A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art
History of Early American Landscape Design

Labyrinth

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See also: Walk, Wilderness

History

Fig. 1, Anonymous, “The forme of a Labyrinth,” in Charles Estienne, Jean Liébault, and Richard Surflet, comps., Maison Rustique, or The Countrey Farme (1600), 347.

Although labyrinth was the term of choice for professional writers such as Thomas Sheridan (1789), who described it as “a place formed with inextricable windings” (view text), the term was virtually synonymous with that of “maze” in 18th- and 19th-century gardening literature, as well as in general usage.[1] Samuel Johnson, for example, in 1755 defined labyrinth as “a maze” (view text). The winding walks referred to by Johnson and other garden writers (such as Philip Miller and Bernard M’Mahon) were the distinguishing feature of labyrinths. This characteristic was also clear in illustrations from English garden treatises that were available in North America [Fig. 1]. These sharply turning walkways were frequently framed by dense, high hedges, and often backed by shrubs and woods that occluded the perambulator’s view (see Walk). A visitor’s perception was affected by the combination of dense vegetation and intricately patterned walks, which produced an intentional state of disorientation and surprise. If the visitor succeeded in penetrating to the center of the labyrinth, he or she was typically rewarded by arriving at an ornamented space, often highlighted with a garden structure, such as an obelisk, a temple, or a seat. Thomas Jefferson (1804) suggested such a design in his reference to a thicket labyrinth (view text).

Fig. 2, Batty Langley, “An Improvement of a beautiful Garden at Twickenham,” in New Principles of Gardening (1728), pl. IX.

Gardeners and garden writers of the 18th and 19th centuries mentioned a broad range of vegetation that could be used to construct this garden feature. Hannah Callender Sansom (1762) referred to cedar and spruce that were maintained as a hedge (view text); George Washington mentioned pine (view text); Jefferson specified broom (view text); and John Pendleton Kennedy reminisced about boxwood (view text). M’Mahon recommended hedges of hornbeam (a nut-bearing tree), beech, elm, “or any other kind that can be kept neat by clipping,” or, in the case of smaller labyrinths, box edged with plants (view text). All of these materials could produce the desired density and could also, because of either thickness or prickly texture, prevent visitors from wandering off the carefully laid out paths. Because these plants also tolerated trimming well, the edges of walks could be cleanly demarcated. At times, nonliving material was substituted for living hedges and borders. At New Harmony, for example, 4-foot-high wooden fences covered with various climbing vines were used to define the walks.

Fig. 3, Anonymous, Plan of the Labyrinth at Economy, PA, c. 1826.

Many of the plants utilized in labyrinths were also employed in wildernesses, as was the technique of planting low hedges or borders backed by trees and shrubs (see Wilderness). Hence, many garden writers conflated labyrinth and wilderness, as in the case of John Parkinson (1629) (view text). The labyrinth at times was referred to as a specialized form of wilderness, for example M’Mahon (1806). Although Batty Langley, in New Principles of Gardening (1728), referred to wildernesses and labyrinths as separate features, he treated them similarly, placing them in remote regions of gardens and even balancing one against another, as in the plan for an improved garden at Twickenham. His description of this garden specified the location of the labyrinth, among the grove and wilderness, seen above the statue in the plan [Fig. 2]. He described the “Improvement of the Labyrinth at Versailles” as “the finest design of any” that he had ever seen (view text).

While the meaning of the term “labyrinth” was relatively clear throughout the period of this study, the history of its presence in American gardens is less well understood. According to Philip Miller (1759), labyrinths were a rarity in English gardens and successful only in large-scale gardens, such as those at Hampton Court (view text). Given these conditions, one might expect few labyrinths in the American context, especially since the funds and royal imperative associated with Hampton Court were largely absent in the New World.[2]

Fig. 4, W. Weingartner, Map of Harmony, IN [detail], 1832.

