capability Brown in the mid eighteenth century had redesigned Chatsworth to include extensive lawns.

In a 1917 article in the American magazine Landscape Architecture the architect Fiske Kimball (1888 – 1955) wrote: “Landscape gardening in America as an art, even though not as a profession, may claim as its father the father of American independence itself, a worthy forerunner of Downing, Olmsted, and Eliot.”

Jefferson created his landscape with the principles of the picturesque English style that he had experienced himself.

His friend, Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon, author of the most important early book on gardening American Gardener (1806), also promoted the same style of English landscape gardening.

Jefferson’s picturesque style would continue to influence the American home landscape throughout the nineteenth century, especially in the books and articles coming from the pen of New York nurseryman turned landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing

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Formal Garden Design Dominated Early America

Formal Garden Design Dominated Early America.

The design of the English garden during the 1600s followed a formal design which was a combination of French and Dutch elements of symmetry.

Then in the early 1700s the English took landscape to a new height in creating landscape as an art form, which they called the ‘natural’ or ‘picturesque’ landscape design.

In his article “The Picturesque in the American Garden and Landscape Before 1800”  James D.Kornwulf defines the picturesque “as the aesthetic underlying ‘le jardin anglais’ as the natural, irregular, and deliberately asymmetrical kind of planting.”

Colonial America however in the 1700s continued the formal garden design in properties along the East coast.

Though there were a couple of isolated examples of the picturesque landscape, the formal garden design dominated in eighteenth century America.

The landscape at both Middleton Place  and Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, probably dating from around 1740, represent the earliest known picturesque gardens in America, according to Kornwulf.

Richard Bushman argued in his book The Refinement of America that “In the eighteenth century informal and picturesque gardens remained subservient to the dominant influence of formal garden principles.”

The formal garden made its first monumental appearance in Colonial America at the College of William and Mary in 1694.

 

Formal garden at the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg

Examples from the eighteenth century of formal garden design include the William Paca landscape in Annapolis, Maryland and the Governor’s Mansion at Williamsburg, Virginia [above].

Kornwulf says, “Without doubt, these gardens were the model for many created in eighteenth-century Virginia.”

Looking to the English for garden inspiration, eighteenth century America followed the older tradition of the more formal English garden.

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America’s Landscape Gardening Pioneer

America’s landscape gardening pioneer, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852)

Andrew Jackson Downing

The English developed a new form of garden design in the early eighteenth century.  They called it ‘modern’, or natural.

This design style included a lawn, trees, curved pathways, water, stone work, and sometimes even beds of flowers.

Eventually America adopted this English garden design, or landscape gardening, especially after 1850 for the middle class home landscape.  Before then it appeared mostly on the estates of the wealthy outside cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.

Boston horticulturist and nursery owner Charles Mason Hovey (1810-1887) published a periodical called Magazine of Horticulture .

In 1840 Hovey wrote in his magazine, “Attention is given to the laying out of gardens, and that small beds of turf are occasionally introduced on which groups of flowers are planted; but, other than this, there has  been no attempt made, that we are aware of, to introduce landscape gardening, even among the many suburban villas, which abound in the vicinity of our large cities.”

Hovey saw few landscapes designed in the English style.

Downing

New York nurseryman turned landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing meanwhile was busy writing his book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening which first appeared in print in 1841, one year later.

Then in 1844 Hovey wrote in his magazine, “A taste for landscape gardening is gradually extending.”

Hovey does not give the interest in landscape gardening exclusively to Downing, but Downing’s work certainly gave America  an opportunity to understand the importance of English garden design.

Downing wrote articles for Hovey’s magazine, so Hovey certainly knew him and his work.

Andrew Jackson Downing would become the most important proponent by mid nineteenth century America for the modern English garden design.

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Nineteenth Century Garden Catalogs Sold Lawn

Nineteenth century garden catalogs sold lawn.

Nineteenth century seed company and nursery products guided the kind of home landscape people cultivated.

Landscape designer and garden historian Jennifer Grace Hanna wrote her Cornell master’s thesis called Ornamental Garden Design. 

She discussed mostly nineteenth century Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882), but also covered much garden history from that period, including discussion of the importance of the lawn for the middle class homeowner.

 

henderson-front-yard

 

Hanna writes,  “Nursery owners [in nineteenth century America], the horticultural journal editors, did not accept the wilderness aesthetic completely for it was not good for business.

“Instead they merged this romantic wilderness appreciation with the aesthetic picturesque and developed a form of English landscape garden design that was reliant upon the communal landscape.

“In other words, the new transportation systems of the roads and rail lines and land division of the suburban tracts set up shared views.”

In the cover image [above] from New York seedsman Peter Henderson’s 1899 catalog notice how in the back one property adjoins another with a lawn as their common bond.

No fence separates the properties because the continuity of the lawn was an important landscape principle called ‘shared view.’

