Friday, February 28, 2014
1745 Joseph Badger (American artist, 1708-1765). Detail of John Gerry (1741-1786) brother of Elbridge Gerry of Boston with bird.
The birds are returning, and I hope that means spring cannot be far away. I think this is the perfect time to look at paintings of 18C Americans with their birds, both in the wild & captured in aviaries & cages.
1718 Nehemiah Partridge (American artist, 1683-1737) Portrait of Catherine Ten Broeck with Bird
We know that native North American birds fascinated men & women alike in 18C British American colonies. Colonials kept cages for their birds. Some even kept larger bird-keeping areas called aviaries.
An aviary is an enclosed area, often in a garden & larger than a traditional birdcage, meant for keeping, feeding, and hopefully breeding birds. Aviaries in South Carolina sometimes contained two-story bird houses.
1725 Charles Bridges (American artist, 1670-1747). Detail of William Byrd II & Lucy Parke daughter Evelyn Byrd and a bird in the tree.
Mark Catesby (1682-1749) sailed to Virginia in 1712, and stayed in the British Atlantic colonies for 7 years, sketching & compiling The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands for publication upon his return to England. In his monumental work, he described birds he had seen in the colonies in cages. Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Catesby's History in his library.
1730 Pieter Vanderlyn (American artist, 1687-1778). Detail Paul de Wandelaer with bird.
Between 1739 and 1762, South Carolinian Eliza Lucas Pinckney (c 1722-1793) kept a letterbook in which she wrote, "Airry Chorristers pour forth their melody...the mocking bird...inchanted me with his harmony." By this time, enterprising Southerners caged red birds and even exported cages of mockingbirds to England.
The New York Journal published a poem of a woman imagining her ideal garden entitled A Wish of a Lady in 1769.
"...Just under my window I'd fancy a lawn,
Where delicate shrubs shou'd be planted with taste,
And none of my ground be seen running to waste.
Instead of Italians, the Linnet and Thrush
Wou'd with harmony greet me from every bush;
Those gay feather'd songsters do rapture inspire!
What music so soft as the heav'nly choir..."
1733 Gerardus Duyckinck (American artist, 1695-1746). Detail David and Phila Franks with bird.
And 18C portrait painters in America depicted men, women, & children with birds from the beginning of the century to the end. The question is whether the birds are being used as symbols or are actually birds that they might have owned.
Birds were kept as pets around Charleston, South Carolina, when an ad in the South-Carolina Gazette in January of 1753 noted, "ANY Persons willing to try the cultivation of Flax and Hemp in this province, may have gratis a pint of Hemp Seed, and half a pint of Flax Seed, at Mr. Commissary Dart's store in Tradd-Street.—But it's hoped ladies will not send for any Hemp Seed for birds."
1755 John Wollaston (American artist, 1710-1775). Detail Elizabeth Page & Mann Page, children of Mann & Ann Corbin (Tayloe) Page of Rosewell, Gloucester County, with bird.
In February of 1768, James Drummond announced in Charleston's The South Carolina and American General Gazette that he had "just imported...from L(ondon), a large and compleat (Assortment) of GOODS, Among which are the following... men and womens white Italian gloves... corks, an sortment of watchmaker's tools...a bird cage."
James McCall advertised in the 1771 South Carolina Gazette and Country Journal the he had "just received...a great Variety of Garden Seeds, Pease and Beans; Hemp, Canary, Rape, and Moss Seed for Birds."
1758 John Singleton Copley (American artist, 1738-1815). Detail Anne Fairchild (Mrs. Metcal Bowler) with bird in birdcage.
In 1772, the South-Carolina Gazette carried an ad for a plantation to be rented "on the Ashley River near Charleston" with "two well-contrived aviaries." A year later, the same paper noted a lot in Charlestown which contained, "a very good Two-Story Birds House."
1758 John Singleton Copley (American artist, 1738-1815). Detail Thomas Aston Coffin with two birds.
Baroness Von Riedesel traveling through the British American southern colonies with her officer husband during the American Revolution wrote, "I had brought two gorgeous birds with me from Virginia. The main bird was scarlet with a darker red tuft of feathers on his head, about the size of a bull-finch, and it sang magnificently. The female bird was gray with a red breast and also had a tuft of feathers on its head."