Nevertheless, a number of labyrinths in public and private American grounds have been documented. Labyrinths were sources of amusement and therefore were included in the popular public gardens, such as Gray’s Tavern in Philadelphia, and Berkeley Springs in Virginia (later West Virginia). In 1762 Hannah Callender Sansom described a labyrinth at Judge William Peters’s Belmont, near Philadelphia. In this garden, the labyrinth was part of a larger arrangement of features, including parterres, topiary, and clipped hedges, which were associated with the geometric or ancient style as opposed to modern fashion (see Ancient style, Geometric style, and Modern style).[3] Labyrinths were built at Mount Vernon and Monticello. Jefferson made a labyrinth in the thicket, a garden feature closely related to shrubbery and often associated with the modern or natural style of landscape gardening.

Fig. 5, Benjamin Franklin Smith Jr. (artist), William Wellstood (engraver), New York 1855. From the Latting Observatory [detail], 1855.

Most descriptions of labyrinths in the American context unfortunately do not specify labyrinth design, which could take on a variety of configurations. The condemnation of “stars and other ridiculous figures” issued by the Encyclopaedia (1798) suggests some range of taste or preference in the areas of design (view text). Jefferson’s plan of Monticello is exceptional because it documents a spiral, pinwheel-like arrangement of shrubs, with 6-foot-wide walks evenly dispersed. The plan of the labyrinth at Economy, Pennsylvania, is an elaborate version of a spiral configuration [Fig. 3] and was repeated at the settlement in New Harmony, Indiana, which was modeled after the Pennsylvania community [Fig. 4].

The evidence of labyrinths in early American gardens suggests that the number of labyrinths declined as the feature was increasingly associated with old-fashioned garden practices. In his dictionary (1828), Noah Webster stated that the garden oriented definition of labyrinth was no longer used (view text). A. J. Downing, in his 1849 edition of A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, firmly categorized labyrinths under the rubric of the geometric (or ancient) garden style of the 16th and 17th centuries (view text). Yet, labyrinths never completely disappeared from the American landscape, as demonstrated by a view from the Mount Croton Garden in New York [Fig. 5], and its elaborate hedged labyrinth, exactly in the rectangular form that Downing declared was used by ancient gardeners. The popularity of this labyrinth for public amusement assured its continuity.

Anne L. Helmreich


Texts

Usage

“. . . on the right you enter a Labarynth of hedge and low ceder with spruce, in the middle stands a Statue of Apollo. . .” back up to History


“Here is a curious labyrinth with numerous windings begun, and extends along the declivity of the hill toward the gardens, but has hardly yet received its form.”


  • Constantia [Judith Sargent Murray], June 24, 1790, “Description of Gray’s Gardens, Pennsylvania” (Massachusetts Magazine 3: 414–15)[6]
“. . . this, as well as all the smaller avenues, alike produces us in the wilderness, into which we enter, passing over a neat chinese bridge, preparing with much pleasure to penetrate a recess so charming. It is indeed a wilderness of sweets, and the views instantly become romantically enchanting, the scene is every moment changing. Now, side long bends the path; then, pursues its winding way; now, in a straight line; then, in a pleasing labyrinth is lost, until, in every possible direction, it breaketh upon us, amid thick groves of pines, walnuts, chestnuts, mulberries, &c. &c. we seem to ramble, while at the same time, we are surprized [sic] by borders of the richest, and most highly cultivated flowers, in the greatest variety, which even from a royal parterre we might be led to expect.”


