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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



  • Murray, William, 18 June 1753, in a letter to his cousin, John Murray, describing Murraywhaite, home of John Murray, Charleston, S.C. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
“By all means mention the fine Improvements of your garden & the fine avenues you’ve raised near the spot where you’r to build your new house. I hope you’ll raise it in the English Taste. . . . You’ll certainly dig a Fish pond & another for geese & Ducks & one Swan. . . . I hope you’ll raise it [the garden] in the English Taste & Leave near it proper accommodations for Hogs & Poultry to be hatched after the Chinese fashion.”

  • Morse, Jedidiah, 1789, describing Mount Ver.non, plantation of George Washington, Fairfax County, Va. ([1789] 1970: 381)
“On either wing is a thick grove of different, flowering forest trees. Parallel with them, on the land side, are two spacious gardens, into which one is led by serpentine gravel-walks, planted with weeping willows and shady shrubs. . . . A lofty portico, 96 feet in length, supported by eight pil.lars, has a pleasing effect when viewed from the water; and the toute ensemble (the whole assem.blage), of the green-house, school-house, offices and servants halls, when seen from the land side, bears a resemblance to a rural village—especially as the lands in that side are laid out somewhat in the form of English gardens, in meadows and grass grounds, ornamented with little copses, cir.cular clumps and single trees.” [Fig. 1]

  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry, 14 June 1796, describing Horsdumonde, house of Col. Henry Skipwith, Cumberland County, Va. (quoted in Carter, Van Horne, and Brownell 1985: 80–81)
“In other respects there is a great deal of worldly beauty and convenience about it. The house is a strange building, but whoever contrived it, and from whatever planet he came he was not a Lunatic, for there is much comfort and room in it, though put together very oddly. Before the South front is a range of hills wooded very much in the Stile of an English park. To the East runs the Apo.matox to which a lawn extends.” [Fig. 2]

  • Niemcewicz, Julian Ursyn, 9 June 1798, describing Mount Vernon, plantation of George Washington, Fairfax County, Va. (quoted in Nor.ton and Schrage-Norton 1985: 144)
“One sees also in the garden lilies, roses, pinks, etc. The path which runs all around. . . . In a word the garden, the plantations, the house, the whole upkeep, proves that a man born with natural taste can divine the beautiful without having seen the model. The Gl. has never left America. After see.ing his house and his gardens one would say that he had seen the most beautiful examples in England of this style.”

  • Codman, Dr. John, 18 July 1800, in a letter to Mrs. Codman, describing the Grange, estate of Dr. John and Sarah Codman, Lincoln, Mass. (Ham.mond 1982: 170)
“Mrs. Gore and myself have been planning improvements at Lincoln, she says it is the hand.somest place in America and might be made a l’Anglaise with ease. I like her plan that the fore-yard should be thrown down into a lawn that car.riages may drive to the front door.”

  • Clitherall, Eliza Caroline Burgwin, active 1801, describing the Hermitage, seat of John Burg-win, Wilmington, N.C. (quoted in Flowers 1983: 125)
“The Gardens were large, and laid out in the English style—a Creek wound thro’ the largest, upon its banks grew native shrubbery; in this Gar.den were several Alcoves, Summer Houses, a hot.house—an Octagon summer house high and a Gardener’s tool house beneath—a fishpond, communicating with the Creek, both producing abundance of fish—The Second Garden was orna.mental, and in front—The ‘Cook’s Garden,’ was on the opposite side to the large.”

