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History of Early American Landscape Design

Ancient style

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(Ancient gardening, Antique)
See also: Geometric style


Fig. 1, Robert Castell, “Tuscum,” plan of Pliny’s villa near Lake Como, Italy, in The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated (1729), pl. after p. 126.
Fig. 2, Claude Joseph Sauthier, John Hawk's plan of the Governor's House and grounds in New Bern, N.C., 1783.

The term ancient did not refer simply to garden design of antiquity but was used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to refer to Renaissance and baroque gardens. As Horace Walpole described this style in 1784, “All the ingredients of Pliny’s corresponded exactly with those laid out by London and Wise on Dutch principles. He talks of slope, terrace, a wilderness, shrubs methodically trimmed, a marble bason, pipes spouting water, a cascade falling into the bason, bay-trees, alternately planted with planes, and a straight walk, from whence issued others parted off by hedges of box, and apple-trees, with obelisks placed between every two. There wants for nothing but the embroidery of a parterre, to make a garden in the reign of Trajan serve for a description of one in that of King William.” [1] Walpole’s description and Robert Castell’s reconstruction of ancient gardens [Fig. 1] were exemplified by many gardens of the early American colonies [Figs. 2 and 3].

Fig. 3, William Williams, Deborah Hall, 1766.
Fig. 4, Anonymous, Vignette of contrasting garden styles, in A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849), p. 17. Separated by a centrally placed tree, this prospect depicts the characteristic differences between the geometrically defined “ancient style” on the left and the loosely arranged plantings of the “modern style” on the right.

This category of garden style was generally described in relation or in contrast to a modern style, a dualism continuing the traditional argument of the ancient versus the modern that had characterized intellectual debate since the 17th century.[2] In late 18th- and early 19th-century garden theory, landscape art was divided into one or the other general category. A. J. Downing’s A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849) opens with a vignette illustrating these two modes [Fig. 4]. The geometric and regular gardens associated with premodern styles, such as the Dutch, French, and Italian [Fig. 5], became foils for the newer, irregular styles of the picturesque movement. When Benjamin Henry Latrobe visited Mount Vernon, he sketched it from vantage points that emphasized its natural park-like setting. However, he criticized the parterres of the Upper Garden, which were designed in an ancient geometric mode “laid out in square, and boxed with great precision. . . .For the first time since I left Germany, I saw here a parterre, chipped and trimmed with infinite care into the form of a richly flourished Fleur de Lis: The expiring groans I hope of our Grandfather[s’] pedantry.” [3] At the end of the 18th century, the ancient style was seen as retarditaire in the face of the emerging and more fashionable modern style.

Downing illustrated the “regularity, symmetry, and the display of labored art of the ancient style” in his treatise with an illustration of the Dutch school [See Fig. 7]. He, as did many British and American writers, used the term geometric interchangeably with that of ancient (see Geometric style). Downing described the method of executing this style as simply extending the geometrical lines of architecture into the garden. It was this link to architecture as opposed to nature that was often the source of criticism of the ancient style.

Many of the garden buildings and ornaments later associated with the modern garden, such as temples, summerhouses, architecture, sculpture, and water features, also appeared in the ancient-style garden. The difference between the two, as Bernard M’Mahon made clear in his extensive description “Of Ancient Designs” (in his American Gardener’s Calendar, 1806), lay in the disposition of these parts and their relationship to one another. Symmetry, uniformity, and order prevailed as did a conspicuously artificial arrangement of parts and plant material (view citation).

Long after the taste for the modern style was fully entrenched in America, however, the ancient style was still tolerated in public spaces or where classical architecture was involved, as George Watterston wrote in 1844 (view citation). Espoused by theorists of the late 18th and early 19th century, this principle was based on the requirements of harmonic design, which demanded the continuation of symmetry and regularity in the garden if the building had been designed predominantly in the classical mode.

Fig. 5, James Smillie after a sketch by A. O. Moore, “Italian Garden and Lake at Wellesley near Boston,” in A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849), pl. opp. p. 452.

