Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

David P. Schuyler

[Clarence C. Cook], "A Visit to the House and Garden of the Late A. J. Downing," Horticulturist, n. s. 3 (Jan. 1853): 20-27.


 

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To describe a dwelling and a garden like Mr. Downing's is like analyzing a poem whose beauty has long ministered to our daily happiness, and whose melody has for many years sung unquestioned to our hearts. Hence, in many ways, the task is not one that we should seek, nor can we hope that we shall perform it to the satisfaction of all those who knew and loved the place; but where love guides the pen, we can not wholly fail, and the artist's pencil will aid us where words are weak and insufficient.

The library is a cheerful and delightful room opening from the hall, and having doors leading on one side to the parlor, and on the other to the dining room. On the west side is a large bay window, and in front of it stands the spacious table at which Mr. Downing wrote. In the winter the family forsook the fine south room, which on account of its size was not easily warmed, and lived in the library, which with its cheerful fire and books and busts, became the gathering point of the household, and the chosen seat of the winter's evening mirth and daily study.

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For some time Mr. Downing's office was the upper south chamber in his house, but increasing business and the frequency of calls made it necessary to construct a room which could be entered from without. For this purpose the office was built--an addition to the house entered from the garden by a porch, and from the library by one of the book-cases, which, set into the wall, was made into a door, and when shut could not be distinguished from the others in the room. The office is divided by a partition into two rooms; one was Mr. Downing's private study, the other the place where the architectural business was carried on. No place could be more delightful than this room to work in. On one side the southern windows let in the warm and cheerful sunlight, on another the rows of books give a grace and charm to the apartment, and opposite them the bright wood fire warms body and soul with its crackling flames. The room is no merely whitewashed parallelogram, but, though inexpensive in its construction, is agreeable in color and proportion. The walls are divided into panels, and the wood-work is stained; some fine architectural prints adorn the western end; and the whole air of the place is that of taste and refinement.

Let us first, in order to see clearly what Mr. Downing has done for this place, find out what was its condition when he first became its master. The ground is in shape nearly a parallelogram, and together with two other lots east and southeast of the present garden, constituted the original property as it was left at the death of his father. All the land that Mr. Downing owned at the time he died, was the lot represented in the plan, containing a little over four acres, all of which was under cultivation. The whole place is surrounded by a hedge on three sides it is of English thorn, and on the south it is of arbor-vitae. The house in which Mr. Downing was born, now thirty-seven years ago, stood where the green-house is at present; and the wistaria vine which is trained on a trellis over the path, formerly climbed up the front of the little dwelling. East of the cottage, and, I think, connected with it, stood the old green-house, having in one end an office where the business of the place was conducted; and that portion of the ground immediately about the house was cultivated as an ornamental garden. The tall balsam fir near the entrance gate is one of the few trees planted at the time we speak of, and still remaining in its original place. This tree is a specimen of remarkable beauty; rising full seventy feet without a curve and without a single dead branch, it was always a pleasant memorial with Mr. Downing of his early days. That portion of the original garden which was not laid out in ornamental beds was planted as a nursery, and constituted three-fourths of the whole lot. It continued in this way till within fifteen years, when Mr. Downing and his elder brother Charles, who since their father's death had carried on the business together, separated, and the place came into the hands of its late owner. He now commenced his alterations; and shortly after this marriage, which took place about this time, began to build his house. He lived for the first year after his marriage at his father-in-law's, Mr. J. P. DeWindt, in Fishkill Landing, and crossed the river every day to superintend construction of his new dwelling. He continued a nurseryman till about six years ago, when he abandoned the business altogether, altered his grounds to nearly their present shape, and commenced the practice of landscape gardening and rural architecture.

 

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The arrangement of the grounds is simple. Entering at the gate, the visitor follows the carriage-road, and when opposite the green-house, takes the path which turns eastward and skirts the vineyard. This path in fact divides the lawn; as it approaches the house it runs down toward the vineyard, leaving the greatest extent of lawn before the building, and having accomplished this, turns again toward the west. A thick shrubbery runs along the edge of the vineyard, between it and the path, arranged in such a way as to give views of the river and the opposite shore without allowing the vine poles to appear. The vineyard, seen in the plan, is a new one just in bearing, having been planed three years ago this summer. It contains nearly a thousand vines, Isabellas and Catawbas. Mr. Downing had a few other varieties scattered through the grounds; there is a fine specimen of the Elsinborough near the office; but he had none of the more delicate varieties which require artificial heat. Mr. Downing spoke at times of removing the vineyard to another spot, and turning the whole into lawn and ornamental ground. To have done so would have added greatly to the beauty of the place, and there is no doubt that with his love for lawns he would hardly have been contented long with the small though beautiful one which he possessed. By careful planting originally, and by regular mowings every fortnight, this garden is able to boast a lawn whose velvet it will not be easy to rival on our river; and whose exquisitely tinted surface, shaded with clumps of trees and enriched with flower and vase, was a real triumph in our adverse climate and beneath our scorching suns.