“. . . gravel the Walks in the Pine labyrinths, on both sides of the Lawn West of the House.” back up to History


Fig. 6, Thomas Jefferson, Letter describing plans for a “Garden Olitory” at Monticello [detail], c. 1804.
“The best way of forming thicket will be to plant it in labyrinth spirally, putting the tallest plants in the center & lowering gradation to the external termination. a temple or seat may be in the center, thus leaving space enough between the rows to walk & to trim up, replant [a three-pronged diagram] the shrubs.” [Fig. 6] back up to History


“To describe on the ground the Labyrinth of broom.
“go to the 5th. beginning in the avenue of broom for the apple-tree-rows, viz. a.
“measure off at right angles with that 165. f. to b.
“describe round a circle of 55. f radius
“where it crosses the line a. b. viz. at c. stick a pin.
“divide the circle into 8. parts, sticking pins, viz at 43.2 f distance measured on the periphery.
“lay off a tangent from each point (with the theodolite)
“take the radius (55 f.) on that tangent & describe a quadrant from the pin in the periphery
“take for a new center the pin in the periphery which is a quadrant distant from the pin last mentd. & with the semicircle (110 f.) for a radius describe from the end of the last quadrant a portion of a circle till it intersects the tangent.
“on each side of this spiral, parallel to it, & at 9 f. distance from it describe lines.
“plant broom every 6 f. along these lines, and allowing the plants to put out branches 6. f. each way it will leave walks of 6. f. wide, without ever rendg. necessy to trim.
“between walk & walk the whole interval must be filled with broom at 6. f. distance. to bound which properly, a circle of 165 f. rad. must be circumscribd round the whole.
“(note these walks will go off from the circle where the plats of broom were erroneously placed in the figure.)” back up to History


Fig. 7, A labyrinth for New Harmony, drawing attributed to Frederick Rapp, circa 1815.
  • Kellogg, Miner K., c. 1825–27, describing a settlement in New Harmony, IN (quoted in Pitzer and Elliott 1979: 288)[10]
“The first Labyrinth I ever saw was at New Harmony. It was grown in an open field near the town and a source of constant amusement to children. Its lines were formed of vines grown upon light fences and about four feet high, converging as they reached the centre. Here the visitor came upon a circular hut made of the ends of rough logs cut to a point externally leaving one window—& a blind door which had to be sought out—& only found by pushing at the walls.” [Fig. 7]


  • Kennedy, John Pendleton, 1833, in an address to the Horticultural Society of Maryland, describing the flower hall of the First Annual Exhibition (1833: 25)[11]
“A garden is a theme of pleasant recollections to us in every stage of life. We remember, with a peculiar fondness, those days of infancy which were spent in playing through the labyrinths of the trimmed hedges of box, and where the althea, the lilac and the hawthorn, bounded the parterre.” back up to History


Citations

  • Lawson, William, 1618, A New Orchard and Garden (1618; repr., 1982: 11)[12]
“. . . If within one large square the Gardiner shall make one round Labyrinth or Maze with some kind of beries, it will grace your forme, so there be sufficient roomth left for walks, so will foure or moe round knots doe.”


  • Parkinson, John, 1629, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629; repr., 1975: 5)[13]
“For there may be therein [the garden] walkes eyther open or close, eyther publike or private, a maze or wildernesse.” back up to History


Fig. 8, Michael van der Gucht, “The Design of a Labyrinth with Cabinets and Fountains,” in A.-J. Dézallier d’Argenville, The Theory and Practice of Gardening (1712), pl. 10.
  • Dezallier d’Argenville, Antoine-Joseph, 1712, The Theory and Practice of Gardening (1712; repr., 1969: 60)[14]
Lastly, The tenth Plate of Groves contains the Design of a Labyrinth, of a Contrivance entirely new: 'Tis a large Volute or Spiral Walk, in the Center of which is a Bason, accompanied with a Hall pierced by weight Walks, which carry you to four Cross-Ways, from whence you pass insensibly into the Windings of the Maze, set off with Cabinets, Latticed-Arbors, Green-plots, Fountains, Figures, &c. which very agreeably surprize and amuse those that have lost their Way in it. The great number of Alleys, and the various Turnings in the Composition of this Labyrinth, render it extremely intricate and puzzling, without taking any thing from the Beauty and Regularity of the Design. There is but one Entrance into it, which is also the Outlet, where there is placed a Cabinet of Lattice-work, on purpose to render it still more difficult.” [Fig. 8]


