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