The association of the American political system with the democracy of ancient Greece or republican Rome was a frequent argument for the appropriateness of the neoclassical over the romantic style in public or governmental projects during the early national era.[4] For this reason it seems that in spite of the fashion for the natural or irregular garden style, the “old and formal style of design” never disappeared.[5] In fact, according to a writer in the The Horticulturist in 1852, it remained the predominant style throughout “Yankeedom.” Even Downing, the chief exponent of the modern style in America, employed the ancient or geometric style for portions of his design for the national Mall in Washington, DC [6]

In his description of “Plantations in the Ancient Style,” Downing contributed a political valence to the history of the style when he wrote that “symmetrical uniformity governed with despotic power even the trees and foliage” (view citation). This interpretation of the neoclassical styles in garden and architectural design might explain why Downing declared it expressive of power and therefore appropriate for public edifices and their immediate grounds. Despite his preference for the modern style, Downing justified the ancient style in America, writing that its distinct artifice would give more pleasure by contrast to the surrounding landscape, which, in America, was abounding with natural beauty.[7] Both Downing and his predecessor, J. C. Loudon, sought to highlight the hand of the artist seen in contrasting designed or improved scenery with the natural appearance of a given site. Thus the ancient style survived the overwhelming preference or taste for the modern style.

Therese O'Malley



  • Quincy, Josiah, May 3, 1773, describing the country seat of John Dickensen, near Philadelphia, PA (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
“Take into consideration the antique look of his house, his gardens, green-house, bathing-house, grotto, study, fish-pond, fields, meadow, vista, through which is distant prospect of Delaware River.”

  • Downing, A. J., January 1837, "Notices on the State and Progress of Horticulture in the United States,” The Magazine of Horticulture (1837: 8) [8]
“The finest single example of landscape gardening, in the modern style, is at Dr. Hosack’s seat, Hyde Park, and the best specimens of the ancient or geometric style may probably be met with in the neighborhood of Philadelphia.”

  • W., February 1842, "An Account of the Lowell Cemetery,” The Magazine of Horticulture, Lowell, MA (1842: 49) [9]
“In laying out these grounds, the skill of the designer has been displayed, in combining somewhat the 'ancient or geometric style' with the natural or irregular. In some parts, the regular forms and right lines are well adapted to the location of the ground, while in others, the varied and gradually curving forms give an air of grandeur and boldness, and in combining these with the natural scenery, cannot fail to call forth, in the minds of visitors, impressions of love and veneration.”

“The seat of the late Judge Peters, about five miles from Philadelphia, was, 30 years ago, a noted specimen of the ancient school of landscape gardening. . . . Long and stately avenues, with vistas terminated by obelisks, a garden adorned with marble vases, busts, and statues, and pleasure grounds filled with the rarest trees and shrubs, were conspicuous features here. . . .
Lemon Hill, half a mile above the Fairmount waterworks of Philadelphia, was, 20 years ago, the most perfect specimen of the geometric mode in America, and since its destruction by the extension of the city, a few years since, there is nothing comparable with it, in that style, among us. All the symmetry, uniformity, and high art of the old school, were displayed here in artificial plantations, formal gardens with trellises, grottoes, spring-houses, temples, statues, and vases, with numerous ponds of water, jets-d’eau, and other water-works, parterres and an extensive range of hothouses. The effect of this garden was brilliant and striking; its position, on the lovely banks of the Schuylkill, admirable; and its liberal proprietor, Mr. Pratt, by opening it freely to the public, greatly increased the popular taste in the neighborhood of that city.
“On the Hudson, the show place of the last age was the still interesting Clermont, then the residence of Chancellor Livingston. Its level or gently undulating lawn, four or five miles in length, the rich native woods, and the long vistas of planted avenues, added to its fine water view, rendered this a noble place. The mansion, the greenhouses, and the gardens, show something of the French taste in design, which Mr. Livingston’s residence abroad, at the time when that mode was popular, no doubt, led him to adopt. . . .
“Judge Peters’ seat, Lemon Hill, and Clermont, were [the best specimens] of the ancient style, in the earliest period of the history of Landscape Gardening among us.”