1760 Joseph Badger (American artist, 1708-1765). James Badger with bird.
The Baroness continued, "They are very tame soon after they are caught and eat out of one's hand. These birds live a long time, but if two male birds are hung in the same room they are so jealous of each other that one of them dies soon afterwards."
She related that she, "saw black birds in Virginia of the same size, which always cry 'willow.' This amused us very much because one of my husband's aides was named Willoe."
1763-65 Henry Benbridge (American artist, 1743-1812). Detail of Gordon Family with bird.
The Baroness stated, "One of my servants discovered a whole nest of these red birds and fed and raised them. Knowing how much I loved them, he left Colle with two cages full on his back, but they all died before he reached me, much to our sorrow."
1766-67 John Singleton Copley (American artist, 1738-1815). Detail of Mary Boylston (Mrs Benjamin Hallowell) with bird.
William Faris (1728-1804) was a silversmith & clockmaker living in Annapolis, Maryland, for over 50 years. He kept journals & a diary of his life there, on & off, during the last quarter of the 18th century. On October 25, 1793, Faris noted, "Last night the 2 yallow Birds died." Earlier, he had written that his "poor Mocking Bird" had died. Although these are the only references to birds in the diary he kept during the 1790s, his 1804 inventory listed eleven bird cages.
Although it is difficult to find descriptions of 18th century aviaries in the British American colonies, we find the the books flowing into the colonies from England were replete with references to aviaries & descriptions of them.
1766 John Singleton Copley (American artist, 1738-1815). Detail of Elizabeth Ross (Mrs. William Tyng) with bird.
We know that Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, & author, did not like aviaries, or so he wrote in his 1625 Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall in the essay entitled Of Gardens. "For Aviaries, I like them not, except they be of that largeness as they may be turfed, and have living plants and bushes set in them; that the birds may have more scope and natural nestling, and that no foulness appear in the floor of the aviary."
One of England's earliest agricultural writers, John Worlidge's (1640-1700) Systema Horticulturae published in 1677, noted that, "One of the pleasures belonging to a Garden, is an Aviary, which must be near your house, that you may take some delight in it there, as well as in your Garden, and that you may in all seasons take care of its Inhabitants." Actually, Worlidge dreamed of "an Aviary at large, that the whole Garden with its Groves and Avenues may be full of these pretty Singers, that they may with their charming Notes, rouze up our dull Spirits, that are too intent upon the Cares of this World, and mind us of the Providence, the great God of the Universe hath over us, as well as these Creatures."
1770-1775 James Peale (American artist, 1749-1831). Girl with bird.
In 1701, when Charles Smith (1715-1762) published his Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork, he noted that "also nearer Cork Mr. John Dennis Merchant has a good house and neat gardens with an aviary."
1770 Daniel Hendrickson (American artist, 1723-1788). Detail of Catharine Hendrickson surrounded by birds.
The most widely read 18C gardening writer &; the chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden, Philip Miller's (1691-1771) The Gardeners and Florists Dictionary of 1724, noted that "Mr. J. B. The Author of the Hereford/hire Orchards enumerates the Benefits of Orchards, that besides their Profit, they sweeten and purify the ambient Air, and by that Means, he thinks, conduce to the Health...and afford Shade and Shelter in the Heat of Summer, but harbour a constant Aviary of sweet Singers without Wires." Philip Miller was widely read throughout the British American colonies. His Dictionary was owned by Benjamin Franklin, Lady Jean Skipwith of Virginia, & Thomas Jefferson.
By 1733, garden designer & writer and an early exponent of the English style landscape garden, Stephen Switzer (1682-1745) was instructing his readers on aviaries in his Practical Husbandman and Planter. In the month of June he wrote that the aviary requires the "Assistance of the Person who looks after it, by the bruising and Emulsion of the cool Seeds of Melon and Cucumbers, in their watering Pans; as also, by the giving of them the leaves of Succory, Beets...and fresh Gravel and Earth, to cure them of their Sicknefs in Moulting-Time, being now sick of their old Feathers. And now young Partridges, Indian Hens, Pheasants, Partridges, &c. begin to require a little looking after to preserve them from the griping Hawk, constantly digging up of Ant-hills for the Pecking and Support of the little chirping Brood."
