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The English Garden Became the Model for Washington Irving’s Landscape

The area north of New York, along the Hudson River, has played an important role in the history of American gardening.

In the nineteenth century the Hudson Valley was home to artists and writers, and also to Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852), America’s most famous landscape designer at that time.

Not far from Downing’s home lived the American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) who in 1835 bought a house on fifteen acres in Tarrytown. Irving is best remembered now for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Irving loved the English garden.  He once said, “The rudest habitation, the most unpromising and scanty portion of land, in the hands of an Englishman of taste becomes a little paradise”

Washington Irving (XXXX), courtesy of Wikipedia
Washington Irving (1783-1859), courtesy of Wikipedia

So it was no surprise that Washington designed his property called Sunnyside in the current landscape gardening style of the English called the natural or picturesque view, which Downing also encouraged in his books and magazine The Horticulturist.

A gently curved path at Sunnyside leads to gorgeous views of the Hudson River and reveals the allure of its unique design, its intimate setting, its bucolic grounds, and its association with a beloved man of letters.

Washington Irving designed Sunnyside and its grounds himself, collaborating with his neighbor, the artist George Harvey. “It is a beautiful spot,” Irving wrote, “capable of being made a little paradise.” Beginning in 1835, he expanded a small cottage in stages, combining his sentimental interests in the architecture of colonial New York and buildings he knew in Scotland and Spain. The house became a three-dimensional autobiography.

Sunnyisde-On-Hudson, a print by Currier and Ives.
Sunnyside-On-Hudson, a print by Currier and Ives.

The gounds reflect Washington Irving’s romantic view of art, nature, and history. He arranged garden paths, trees and shrubs, vistas, and water features to appear natural, and planted an exotic wisteria vine (still growing) to envelope the house.

The famous artwork by Currier and Ives [above] captures the English garden influence at Sunnyside in all its brilliance and makes it a ‘little paradise’.

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