The Landscape Guide
AMERICA:  Contents

Northeastern gardens

Andrew Jackson Downing  Norman T Newton                     


Garden Design in the North Eastern States of America

When New York State became rich, in the nineteenth century, its wealth came from trade and manufacture, rather than agriculture. A large house might often be set in in lush country, as in the Hudson valley. But it was not, as in the south, the hub of a major agricultural operation. These men were settlers, often newly rich and enthusiastically fashion conscious. They, and their designers, could obtain copies of the latest garden books from England, where such books were popular with the merchant classes. John Claudius Loudon was the most prolific author and Andrew Jackson Downing, the first American author to write about garden design, looked up to him as 'the most distinguished gardening authority of the age'. Jackson's Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America was published in 1841, when Jackson was 26 years old. Jackson, in his turn, was hailed as an inspirational figure. As late as 1928 he was praised by Frank Waugh (a University of Massachusetts Professor of Landscape Architecture from 1902-1939) as a 'great luminary'. Waugh had published a revised edition of Downing's book in 1921. But Downing's reputation was not to last. Norman Newton, a Harvard professor of landscape architecture, in his 1971 Design on the land, makes the following assessment of Downing:

Unfortunately he was a child of his age, steeped in romanticism and resounding, sentimental, high-order abstraction. With seemingly uncritical enthusiasm he plunged into the metaphysical jargon of the English landscape gardening writers whom he admired and at times even outdid in elaborate vagueness. To make matters worse, he was heavily influenced by the gardenesque school of J. C. Loudon, to whom he refers in the Treatise as 'my valued correspondent... the most distinguished gardening authority of the Age'. It will be recalled that Loudon published his edition of Repton in 1840, the year before Downing's book appeared; also that he was mainly responsible for the sorry closing chapter to the story of English landscape gardening.

Many of these critical terms are normally used as terms of praise: most great artists are children of the ages in which they live, influenced by romanticism and abstraction. But Newton was also a child of his age, desperate to break away from Victorian eclecticism and unsure where the future lay. Nor was Newton sufficiently well-read in Loudon and Downing. He mocks Downing's four  'grand principles' of design:

1. Unity      2. Variety      3. Recognition      4. Imitation

While we may not admire Downing's work as a designer, and may agree that, like Loudon,  he was theoretically confused, the above is an admirable list of the key issues facing American garden design in the nineteenth century. As the First and Presidents would have wished, it draws from the Old World and sets an agenda for the New World. The origin of Downing's grand principles is as follows:

Unity and Variety The achievement of a just balance of these competing ends is one of the most ancient objectives of art.
Imitation The 'imitation of nature' has, since Plato launched the idea, been a central principle of European art.
Recognition This principle comes from Loudon and was a key issue for those who were making estates amidst scenes of great natural beauty. Loudon had a keep appreciation of natural scenery but argued that to class as Art the designer's contribution  should be 'recognisable' as the work of man

Imagine if the Muir family, discussed above,  had struck rich and settled in the upper reaches of the Hudson. What sort of garden should they have made? A baroque display of axial power would have been as inappropriate as the imitation of  rolling English parkland. Instead, one can imagine the family choosing a place with a good view of the river and setting their house modestly among the trees. When choosing an architectural style it would be natural to look at picture books of rich men's houses in America and Europe. Elaborate decoration would appeal. When planting near the house, it would be natural to include some exotic plants with beautiful flowers and foliage. If one disregards the crudity of Downing's  illustrations, one can see that this is exactly what he recommended. It is also worth remembering that, compared to Old England, the climate of New England is colder in winter and hot-humid in summer. It can form a rich scenic backdrop but is less suited to the enjoyment of sitting in the sun and playing on the lawn. Downing died at the age of 37 but his writings were popular and a great many American houses and gardens were designed in the manner he advocated.