  • Michaux, François André, 1802, describing the Woodlands, seat of William Hamilton, near Philadelphia, Pa. (1805: 27)
“The absence of Mr. W. Hamilton deprived me of the pleasure of seeing him. I visited his magnificent garden, situated by the side of the Schuylkill, four miles from Philadelphia. His col.lection of exotic plants is very considerable, par.ticularly in those from New Holland. All the trees and shrubs of the United States, at least those which can support the winter in the open air at Philadelphia, are distributed among the groves of an English garden. It would be difficult to meet with a situation more agreeable than that of Mr. Hamilton’s residence.” [Fig. 3]

  • Jefferson, Thomas, July 1806, in a letter to William Hamilton, describing plans for Monti.cello, plantation of Thomas Jefferson, Char.lottesville, Va. (1944: 323)
“The grounds which I destine to improve in the style of the English gardens are in a form very difficult to be managed. They compose the north.ern quadrant of a mountain for about 2/3 of its height & then spread for the upper third over its whole crown. They contain about three hundred acres, washed at the foot for about a mile, by a river of the size of the Schuylkill. The hill is gener.ally too steep for direct ascent, but we make level walks successively along it’s side, which in its upper part encircle the hill & intersect these again by others of easy ascent in various parts. They are chiefly still in their native woods, which are majes.tic, and very generally a close undergrowth, which I have not suffered to be touched, knowing how much easier it is to cut away than to fill up. The upper third is chiefly open, but to the South is covered with a dense thicket of Scotch broom . . . which being favorably spread before the sun will admit of advantageous arrangement for winter enjoyment. You are sensible that this disposition of the ground takes from me the first beauty in gardening, the variety of hill & dale, & leaves me as an awkward substitute a few hanging hollows & ridges, this subject is so unique and at the same time refractory, that to make a disposition analo.gous to its character would require much more of the genius of the landscape painter & gardener than I pretend to. . . . Should I be there you will have an opportunity of indulging on a new field some of the taste which has made the Woodlands the only rival which I have known in America to what may be seen in England.”

  • Boudinot, Elias, 1809, describing the garden of Stephen Higginson, Brookline, Mass. (quoted in Emmet 1996: 9)
“The grounds around [the house] laid out much in the English style—The Shrubbery & For.est Trees extremely well arranged—The Walks beautifully romantic—The Kitchen garden at a distance, & thro’ Which Walks wind so as to extend them about a quarter of a mile, all bor.dered with Grapes & Flowers.”

  • Foster, Sir Augustus John, 1812, describing Montpelier, plantation of James Madison, Mont.pelier Station, Va. (1954: 142)
“There are some very fine woods about Mont.pellier, but no pleasure grounds, though Mr. Madison talks of some day laying out space for an English park, which he might render very beauti.ful from the easy graceful descent of his hills into the plains below.”

  • Hovey, C. M., September 1840, “Notes on Gar.dens and Gardening, in New Bedford, Mass.,” describing the estate of James Arnold, New Bed.ford, Mass. (Magazine of Horticulture 6: 363)
“Mr. Arnold’s grounds are decidedly the most ornamental that we have ever seen, and convey to those who have not a good conception of the modern or English style of gardening, a better idea of what this style consists in, than they could learn by reading a hundred descriptions of the same.”

  • Hovey, C. M., November 1841, describing the res.idence of Mr. Downing, Newburgh, N.Y. (Maga.zine of Horticulture 7: 402)
“Mr. Downing’s house is situated on the upper piece, or that farthest from the river, and the annexed ground plan represents a portion of this lot, laid out in the modern or English style.” [Fig. 4]

  • Earle, Pliny, 1845, describing the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane, New York, N.Y. (Hawkins 1991: 89)
“a liberal space, which is laid out and planted in one of the most approved styles of English gar.dening. This having been done in the earliest years of the institution, the trees, of which there is a great variety, have many of them attained their full growth; and as, from year to year, deficiencies have been supplied and the variety increased, the grounds will favorably compare with most in the country.” [Fig. 5]

  • Lyell, Sir Charles, 1849, describing Natchez, Miss. (1849: 2:153)
“Many of the country-houses in the neighbor.hood are elegant, and some of the gardens belong.ing to them laid out in the English, others in the French style. In the latter are seen terraces, with statues and cut evergreens, straight walks with bor.ders of flowers, terminated by views into the wild forest, the charms of both being heightened by con.trast. Some of the hedges are made of that beautiful North American plant, the Gardenia, miscalled in England the Cape jessamine, others of the Chero.kee rose, with its bright and shining leaves.”




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