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History of Early American Landscape Design

Labyrinth

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See also: Walk, Wilderness

Definition

Although labyrinth was the term of choice for professional writers such as Thomas Sheridan (1789), who described it as “a place formed with inextricable windings,” the term was virtually synonymous with that of “maze” in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gardening literature, as well as in general usage.[1] Samuel Johnson, for example, in 1755 defined labyrinth as “a maze.” The winding walks referred to by Johnson and other garden writers (such as Philip Miller and Bernard M’Mahon) were the distinguishing feature of labyrinths. This characteristic was also clear in illustrations from English garden treatises that were available in North America [Figs. 1–3]. These sharply turning walkways were frequently framed by dense, high hedges, and often backed by shrubs and woods that occluded the perambulator’s view (see Walk). A visitor’s perception was affected by the combination of dense vegetation and intricately patterned walks, which produced an intentional state of disorientation and surprise. If the visitor succeeded in penetrating to the center of the labyrinth, he or she was typically rewarded by arriving at an ornamented space, often highlighted with a garden structure, such as an obelisk, a temple, or a seat. Thomas Jefferson (1804) suggested such a design in his reference to a thicket labyrinth.

Gardeners and garden writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mentioned a broad range of vegetation that could be used to construct this garden feature. Hannah Callender(1762) referred to cedar and spruce that were maintained as a hedge; George Washington mentioned pine; Jefferson specified broom; and John Pendleton Kennedy reminisced about boxwood. M’Mahon recommended hedges of hornbeam (a nut-bearing tree), beech, elm, “or any other kind that can be kept neat by clipping,” or, in the case of smaller labyrinths, box edged with plants. All of these materials could produce the desired density and could also, because of either thickness or prickly texture, prevent visitors from wandering off the carefully laid out paths. Because these plants also tolerated trimming well, the edges of walks could be cleanly demarcated. At times, nonliving material was substituted for living hedges and borders. At New Harmony, for example, four-foot-high wooden fences covered with various climbing vines were used to define the walks.

Many of the plants utilized in labyrinths were also employed in wildernesses, as was the technique of planting low hedges or borders backed by trees and shrubs (see Wilderness). Hence, many garden writers conflated labyrinth and wilderness, as in the case of John Parkinson (1629). The labyrinth at times was referred to as a specialized form of wilderness, for example M’Mahon (1806). Although Batty Langley, in New Principles of Gardening (1728), referred to wildernesses and labyrinths as separate features, he treated them similarly, placing them in remote regions of gardens and even balancing one against another, as in the plan for an improved garden at Twickenham. His description of this garden specified the location of the labyrinth, among the grove and wilderness, seen above the statue in the plan [Fig. 4]. He described the “Improvement of the Labyrinth at Versailles” [Fig. 5] as “the finest design of any” that he had ever seen.

  1. For a general discussion of labyrinths in gardens, with illustrated examples, see Adrian Fisher and George Gester, Labyrinth, Solving the Riddle of Maze (New York: Harmony Books, 1990).

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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Labyrinth," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Labyrinth&oldid=2114 (accessed September 28, 2021).

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