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."