1774 Charles Willson Peale (American artist, 1741 - 1827). Detail of The Johnson Brothers with bird.
One of the classic books in Thomas Jefferson's library, The Builder's Dictionary: or, Gentleman and Architect's Companion explained in 1734, that an avairy was a "House or Apartment for the keeping, feeding, and breeding of Birds." The book covers all aspects of building design, construction, and finishes. In its time, the Dictionary was considered the most complete summary available for use by English architects & members of the construction trades.
In 1721, Richard Bradley, a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1712, and about to become Professor of Botany at Cambridge University, wrote a treatise, New Improvements in Planting and Gardening both Philosophical and Practical. Bradley's work New Improvements... also noted that orchards "harbour a constant Aviary of sweet Singers, which are here retained without the Charge or Violence of the Italian Wires." In the British American colonies, Thomas Jefferson also owned a copy of Bradley's New Improvements.
William Derham (1657-1735), was an Anglican clergyman, Canon of Windsor Castle, & natural philosopher. He was the first man known to measure the speed of sound. As a member of the Royal Society, he edited the correspondence between Eleasar Albin (1708-1742) &; John Ray helping publish a Natural History of Birds which was illustrated by Albin between 1731-38, and which noted the Gamboa Grossbeake. "This Bird was brought from Gamboa on the Coast of Guinea and was in the Possession of his Grace the Duke of Chandos in an Aviary at his Grace's Country Seat at Edgeworth," where Albin went to draw it.
In 1732, French priest Noel Antoine Pluche's (1688-1761) juvenile edition of Spectacle de la Nature, Or Nature Display'd recommended the joys of communing with the birds in an aviary. Although the book influenced many to become naturalists, it was a work of popularization, not of science. In the book, the Duchess character explains that in the "Bower which the Count has inclosed with a Lattice of Brass Wire. I think I have seen, in this charming Aviary, all imaginable Sorts of little Birds, as well as those of a middling Size... this Aviary boafts a little of my Invention, and I commonly undertake the Management of it; but my Pains are requited by Pleasures that vary every Day. The Contentions of these little Creatures, their Endearments, their Melody, and Labours, and the obliging Civilities I receive from the Generality, when I pay them a Visit, are extremely entertaining to me. I carry my Work to them, and am never alone. One may pass whole Hours and Afternoons there."
In the 1760 Short Account, of the Principal Seats and Gardens, in and about Twickenham, female writer Joel Henrietta Pye (Jael Henrietta Mendez Pye) (1737-1782) tells of The Earl of Lincoln's Seat. "About a Mile beyond Weybridge, situated in the midst of a noble Park. The Gardens contain 150 Acres, and are divided by a fine Canal. The whole is laid out in the modern Taste, of Flowering Shrubs, Lawns, Clumps &...an Aviary of every kind of Singing-Birds, who are, so concealed by the Trees, that tho' they fillthfe Garden with their Harmony, it is impossible to discover whence it proceeds."
Christopher Smart, Oliver Goldsmith, & Samuel Johnson reported in a compilation of their writings called, World Displayed: or, A Curious Collection of Voyages and Travels published in 1750, that in Mexico, "Montezuma had, besides the palace in which he kept his court, several magnificent pleasure houses, one of which was a noble building, supported by pillars of jasper. In this edifice he had an aviary of those birds that are most remarkable on account of their singing or feathers, and these were so numerous, that 300 men were said to be employed in attending them." Both George Washington & John Adams owned a copy of this book.
1790s Ellen Sharples (American artist, 1769-1849). Detail of Theodosia Burr of New Jersey with bird.
Arthur Young's (1741-1820) accounts of his travels throughout Great Britain were imported into the colonies as soon as they were published. In his 1778-1770, A Six Months Tour Through the North of England, he wrote, "From hence a walk winds to the aviary, which is a light Chinese building of a very pleasing design; it is stocked with Canary and other foreign birds, which are kept alive in winter by means of hot walls at the back of the building."
