Saturday, June 1, 2013
William Russell Birch (1755-1834) views American Gentlemen's Country Seats in 1808
English landscape artist & designer William Russell Birch (1755-1834) arrived in Philadelphia in 1794, with a letter of introduction from Pennsylvania expatriate artist Benjamin West. After publishing his successful book of engravings, City of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania, North America, as it appeared in the Year 1800, he traveled up & down the Atlantic coast sketching for his 2nd American book of engravings, The Country Seats of the United States published in 1808.
Birch arrived on the wharf in Philadelphia, with an intimate knowledge the actual appearance of country estates in England as well as the manner in which they had been depicted in British art during the last half of the 18th-century. He was sure he knew what proper, educated taste was in both architecture & landscape design & wanted to share that insight with a hopefully hungry & appreciative American audience, eager to buy his books. Country estates in the new republic would not compare with country estates in the motherland, but he would depict them from a viewpoint of looking up at them. They would sit as small crowns in a natural American landscape owing most of its design to Nature rather than the landscape architect's hand.
In his introduction, Birch wrote, "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." Oh dear, perhaps a little condescending & awkward, and a disappointed Birch found that his 2nd American book did not sell well in the new republic.