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

Bowling green

[http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/research/casva/research-projects.html A Project of the National Gallery of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts ]
Revision as of 16:15, January 6, 2016 by B-zweig (talk | contribs) (→‎History)


The term bowling green is derived from its frequent association with the turfed, circular space used for ball games popular in Europe and America. European garden treatises, such as A.-J. Dézallier d’Argenville’s Theory and Practice of Gardening (1712), noted that the term “bowling green” denoted several, interrelated meanings: a sunken, generally round, turfed lawn; a close-cropped playing field for bowls; and a recessed turfed area in the midst of a parterre or grove. In America before 1850, the term “bowling green” encompassed each of these three definitions, often in combination, and was applied to both public and private spaces. As a resolution by the New York Common Council in 1733 suggests, the bowling green’s ornamental and recreational functions often were inseparable. The term is complicated by the fact that lawn bowling took place on spaces other than bowling greens. For example, in 1611, Sir Thomas Dale disapproved of the bowlers’ language as they played in the streets of Jamestown, Va., and an 1826 engraving of the University of Virginia shows students bowling between the pavilions on the lawn, which was neither sunken nor circular in shape [Fig. 1].1

The term “bowling green” in Anglo- American culture is clearly allied to its British counterpart, but the history of bowling greens as a landscape feature in the two countries differed in large part because of the fundamentally different social structure and land-holding practices in England. For instance, in England bowling was legally restricted to private gardens by the government, which feared archery was being neglected. By the time of the Civil War in 1688 “there were few gentry gardens which did not include a bowling green.”2

In early America, bowling was not restricted in the same way. While images of public bowling greens are relatively rare in the colonial period, descriptions indicate that public bowling greens, such as those in Williamsburg, Va., Boston, and New York contributed to the beauty of the town or city and provided a venue for social gatherings and recreation [Fig. 2]. As early as the 1670s, tavern owners in New York provided bowls, ninepins, or skittles for their customers, resulting in the Common Council’s passage in 1676 of new Sabbath laws, which declared “all and Every Wine and Rum or Beare Sellas [beer sellers] who shall permitt any Person Upon the Sabbath day to Drinke or Game In their houses Gardens or Yards Shall for ye first offense forfeict five and Twenty Guildars.” 3 Bowling greens toward the end of the eighteenth century were commonly operated at taverns, hotels, and public pleasure grounds as part of the growing competition for public entertainment.4 The Centre House Tavern at Centre Square in Philadelphia and Chatsworth Garden in Baltimore are two such examples. As the popularity of bowling declined in the early nineteenth century, public greens that had been used for sport often kept their names and became small enclosed parks, such as Bowling Green at the end of Broadway in New York [Fig. 3].

The flat, open space of a bowling green also made it ideal for other recreational purposes, such as a horse race held in Alexandria, Va., reported in 1790.

In private settings, as well, the bowling green combined ornament and recreation. The paucity of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century examples of bowling greens on private estates suggests that only those col o n i sts who had subst a nt i al reso u r c e s , such as Wi lliam By rd II and Wi lliam Middleto n , de voted the labor and space necessary to construct the turfed greens. It has been argued t hat gente e l sports—such as lawn bowling, fencing, and riding—in developing their particular rules, modes of performance, and conventions, helped to define the colonial social structure.5 In the second half of the eighteenth century, the practice of constructing bowling greens on estates of the economic and political elite grew as more gentry had the luxury of expending their efforts on ornamental and recreational landscape features. Examples include Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest in Bedford County, Va., Charles and Margaret Tilghman Carroll’s plantation, Mount Clare, in Baltimore, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The praise garnered by these landscape features suggests that bowling greens carried with them connotations of leisure and sophistication and that they were visible markers of their owners’ status.

According to visual and textual evidence, bowling greens varied in their physical form and placement within the ga rden. One exa mple of a bowling green de pic ted as a recessed a r ea can be found in Charles Varlé’s design fo r t he town ofBath, in which he included a bow ling green within a parterre at “H” [Fi g. 4]. E l i za Lucas Pinckney in 1743 al so de sc r ibed t he bowling green as sunk be l ow thelevel of t he rest of the ga rden. Private bowling greens c o uld be cir cul a r, asat Mo u nt Vernon [Fi g. 5], or rectangular, as at the estate of John Penn in Philadelphia [Fig. 6], and they were generally near the house. Their flat, green swath of turf made an attractive foreground for a house and was related to the feature of lawns (see Lawn). In addition, the bowling green [Fig. 7] provided an excellent viewing platform from which to gaze over a prospect. In fact, by the second half of the eighteenth century, the term had entered the language of landscape description at a metaphorical level, when P. Campbell in 1793 referred to an area that was “flat as a bowling green.”







Retrieved from "https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Bowling_green&oldid=16536"

History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Bowling green," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Bowling_green&oldid=16536 (accessed December 1, 2022).

A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts

National Gallery of Art, Washington