1793 Rufus Hathaway (American artist, 1770-1822). Detail of Church Sampson of Duxbury, MA. with bird and birdcage.
English Architect William Chambers (1723-1796) also wrote of what he hoped would be a strong Asian influence on English gardening. In his 1772, A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, he noted that in China, "The saloons generally open to little enclosed courts, set round with beautiful flower-pots, of different forms, made of porcelain, marble or copper, filled with the rarest flowers of the season: at the end of the court there is generally an aviary." Chambers' book was found in libraries across the new American republic.
In England, the 1773 Encyclopaedia Britannica, offered its readers practical advice. "AVIARY, a place set apart for feeding and propagating birds. It Should be so large, as to give the birds some freedom of flight; and turfed, to avoid the appearance of foulness on the floor." These folks had obviously read Francis Bacon's essay Of Gardens! John Charnock (1756-1807) wrote in his 1794 Biographia Navalis that the retired "Admiral (George) Churchill (1654-1710) ...had constructed the most beautiful aviary in Britain, which he had, at an incredible expence, filled with a most rare and valuable collection of birds."
In America, the New-York Magazine; or, Literary Repository of 1792, was advising its readers that, "A Goldfinch must never be let loose in an aviary, for he destroys the nests and breaks the eggs of the other birds."
The next year, William Marshall's (1745-1818) Planting and Rural Ornament critically explained that "An Aviary Of Foreign Birds appears to be equally ill placed, in such a situation: exotic birds are apt accompaniments to exotic plants; and a shrubery, rather than a sequestered dell, seems to be the most natural situation for an aviary." George Washington & many other early Americans owned a copy of this book.
Isaac Weld (1774-1856) noted in his 1800 Travels through the States of North America that at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Virginia, "A large apartment is laid out for a library and museum, meant to extend the entire breadth of the house, the windows of which are to open into an extensive greenhouse and aviary."
By the early 19th century, John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) was eager to share his knowledge of aviaries with readers of his Encyclopaedia of Gardening. He explained that originally apiaries were common at the country houses of the Romans, where they were used primarily as safe-keeping for birds destined to be eaten. Loudon notes that singing-birds, however, also were kept by the Persians, Greeks, & Romans in wicker-cages. Larger cages of songbirds more permanently set in gardens followed. The Chinese built actual house-like structures for their birds. In 1808, the last of the great 18C English landscape designer Humphrey Repton (1752-1818) re-popularized aviaries with his Design for an Aviary and Pergola in the Chinese Style.
However, Loudon explains that Varro built an elegant & spacious aviary, at his country house, near Casinum. Varro wrote that there were two sorts of aviaries, one for containing birds intended for the table, and the other for birds kept for their song or plumage. The former sort were built entirely for use, but the latter were often beautiful pavilions, with an apartment or saloon in the centre, for guests to sit in and enjoy the melodies of the feathered songsters.
According to Loudon, his fellow countryman, John Evelyn (1620-1706) mentioned in his Kalendarium Hortense: or, the Gardner's Almanac the parrots in the aviary of the Marquis of Argyll at Sayes Court. Loudon explained that a parrot aviary was built with a glass roof front and ends covered with shades & curtains to protect it from the sun & frost, and a flue for winter heating. In these aviaries artificial or dead trees with glazed foliage were fixed in the floor. Sometimes cages hung on them, and at other times the birds allowed to fly free within the aviary. Early Americnas (Increase (1639-1723) & Cotton Mather (1663-1728) and New Yorker Lewis Morris (1726-1798) owned Evelyn's Kalendarium.)
Loudon revealed that a special canary aviary was set in an opaque-roofed greenhouse or conservatory, by enclosing it with a partition of wire; and furnishing the greenhouse with...branches suspended from the roof for the birds to perch on. In another type of aviary...a net or wire curtain was thrown over the tops of trees. Here songbirds could sing on the trees; aquatic birds could glide on the water; & pheasants could stroll over the lawn. For severe seasons, discreet houses & cages would offer them refuge.
