A Carpet of Velvety Green: Lawns on 19th-Century Country Estates

The rear lawn and the 1915 Delano & Aldrich formal garden at Bartow-Pell were restored by Mark K. Morrison Landscape Architecture PC with a 2012 Partners in Preservation grant from the National Trust and American Express. The mansion was completed in 1842. In the 1844 edition of A. J. Downing’s Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, he writes that buildings with a “simplicity of outline . . . harmonize best with all landscape . . . of simple or graceful beauty.” Downing was a great admirer of “a finely undulating lawn”; ordinarily, he found a flat surface “extremely dull and uninteresting.”

A beautiful undulating carpet of fresh green grass was an essential luxury on 19th-century country estates. Today, that idea may seem fairly obvious, but why? And how did the landed gentry plant and maintain their expansive (and expensive) lawns in the days before modern equipment?

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, wealthy Americans followed English models of architecture and landscaping, which they learned about from books, engravings, paintings, travel, and immigrants. This was a period when British landscape designers embraced the Romantic picturesque elements of an idealized natural style and rejected the formal, geometric aesthetic of French and Continental gardens. The new fashion was popularized by the great British landscape gardeners of the age—including Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783), Humphry Repton (1752–1818), William Sawrey Gilpin (1762–1843), and John Claudius Loudon (1783–1843)—and their followers in the United States, such as Irish-born Bernard McMahon (ca. 1775–1816), Belgian émigré André Parmentier (1780–1830), and American wunderkind Andrew Jackson Downing (1815–1852). These American gardeners created a new national style that was suitable for the North American climate.

John Preston Neale (English, 1780–1847), artist, and J. C. Varrall, engraver. Attingham Hall, Shropshire, 1826. Illustration from Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, 2nd series, v. 3. In 1797, the 2nd Lord Berwick commissioned Humphry Repton to modernize the grounds at Attingham Park, where many of Repton’s original improvements remain today. A. J. Downing greatly admired Repton and considered him to be one of England’s most important landscape gardeners. In his Treatise, Downing turns to him on the subject of open lawns near houses. “‘The mind,’ says Repton, ‘feels a certain disgust under a sense of confinement in any situation however beautiful.’ A wide-spread lawn, on the contrary . . . conveys an expression of ample extent and space for enjoyment.”

Irregularity, curved lines, varied surfaces, unexpected views and vistas, meandering walks, majestic trees, interesting groupings of shrubs and plants, and, yes, lawns (especially dotted with a few choice trees), characterized the modern natural style. These elements were expected to work in harmony with architecture and the surrounding landscape. Although the look was natural, the design was contrived. In the 1844 edition of his treatise on landscape gardening, A. J. Downing writes that “in the grounds of a country residence,” natural beauty can be enhanced by “conducting all our improvements with an eye to picturesque expression.” British and American advocates of the modern style, however, varied in their interpretations of the ideal landscape, and writers such as Sir Uvedale Price (1747–1829) had strong opinions on the differences between the “beautiful,” the “picturesque,” and the “sublime.”

Claude Lorrain (French, 1604/5?–1682). View of La Crescenza, 1648–50. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1978. British and American gardeners sometimes looked to landscape paintings for inspiration. Works by the 17th-century artists Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa were particular favorites. This view by Claude of a medieval fortress refashioned as a country house in the Roman campagna was in the collection of Richard Payne Knight. Knight—along with his friend Sir Uvedale Price—was a leading proponent of the picturesque in Britain and the author of The Landscape (1794), a didactic poem on the subject. A. J. Downing later wrote in his treatise on American landscape gardening, “To the lover of the fine arts, the name of Claude Lorraine [sic] cannot fail to suggest examples of beauty in its purest and most elegant forms.”

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington followed the latest gardening trends and were among the first wealthy Americans who planted lawns as part of a larger landscaping scheme in the natural, English taste. On June 2, 1798, the Polish writer Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz visited Mount Vernon, where he admired a grove of locust trees planted on “a green carpet of the most beautiful velvet.” In his book George Washington’s Eye, Joseph Manca shares an account of Washington’s gardens written about 1788–89 by the military officer, writer, and gentleman farmer David Humphreys, who describes “a lawn of 5 acres in front & about the same in rear of the buildings. . . . On the north-end it subsides gradually into extensive pasture grounds; while on the south it slopes more steeply . . . and terminates with the coach-house, stables, vineyard & nurseries.”

Unidentified artist, Mount Vernon, 19th century. Watercolor and pen and ink on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. and museum purchase made possible by Ralph Cross Johnson. This folky watercolor is a loose copy of an aquatint published in 1800 by the London printmaker Francis Jukes from original artwork by the Scottish-American artist Alexander Robertson.

