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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

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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Ancient style," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Ancient_style&oldid=8202 (accessed June 3, 2023).

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