Loudon noted that in England, portable netted enclosures, from 10 to 20 feet square, were distributed over areas of the lawn to display a curious collection of domestic fowls. In each enclosure was a small wooden box for sheltering the animals during night or in severe weather, and for breeding. Loudon even suggested that "Curious varieties of aquatic fowls might be placed on floating aviaries on a lake or pond." He explained that birds from the hot climates were sometimes kept in hot-houses among their native plants with doors & openings for giving air covered with wire cloth. Loudon proposed that grouping birds together geographically would give rise to an educational aviary containing specimens of the native birds of a particular country...promoting the knowledge of their names, classification, climates, & habits. Loudon noted that the emperor Napoleon kept a large aviary with species of birds from all over the globe.
In America, we finally do get an eyewitness account of an aviary in New York City. Grant Thorburn's (1773-1863) early 19th-century Horticultural Repository on John Street in New York City had an avaiary, when Thomas Green Fessenden (1771-1837) visited. He wrote of it in the Horticultural Register and Gardener's Magazine, "The aviary...is filled with many beautiful birds which fill the air with their sweet songs--the native mockingbird, canary &c. all exerting their sweet voices in mingled harmony, and fluttering as merrily as in their native woods."
As the 19th century saw American towns & industry grow and homeowners' property size decrease, caged birds became more popular. Pennsylvania attorney Henry Beck Hirst (1813-1874) wrote, "And what man lives, who, as he passes by the cottage of the humble labourer, and observes the wicker habitation of the well tended Canary suspended at the door, does not form a favorable idea of the taste of those who dwell within its walls...And oh! in the crowded cities, with the hum of business & the rattle of wheels sounding ever around, is it not pleasant to the ear...to hear the voice of some lone bird...and the melancholy warbler is converted into the many voiced choir of the forest."
Saturday, February 8, 2014
Written by Mike Rendell
I love this blog posting by Mike Rendell about Battly Langley who wrote of English gardens in the 1st half of the 18C. In fact, his entire blog, Georgian Gentleman, is fascinating! Batty Langley's books often appeared in colonial British American libraries in the 18C.
"Many know of Capability Brown, some know of Humphry Repton, but one name largely overlooked is Batty Langley. Batty was baptised at Twickenham on 14th September 1696, the son of Daniel & Elizabeth Langley. His father was a jobbing gardener who seems to have been working for a David Batty, so the name may have been given to the baby in tribute to this patron. Batty Langley grew up in his father’s footsteps, keen on gardening but determined to spread his wings rather than pottering around with a spade & pruning knife.
"At the age of 23 Batty married, but his wife Anne died after producing 4 children from 7 years of marriage. He remarried & went on to sire another 10 children, to whom he bequeathed such fanciful names as Euclid, Vitruvius & Archimedes…
"Batty Langley received a commission to do some design work for Thomas Vernon at Twickenham Park. There he encountered a large sandpit & managed to convert “this perfect nuisance” into “a very agreeable beautiful” spiral garden, using hornbeam hedges. It was the start of a fascination with shapes & serpentine mazes which led him in 1728 to publish his oeuvre “New Principles of Gardening; or The Laying out & Planting Parterres, Groves Wildernesses, Labyrinths, Avenues Parks etc”
"The sub-title gave claim to the fact that the methods described in the book were more ‘Grand & Rural’ than anything before, listing “Experimental Directions for raising the several kinds of fruit trees, Forest Trees, Ever Greens & Flowering shrubs with which gardens are adorn’d.”
"The book contained very little new, but the illustrations were influential in bringing to people’s attention the use of shapes & winding vistas – he wanted gardens to lead the visitor through the design, rather than have everything in full view. There should be surprises around each corner or, as he put in the introduction: ‘Nor is there any Thing more shocking than a stiff regular Garden; where after we have seen one quarter thereof, the very same is repeated in all the remaining Parts, so that we are tired, instead of being further entertain’d with something new as expected.’
"In other words it marked a move away from the rigidly, geometrical knot gardens favoured by the Elizabethan & Stuart gardeners, even if the world was not yet ready for the picturesque gardens of Capability Brown. Batty loved mazes, but often introduced swirls & patterns far removed from the traditional honeycomb designs.