Fig. 9, Batty Langley, “Several Designs for Wildernesses and Labyrinths,” in New Principles of Gardening (1728), pl. VII.
Fig. 10, Batty Langley, “An Improvement of the Labyrinth at Versailles,” in New Principles of Gardening (1728), pl. VIII.
  • Langley, Batty, 1728, New Principles of Gardening (1728; repr., 1982: xii–xiii, 195–96)[15]
“Plate VII. consists of four several Designs for Wildernesses and Labyrinths wherein A A, &c. are Arbors, or Places of Repose. [Fig. 9]
“Plate VIII. is an improvement of that grand Labyrinth at Versailles, wherein all the straight Walks are as they now stand, and curved or serpentine Walks B B, excepted with their Groves, Cabinets, and Statues are Additions that may be made to that beautiful Place. This I thought fit to communicate, as being the finest Design of any I ever saw. [Fig. 10]
“Plate IX. is an improvement of a beautiful Garden at Twickenham, situated on the River Thames. . .
“There being a fine View from the House to the River, the Quarters Q Q, must be planted with Fruit Trees of a low Growth; . . . The other Parts here offered being Wildernesses, Labyrinth, Groves, &c. as exhibited, need no further Explanation. . .
General DIRECTIONS, &c. . .
“X. That all those Parts which are out of View from the House, be form’d into Wildernesses, Labyrinths, &c.” back up to History


LABYRINTH. . . among the ancients, was a large intricate edifice cut out into various isles, and meanders, running into each other, so as to render it difficult to get out of it.”


  • Johnson, Samuel, 1755, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755: 2:n.p.)[17]
LA’BYRINTH. n.s. [labyrinthus, Latin.] A maze; a place formed with inextricable windings.” back up to History


  • Miller, Philip, 1759, The Gardeners Dictionary (1759: n.p.)[18]
Labyrinth, a winding, mazy, and intricate turning to and fro, through a Wilderness or Wood. The Design of a labyrinth is to cause an intricate and difficult Labour to find the center, and the Aim is, to make Walks so intricate, that a Person may lose himself in them. . . As to the Contrivance of them, it will not be possible to give Directions in Words, there are several plans and designs in Books on Gardening; they are rarely met with success but in great & noble gardens, as Hampton, Court.” back up to text


  • Sheridan, Thomas, 1789, A Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1789: n.p.)[19]
LABYRINTH, lab'-ber-inth. s. . . a place formed with inextricable windings.” back up to History


  • Anonymous, 1798, Encyclopaedia (1798: 7:542)[20]
“When wildernesses are intended, they should not be cut into stars and other ridiculous figures, nor formed into mazes or labyrinths, which in a great design appear trifling.” back up to History


“A Labyrinth, is a maze or sort of intricate wilderness-plantation, abounding with hedges and walks, formed into many windings and turnings, leading to one common centre, extremely difficult to find out; designed in large pleasure-grounds by way of amusement.
“It is generally formed with hedges, commonly in double rows, leading in various intricate turnings, backward and forward, with intervening plantations, and gravel-walks alternately between hedge and hedge; the great aim is to have the walk contrived in so many mazy, intricate windings, to and fro, that a person may have much difficulty in finding out the centre, by meeting with as many stops and disappointments as possible; for he must not cross, or break through the hedges; so that in a well contrived labyrinth, a stranger will often entirely loose himself, so as not to find his way to the centre, nor out again.
“As to plans of them, it is impossible to describe such, by words, any further than the above hints, and their contrivance must principally depend, on the ingenuity of the designer.
“But as to the hedges, walks, and trees; the hedges are usually made of hornbeam, beech, elm, or any other kind that can be kept neat by clipping. The walks should be five feet wide at least, laid with gravel, neatly rolled, and kept clean; and the trees and shrubs to form a thicket of wood between the hedges, may be of any hardy kinds of the deciduous tribe, interspersed with some evergreens; and in the middle of the labyrinth should be a spacious open, ornamented with some rural seats and shady bowers, &c.
“Sometimes small labyrinths are formed with box-edgings, and borders for plants, with handsome narrow walks between, in imitation of the larger ones; which have a very pleasing and amusing effect in small gardens.” back up to History


