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History of Early American Landscape Design


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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



McIntire, Samuel, 8 June 1795, describing a statement of account with Elias Hasket Derby (quoted in Kimball 1940: 74)

“1793 Dec 4th to Sundrie Drawings for Summer Houses @ 24/ £1: 4: 1794 Apl 25 to Carving 4 Vases for the Summer House at 18/s each 3: 18: July to Building the Summer House at the Farm @ 100: 0:0 to Extra work on the Same, Viz., finishing four Closets @20/each 4: 0:0” [Fig. 8]

Ingraham, Joseph Holt, 1835, describing a plantation near New Orleans, La. (1:243)

“Passing from this plantation scene through the airy hall of the dwelling, which opened from piazza to piazza through the house, to the front gallery, whose light columns were wreathed with the delicately leaved Cape-jasmine, rambling woodbine and honeysuckle, a lovelier and more agreeable scene met my eye. I stood almost embowered in the foliage of exotics and native plants, which stood upon the gallery in handsome vases of marble and China-ware. The main avenue opened a vista to the river through a paradise of althea, orange, lemon, and olive trees, and groves and lawns extended on both sides of this lovely spot, ‘Where Flora’s brightest broidery shone,’ terminating at the villas of adjoining plantations.”

Willis, Nathaniel Parker, 1840, describing Undercliff, seat of General George P. Morris, near Cold-Spring, N.Y. ([1840] 1971: 233)

“In front, a circle of greensward is refreshed by a fountain in the centre, gushing from a Grecian vase, and encircled by ornamental shrubbery; from thence a gravelled walk winds down a gentle declivity to a second plateau, and again descends to the entrance of the carriage road, which leads upwards along the left slope of the hill, through a noble forest, the growth of many years, until suddenly emerging from its sombre shades, the visitor beholds the mansion before him in the bright blaze of day.”

Hovey, C. M., November 1841, describing Highland Place, estate of A. J. Downing, Newburgh,

N.Y. (Magazine of Horticulture 7: 405) “7. Large palms in pots, or Maltese vases, or vases made of artificial stone, set on the turf. In the introduction of vases, it should always be remembered that the vase should not be set down immediately on the turf, but upon a plinth....

“8. Rustic basket, for flowers, as represented in the engraving just referred to. These are very easily made. Mr. Downing has given a figure of one, in his Treatise on Landscape Gardening, where he states they may be made in the following manner:— An octagon box serves as the body or frame of the vase; on this, pieces of birch and hazel, (small split limbs, covered with the bark,) are nailed closely, so as to form a sort of mosaic covering to the whole exterior.”

Downing, A. J., October 1847, describing Montgomery Place, country home of Mrs. Edward (Louise) Livingston, Dutchess County, N.Y. (quoted in Haley 1988: 52)

“Passing under neat and tasteful archways of wirework, covered with rare climbers, we enter what is properly

“THE FLOWER GARDEN. “In the centre of the garden stands a large vase of the Warwick pattern; others occupy the centres of parterres in the midst of its two main divisions, and at either end is a fanciful light summer-house, or pavilion, of Moresque character.”

Downing, A. J., 1849, describing Blithewood, seat of Robert Donaldson, Dutchess County, N.Y.

(p. 425) “At Blithewood, the seat of R. Donaldson, Esq., on the Hudson, a number of exquisite vases may be seen in the pleasure-grounds, which are cut in Maltese stone. These were imported by the proprietor, direct from Malta, at very moderate rates, and are not only ornamental, but very durable. Their color is a warm shade of grey which harmonizes agreeably with the surrounding vegetation.” [Fig. 9]

Twain, Mark, 26 October 1853, describing Fair- mount Waterworks, Philadelphia, Pa. (quoted in Gibson 1988: 2)

“We arrived at Fairmount. . . . Seeing a park at the foot of the hill, I entered—and found it one of the nicest little places about. Fat marble Cupids, in big marble vases, squirted water upward incessantly.”




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