"In some ways his ideas were right at the start of the rococo movement; the problem was that this self-publicist thought that he was now the arbiter of taste in all areas of everyday life. He brought out books on carpentry & furniture design, prompting Horace Walpole to utter “All that his books achieved, has been to teach carpenters to massacre that venerable species, & to give occasion to those who know nothing of the matter, & who mistake his clumsy efforts for real imitations, to censure the productions of our ancestors, whose bold & beautiful fabrics Sir Christopher Wren viewed & reviewed with astonishment, & never mentioned without esteem.”
"He submitted a design for a new Mansion House in London in 1735, only to have it described in the ‘St. James’s Evening Post’ as ‘a curious grotesque temple, in a taste entirely new…’ Undeterred, he pursued his ideas of “arti-natural” gardens, linked with what is now termed “Batty Langley Gothic” architecture. He felt that his writhing shapes & flowing designs were ‘exceeding beautiful in building, as in ceilings, parquetting, painting, paving, &c.’
"He published numerous tomes on building techniques, & on architecture under such inspiring titles as ‘The Builders Compleat Assistant’ (1738); ‘The City & Country Builder’s & Workman’s Treasury of Designs’ (1740); ‘The Builder’s Jewel, or the Youth’s Instructor & Workman’s Remembrancer’ (1741); ‘Ancient Architecture, restored & improved, by a great variety of Grand & Useful Designs’ & in 1748 ‘A Survey of Westminster Bridge, as ’tis now Sinking into Ruin.’
"In general though, he was ridiculed for his designs for buildings. But for his gardening book he deserves to be remembered. ‘Arti-natural’ may not have been revolutionary but at least Langley encouraged trees to have a natural form rather than being pollarded out of existence. Look at a serpentine shape or a paisley design, & remember Batty Langley with affection.
"He died at his Soho home in London in 1751."
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Capability Brown (1716-1783) & early Americans react differently to 17C & early 18C formal English geometric gardens & landscapes
What was Lancelot 'Capability' Brown (1716-1783) trying to change about the English countryside? Brown’s landscapes are straightforward. His ‘landscape park’ was informal & ‘natural’ in character, eschewing straight lines & formal geometry. He designed open expanses of turf, irregularly scattered with individual trees & clumps & which were surrounded in whole & part by perimeter belts. His landscapes were ornamented with serpentine bodies of water & were usually provided with a rather sparse scattering of ornamental buildings. At existing gardens, walled enclosures were demolished, & avenues felled.
Apparently Brown wasn't the only Englishman tired of the formal, walled gardens. Many hundreds of landscape parks had appeared in England by the time of Brown’s death in 1783, mainly created by imitators of his style. Many were entirely new creations, made at the expense of agricultural land; others represented modifications of existing deer parks. As scholars have long been aware, however, this kind of designed landscape did not come into existence, fully-formed, at the start of Brown’s career in the late 1740s & 50s.
The debt Brown owed to William Kent, in whose footsteps he followed at Stowe was obvious. Brown’s parks represented an evolution of his essentially Arcadian tradition, which sought to recreate elements of idealized classical landscapes such as those in the paintings of Claude & Poussin.
Most early American pleasure gardening gentry intentionally adopted a classic, geometric, balance of practical & ornamental gardens for their properties. Their landscape designs did often include avenues of trees leading to the plantation house, like rows of soldiers standing at attention. Capability Brown's new English garden design of the mid-18C with its open lawns & flowing lines in imitation of Nature was not particularly attractive to early Americans, who were busy carving an obvious order out of the "howling wilderness" that surrounded them.
In the Arcadia of America, the ordered, geometric garden offered sanctuary from the threat of wild nature & even escape from real or imagined barbarian outsiders. The great garden of the vast American frontier held some frightening connotations for many early colonists. New Englander Michael Wigglesworth wrote of it in 1662,
A waste & howling wilderness,
where none inhabited
But hellish fiends, & brutish men
That devils worshipped.