“In designs for a Pleasure-ground, according to modern gardening; consulting rural disposition, in imitation of nature; all too formal works being almost abolished, such as long straight walks, regular intersections, square grass-plats, corresponding parterres, quadrangular and angular spaces, and other uniformities, as in ancient designs; instead of which, are now adopted, rural open spaces of grass-ground, of varied forms and dimensions, and winding walks, all bound with plantations of trees, shrubs, and flowers, in various clumps; other compartments are exhibited in a variety of imitative rural forms; such as curves, projections, openings, and closings, in imitation of a natural assemblage; having all the various plantations and borders, open to the walks and lawns. . . .
“Regular compartments and figures, in various forms, are also sometimes introduced in some extensive grounds, for variety; in contrast with the irregular works, and still to preserve some appearance of the remains of ancient gardening; such as straight walks, verged with borders of flowers, &c. regular parterres, in flower borders; square spaces, circles, and octagons, &c. inclosed with low clipped hedges; hedge-work, formed into various devices; detached ever-greens, formed into pyramids and other regular figures; regular grass-slopes, formed on the side of some declivity or rising ground; elevated terrace’s, clumps of trees, surrounded with low evergreen hedges; straight avenues of trees, in ranges, &c. a little of each being judiciously disposed in different situations, may prove an agreeable variety, by diversifying the scene, in contrast with the rural works before mentioned. . . .
“Designs, in ancient gardening, for a Pleasure-ground, consulted uniformity in every part, exact levels, straight lines, parallels, squares, angles, circles, and other geometrical figures, &c. all corresponding in the greatest regularity, to effect an exact symmetry and proportion.
“Grand parterres were very commonly presented immediately on the front of the main house, having a grand walk of grass or gravel directly from the house through the middle, or dividing the parterre ground into two divisions. . . .
“These works were in great estimation in ancient gardening, and were commonly situated, directly in front of the house, generally the whole width of the front, or sometimes more. . . .
“In the more interior parts, large tracts of ground were frequently divided by straight grass-walks, into many square and angular divisions of wilderness, each division surrounded by regular hedges of various kinds of trees and shrubs, kept in uniform order by annual clippings . . . and all the walks generally led into uniform openings of grass, particularly to a grand circle or octagon, forming some central part.
“Frequently there were partitions of regular hedge-work, particularly of ever-greens, surrounding large squares of grass-ground, designed as pieces of garden ornaments, the hedge-work being often formed into various uniform devices; such as pilasters, arcades or arches, porticoes, galleries, amphitheaters, pavilions, cabinets, bowers, pediments, niches, and cornices; likewise regular arbors, having the sides formed into arcades, and sometimes the top vaulted; and with various other formal imitations, all performed in hedge-work, which were often so arranged and trained, as to effect an air of grandeur and art. High hedges were also in great repute, as boundaries to grand walks and avenues, sometimes carried up from fifteen or twenty, or thirty or forty feet high; . . . all sorts of hedge-work was generally esteemed so ornamental in ancient gardening, that almost every division was surrounded with regular hedges of one sort or other, presenting themselves to view in every part, shutting out all other objects from sight; but in modern designs, such hedges are rarely admitted; every compartment of the plantation being left open to view, from the walks and lawns, in order to afford a full prospect of the various trees, shrubs, and flowers, which consequently are more beautiful than continued ranges of close hedges; but for the sake of variety, a little ornamental hedge-work might still be introduced in some particular parts of the ground.
Labyrinths or mazes of hedge-work, in the manner of a wilderness, also prevailed in many large gardens. . . .
“Detached trained figures of ever-greens, as yew, cypress, juniper, holly, box, and various other close-growing ever-green plants, were also very predominant in ancient designs, and generally disposed in regular ranges along the borders and other verges of grand walks; being trained by clipping into various formal shapes, as pyramids, obelisks, columns, &c. in a variety of forms, with other formal figures, all placed in the most exact arrangement.
“Straight rows of the most beautiful trees, forming long avenues and grand walks, were in great estimation, considered as great ornaments, and no considerable estate and eminent pleasure-ground were without several of them.
“The perpetual show of stiff formality, displayed by this kind of fancy, has induced many to discontinue it; but some of these run into the contrary extreme, by excluding all formal regularity and uniform appearances; and substituting various dissimilar arrangements, in the formation of the different compartments, in fancied imitation of natural rurality as much as possible.”

