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History of Early American Landscape Design

Seat

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History

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

Texts

Usage

  • Anonymous, n.d., advertising design and construction services for parks and gardens (quoted in Chase 1973: 37–39): [3]
“Designs all sorts of Buildings, well suited to both town and country, Pavilions, Summer-Rooms, Seats for Gardens . . . also Water-houses for Parks . . . Eye Traps to represent a Building terminating a walk, or to hide some disagreeable Object, Rotundas, Colonades, Arcades, Studies in Parks or Gardens, Green Houses for the Preservation of Herbs.”
  • Strachey, William, 1612, describing the seats of Powhatan in Virginia (quoted in Wright and Freund 1967: 57) [4]
“He hath divers seates or howses, his Chief when we came into the Country was upon seat Pamunky-River, on the North side which we call Pembrook-side, called Werowocomaco, which by interpretacion signifyes Kings-howse.”
  • Byrd, William, II, c. 25 June 1729, describing Westover, seat of William Byrd II, on the James River, Va. (quoted in Tinling 1977: 1:410) [5]
“My habitation has the na[me of] the prettyest seat in this country.”
  • Grove, William Hugh, 1732, describing Williamsburg, Va. (quoted in Stiverson and Butler 1977: 26) [6]
“I went by ship up the [York] river, which has pleasant Seats on the Bank which Shew Like little villages, for having Kitchins, Dayry houses, Barns,

Stables, Store houses, and some of them 2 or 3 Negro Quarters all Seperate from Each other but near the mansion houses make a shew to the river of 7 or 8 distinct Tenements, tho all belong to one family.”

  • Anonymous, 17 August 1747, describing property for sale in Somerset County, N.J. (New York Gazette)
“TO BE SOLD, A pleasant Country Seat, fitting for a Gentleman or Store-keeper . . . a good Orchard, containing about 200 Apple Trees, and may be extended at Pleasure.”
  • Gwatkin, Prof. Thomas, 1770, describing the appearance of seats in Williamsburg, Va. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; hereafter CWF)
“And the huts of the Negroes which are situated round about give the seat of a substantial planter something of the Air of a small village.”
  • Rush, Dr. Benjamin, 15 July 1782, describing the country seat of John Dickinsen, near Philadelphia, Pa. (quoted in Caemmerer 1950: 87) [7]
“The ground contiguous to this shed was cut into beautiful walks and divided with cedar and pine branches into artificial groves. The whole, both the buildings and walks, were accommodated with seats.”
  • Shippen, Thomas Lee, 31 December 1783, describing Westover, seat of William Byrd III, on the James River, Va. (1952: n.p.) [8]
“I have markd some little crooked ugly figures for Gentlemen’s seats, which tho’ they do not beautify indeed the picture, add much to the prospect, about as many Seats are to be seen on the other side.” [Fig. 8]
  • Cutler, Rev. Manasseh, 13 July 1787, describing The Hills (later Lemon Hill), estate of Robert Morris, Philadelphia, Pa. (1987: 1:256–57) [9]
“We continued our route, in view of the Schuylkill, and up the river several miles, and took a view of a number of Country-seats, one belonging to Mr. R. Morris, the American financier, and who is said to be possessed of the greatest fortune in America. His country-seat is not yet completed, but it will be superb. It is planned on a large scale, the gardens and walks are extensive, and the villa, situated on an eminence, has a commanding prospect down the Schuylkill to the Delaware.”
  • G., L., 15 June [1788?], describing the Woodlands, seat of William Hamilton near Philadelphia, Pa. (quoted in Madsen 1989: 19)
“[The walks were] planted on each side with the most beautiful & curious flowers & shrubs. They are in some parts enclosed with the Lombardy poplar except here & there openings are left to give you a view of some fine trees or beautiful prospect beyond, & in others, shaded by arbours of the wild grape, or clumps of large trees under which are placed seats where you may rest yourself

& enjoy the cool air.”

Citations

Images

  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.
  3. David B. Chase, ‘The Beginnings of the Landscape Tradition in America’, Historic Preservation, 25 (1973), 34–41 view on Zotero
  4. Louis B. Wright and Virginia Freund, eds., The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania (1612) (Nendeln and Liechtenstein: Kraus, 1967) view on Zotero
  5. Marion Tinling, ed., The Correspondence of the Three William Byrds of Westover, Virginia, 1684-1776, 2 vols. (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1977)view on Zotero
  6. Gregory A. Stiverson and Patrick H. Butler III, eds., ‘Virginia in 1732: The Travel Journal of William Hugh Grove’, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 85 (1977), 18–44view on Zotero
  7. H. Paul Caemmerer, The Life of Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, Planner of the City Beautiful, The City of Washington (Washington, D.C.: National Republic Publishing Company, 1950). view on Zotero
  8. Thomas Lee Shippen, Westover Described in 1783: A Letter and Drawing Sent by Thomas Lee Shippen, Student of Law in Williamsburg, to His Parents in Philadelphia (Richmond, Va.: William Byrd Press, 1952). view on Zotero
  9. William Parker Cutler, Life, Journals, and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, LL. D (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1987). view on Zotero

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