Garden historian Rosemary Verey speculated that early American gardens may have retained their geometric formality because “in England the countryside had already been tamed by years of husbandry, while in America each new plantation was surrounded by wild, untamed land, to be kept at bay, not emulated.” Others, such as Elizabeth Pryor, wrote that the alluring beauty of the natural landscape surrounding the shores of the Atlantic may help explain why gardeners were not seduced by the naturalistic style sweeping England.
The New World woods, continuously cleared of underbrush by Indian fires, already resembled the “improved” landscapes of Capability Brown. And, if one wished, it was easy to simulate a natural look in the personal landscapes these early Americans planned around their homes. European travelers remarked that the groves, clumps, copses, & bosques so carefully cultivated in their countries, were more easily assembled in the colonies.
In 1788, Englishman Thomas Twining visiting Governor John Eager Howard's (1752-1827) country seat "Belvedere" near Baltimore wrote: “its grounds formed a beautiful slant toward the Chesapeake. From the taste with which they were laid out, It would seem that America is already possessed of a …Repton. The spot thus indebted to Nature and judiciously embellished was an enchanting within its own proper limits as in the fine view which extended far beyond them. The foreground possessed luxurious shrubberies and sloping lawns; the distance, the line of the Patapsco and he country bordering on the Chesapeake.” Another visitor to Belvedere claimed to “rejoice in the vistas and the sensations they inspire.”
However, keeping their gardens simple was important for other reasons to the British American coloniests. The belief that they were consciously ridding themselves of ostentatious excess was a point of honor among many in 18th-century America. Immigrant garden author & nurseryman Bernard M’Mahon (1775-1816) understood this, as he promoted gardens for both use & ornament in his 1806 landmark book The American Gardener's Calendar. If one garden could achieve both goals, all the better. And further, if M'Mahon could appeal to those Americans who actually felt more secure with the old fashioned, strictly geometric gardens from England's past or to those who reacted against all this formality preferring a more natural look, he gladly would sell books, seeds, & plants to both tastes.
From 1745 through 1756, the weekly game of the gentlemen in the Tuesday Club in Annapolis was to mock ostentation while trying to set the colony around them into some civilized order. In an effort to explain this philosophy, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), who had gone to school in England & would later sign the Declaration of Indpendence, wrote to an English friend from Annapolis in 1772, “An attempt with us at grandeur or at magnificence is sure to be followed with something mean or ridiculous. Even in England where the affluence o individuals will support a thousand follies, what evils arise from the vanity & profuse excesses of the rich!”
Only weeks later Carroll’s father Charles Carroll of Annapolis (1702-1782) warned him of much the same trap, “Elegant & costly furniture may gratify our Pride & Vanity, they may excite the Praise & admiration of Spectators, more commonly their Envy, But it Certainly must give a Rationale.” Both of them felt it best to “avoid any appearance of…ostentation.” George Washington (1732-1799) wrote to be wary of ostentation in a letter to Bushrod Washington, on January, 15, 1783, "Do not conceive that fine clothes make fine men any more than fine feathers make fine birds."
Thomas Jefferson & John Adams, after their tour of English gardens in 1786, expressed similar feelings. John Adams (1735-1826) wrote, “It will be long, I hope, before riding parks, pleasure grounds, gardens, & ornamented farms grow so much in fashion in America.” In the same year, George Washington (1732-1799) wrote to the wife of Marquise de Lafayette (1757-1834) encouraging her to accompany her husband on a return visit to the new American republic. "You will see the plain manner in which we live; and meet the rustic civility, and you shall taste the simplicity of rural life."
In 1783, Johann David Schoff traveled to Pennsylvania and wrote, "The taste for gardening is, at Philadelphia as well as throughout America, still in its infancy. There are not yet to be found many orderly and interesting gardens. Mr. Hamilton's near the city is the only one deserving special mention. Such neglect is all the more astonishing, because so many people of means spend the most part of their time in the country. Gardens as at present managed are purely utilitarian—pleasure-gardens have not yet come in, and if perspectives are wanted one must be content with those offered by the landscape, not very various, what with the still immense forests."