The nursery owners encouraged the lawn because it was part of the English landscape garden design aesthetic, but also because it was good for business. That landscape style sold lawn seed and lawn mowers.

And so it was no surprise, according to Hanna, that the English garden with its lawn became the model for the suburban, middle class American home landscape of the nineteenth century.

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Ireland’s Powerscourt Features Perennial Borders

Ireland’s Powerscourt features perennial borders.

My recent trip to Ireland included a visit to Powerscourt, the estate in Enniskerry, County Wicklow, whose long history dates back to the twelve century.

The extensive garden at Powerscourt contains many wonders, including two long perennial borders, that have made it one of Ireland’s treasures.

During the nineteenth century the walled garden’s perennial borders were installed.  They reflect the gardening world’s interest at that time in perennials rather than annuals.

Powerscourt border [courtesy photo]

Perennial borders at Powerscourt in Ireland [courtesy photo]

In the nineteenth century Viscount Powerscourt said,”The planting of the choice plants and shrubs, and seeing them increase year by year in size and beauty has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”

When garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) and later garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) both encouraged gardening with perennials, borders of perennials became popular in the English garden.

Powerscourt includes other areas of nineteenth century garden style like an Italian garden in the terraces that link the house to the lake below. The terraces were constructed between 1843 and 1867.

The design of the garden reflects the desire to create a garden that is part of the wider landscape.  You can view the garden from the upper terrace where you can enjoy the harmony among garden slops, terraces, flower beds, trees, and the lake.

What caught my attention was the extraordinary collection of plants in the walled garden of perennials.

The fact that they are of mature size, well maintained, and number in the hundreds certainly contributes to the spender of the present-day Powerscourt garden.

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Flower Beds Revolutionized English Garden

Flower beds revolutionized English garden.

We take flower beds for granted, but at one time they became revolutionary, making a statement against the current garden fashion.

The story began in early nineteenth century England when gardeners needed room for the unusual plants coming into the country from Asia, Africa, and America.

Plant collectors risked dangers and even death to provide the unusual and unknown flora from around the world.  English gardeners could not get enough of such plants.

The question became ‘Where do I plant them?’ for many gardeners.  After decades of stately lawns in front of and behind the house, there seemed little space to showcase these latest garden novelties.

stuart-plants-and-gardens-2David Stuart in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens writes, “When Lady Grenville, in exasperation [about where she would plant the new flowers coming into England from around the world], cut some large circles of the lawn in front of her drawing-room windows, and filled them with scarlet bergamots, blue salvias or yellow cosmos, she broke a century’s taboo, and started a colossal new movement.”

That was 1825. The garden has not been its old eighteenth century version since.

Here a simple act by Lady Grenville, or rather by her gardener, changed gardening.

Late eighteenth century landscape gardener Humpry Repton (1752-1818) had encouraged flowers in the landscape, even suggesting a rosarium for a rose collection. Flowers were not new. What was new was where they were planted in the landscape.

Flower beds on the lawn then became common practice both in England and America.

By 1880 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  took flower beds for granted. The beds on the lawn, he advised, needed to include annuals that bloom for the entire season. 

He wrote, “A few flower beds may be made, and usually near the borders, or opposite windows, and they should be of simple, graceful forms, and look well the whole summer, and every day and all day.”

Lady Grenville’s example illustrates how sometimes what we take for granted in gardening has a history.

Why we garden in a particular way and with certain plants expresses the culture of a particular time and place.

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Atlanta Garden Includes English Greenhouse

Atlanta garden includes English greenhouse.

I attended the Association for Garden Communicators annual meeting in Atlanta a few weeks ago.

We visited several gardens as part of the busy schedule we kept.

One garden featured a greenhouse, designed and installed by the English firm Hartley Botanic, purveyor of greenhouses, and approved by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. [below]

Greenhouse, Atlanta garden tour

English greenhouse in an Atlanta garden

What struck me immediately was how association with the word ‘English’ in this case makes this greenhouse somehow special.

The choice of an English greenhouse certainly highlights the English workmanship of a greenhouse, but also the history of gardening in England which included a greenhouse tradition.

Wealthy English plant collectors in the eighteenth century built conservatories or what we call greenhouses to protect their tropical plants.

By mid nineteenth century when glass became cheaper, greenhouses also appealed to the English middle class gardener.

Ninteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs listed plants that could overwinter in such a greenhouse.

Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in July 1879, “With the increase of wealth comes a demand for glass structures of some kind, in which the operations of gardening, in its lighter and ornamental branches, can be pursued at all seasons of the year – regardless of winter’s blasts and storms and summer’s fiercer rays and droughts.”

This Atlanta garden represents the English garden style still relevant, important, and in some sense, the model for American greenhouse gardening.

We continue to look to the English to teach us about gardening.

In 1884 Buffalo, New York landscape designer Elias Long wrote in his book Ornamental Gardening for Americans, “The English possess a much greater love for, and knowledge of, everything pertaining to gardening than do Americans.”

