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History of Early American Landscape Design


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In the discourse of landscape design, seat possessed two distinct yet equally prevalent meanings, as indicated by Thomas Sheridan’s 1789 dictionary entry. One sense referred to seat as a large estate, usually marked by a country house or mansion, for example, William Hamilton’s Woodlands, near Philadelphia; or Gen. Charles Ridgely’s Hampton, in Baltimore County, Md. A seat was also a garden structure for sitting.

The meaning of seat as estate was exemplified in colonial America by William Byrd II’s Westover, on the James River, Va., and Henry Pratt’s Lemon Hill in Philadelphia [Fig. 1]. Such country houses were often featured in portraits that flattered the owner and signaled to the public that the colonies and new republic were home to a cultured elite rivaling that of Great Britain. These images typically located the house at the center of the property, with the landscape and various outbuildings extending beyond it. This placement, which communicated the importance of the house as the base of operations for the landowner, was a visual shorthand for the landowner’s affluence and power. Observers such as William Hugh Grove (1732) and Thomas Gwatkin (1770) often likened seats to small villages. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the community-like aspects of seats were downplayed in favor of their rural associations, which contrasted sharply with the increasingly crowded conditions of America’s cities. English emigré William Russell Birch, in his series The Country Seats of the United States of America (1808), depicted the homes of the mid- Atlantic elite situated in naturalistic landscapes in emulation of British tableaux [Fig. 2].[1]

As a category of garden furniture, seat could refer to either the object upon which one sat [Fig. 3] or the structure housing such objects [Fig. 4]. Accounts found in foreign treatises available in America (such as those by A.-J. Dézallier D’Argenville, Isaac Ware, William Marshall, Humphry Repton, and John Abercrombie) focused on seats as places of rest, terminations to walks, or vantage points from which to contemplate views. Like other garden structures, such as pavilions or summerhouses, seats influenced the viewer’s experience of the garden by providing points of rest that framed vistas in the garden and views beyond. The use of seats to direct one’s route through a garden was demonstrated by A. J. Downing in his 1847 description of Montgomery Place, Dutchess County, N.Y. Downing noted the placement of various seats and related views that he encountered on the course of his walk through the grounds. Many other garden observers, including Henry Wansey (1794), John Cosens Ogden (1800), and Eliza Caroline Burgwin Clitherall (active 1801), also commented upon the interrelationships between seats, walks, and views. Popular gardening journals likewise recommended placing seats along walks. For example, in 1841 Alexander Walsh proposed a number of seats in a garden design published in The New England Farmer. Two seats were situated at cross-walks and another two were ensconced in an arched arbor, placed alongside the main axial walk.

Garden seats took on a variety of forms. In the eighteenth century, European and British pattern books and design manuals such as James Gibbs’s A Book of Architecture (1728) were an important source for American seat designs [Fig. 5]. Drawings by Thomas Jefferson and by his granddaughter, Cornelia Jefferson Randolph [Fig. 6], demonstrate the influence of William Kent’s designs on garden furniture, which appeared in William Chambers’s Plans, Elevations, Sections and Perspective Views of the Gardens and Buildings at Kew in Surrey (1763), a volume that Jefferson owned.[2]

Seat designs could be differentiated by national and historical styles, as well as by placement and function. Batty and Thomas Langley, for instance, proposed a seat in keeping with the Gothic style in their 1747 text about Gothic architecture [Fig. 7]. J. C. Loudon, in An Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1826), distinguished among seats found inside garden buildings, roofed seats that could be either fixed or portable, and those lacking any sort of roof. Loudon explained that in form, seats could be simple (like the trunk of a tree) or more complex (such as a cast-iron couch with decorative treatment). These distinctions were echoed by Jane Loudon in Gardening for Ladies (1845), a book that was co-edited by Downing in America.

In A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849), Downing himself provided an extensive illustrated typology of seat styles, emphasizing the propriety of certain styles for different landscapes. For example, he believed that Grecian or Gothic seats were appropriate for elegant grounds, whereas rustic seats were more suited to the irregular aesthetic of the landscape garden. Such rustic seats were quite popular in the nineteenth century, as suggested by the discussion of them in horticultural journals, such as the Horticultural Register, and in descriptions by both treatise writers and observers of the American landscape. See, for example, Thomas Bridgeman (1832), Edward Sayers (1838), Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie (1839), C. M. Hovey (1840), and Georges Jaques (1852).

--- Anne L. Helmreich





  1. Emily Tyson Cooperman, “William Russell Birch (1755–1834) and the Beginnings of the American Picturesque” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1999). See also Emily T. Cooperman, introduction to The Country Seats of the United States of North America, by William Russell Birch (1808; reprint, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2009).
  2. William Bainter O’Neal, Jefferson’s Fine Arts Library: His Selections for the University of Virginia Together with His Own Architectural Books (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976), 57.

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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Seat," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Seat&oldid=7578 (accessed March 28, 2023).

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