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History of Early American Landscape Design

Pleasure ground/Pleasure garden

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(Ornamented Grounds, Ornamental Grounds)


In colonial and federal America, pleasure ground typically denoted an ornamented landscape composed of lawn, trees, shrubs, flowers, intersecting walks, and decorative structures. The designation was employed in reference to both private and public landscapes catering to pleasure and amusement, including the public park or mall and the grounds of wealthy estates (see Mall and Park). The terms "ornamented grounds" or "ornamental grounds" also were used in reference to these designed landscapes, although with much less frequency than "pleasure ground" or simply "ground." The single word "ground," or "grounds," was used in reference to areas surrounding a house, but did not necessarily distinguish between ornamental and utilitarian or agricultural spaces.

Although defined with slight variations in treatises, the pleasure ground was consistently associated with beauty, order, and the improvement of nature. As such, the feature was promoted frequently as an ideal complement to a well-designed house, as Benjamin Henry Latrobe insisted in 1805. Typically located in close proximity to the house, the pleasure ground was visible and easily accessible from prominent rooms of the house. British landscape designer Humphry Repton occasionally described the pleasure ground as "dressed," which underscores the term's reference to an improved part of the landscape.

Pleasure ground was also a term applied to public gardens [Fig. 1]. The term implied both ornament and outdoor enjoyment, explaining its frequent use in relation to urban parks. Assigning the term to such spaces signaled that they were treated aesthetically, designed in accord with principles used in private grounds. This parallel was relevant particularly for spaces that had been formerly utilitarian. For example, when Boston Common was redesigned into a public park, various contemporary speakers described the resulting space as a pleasure ground in order to reaffirm its shift in use from a site for husbandry to one of public amusement and enjoyment (see Common).[1] Commons, in fact, typically had been used for activities such as grazing or bivouacking.

The term appears to have come into general use in the late eighteenth century. It is related to the term pleasure garden, used by such treatise writers as A.-J. Dézallier d'Argenville (1712) to describe ornamented landscapes that included parterres, groves, grass plots, arbors, fountains, and cascades.[2] The terms were relatively interchangeable in the nineteenth century, as indicated by Charles Drayton's 1806 use of the phrase "pleasure ground or garden" to describe the designed landscape at the Woodlands near Philadelphia, and by treatise writer Bernard M'Mahon, who in the same year referred to the "Pleasure, or Flower-Garden, or Pleasure-ground." By the time George William Johnson published his dictionary in 1847, however, pleasure ground had emerged as the preferred of the two terms. Although his definition listed exactly the same features as those catalogued by Dézallier d'Argenville, Johnson chose to associate these with the term "pleasure ground."

The lack of distinction between pleasure grounds and pleasure gardens resulted from their shared function and shared materials. Both catered to sensual and visual pleasure, and both utilized flowers and shrubs, which were also used in flower gardens and shrubberies. The distinguishing characteristic of the pleasure ground appears to have been its larger size. A flower garden or shrubbery could, for example, be encompassed within a pleasure ground, but not the reverse. A pleasure ground might thus include lawns, woods, and water, in addition to shrubs and flowers. As John Abercrombie and James Mean explained in 1817, the pleasure ground should be a judicious mixture and balance of flower garden, lawn, and shrubbery, in emulation of "the moderation with which nature scatters her ornaments."

In keeping with the use of the pleasure ground as a display for ornamental plants, a marked interest in shrubs and trees can be detected in numerous accounts of American pleasure grounds. For example, David Meade's (1793) pleasure ground featured forest and fruit trees; William Hamilton's (1802) pleasure ground at the Woodlands included copses "of native trees, interspersed with artificial groves . . . set with trees collected from all parts of the world"; and Judge Peters's (1849) pleasure ground was known for its "rarest trees and shrubs." For the pleasure grounds at the national Mall in Washington, D.C., Downing proposed a "picturesque" scheme "thickly planted with the rarest trees and shrubs, to give greater seclusion and beauty to its immediate precincts."[3] In addition to displaying plant material and providing an appropriately ornamented setting for the house, pleasure grounds provided spaces for walks. Englishman Augustus John Foster (1807), for example, attributed the lack of pleasure grounds in Virginia to a lack of appreciation for walking outdoors.

Although the pleasure ground was easily conflated with other ornamental features, it was considered distinct from utilitarian areas of the grounds, such as kitchen gardens. (See, for example, references from J. C. Loudon [1826] and Jane Loudon [1845].) The decoration of pleasure grounds reinforced the distinction between the utilitarian and the ornamental; in 1804 Thomas Jefferson, for example, noted that garden temples were more appropriate to the pleasure ground than to the kitchen garden. Other ornamental structures found in pleasure grounds included summerhouses (also called pleasure houses), trellises, bowers, and rustic seats.

Decorative objects and structures were important not only as ornaments to the pleasure grounds, but also as markers of particular styles, as Jane Loudon argued in 1845. Loudon and Bernard M'Mahon (1806) distinguished pleasure grounds executed in the ancient style from those done in the modern style. The former was characterized by geometric design and the latter by broad curving sweeps of vegetation assembled in imitation of rural nature (see Ancient style and Modern style).

The modern style of pleasure ground described by Loudon and M'Mahon bore a strong resemblance to a park, which also displayed clumps of trees and swatches of grass (see Park). Some designers preferred distinct boundaries between the two features. In his 1803 treatise, Repton advocated separating the pleasure ground from the park by a wall that would prevent passers-by from looking into the private realm of the house. In his 1807 plan for the White House, Latrobe proposed that a road divide the adjacent public park from the inner sanctum of the presidentÕs pleasure grounds [Fig. 2]. Devices such as hedges, live fences, stone walls, palisade fences, and iron fences were also proposed as boundary markers.

Other designers obliterated any division between pleasure ground and park. MÕMahon, in his extensive definition of pleasure grounds, argued that the precinct of the pleasure ground might include adjacent fields and parks. To that same end, Downing (1849), like many of his British predecessors, proposed using a ha-ha to blend visually the pleasure ground with the park beyond (see Ha-Ha).




<references / >

  1. Also see A.J. Downing's writings between 1850 and 1851 about public parks and his plans for the Mall in Washington, D.C. The latter included a pleasure ground in front of the Smithsonian Institution, to be filled with ornamental plantings and a monumental park.
  2. A.-J. Dézallier d'Argenville, The Theory and Practice of Gardening, trans. John James (Farnborough, England: Gregg International, 1969), 1-2.
  3. Therese O'Malley, "'A Public Museum of Trees': Mid-Nineteenth Century Plans for the Mall," in The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991, ed. Richard Longstreth (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1991), 68.

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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Pleasure ground/Pleasure garden," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Pleasure_ground/Pleasure_garden&oldid=10631 (accessed June 9, 2023).

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