banner search whats new site index home

Andrew Jackson Downing


Andrew Jackson Downing, Landscape Architect [1815-1852]

Portions of the text below adapted from article by Harold Hill Blossom in The American Magazine of Art. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.

Andrew Jackson Downing is commonly called America's first great landscape architect and his career has in it, for men, whatever their profession, degrees of inspiration rarely attained. In the great movement of the middle of the last century in America for the appreciation of the beauty and charm of landscape and of country life Downing was incontestably the leader of his day and the controlling influence of his genius has been a dominant factor up to the present time. If we stop to consider that when he met his tragic death he had not reached his prime, being not thirty-seven years of age and yet was then considered not only in this country, but abroad, the most accomplished exponent of rural art and landscape gardening, we can begin to appreciate to a degree how remarkable was his genius.

It was on October 30, 1915, that Downing was born at Newburgh, New York, on the Hudson. The home in which he grew up was a cottage set on high land commanding a beautiful view of the broad river below and the Fishkill mountains beyond, and his playground and workshop was the nursery of his father and older brother. Later on this whole beautiful and varied countryside became his broader playground and his field for study. His love for this spot never waned and he never left it in his travels but to return with a deeper love and a more tender appreciation of its beauty.

The peculiarly sensitive and responsive nature of Downing, who as a child and as a boy was left much alone to commune and to work with nature was indelibly stamped by the beauty of his environment and moulded to a deep love of the beautiful in nature and a delicate, true appreciation of her varied moods and fancies. This gives the keynote to his attitude toward life and his work. In his treatment of planting in connection with his designs for places he sought out first the natural beauty of the spot and then endeavored to enhance it by the arrangement and composition of his foliage masses.

The other influences, which we might call the social and educational, which contributed to form his character and point of view did not really come into his life until he approached manhood. Then, by fortunate chance, the Austrian Consul, Baron de Liderer, mineralogist, botanist, as well as man of affairs, who had a country place near Newburgh, took an interest in the thoughtful, sensitive, and high-spirited lad and made him his companion in his many rambles over the countryside and in the hills. This influence, coupled with the boy's practical experience in the nursery certainly helped greatly to develop in him the scientific, thoughtful turn of mind, which a few years later gave accuracy and worth to his horticultural writings, which were eagerly read by the country gentlemen of his day.

About this same time also, Downing became the sympathetic companion of a young English landscape painter, Raphael Hoyle, with whom he took many trips into the hills or rolling country. Thus he learned much of landscape composition, and he influenced landscape planting in that he taught how to use it for composing pictures made of the real landscape itself.

Along the Hudson when Downing was still a lad there were some fine country estates, some of which went back to the colonial days, and into the society of these homes he was received and thus came under the influence of the culture of his day. He was ever keenly sensitive to the influences that surrounded him, and this society in which he now moved, this manner of country life, held for him the choicest enjoyment of social existence, and while he was always responsive to its highest aims and its finest thoughts, he seems at the same time to have been its leader in matters of landscape art and horticultural interest.

The underlying point of view and trend of this society was a strong factor in forming Downing's professional point of view; and next after the influence of local conditions this society itself seems to be most dominated by the contemporaneous English thought and life. England, at that time, had passed through the Renaissance period and the decadent succeeding one when formality in garden design had lost its charm and vitality. The Dutch topiary work had long since been condemned as stupid and ugly. Shenstone had accentuated the idea of sentiment in landscapes; Kent,painter and then landscape gardener, had turned from the formal garden to the informal, doing away with walls and other enclosures; Brown succeeded him, carrying the idea of naturalism to the extreme and wiping out some of England's finest old gardens to give place to naturalistic landscapes; and Repton, with some respect for that which is old and mellow, even if formal, had swung the pendulum of public thought back to a more sane basis and established, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a national style for England, called the" landscape style." English gardens became the fashion, and books were written abroad extolling the English taste and inviting other nations to copy it.

The romantic movement under the lead of Sir Walter Scott permeated all the thought of the day, in this early part of the nineteenth century, and enriched the point of view by inciting appreciation of the harmony between the old Elizabethan garden and the old house it adjoins; and the romantic charm of fine terraces, flights of steps, balustrades, vases, fountains, and other architectural features of both the old Italian and the old French gardens. The best thought had come to the point where it recognized that the flower garden could be more than a border of perennials on the edge of the shrubbery, in fact, could have a unity, design and completeness all its own just as the house has its own style and is complete within its own limits.