In American gardens a balance of useful plants & trees planted in a pleasing order was the ultimate goal. When Annapolis attorney John Beale Bordley (1727-1804) retired to Wye Island in the Chesapeake Bay, he was determined to become a self-sufficient patriot farmer. Bordley substituted homemade beer for more ardent spirits imported from London; kept sheep for the wool; & grew his own hemp, flax, & cotton for clothing. He knew that American dependency on Britain was drawing to a close & wrote a friend in London, “ We expect to fall off more & more from your goods…we are using our old clothes & preparing new of our own manufacture, they will be coarse, but if we add just resentment to necessity, may not a sheepskin make a luxurious jubilee coat?”
In 1789, Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826), noted clergyman & geographer, wrote of one country seat, “Its fine situation. . .the arrangement and variety of forest-trees - the gardens...discover a refined and judicious taste. Ornament and utility are happily united. It is, indeed, a seat worthy of a Republican Patriot.”
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, upon his initial tour of America between 1795 & 1798, condescendingly noted the out-of-style classical influence prevalent in the Chesapeake. He wrote that the gardens at Mount Vernon were “laid out in squares, & boxed with great precision…for the first time again since I left Germany, I saw here a parterre, chipped & trimmed with infinite care into the form of a richly flourished Fleur de Lis: The expiring groans I hope of our Grandfather’s pedantry.” Latrobe would certainly have shuttered at the fact, that both George Washington and the very wealthy Charles Carroll of Annapolis (1702-1782) planted vegetables next to their ornamental flowers in these little out-of-date geometric gardens. George Washington's gardens at Mount Vernon were recently torn out & replanted to demonstrate this fact.
Charles Carroll of Annapolis (1702-1782) was one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, but he planted the geometric beds of his terraced gardens at his home in the capitol of Maryland with an eye toward practicality. Orderly squares filled with vegetables surrounded by low privet hedges decorated the flats of Carroll’s falls garden. Painter Charles Wilson Peale reported, "the Garden contains a variety of excellent fruit, and the flats are a kitchen garden."
George Washington was once again warning of ostentation in a letter to George Steptoe Washington, on March 23, 1789. "A person who is anxious to be a leader of the fashion, or one of the first to follow it, will certainly appear in the eyes of judicious men to have nothing better than a frequent change of dress to recommend him to notice."
In the early Republic, many gardeners continued to strive for a balance of useful plants & trees & genteel design. On both town & country plots, most gentry, merchants, shopkeepers, & artisans planned gardens that were both practical & ornamental in simple, traditional, geometric patterns. This shared attitude helped shrink the distance between America’s landed gentry & its town merchants & craftsmen. It also helped demonstrate a new concept of government where "all men are created equal." (Of course, that did not extend to women until 1920.)
Francois Alexandre Frederic duc de La-Rochefoucauld-Liancourt visiting Drayton Hall in South Carolina in the late 1790s wrote, “In order to have a fine garden, you have nothing to do but to let the trees remain standing here & there, or in clumps, to plant bushes in front of then, & arrange the trees according to their height.” In England, the natural grounds movement owed part of its popularity to the fact that timber was getting scarce in the countryside. The British gentry planted their “natural grounds” with trees, that they needed to grow.
In the introduction to his 1808 book The Country Seats of the United States, Englishman William Russell Birch (1755-1834), who hoped to promote "taste" in America for both architecture & landscape design, saw the result of the American balance of ornament and utility, and he tried to explain it this way, "The comforts and advantages of a Country Residence, after Domestic accomodations are consulted, consist more in the beauty of the situation, than in the massy magnitude of the edifice: the choice ornaments of Architecture are by no means intended to be disparaged, they are on the contrary, not simply desirable, but requisite. The man of taste will select his situation with skill, and add elegance and animation to the best choice. In the United States the face of nature is so variegated; Nature has been so sportive and the means so easy of acquiring positions fit to gratify the most refined and rural enjoyment, that labour and expenditure of Art is not so great as in Countries less favoured."
For more on Capability Brown see: Research Report Series no. 50-2013, Lancelot "Capability" Brown.: A Research Impact Review Prepared for English Heritage by the Landscape Group, University of East Anglia. written by Jon Gregory, Sarah Spooner, Tom Williamson