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History of Early American Landscape Design

Vase/Urn

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History

The term vase typically referred to a freestanding, symmetrical vessel having a wider mouth than foot [Fig. 1], although some British pattern books included types with narrow mouths and elaborate lids [Fig. 2]. If fitted with a foot or pedestal set on either a small base or plinth, the vessel sometimes was referred to as an urn. Throughout history, ashes of the dead have been deposited in urns, giving them symbolic importance. Frequently urns were used for memorials and monuments, especially in cemeteries [Fig. 3]. In the context of the designed landscape, treatise writers often strongly recommended that the vase be placed on top of a pedestal or plinth so that it would be easily visible. A. J. Downing elaborated upon this point in an 1836 article about architecture and at greater length in his 1849 treatise, when he explained that without such a placement, the vase would appear as a temporary, accidental introduction to the landscape. A permanent base, in his opinion, gave the vase the “character of art, at once more dignified and expressive of stability” [Fig. 4].

Vases functioned primarily as ornamentation and were associated with a number of garden features. In his eighteenth-century treatise, A.-J. Dézallier d’Argenville suggested that vases could be used to decorate parterres, placed amidst planting features (such as groves) or in water features (such as basins), situated at the termination of walks and vistas, or housed within structures (such as porticos and arbors).

Vases continued to be featured in ornamental landscapes well into the nineteenth century, despite many changes in garden design. A painting of Kalorama, for example, depicts a vase at the center of the view [Fig. 5]. The connection between vases and water features continued as well. Downing’s texts, for example, contain numerous references to vases as fountains. The strategic placement of vases in pleasure grounds also endured. At the early nineteenth-century estate of Blithewood in Dutchess County, N.Y., vases of grey Maltese stone (which Downing praised for its ability to harmonize with vegetation) were used throughout the pleasure grounds and, in particular, at the corners of adjoining walks. Vases were also used at the termination of walks, where they served as visual focal points as in a suburban garden design described in 1848 in the Horticulturalist.

Treatise authors from different periods agreed that the vase should never be placed far from the house. Thomas Whately, in his 1770 treatise, insisted that the vase “attendthe mansion, and trespass a little upon the garden.” In 1849 Downing reiterated Whately’s idea, explaining that since the vase was a “highly artificial and architectural” object, it must be situated in the pleasure ground in such a manner that it would always “appear in some way connected with buildings, or objects of a like architectural character.” He cautioned further that vases be used judiciously. If placed “indiscriminately . . . where they have really no place, but interfere with the quiet character of surrounding nature,” vases ran the danger of destroying the “unity of expression” that Downing and others sought.

The function and placement of the vase was closely connected to its style and form. As several treatise writers counseled, vases should be stylistically consistent with their settings and, when placed near the house, should reflect the architectural character of the structure, such as Gothic, Grecian, Roman, or Italianate styles. In nineteenth-century treatises, vases in the classical or ancient style emerged as the most popular. A favored model was the Warwick Vase, a carved and decorated white marble vase from Hadrian’s Villa. The vase was recovered from the Roman site in 1770 by the Englishman William Hamilton and was subsequently taken to England by his nephew, George, Earl of Warwick. At Montgomery Place, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis and Downing in the 1840s, a Warwick-style vase was placed in the center of the flower garden [Fig. 6]. In 1849, Downing described the popular option of the rustic-style vase, in which the vessel was made out of the “branches and sections of trees with the bark attached.”

Outdoor vases were usually large in scale, two to three feet in height. They could be composed of a variety of materials, such as cast-brass, lead gilt, marble, stone and stucco, according to Dézallierd’Argenville. Downing, writing nearly one hundred and fifty years later, gave an equally wide-ranging list, including stone, artificial stone, plaster, and Roman cement. He also cited inexpensive materials intended to imitate luxury materials, such as terra-cotta and English Staffordshire, which could be treated to emulate marble. Downing’s allusion to Staffordshire pottery suggests the near-dominant presence of refined British pottery in America. Nevertheless, he mentioned several American manufacturers that produced vases and noted especially such New York manufacturers as the Salamander Works, the Garnick Company, and Coffee’s Manufactory.

Vases were also used as plant containers, as indicated in Augustus Weidenbach’s c. 1858 painting of the garden at Belvedere in Baltimore [Fig. 7], or in C. M. Hovey’s 1839 description of a greenhouse or conservatory. Nevertheless, large-scale, ornamental vases were often regarded as works of art, and, therefore, as J. C. Loudon argued, cited by Downing in 1849, they should not be reduced to the level of “a mere garden flower-pot.”

-- Anne L. Helmreich

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