LABYRINTH, in gardening, a winding mazy walk between hedges, through a wood or wilderness. The chief aim is to make the walks so perplexed and intricate, that a person may lose himself in them, and meet with as great a number of disappointments as possible. They are rarely to be meet with, except in great gardens; as Versailles, Hampton-court, &c.”


Fig. 11, J. C. Loudon, Plan of a pleasure-ground with labyrinth, in An Encyclopaedia of Gardening, 4th ed. (1826), 1021, fig. 719.
“7264. The pleasure-ground is a term applied generally to the kept ground and walks of a residence. Sometimes the walk merely passes, in a winding direction, through glades and groups of common scenery, kept polished by the scythe, and from whence cattle, &c. are excluded. At other times it includes a part of, or all the scenes above mentioned; and may include several others, as verdant amphitheaters, labyrinths, (fig. 719.) a Linnaean, Jussieuean, American, French, or Dutch flower-garden, a garden of native, rock, mountain, or aquatic plants, picturesque flower-garden, or a Chinese garden, exhibiting only plants in flower, inserted in the ground, and removed to make room for others when the blossom begins to fade, &c.” [Fig. 11]


  • Webster, Noah, 1828, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828: 2:n.p.)[24]
LAB’YRINTH, n. [L. labyrinthus. . .]
“1. Among the ancients, an edifice or place full of intricacies, or formed with winding passages, which rendered it difficult to find the way from the interior to the entrance. The most remarkable of these edifices mentioned, are the Egyptian and the Cretan labyrinths. Encyc. Lempriere.
“2. A maze; an inexplicable difficulty.
“3. Formerly, an ornamental maze or wilderness in gardens. Spenser.” back up to History


Fig. 12, Anonymous, Plantations in the Ancient Style, A Labyrinth, in A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 4th ed. (1849), 91, fig. 17.
  • Johnson, George William, 1847, A Dictionary of Modern Gardening (1847: 336)[25]
LABYRINTH is an arrangement of walks, inclosed by hedges or shrubberies, so intricate as to be very difficult to escape from. From the twelfth century to the end of the seventeenth, they were a very favourite portion of English pleasure grounds, but they are now more judiciously banished.”


“One of the favorite fancies of the geometric gardener was the Labyrinth. . . of which a few celebrated examples are still in existence in England, and which consisted of a multitude of trees thickly planted in impervious hedges, covering sometimes several acres of ground. These labyrinths were the source of much amusement to the family and guests, the trial of skill being to find the centre, and from that point to return again without assistance; and we are told by a historian of the garden of that period, that ‘the stranger having once entered, was sorely puzzled to get out.’” [Fig. 12] back up to History

