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History of Early American Landscape Design

English style

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Several descriptions identified gardens in the English style or taste and then listed the very features that defined it: shrubberies, fine avenues, serpentine walks, flower beds, and lawns. Treatises tended more often to use the terms “modern style” or “landscape garden” to identify this same mode. The term “English” was used by J. C. Loudon in The Suburban Gardener, and Villa Companion (1838) in an entry about the history of gar.dens since the Renaissance. He, like many treatise authors before him, attributed the perfection of the natural or modern style of landscape gardening to the English in the first half of the eighteenth century. This tendency in garden literature led to the synonymous use of the words “English” and “modern” (or “natural”) style, even though the ancient or geometric style was practiced in England as well (see Modern style).

Loudon described the “vague general idea” of the English style, which he also referred to as the irregular or natural, to be one in which the grounds and plantations were formed in flowing lines in imitation of nature. He contrasted it to the geometrical style of landscape gardening, where the ground was laid out in straight lines. It was also used as an umbrella term covering the more subtle and complex modes of the picturesque, gardenesque, and rustic (see Gardenesque, Landscape gardening, Picturesque, and Rustic style).

A. J. Downing’s clear preference for the English style, and his conflation of it with the modern style, was repeated throughout his writing. The parallel association of French with ancient or geometric, another common trope of garden writing, often was played against the English style. Downing believed that the English lawn, which he claimed “had become proverb,” was superior to the French parterre. This idea prevailed in spite of the popularity of the natural style in the eigh.teenth and nineteenth centuries in France, a fashion of which he was well aware.

In 1800, Dr. Codman curiously used the French phrase “à l’anglaise” to describe the transformation of his estate in Lincoln, Mass., from the ancient to the modern (or natural) style. His use of French was ironic since he was opting for an English style in the renovation of his grounds. Downing wrote that the name “English” or “natural” style was used on the European continent for the style he called “modern.”

Downing recommended to his readers “The English Garden” (1772–81), a long poem by William Mason, the English poet and garden designer, because it detailed the history of the rise of the landscape garden and flower garden in England. Downing described it as “devoted to the improvement of Landscape Gardening in the modern or natural style.” In this passage, Downing brought together all the associated terms: English, modern, natural, and landscape gardening, which illustrated how fluid they were in meaning and interpretation.

-- Therese O'Malley






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