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History of Early American Landscape Design

Pot

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History

The plant or flower pot was a flat-bottomed, tubular container that was usually conical in profile, with little ornamentation [Fig. 1]. Pots contrasted with larger and more decorative or sculptural urns and vases also used to grow garden plants (see Vase).1 Flower pots, however, could be ornamented in subtle ways. For example, recent archaeological evidence reveals the use of “notched-rim” flower pots and flower pots with “neoclassical rouletting” at Monticello. At Williamsburg, Va., other forms have been found. These include a pot dated c. 1740 with a folded rim sloping downward, a later pot with a “triangular-sectioned rim and a cordon immediately below it,” another ornamented with “a shield of arms cast in relief and roughly similar to that of Queen Anne,” and another with “several winged cherubic faces.”2 Rembrandt Peale’s 1801 portrait of his brother, Rubens, depicts an ornamented flower pot with a scored line and a braid just below its lip [Fig. 2]. Such attention to ornament sometimes extended to saucers that accompanied pots to collect water that drained from them.3 The size, type, and decoration of such containers depended upon function and plant type, and descriptions of them abound in nineteenth-century treatises. J. C. Loudon’s An Encyclopedia of Gardening (1826), for instance, included specifications for several types of pots, including those designed for the propagation of specialized plant types, such as aquatics.

Generally, pots were made of earthenware, clay-fired at low temperatures, and were covered with lead glaze or left unglazed. Occasionally, stoneware (coarse pottery made of clay that contained large amounts of silica, flint, and sand) and Chinese porcelain (translucent stoneware) were used. In eighteenth-century America, coarse earthenware (typically made from red clay) was chiefly produced in the Northeast. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the number of American manufacturers producing flower pots increased, as did the range of goods they produced. In the Northeast, potters were limited by coarser clays and continued working in the earthenware tradition. Further south, especially in places like New Jersey, Ohio, and Virginia, potters increasingly turned to stoneware in the production of flower pots, thus resulting in much regional variation.4

The use of glaze or paint was one point of disagreement. In 1834, seedsman Grant Thorburn, reflecting back upon his career, claimed that painting flower pots green attracted customers. British author George William Johnson underscored the usefulness of painting and glazing—both of which resulted in a glassy finish—because they helped seal in water and thus keep plant roots “more uniformly moist and warm.” On the other hand, English gardener Jane Loudon claimed that it was preferable to use porous material that allowed water to escape. Frequent treatise citations about glazed pots, however, suggest that glazed, painted, and other forms of decorated pots were quite important “embellishments,” to use A. J. Downing’s term, for the garden.

Pots could be moved easily within a space or transferred from indoors to outdoors [Fig. 3]. William Hamilton, for example, occasionally rearranged his pots according to size in his green- or hothouse and, in good weather, moved them out to a nearby yard. In the painted views of Thomas Say’s garden in New Harmony, Ind. [Fig. 4], and of the Friends Almshouse in Philadelphia [Fig. 5], the artists depict potted plants scattered about the garden as decorative elements in the scene. In a letter to his son Rembrandt, Charles Willson Peale commended his botanist son Rubens for his display of pots around a basin and then painted them in his view of Belfield. At the Moreau House in Morrisville, Pa., as represented by Anne-Marguerite-Henriette Rouillé de Marigny Hyde de Neuville in 1809, potted plants were used to ornament the barrier demarcating the drive to the house [Fig. 6]. The frequent use of pots in portraits and house views suggests they were an essential part of gardening, becoming emblematic in places where horticulture was seriously pursued. In contrast, vases and urns in gardens and views of gardens were associated with classical culture.

Pots were closely related to boxes or cases. Square containers, often made of wood, were used to house small shrubs and trees, such as oranges, laurels, or myrtles. Boxes, as opposed to pots, could accommodate larger plants and many illustrations of American gardens portray trees in such containers placed in front of structures like piazzas (as at George Washington’s Mount Vernon) [Fig. 7] and in the garden itself as in the view of Springland, William Russell Birch’s estate near Bristol, Pa. [Fig. 8].

-- Anne L. Helmreich

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