Images

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Notes

  1. For a general discussion of labyrinths in gardens, with illustrated examples, see Adrian Fisher and George Gester, Labyrinth, Solving the Riddle of Maze (New York: Harmony Books, 1990), view on Zotero.
  2. It should be noted that the maze currently located in the grounds of the Governor’s Palace, Williamsburg, Virginia, is a 20th-century construction for which no documentation during the colonial period of habitation exists. See Charles B. Hosmer, “The Colonial Revival in the Public Eye: Williamsburg and Early Garden Restoration,” in The Colonial Revival in America, ed. Alan Axelrod (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985) for a discussion of the Williamsburg gardens and their role in defining colonial revival garden styles, view on Zotero.
  3. Therese O’Malley, “Landscape Gardening in the Early National Period,” in Views and Visions, American Landscape before 1830, eds. Edward J. Nygren with Bruce Robertson (Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1986), 144, view on Zotero.
  4. Callender 2010, view on Zotero.
  5. Manasseh Cutler, Life, Journals, and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, ed. William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkin Cutler (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1888), view on Zotero.
  6. Constantia [Judith Sargent Murray], “Description of Gray’s Gardens, Pennsylvania,” Massachusetts Magazine, or, Monthly Museum of Knowledge and Rational Entertainment 7, no. 3 (July 1791): 413–17, view on Zotero.
  7. Peter Martin, The Pleasure Gardens of Virginia: From Jamestown to Jefferson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), view on Zotero.
  8. Frederick Doveton Nichols and Ralph E. Griswold, Thomas Jefferson, Landscape Architect (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), view on Zotero.
  9. Thomas Jefferson, The Garden Book, ed. Edwin M. Betts (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1944), view on Zotero.
  10. Donald E. Pitzer and Josephine Elliott, “New Harmony’s First Utopias, 1814–1824,” Indiana Magazine of History 75 (September 1979): 225–300, view on Zotero.
  11. John Pendleton Kennedy, Address Delivered before the Horticultural Society of Maryland at Its First Annual Exhibition (Baltimore, MD: John D. Toy, 1833), view on Zotero.
  12. William Lawson, A New Orchard and Garden. . . with the Country Housewifes Garden (1618; repr., New York: Garland, 1982), view on Zotero.
  13. John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (London: Humfrey Lownes and Robert Young, 1629; repr. Norwood, NJ: W. J. Johnson, 1975), view on Zotero.
  14. A.-J. (Antoine Joseph) Dézallier d'Argenville, The Theory and Practice of Gardening; wherein is fully handled all that relates to fine gardens, . . . containing divers plans, and general dispositions of gardens, trans. John James (London: Geo. James, 1712; repr., Farnborough, England: Gregg, 1969), view on Zotero.
  15. Batty Langley, New Principles of Gardening, or The Laying out and Planting Parterres, Groves, Wildernesses, Labyrinths, Avenues, Parks, &c. (London: A. Bettesworth and J. Batley, etc., 1728; repr., London: Garland, 1982), view on Zotero.
  16. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. . . . 2 vols. (London: D. Midwinter et al., 1741–43), view on Zotero.
  17. Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language: In Which the Words Are Deduced from the Originals and Illustrated in the Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers, 2 vols. (London: W. Strahan for J. and P. Knapton, 1755), view on Zotero.
  18. Philip Miller, The Gardeners Dictionary: Containing the Methods of Cultivation and Improving the Kitchen, Fruit, and Flower Garden. . . , 7th ed. (London: Philip Miller, 1759), view on Zotero.
  19. Thomas A. Sheridan, A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, Carefully Revised and Corrected by John Andrews. . . , 5th ed. (Philadelphia: William Young, 1789), view on Zotero.
  20. Anonymous, Encyclopaedia, or A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature, 18 vols. (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1798), view on Zotero.
  21. Bernard M’Mahon, The American Gardener’s Calendar: Adapted to the Climates and Seasons of the United States. Containing a Complete Account of All the Work Necessary to Be Done . . . for Every Month of the Year. . . (Philadelphia: Printed by B. Graves for the author, 1806), view on Zotero.
  22. G. Gregory, A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Isaac Peirce, 1816), view on Zotero.
  23. J. C. (John Claudius) Loudon, An Encyclopaedia of Gardening; Comprising the Theory and Practice of Horticulture, Floriculture, Arboriculture, and Landscape-Gardening, 4th ed. (London: Longman et al., 1826), view on Zotero.
  24. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), view on Zotero.
  25. George William Johnson, A Dictionary of Modern Gardening, ed. David Landreth (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1847), view on Zotero.
  26. A. J. [Andrew Jackson] Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America . . . 4th ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1849), view on Zotero.

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