Fig. 6, J. C. Loudon, The operations on ground under the ancient style, in An Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1826), p. 1002, fig. 683.
  • Loudon, J. C., 1826, An Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1826: 792–93, 996, 1002, 1020) [12]
“6093. . . . The ancient geometric style, in place of irregular groups, employed symmetrical forms; in France, adding statues and fountains; in Holland, cut trees and grassy slopes; and in Italy, stone walls, walled terraces, and flights of steps. . . .
“7161. . . . From these different theories [of landscape gardening], as well as from the general objects or end of gardening, there appear to be two principles which enter into its composition; those which regard it as a mixed art, or an art of design, and which are called the principles of relative beauty; and those which regard it as an imitative art, and are called the principles of natural or universal beauty. The ancient or geometric gardening is guided wholly by the former principles; landscape-gardening, as an imitative art, wholly by the latter; but as the art of forming a country-residence, its arrangements are influenced by both principles. . . .
“7196. . . . If a deformed space has been restored to natural beauty, we are delighted with the effect, whilst we recollect the difference between the present and the former surface; but when this is forgotten, though the beauty remains, the credit for having produced it is lost. In this respect, the operations on ground under the ancient style, have a great and striking advantage; for an absolute perfection is to be attained in the formation of geometrical forms, and the beauty created is so entirely artificial . . . as never to admit a doubt of its origin. . . . [Fig. 5]
“7256. Terrace and conservatory. We observed, when treating of ground, and under the ancient style, that the design of the terrace must be jointly influenced by the magnitude and style of the house, the views from its windows, (that is, from the eye of a person seated in the middle of the principal rooms,) and the views of the house from a distance. In almost every case, more or less of architectural form will enter into these compositions.”

“In passing from the ancient, or geometric style, to the modern, or natural, the first improvers fell, perhaps, into an opposite extreme. This is the danger in all sudden transitions. They seemed to conceive that crooked lines, serpentine windings and carelessness were true objects of beauty, and declared that nature abhorred a straight line; and thus fatigued the eye by incessant curves. They did not seem to be aware, that in her sublimest works nature prefers the straight line, as is shown in the apparent horizon of the ocean and the rays of the sun. . . .
“The preceding four heads [congruity, utility, order, and symmetry] are not favorable to picturesque beauty; but belong more particularly to the ancient style of gardening which I have previously recommended to be blended with the modern, where the buildings, limited extent of ground and other circumstances require its retention.”

The ancient English flower-garden is formed of beds, connected together so as to form a regular or symmetrical figure; the beds being edged with Box, or sometimes with flowering plants, and planted with herbaceous flowers, Roses, and one or two other kinds of low flowering shrubs. The flowers in the beds are generally mixed in such a manner, that some may show blossoms every month during summer, and that some may retain their leaves during winter. This kind of garden should be surrounded by a border of evergreen and deciduous shrubs, backed by low trees; and in the centre there should be a sundial, a vase, a statue, or a basin and fountain.”
Fig. 7, Anonymous, “The Geometric style, from an old print,” in A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849), p. 62, fig. 14. The orthogonal, symmetrical paths, embellished by tightly clipped and regularly placed plantings, reflect the highly ordered character of the ancient style.
“THE ANCIENT STYLE. A predominance of regular forms and right lines is the characteristic feature of the ancient style of gardening. The value of art, of power, and of wealth, were at once easily and strongly shown by an artificial arrangement of all the materials; an arrangement the more striking, as it differed most widely from nature. And in an age when costly and stately architecture was most abundant, as in the times of the Roman empire, it is natural to suppose, that the symmetry and studied elegance of the palace, or the villa, would be transferred and continued in the surrounding gardens. . . .
“Whatever may have been the absurdities of the ancient style, it is not to be denied that in connexion with highly decorated architecture, its effect, when in the best taste—as the Italian—is not only splendid and striking, but highly suitable and appropriate. . . .
“The beauties elicited by the ancient style of gardening were those of regularity, symmetry, and the display of labored art. These were attained in a merely mechanical manner. . . . The geometrical form and lines of the buildings were only extended and carried out in the garden. . . . [Fig. 6]
“The ancient style of gardening may, however, be introduced with good effect in certain cases. In public squares and gardens, where display, grandeur of effect, and a highly artificial character are desirable, it appears to us the most suitable; and no less so in very small gardens, in which variety and irregularity are out of the question. Where a taste for imitating an old and quaint style of residence exists, the symmetrical and knotted garden would be a proper accompaniment; and pleached alleys, and sheared trees, would be admired, like old armor or furniture, as curious specimens of antique taste and custom. . . .
Fig. 8, Anonymous, Plantations in the Ancient Style, A Labyrinth, in A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849), p. 91, fig. 17.
“The beautiful and the picturesque are the new elements of interest, which, entering into the composition of our gardens and home landscapes, have to refined minds increased a hundred fold the enjoyment derived from this species of rural scenery. Still, there is much to admire in the ancient style. Its long and majestic avenues, the wide-spreading branches interlacing over our heads, and forming long, shadowy aisles, are, themselves alone, among the noblest and most imposing sylvan objects. Even the formal and curiously knotted gardens are interesting, from the pleasing associations which they suggest to mind, as having been the favorite haunts of Shakespeare, Bacon, Spenser, and Milton. They are so inseparably connected, too, in our imaginations, with the quaint architecture of that era, that wherever that style of building is adopted . . . this style of gardening may be considered as highly appropriate, and in excellent keeping with such a country house. . . . [Fig. 7]
“The only situation where this brilliant [white] gravel seems to us perfectly in keeping, is in the highly artificial garden of the ancient or geometric style, or in the symmetrical terrace flower garden adjoining the house. In these instances its striking appearance is in excellent keeping with the expression of all the surrounding objects, and it renders more forcible and striking the highly artificial and artistical character of the scene; and to such situations we would gladly see its use limited.”

