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History of Early American Landscape Design

Modern style/Natural style

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Treatises usually defined the modern style in contrast to the ancient style (see Ancient style). The opening vignette from A. J. Downing’s A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849) clearly makes this point in its pairing of two contrasting views of garden design [Fig. 1]. On the left, the ancient style is represented by a bilaterally asymmetrical layout with a straight avenue bordered by rows of trees; whereas on the right, clusters of trees are irregularly arranged in the landscape, in harmony with natural surroundings. J. C. Loudon (1826) defined the modern style simply as a collection of irregular groups and masses placed around the house to unite it with the open lawn. This duality, which has continued since the seventeenth century, was known as the battle of the ancients and the moderns: an intellectual quarrel over the commitment to ancient authors and culture versus the interest in new science, inspired by the teachings of Francis Bacon. The reconciliation of the achievements in ancient rhetoric, oratory, poetry, and history with the new natural philosophy liberated from ancient authority marked aesthetic argument well into the nineteenth century. [1]

In 1806 Bernard M’Mahon stated that the modern style of gardening had overtaken the ancient, which then was almost abolished. Thus he provided both a chronological reference, as well as a formal comparison of the two styles. M’Mahon wrote that in contrast to the ancient mode, the modern form offered rural open spaces of varied forms, winding walks, and a variety of rural ground “in imitation of a natural assemblage.” Although this synonymous use of “modern” and natural style was consistent throughout the period, he emphasized that the modern style was more than an imitation of nature as an art resulting from the combination of art and nature. For him, variety, diversity in parts and shapes, views and boundaries were key elements in designing a garden in the modern taste.

Very often the term “natural style” was used as an alternative to “modern style” in landscape gardening. Downing, for example, claimed that in Europe the natural style was a term synonymous with not just the modern but also the English style. This style was characterized by its harmony with natural surroundings and thus was set in opposition to the artificial style [Fig. 2]. The duality of the terms “natural” and “artificial” seemed to be less frequently used than that of “modern” and “ancient,” or “natural” and “geometric.” Edgar Allan Poe was a prominent exception; in his short story, “The Landscape Garden” (1832), he used the terms “natural” and “artificial” exclusively to describe the two branches of landscape gardening.

Downing wrote that the modern style was carried to its greatest perfection in England. Although he referred to several English gardens in his Treatise, he did not mention any continental ones because the geometric style still prevailed there. [2] Downing recommended Horace Walpole’s “On Modern Gardening” (1780) because it was “devoted to the improvement of landscape Gardening in the modern or natural style.” [3]

Although he clearly preferred the modern style, Downing (1836) explained that in America, “where nature still riots unsubdued,” landed proprietors had to exercise a discriminating taste by taking advantage of the location and producing the style that would afford the greatest pleasure, whether modern or ancient. It is this openness to a myriad of garden styles that characterized the eclecticism of the early nineteenth century in American garden history.

In its usage, the modern style was presented either as a branch of landscape gardening or as synonymous with landscape gardening. It was also frequently used synonymously with natural or English styles. One of the qualities most admired in the modern style was variety, which André Parmentier in his 1828 article about picturesque gardening claimed “presents to you a constant change in scene.” His botanical gardens and nurseries were described several times as a premier example of “the most modern style.”

-- Therese O'Malley






  1. Joseph M. Levine, “John Evelyn: Between the Ancients and the Moderns,” in John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum and European Gardening, ed. Therese O’Malley and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1998), 57–78,view on Zotero.
  2. Judith Major, To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and American Landscape Gardening (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997), 42–43, view on Zotero.
  3. A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (New York and London: Wiley and Putnam; Boston: C. C. Little, 1841), 17, view on Zotero.

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