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History of Early American Landscape Design

Ancient style

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The term ancient did not refer simply to garden design of antiquity but was used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth 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. 2–4].

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 seventeenth century.2 In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- century garden theory, landscape art was divided into one or the other general ategory. A. J. Downing’s A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849) opens with a vignette illustrating these two modes [Fig. 5]. The geometric and regular gardens associated with premodern styles, such as the Dutch, French, and Italian [Fig. 6], 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 squares, and boxed with great precision. For the first time since I left Germany, I saw here a parterre, clipped 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.” At the end of the eighteenth 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 [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.

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. Espoused by theorists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth 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.

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.3 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.4 In fact, according to a writer in 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, D.C.5

In his description of “Plantations in the Ancient Style” [Fig. 8], 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.” 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.6 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 (see Modern style).

-- Therese O'Malley


  • Quincy, Josiah, 3 May 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” (Magazine of Horticulture 3: 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 Lowell Cemetery,” Lowell, Mass. (Magazine of Horticulture 8: 49)
“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.”

  • Downing, A. J., 1849, describing Belmont Mansion, estate of Judge William Peters, near Philadelphia, Pa.; Lemon Hill, estate of Henry Pratt, Philadelphia, Pa.; and Clermont, estate of Robert R. Livingston, Germantown, N.Y. (pp. 42–44)
“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.”




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