At this juncture came Andrew Jackson Downing, lover of verdant, fruitful nature, American distinctly but the friend of kindred minds in all nations, worshipper of the home fireside with its sacred duties and pleasures of unlimited hospitality, devotee of unremitting study to attain real culture. He was distinctly a product of his time and country and was always in sympathy with its best thought and effort, constantly reaching just a little ahead and so leading others, but never getting out of reach.

Downing, then was a follower of the English landscape school; but with these restrictions; first, that he believed in suiting all to the genius of the spot and to the conditions of our American climate and our democratic manner of life: and second, that he did not condemn the architectural or formal in garden design, but considered it as having its place in art, though that place in his estimation, was not as noble or beautiful as was the more informal style. To quote his own words. Downing wrote:"All travelers agree, that while the English people are far from being remarkable for their tastes in the arts generally they are unrivaled in their taste for landscape gardening. So completely is this true, that wherever on the continent one finds a garden, conspicuous for the taste of its design, one is certain to learn that it is laid out in the 'English style,' and usually kept by an English gardener."

It was in 1841 that Downing's ideas upon his favorite art were first expressed in print in A Treatise on the Theory and Practise of Landscape Gardening, adapted to North America, with a view to the improvement of Country Residences." Instant popularity greeted this first effort and a wide sale in the United States coupled with most favorable criticism in this country and England encouraged him to publish "Cottage Residences" the next year. From this time on he was established as the chief American authority on rural art. He received memberships in the learned societies abroad and was presented with a gift from the Queen of Denmark in appreciation of his works.

In 1845 he published "The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America" which afterwards went to many editions enlarged and revised.

In August 1846 "The Horticulturist" was founded in Albany, of which publication Mr. Downing was editor until his death. His writings here which after his death were compiled and published under the title of "Rural Essays" are charming discourses by a country gentleman and scholar upon the "rural aspects and interests of every month in the year." They insinuate instruction, rather than directly teach, and in a style mellow, mature, and cheerful, adapted to every age and every mood. The correspondence which these articles developed between his readers and him became most intimate and in many cases ripened into friendships which gladdened his days more than all the foreign gifts and honors.

Meanwhile financial affairs in the nursery became serious and to save his home, friends had to come to his rescue. His ready hospitality was, perhaps, too lavish and money was continually dropping from his hand in deeds of charity. Unremittingly, he applied himself to the practice of his profession and gradually ceased to raise trees for sale. He had a thousand interests — a State agricultural school, a national agricultural bureau in Washington, designing private and public buildings, laying out large estates, pursuing his own scientific and literary studies.

In 1849 he published in collaboration with George Wightwick, Architect,"Hints to Young Architects with Additional Notes and Hints to Persons about Building in this Country." It was in the autumn of this year that Miss Frederika Bremer came from Sweden to study American life and customs. Her work upon "The Homes of the United States" is largely influenced by the first impressions which she had in Mr. and Mrs. Downing's home in Newburgh and the constant correspondence with them throughout her journey in the United States. No one has paid higher tribute to him than she in her letter, "To the Friends of A. J. Downing" after his death.

In the year 1849 Mr. Downing finally resolved to devote his entire energies to architecture and building and with this in view he visited Europe in the summer of 1850 after publishing "The Architecture of Country Houses, including Designs for Cottages, Farmhouses and Villas." This trip was full of rich experience and practical value, as he visited the great English country-seats, where he was an honored guest, saw boundless parks, cultivated landscape and spacious villas, and with these met the best of English society which to him was the ideal of perfect human intercourse.

Withal, however, his affection for America never varied, but rather was deepened and enriched by his experiences.