What defined a lawn, exactly? In 1830, according to Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, it was “an open space between woods, or a plain in a park [i.e., the land surrounding a country house] or adjoining a noble seat.” To be clear, a lawn was not the same as a meadow, pasture, or clearing. Lawns—which were extremely labor-intensive—were expensive to plant and maintain. These costly status symbols were the perfect way to showcase a handsome mansion on a gentleman’s country estate.

In the 19th century, well-to-do Americans were keen to own a country seat, partially as a means to escape urban and industrial areas, which were becoming more crowded, dirty, and disease-ridden. As part of this movement, on April 25, 1836, Robert Bartow and his wife, Maria, paid $40,000 for 233 acres of waterfront property in the countryside just north of New York City—land that had once belonged to his Bartow and Pell ancestors—and made plans to build a splendid mansion. Naturally, new landscaping in the current taste would have been part of that scheme.

Bartow mansion, albumen print, ca. 1870, Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum (left). Bartow estate, Map showing topographical survey of land to be taken for Pelham Bay Park (detail), 1885, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library (right). The Bartow mansion had a large front lawn bordered by an oval tree-lined entrance drive and a smaller lawn sloping down to the water at the back.

Robert and Maria Bartow were among the wealthy New Yorkers who owned country houses on Long Island Sound in the picturesque area that is now Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. Here, lawns, gardens, and orchards joined pastures, farmland, marshes, and woodland on idyllic estates. The Bartows’ neighbor Elisha King hired noted horticulturalist André Parmentier to lay out the grounds at Hawkswood, King’s fine 1829 Greek Revival mansion designed by Martin Euclid Thompson near City Island. In “Landscapes and Picturesque Gardens” (1828), Parmentier advises: “The front of the house ought always to be uncovered” and “open to public view; otherwise the taste and expense are, in a great measure, thrown away.” He also says that “it is desirable that a grass-plot should naturally present itself.”

Pelham—Rodman’s Neck, New York. Illustration from Atkinson’s Casket (Philadelphia), October 1831. The architect Martin Euclid Thompson built Hawkswood for Elisha King in 1828–29. This Greek Revival mansion sat on a rise with magnificent views of Long Island Sound and was surrounded by beautiful lawns and grounds designed by André Parmentier. “The Lawn is enriched with almost every variety of tree and shrub, and its arrangement is one of the happiest efforts of the late distinguished Landscape Gardener, Mr. Andrew Parmentier, of Brooklyn. . . . The situation is peculiarly picturesque.” The house was subsequently owned by Levin R. Marshall but was demolished in the 1930s.

John Hunter mansion and grounds, Hunter Island, New York, 1882. Albumen prints. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York. On July 11, 1839, a reporter for the Morning Herald noted the “beauty and picturesque effect” en route to Hunter’s estate and admired “the house on the summit of a hill, covered with groves of trees, lawn, grass plats, and rich fields of grain.” “A sloping lawn of great beauty, interspersed with flower borders, leads from the east front steps to the water’s edge,” he wrote.

John Hunter’s Pelham Bay estate—modeled after those of the English nobility—was on its own island, which A. J. Downing describes in his Treatise. “The whole island may be considered an extensive park, carpeted with soft lawn and studded with noble trees,” he observes. Downing was also impressed by Robert Bolton’s Pelham Priory, which embodied the Romantic notion of the picturesque and was surrounded by lawns and woods, a faux ruin, and a gazebo.

William Rickarby Miller (1818–1893). Pelham Priory (left) and Woodland Path, Pelham Priory (right), 1856. Watercolor on paper. Collection of Catherine Boericke. Robert Bolton designed his 1838 neo-Gothic pile—and the surrounding gardens—in a highly Romantic picturesque style. According to Robert Bolton Jr.’s family history, “the grounds and woodlands were being more and more cultivated and adorned under Mr. Bolton’s eye, and became objects of admiration to visitors,” including his friend Washington Irving, who “took a lively interest in this specimen of English landscape gardening.” In these 1856 watercolors, spacious lawns slope down from the house and are shaded by stately trees. A formal geometric flower garden contrasts with the otherwise natural aesthetic.

How were these lawns achieved? Downing discusses the subject in the November 1846 issue of The Horticulturalist (which he edited). “We love most the soft turf which, beneath the flickering shadows of scattered trees, is thrown like a smooth natural carpet over the swelling outline of the smiling earth,” he writes. But growing a lawn and keeping it green wasn’t that easy. The American climate, “so bright and sunny” with the “summer searing” of July and August, made it harder to maintain “the perpetual softness and verdure of an ‘English lawn.’” But Downing had good news. “Fine lawns” could be had “in all the northern half of the Union” if people followed three important rules—“deep soil, the proper kinds of grasses, and frequent mowing.