In passing along the path which we have entered, you catch a glimpse through the trees of the little Sundial with its motto, "Horas non nomero nisi serenas"--"I number none but sunny hours," and few others ever passed over this happy place. When I first saw this dial the ice was on the ground, and a little hillock of snow upon the top of the pillar prevented the sun from recording the hours. I brushed away the snow to find the time. Mr. Downing was with me, and, I remember, told me about some ancient sundial he had seen when abroad. this morning the first snow of the year is on the dial and on his grave. Still further on, we come to that portion of the walk from which we obtain the view of his house given in the frontispiece of this number. In the foreground is the graceful and effective cast of the Warwick Vase, which forms the subject of the vignette at the end of the present article, and which will give to many of our readers who have heard of this celebrated production of antiquity an idea of its exquisite decoration and fine proportion. Looking at the house where we stand, and marking its bold yet unassuming architecture, and then referring to its plan as given in the drawing of the grounds, we venture to ask whether such a building, erected as it was at the age of twenty-four, before Mr. Downing had ever seen a private dwelling having the slightest pretension to elegance, and when all his ideas of such matters were procured from one or two English books, does not exhibit A native taste and a refinement in the man. Many of our professed architects who have had the advantage of years of study and travel, together with the use of the best books, build houses which do not exhibit half the tasteful design nor the convenient and elegant arrangement of this young man's work.

Continuing our walk, we find that the shrubbery on our right, forms the boundary of the garden; and that the path which we have entered, and which has this shrubbery for wall on one side, is the outline of the garden, and commands all this is worthiest seeing in that small but beautiful domain. You notice, as we pass, that there is no separate flower garden. Mr. Downing never thought well of drawing a line between the lawn and shrubbery, and the parterre. His manner was to set his flower beds in grass, or to lay them along the edges of paths. Thus the walk which runs east and west between the Hermitage and the Arbor, is lined on one side by a border containing carnations and a few fine roses; but for the most part you will find circular beds of flowers set like gems here and there in the lawn, or grouped in irregular masses before shrubbery, which served for back-ground. Two of these circular beds were particularly noticeable, and formed brilliant objects in the portion of the ground where they were placed. A bed of scarlet geraniums near the Warwick Vase was a magnificent object all summer; and another of the portulacca presented a disc of purplish crimson which seemed to palpitate at radiant morn and glowing noon with what appeared at times like actual emissions of light. There was a fine bed of crimson roses, too, which were staked down, and thus kept from branching; and another of white yucca, near the bed of portulacca, cooling the eye after its bath in that bed of fire with its snowy and abundant blossoms.

Near the north end of the house, if you examine the plan, you will find a thick, impervious shrubbery, bounded on one side by the carriage road and on the other by the path bordered with flowers to which we have referred above. This shrubbery in summer entirely conceals that portion of the garden which lies north of it, and is traversed by a winding path having near one end the Rustic Hermitage, and near the middle the small Rock-work devoted to those plants which love that soil.

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The Hermitage is a pretty, rural structure, neatly constructed of rough bark and logs, presenting an attractive object in the walk, and furnishing a cool retreat from the burning heat of our midsummer noons. At one end you may see the bee-hives--homes of the little "singing masons building roofs of gold," who find their favorite food of lemon thyme covering the rocks near by. The Rock-work is a pretty sight in summer, with its fine beds of moss and thyme, and its stately ferns, under whose shadow the hare bells and columbines grew fair as in their native woods. It is surprising to see how delicate the plants are that thrive best on rocky soils, and flourish from the crevices of stony places. This little rockery is one of the pleasantest features in the garden; it is quite secluded, and has scarcely any outlook. Beyond the thickly planted plat of which we have been speaking, you may see, by the following plan, that the path we took at first, carries us round a large and open lawn. Near the center stands the large bronze cast of the Borghese Vase, sent to Mr. Downing from France early in last spring, and which forms a very marked feature in the northern part of the garden. This vase, which is a cast of one in the gardens of the Villa Borghese, near Florence, is of bronze, and is covered with bacchanalian figures in very high relief. The artist [Christopher P.] Cranch has painted a lovely view of the garden from a spot on the opposite side of this lawn, toward the Hermitage; where the mountains on the opposite shore, with the sail-covered river flowing between, and this vase in the foreground, combine to form a landscape more beautiful than is often seen, and of which the vignette placed at the head of our article can give but a faint idea.