Returning in September he brought with him Mr. Calvert Vaux, a young English architect who became his business partner and in whom he had the greatest confidence and respect. It was Mr. Vaux, it will be remembered, who in partnership with Mr. Frederick Law Olmsted some nine years later planned and laid out Central Park. Two years only was he associated with Mr. Downing, for at the end of that time came the latter's tragic death. Just how much Vaux's future work was influenced by Mr. Downing's ideas it is hard to say, but it is quite certain that Mr. Downing, himself, had no part in the formulation of the plans for Central Park in as much as the project did not take shape until after his death. That he was interested in the subject and had urged the establishment of such a park is, however, shown by an extract from an editorial written by him for the Horticulturist in 1851. He refers to a description published in the same issue on "The People's Park at Birkenhead near Liverpool" of which he says:"It is one of the most interesting places of public enjoyment in all Europe." "All the more interesting," he adds,"because it has been formed by the people themselves, and not made and presented to them by the sovereign." He continues as follows:"We only regret that the people of our large cities, generally, cannot see, with their own eyes, the beauty and realize the advantages of such parks in the midst of towns. New York, for instance, now one of the largest cities in the world, has no public park whatever, no breathing place, no grounds for the exercise and refreshment of her jaded citizens — for to call the little yards of land, covered with turf, and planted with trees, in various parts of the town, parks, is as much a misnomer as it would be to spread one's handkerchief down on the floor of the rotunda of the capitol, and call it a carpet."

The fact is, Americans generally, have no conception of the value, extent, or importance to the people of large cities of public parks — and among the good results that will grow out of the World's Fair in London, will be that of showing thousands of them, Hyde Park, where the Crystal Palace stands — a building that covers twenty acres, and appears to take up as little room there, as if it were in an oak opening in Illinois."

We are glad to be able to say, en passant, that the government at Washington is manifesting a lively interest in this subject. The large tract of unimproved public lands lying south of the City of Washington — consisting of between one and two hundred acres, has just been taken in hand, at the desire of the President, with the view of making a National Park — something really worthy of the name. If his views can be fully carried out, that Park may exert an influence on the public taste of the whole country, as well as embellish and improve, in the highest degree, its seat of government."

In 1851 came the crowning glory of Downing's business career when he was appointed by President Fillmore to design and superintend the work of arranging the land about the Capitol, White House and Smithsonian Institution into public gardens and promenades. This labor added to the rest took the greater part of his time as he visited Washington once a month, but it brought him one of the greatest joys of his life to so serve the country.

His last literary effort was the editing of the American edition of Jane London's "Gardening for Ladies."

In the year 1852, honored at home and abroad, just past his thirty-sixth birthday, he lost his life in an accident to the Hudson River steamer "Henry Clay," which in a race with a rival steamer caught fire and was burned. He died in an effort to save others. Thus, suddenly, ended the career which had promised so bright a future.

From his writings may be derived a certain knowledge of his convictions upon various points, which are not only interesting, but go to show in what direction his influence must have been exerted. He evidently was satisfied with Humboldt's explanation given in his "Cosmos" of the cause of the two different styles of gardening — a fundamental racial difference between the people of Northern and Southern Europe. So Downing adopted the broad minded attitude that since America had drawn her people from both sections of that continent, both styles of gardening were permissible depending upon the fundamental feeling of the owner of the garden.

Whether Downing, in his practice, ever laid out a garden in the architectural style, either after the French or after the Italian manner is not known, but we do know that he never saw the gardens of Italy and spent only a very brief time in Paris; whereas his visit to England gave him the time and, because of the brilliant entree his writings brought him, he had the opportunity to become thoroughly imbued with the spirit of English landscape gardening. He did come in close contact, however, with cultivated persons who had visited the gardens of Italy, and one of these in particular, Mr. Henry Winthrop Sargent, undoubtedly had a strong influence on Downing owing to the proximity of their country places and to their friendship and similar interests. From Geneva, May 21, 1848, Winthrop Sargent wrote Downing a long letter describing his trips to Lake Como and Bellagio, and he writes: "Isola Bella is wonderful, but not interesting." Whereas of another he says "Isola Madre, which is larger, and distant half a mile, is a gem." "The first is stiff and formal, and the second," Sargent writes, "is laid out in the natural English style."

In treating of the elements of landscape gardening Downing placed as the two greatest, trees and grass. And as a third, if it can be obtained, water, which will then" make our landscape garden complete." A velvety lawn, Downing considered essential to beauty of landscape — not a flat lawn, but one rolling and kept very smooth. Downing insisted that fine lawns were possible throughout the northern half of our country if deep preparation was given and frequent mowing. "With such a lawn," Downing continues,"and large and massive trees, one has indeed the most enduring sources of beauty in a country residence." And of water, he says:"A river, or a lake in which the skies and the 'tufted trees' may see themselves reflected, is ever an indispensable feature to a perfect landscape."