First, the soil must be prepared. Downing recommends doing this in the autumn or early winter so that the ground has time to settle before it is seeded in the spring. “Large lawn surfaces are only to be managed (unless expense is not a consideration) with the subsoil plough . . . worked by two yoke of oxen” to turn up the soil two feet deep. Then a harrow should be used to break up clumps of dirt, and the area must be cleared of all stones. “It is quite impossible to mow a lawn well that is not as smooth as ground can be made,” he warns. Manure may be applied while subsoiling, but it is not needed “if the land is strong and in good heart.” “The object in a lawn,” he reminds us, “is not to obtain a heavy crop of hay, but simply to maintain perpetual verdure. Rich soil would defeat our object by causing rank growth and coarse stalks, when we wish short growth and soft herbage.”

In early spring, Downing says to stir the soil “lightly with the plough and harrow, and make the surface as smooth as possible—we do not mean level, for if the ground is not a flat, nothing is so agreeable as gentle swells or undulations. But quite smooth the surface must be.” When it is time to sow the seeds, Downing recommends a mixture of red-top (Agostis vulgaris) and white clover (Trifolium repens), “which are hardy short grasses” that “make the best and most enduring lawn for this climate. . . . The seed should be perfectly clean; then sow four bushels of it to the acre; not a pint less as you hope to walk upon velvet! Finish the whole by rolling the surface evenly and neatly. A few soft vernal showers and bright sunny days will show you a coat of verdure bright as emerald.” Hopefully nature cooperated.

Preparing for Croquet. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, July 22, 1871. By the 1870s, croquet had become very popular as a lawn game, especially for ladies. “The accompanying illustration will please every body who takes any enjoyment in the game. The workmen have come out with their scythes to mow the lawn into perfect smoothness.” Lawn scythes were the traditional method for cutting grass, and although mechanical mowers had been invented by this time, they were not in widespread use.

How did gardeners mow and maintain these velvety green carpets? “After your lawn is once fairly established, there are but two secrets in keeping it perfect—frequent mowing and rolling,” Downing advises. Scythes were used for cutting grass, sometimes even after the lawn mower became widely available in the late 19th century. Downing recommends using an “English lawn scythe” with a broad blade “of the most perfect temper and quality, which will hold an edge like a razor.” “Of course, a lawn can only be cut when the grass is damp, and rolling is best performed directly after rain.” Lawn rollers—preferably made of iron—ensured that the ground remained smooth. “The English always roll a few hours before using the scythe. On large lawns, a donkey or light horse may be advantageously employed in performing this operation.”

Horse lawn boots. From the private collection of Mark K. Morrison. These “improved patent” leather boots were worn by Shire horses when walking across a lawn so as not to damage the turf. Collector Mark Morrison notes that “they are similar to medicine boots, which had poultices put in them when a horse had a bad hoof.”

Gardeners used rakes and brooms to remove grass cuttings. Specialized tools included edgers for trimming borders. For grassy areas away from the “dressed portions of the estate,” Downing’s friend Henry W. Sargent suggests using sheep to keep turf short and “diminish the amount of lawn now kept under the scythe . . . increasing very much the charm of the landscape” (The Horticulturalist, November 1849).

The roller water-engine. Illustration from John Claudius Loudon, An Encyclopedia of Gardening (London), 1835. “The roller water-engine consists of a horse, frame, and wheels, on which is placed a water-barrel, and under it an iron roller. It is an excellent machine for lawns and roads, as they may be watered and rolled by the same operation.”

Finally, how were lawns watered? Deep tilling helped keep roots moist. Water barrels—on wheelbarrows or horse-drawn—and eventually rubber hoses and sprinklers were among the systems that were used. Water sources could include cisterns, wells, reservoirs, streams, and ponds.  In any case, it was probably easiest to hope for rain.

At first, lawns were only for rich country gentlemen, but with the advent of the suburban front yard, anyone could have a private carpet of velvety green.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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4 Responses to A Carpet of Velvety Green: Lawns on 19th-Century Country Estates

  1. I immediately thought of my favorite Edith Wharton Novella – False Dawn. False Dawn is the first of her four novellas called Old New York, which are set in the mid 1800s. From the first few paragraphs of False Dawn:

    “The Halston Raycie house overlooked a lawn sloping to the Sound. The lawn was Mr. Raycie’s pride: it was mown with a scythe once a fortnight, and rolled in the spring by an old white horse specially shod for the purpose. Below the veranda, the turf was broken by three round beds of rose geraniums, heliotrope and Bengal roses, which Mrs. Raycie tended in gauntlet gloves, under a small hinged sunshade that folded back on its hinged ivory handle…..”

    That paragraph continues to include a reference to Downing’s “Landscape Gardening in America. The first page of False Dawn brings a 19th Century country estate to life. The lawn sloping to the Sound describes a lawn that the Bartows’ once had, a lawn that they would be equally proud of. The old white horse’s hoofs would be shod with custom-made leather boots, so that the turf would not be torn up, exactly like the leather boots that Mark has in his collection.

  2. Pingback: A Modern Man: A. J. Downing and the American Gentleman’s Country Seat | mansion musings

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