Landscape Gardening was, formerly, the imitation of geometric figures; hence the ancient mode of it is called the geometric style of gardening.”

  • Jaques, George, January 1852, “Landscape Gardening in New-England” (1852: 34–35) [16]
“Again, the taste of New-England people generally, for the beautiful and picturesque in rural scenery, is either vitiated, or totally uncultivated. Hence, the great mass of the people prefer symmetry, stiff formality, straight lines, and the geometrical forms of the ancient or artificial style of laying out grounds. Nearly all our first class places in Yankeedom, are so arranged. . . .
“A gracefully curved drive or walk, (from the public street to the buildings,) entering through an irregular group of trees, and forced into its curvature by another little group, will of itself impart to a rural home charms far more pleasing than ten times their cost could infuse into the stiff, old straight-lined primness of the ancient style.”






  1. Horace Walpole, “On Modern Gardening,” in Anecdotes of Painting in England (London: Ward, Lock, 1876), 3:67. Walpole was referring to Pliny, Roman naturalist, encyclopedist and writer (A.D. 23–79), who is the major source on Roman gardens. He describes the work of George London (active 1681–1714) and partner Henry Wise (1653–1738), British landscape designers. They were the most important designers during the period of William III, Prince of Orange, creator of Het Loo (1686–95), the masterpiece of Dutch style landscape design, view on Zotero.
  2. Joseph M. Levine, “John Evelyn: Between the Ancients and the Moderns,” in John Evelyn’s “Elysium Britannicum” and European Gardening, ed. T. O’Malley and J. Wolschke-Bulmahn (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1998), 57–78, view on Zotero.
  3. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, The Virginia Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1795-1798, 2 vols., ed. Edward C. Carter II (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 1:165 view on Zotero.
  4. See William H. Pierson Jr., American Buildings and Their Architects: Technology and the Picturesque, the Corporate and the Early Gothic Styles (New York: Doubleday, 1978), 8, view on Zotero.
  5. Anonymous, “The State and Prospects of Horticulture,” Horticulturist 6, no. 12 (December 1851): 540.
  6. See Therese O’Malley, “Picturesque Plan for the Mall,” in The Mall in Washington, 1791–1991, ed. Richard Longstreth (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1991), 61–78, view on Zotero.
  7. A. J. [Andrew Jackson] Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1849), 92, view on Zotero.
  8. A. J. [Andrew Jackson] Downing, "Notices on the State and Progress of Horticulture in the United States,” The Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs, 3, no. 1 (January 1837): 1–10, view on Zotero.
  9. W., “An account of the Lowell Cemetery, its Situation, Historical Associations, and particular description,” The Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs 8, no. 2 (February 1842): 47–50, view on Zotero.
  10. A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America . . . , 4th ed. (1849; repr., Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1991), view on Zotero.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. George Watterston, “Landscape Gardening,” Southern Literary Messenger, 10 (May 1844): 306–15, view on Zotero.
  14. Jane Loudon, Gardening for Ladies; and Companion to the Flower-Garden, ed. A. J. Downing (New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1845), view on Zotero.
  15. William H. Ranlett, The Architect, 2 vols. (1849–51; repr., New York: Da Capo, 1976), view on Zotero.
  16. George Jaques, “Landscape Gardening in New-England,” The Horticulturist and journal of rural art and rural taste 7, no. 1 (January 1852): 33–36, view on Zotero.

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