 

 

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Capability Brown Designed Chatsworth’s Landscape

Capability Brown designed Chatsworth’s landscape in the eighteenth century.

This is the 300th jubilee year of the birth of Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-1783) .

He was the most famous landscape gardener in England from 1750-1780. Some have called him “England’s greatest gardener.”

Among the gardens he designed was Chatsworth, Thomas Jefferson’s favorite English garden.

England formed an organization to provide programs and events during this year to understand and appreciate Brown’s role in the history of the English garden.

On the group’s website a representative of Chatsworth provided an article about Brown’s work there.  You can check it out at this link: Chatsworth.

The 4th Duke of Devonshire (1720-1764) brought Brown to Chatsworth to redesign the landscape in what was then called the ‘modern’ style.

Brown’s associate or foreman, Michael Millican, oversaw an extensive program of earth moving, drainage, levelling and tree planting from the late 1750’s until 1765.

Millican was the ‘man on the ground’ supervising the land forming, drainage and turfing while Brown made visits to inspect and advise.

Chatsworth [courtesy of XXX]

Chatsworth, designed by Lancelot Capability Brown   [courtesy image]

How I remember my visit to Chatsworth on a June summer day.  It seemed more a park than a garden, but then that was an idea included in these extensive gardens. They were often called ‘park.’

Arabella Lennox-Boyd and Clay Perry wrote a wonderful book on English garden history called Traditional English Gardens.

They write, “The eighteenth century landscapes were great works of art, their creators achieving with water, trees, earth and masonry what artists were representing with oil paint.”

English gardens like Chatsworth were considered works of art.

This year 2016 is the time to remember Lancelot Brown, the mid-eighteenth century landscape gardener who inspired that ideal landscape in over 250 sites, including Chatsworth.

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English Garden Design Discouraged Mixed Beds

The English garden design discouraged mixed beds at one time.

Today we often talk about the impact of mass planting which is using many plants of one variety.

The annual conference for the Association for Garden Communicators happened to be in Atlanta this year.

Part of the meeting included visiting local gardens.

In a garden tour there I saw the use of a single variety of plant to create a carpet bed look around a fountain. [below] The clusters of color made of one plant provided a pleasing sight.

Carpet bedding in Atlanta

Carpet bedding in an Atlanta garden

For decades English gardeners looked down on planting more than a single plant of one variety for a bed or border. A mixed variety was then the style.

David Stuart says in his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “The old method of planting garden flowers was in a mixture, and flowers had been planted that way certainly since the seventeenth century. It was once believed that to have two flowers of the same sort next to one another was a grave error of taste, and it seems likely that such planting ideas had an even more ancient past.”

To include more than one plant of the same variety was not in style.

Stuart continues, “The idea of grouping flowers, so that only one sort was to be seen in each bed, was as much a major departure from the conventions of history as was the passion for informal landscape gardens of the previous century [the eighteenth].”

The head gardener at Chatsworth Joseph Paxton, Stuart writes, in 1838  recommended no mixed beds with perennials but rather carpet bedding with annuals which became the major garden fashion in the Victorian period.

The mixed bed however did survive.  Stuart says, “The mixed mode of bedding survived in rather specialized areas of gardening until the end of the nineteenth century.”

Carpet bedding became the popular style during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Thus, fashion in gardening is most important to heed.

The poor lonely plant doesn’t know the difference, but we do.

Today we plant in a mass or we plant in a mixed border. Both styles have their appeal.

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Loudon Befriended Early American Seedsman

Loudon befriended early American seedsman.

Writer and horticulturist John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) influenced the development of the English garden during the first half of the nineteenth century. He is sometimes referred to as the ‘father of the English garden.’

Loudon shared a friendship with New York seedsman Grant Thorborn (1773-1863), both originally from Scotland, and living in England when they met.Loudon and the Landscape

In her book Loudon and the Landscape: From Country Seat to Metropolis Melanie Louise Simo wrote that Loudon and Thorburn enjoyed after dinner conversation together at Loudon’s home.

Thorburn sailed for America in 1794. He settled in New York where he established a seed company in 1802, one of the earliest in the country.

In its 1899 catalog the Thorburn Company [below] laid claim to its longevity as a reason for a customer to send in seed orders. The catalog said, “Our leading business principle has always been to supply only the very highest class of seeds. The fact that we have commanded the leading wholesale and market-gardeners’ trade of this country for nearly a century should justify our claim to the patronage of those who have not yet experienced the advantage of dealing with us.”

1899 Thorburn seed catalog

1899 Thorburn seed catalog

In his writing about the garden in the catalogue, Thorburn liberally quoted from English garden authorities, including the English garden ideas of his friend Loudon.

The Oregon State University website for its wondeful seed catalog collection says, “Thorburn quoted liberally from English gardening authorities including Loudon, but added his own notes on how plants performed in America.”

Through the words of his friend Loudon Thorborn proposed the English garden design to his American customers.