Downing laid down the principle that to make a country place a success, it was essential to make a distinct separation between the living or "ornamental portion of the place," as he calls it and the service portion. This distinction, he held, should be made in the plan of the house first and then should extend directly to the grounds. The kitchen offices should look onto the service side of the house and in this direction should be located the stable, barns, kitchen garden and other utilitarian parts. Then he advised separating this service part from the ornamental or living part by "belts or plantations of trees and shrubbery."

His ideal of country life required that the owner and his guests should have to themselves the lawn or other living part of the estate undisturbed by the business of the estate or by the inquisitiveness of passers-by; and so he required complete seclusion for all the ornamental part of the estate. This was to be obtained by boundary plantations. If there were distant views this planting must be handled so that the views were framed in, while all else that would mar the picture was to be excluded. If the view was broad and open, then the trees were to be planted "in groups and rather sparingly, so as to heighten and adorn the landscape, not shut out and obstruct the beauty of prospect which nature has placed before your eyes." Scattered groups, with continuous reaches or vistas between, produced, he thought, the best effects in such situations. In other or more remote parts of the place greater density of foliage might serve as a contrast, and to continue the quotation he writes:"In residences where there is little or no distant view, the contrary plan must be pursued. Intricacy and variety must be created by planting. Walks must be led in various directions, and concealed from each other by thickets, and masses of shrubbery and trees, and occasionally rich masses of foliage; not forgetting to heighten all, however, by an occasional contrast of broad, unbroken surface of lawn."

In the matter of the arrangement and character of the planting Downing recognized two distinct expressions to be sought, either the beautiful or the picturesque.

The beautiful expression in landscape planting to be obtained by choosing trees that have a round symmetrical head, luxuriant foliage, branches often drooping to the ground, smooth round stems; and then by placing them so as to allow the free development of form. At the water's edge the trees should have flowing outlines and flowering shrubs should he used in full masses. The lawns should be in flowing gradual curves and should be kept like velvet. The trees, it may be noted, were nearly all to be deciduous.

If the picturesque expression was desired the growth should be of a somewhat wild and bold character, with outlines irregular and broken."The trees should in many places be old and irregular, with rough stems and bark; and pines, larches and other trees of striking, irregular growth, must appear in numbers sufficient to give character to the woody outlines" — "the grouping takes every variety of form; almost every object should group with another; trees and shrubs are often planted closely together and intricacy and variety — thickets — glades — and underwood — as in wild nature, are indispensable." The lawn can be rougher and less carefully maintained, and if there is water its shores should be bold and rocky, overhung with wildwood and thickets.

Downing advises those who are choosing land for country places to secure trees or woods already grown to good size, because, he writes;"the most important feature of all country places — trees"; and, "A country place without trees, is like a caliph without a beard; in other words, it is not a country place" — And to quote again: "By the judicious employment of trees in the embellishment of a country residence, we may effect the greatest alterations and improvements within the scope of Landscape Gardening." and then Downing gives page after page of detailed advice, illumined by sketches, on the ways of handling the planting, as regards its arrangement and grouping, its character of foliage and the mixtures to be selected, nearly all of which is interesting reading and valuable instruction to the planter of today. That his dissertation "On Wood and Plantations" appeals so strongly to us today is proof that Downing's ideas were founded on true principles and there is withal, a practical common sense in what he writes, which makes his observations carry weight.

Native plants or exotics — the same question was raised in his time, and we find Downing just as keenly interested in each new plant brought in from China or India as we are today in the new things, and yet Downing makes a strong appeal for the use of our native trees and shrubs whose beauty he keenly appreciates. "Use the exotics," he writes, "but place them near the house and garden, usually as single specimens; then depend upon the native plants for the large and outlying masses."

As these theories are to a great extent generally accepted today, is it not proof that his influence has lived and extended and has become in large measure, as it were, the tradition of the American people?

  1. Blossom, Harold Hill, Andrew Jackson Downing, Landscape Architect, in "The American Magazine of Art," November 1916, The American Federation of the Arts, New York.


Living Places information is deemed reliable but not guaranteed. • Copyright © 1997-2016
The Gombach Group • 215-295-6555 • www.gombach.com