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It will be remembered that before Mr. Downing took this place, by far the greater part of it was planted as a nursery; and in altering it to its present shape, a large proportion of the fruit trees had to be entirely given up or transplanted. Such as remained were placed where they would be most useful as screens and yet not intrude upon the sight, since a tree cultivated for its fruit alone is seldom an ornamental object;--beautiful of its kind it may be, but seldom as seen side by side with other trees. Wherever the nursery trees could be left without interfering with the proposed arrangement of the grounds, they were so; and thus we find the path at the northern end of the garden, in which we are now walking, walled on one side with fruit trees mingled with flowering shrubs. The lawn, around which this path runs, is studded with those circular beds of flowers to which I have before alluded,--beds of verbenas and roses, but chiefly of petunias--piled blooms of purple and white,--flowering far into the autumn months. Besides these, there is a pretty conceit--a guilloche bed of verbenas shaded from the richest scarlet up to pure white, and two hanging tents of wire covered with the beautiful cypress vine. On this walk, too, is a little Rustic Arbor, sitting in which on summer days, one saw the freighted river and flowing mountain line, which, clear against the sky, divided its paler blue from their deep azure; and the village on the rolling land between the water and the hills, with its clustered houses thick in one place but scattered on the outskirts, with here and there a larger house or stately mansion

 

"Bosomed high in tufted trees,"

and gladdening the eye with its hint of home and hospitality amid the universal tender green. Continuing on this path, it becomes narrower, and leads through the shrubbery to the carriage road, which widens at the north end of the house sufficiently to admit of a turn, and then, resuming its original width, leads to the rear of the building and to the fruit orchard, hidden from the view by the espalier with its leafy curtain of nectarines and peach. Extending form the western side of the house we see the office, giving to the structure a pleasing irregularity, and having on the south the little Entrance Porch which is before shown in our vignette.

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The orchard contained Mr. Downing's choice fruit--principally plums, nectarines, and peaches, with some of the finer sorts of pears. In other parts of the garden there were fine beds of strawberries--many sorts, and each in its perfection; raspberries also were in great abundance and beauty, together with fine apples and, as we have seen, great store of grapes. At the end of the orchard the carriage road again widens, and at the left a narrow path running in front of the green-house, connects the two ends of this road with each other. Over this path is trained the Wistaria Vine on a rustic trellis, and through it you get a lovely picture of the river and the Fishkill mountains circled by the leafy and luxuriant climber for a frame.

I have thus led the reader through the garden, and endeavored to convey to him some idea of a place which can not long remain as the owner left it, and which he died without carrying to perfection. It is not an extensive place; it had no great vinery, no mammoth hot-house nor conservatory; there is no aviary, no fountain, no Victoria Regia, no pinery, no palm-house. In the garden one looks in vain for a complete collection of any one plant. Mr. Downing had no passion for evergreens, no absorbing desire to include in his garden's attractions every species of heath, or rose, or dahlia. In the house there are no rare paintings, no marbles, no cabinets of gems, nor portfolios of rare engravings, no shelves laden with costly books. If Mr. Downing's fortune did not warrant this, no less did his taste forbid his running to extremes of any kind. His garden is small indeed; but it had more beauty of arrangement, more beauty of natural scenery, artistically made a part of the place, than many a place we know of, whose owner is possessed of far greater wealth. Many of Mr. Downing's trees, both fruit and ornamental, were rare and costly specimens, either imported from abroad or presents from his friends; many of them were natives of our American woods, of which he was justly proud. All were treated with the most assiduous ands scientific care, and were models of their kind. Mr. Downing has shown in his garden and in his house how much beauty and comfort lie at the doors of those whose means are not very extensive, but who are willing to bestow care, and able to bestow taste upon their places, however small.

We have no doubt that many a man who looks at the plan which accompanies this sketch, will be inclined to wonder at the praises which have been bestowed upon this garden. But when he comes to examine, step by step, the nice arrangement, the artistic eye guiding the hand in the planting of every shrub and tree, and hundred effects of light and shade, the charming landscape, now revealed between the thickets, and now stretching before him with a foreground of lovely flowers and shrubs; and when he comes to learn that none of this is the effect of chance, but than in the owner's mind there existed the capability of seeing beforehand the result of his labors and that he thus worked with certain knowledge of its final issue; he will understand that no common skill has been at work upon this haunt of beauty, and that in its completeness of design and perfection of execution it is the successful competitor of far grander and more ostentatious places.

We are glad to be able to show the friends, to whose immediate ear Mr. Downing month after month so acceptably appealed, a view of the place in which he lived and labored, which he loved as the spot where he was born, and where so many happy hours had been passed, and which to every lover of the beautiful in nature, and to every friend of those arts which surround our homes with refining beauty, will be a place around which affectionate memories will gather, as long as affection and gratitude endure.

 


copyright 1997 David Schuyler