A Modern Man: A. J. Downing and the American Gentleman’s Country Seat

Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892). Original drawing for View in the Grounds at Blithewood, Dutchess Co. N.Y., The Residence of Robert Donaldson, Esq. Frontispiece of A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening by Andrew Jackson Downing, 1841.The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1924. Davis, the well-known New York architect, and Downing were frequent collaborators.

A. J. Downing (1815–1852) was full of modern ideas about landscape gardening. And he particularly wanted to create a tradition in the United States that was inspired by—but separate from—British and European precedents. He also recognized the need to adapt these practices for the American climate, soil, landscape, and culture. Today, he would be an enthusiastic Instagram influencer with thousands of followers, but in the middle of the nineteenth century, it was his book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening—first published in 1841 when he was just twenty-five years old—that attracted attention.

John Halpin (active 1849–1867). Andrew Jackson Downing, ca. 1852. Engraving. Copy after Mathew B. Brady (1823–1896). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. A. J. Downing was born in 1815 in Newburgh, New York, where he continued to live until his death. Downing worked in—and later took over—his father’s nursery business, but he eventually sold it and turned his attention solely to landscape design and writing. He married Caroline Elizabeth De Windt, the granddaughter of former president John Adams and grandniece of John Quincy Adams. On July 28, 1852, Downing and his wife were on board the steamboat Henry Clay when the vessel caught fire in the Hudson River near Yonkers, New York. Tragically, he was one of many who lost their lives in the disaster, and his brilliant life and career ended far too soon at the age of thirty-six.

Although Downing wrote much of the Treatise for the gentleman of leisure with a country house, he wanted all Americans—not just wealthy landowners—to enjoy the pleasures of the garden, landscape, and nature, and he worked hard to popularize his ideas. Furthermore, as societal and economic changes swept through the nineteenth century, families looked to the stability of the home in order to preserve the domestic circle, and this was accompanied by a love of country pursuits and nature. “A taste for rural improvements of every description is advancing silently, but with great rapidity in this country,” Downing penned in the Treatise’s opening lines. He felt that it was important to “render domestic life more delightful” by enhancing the natural beauty around one’s residence. He even said that this made Americans more patriotic and better citizens by increasing “local attachments.” “The love of country is inseparably connected with the love of home,” he declared.

Thomas Cole (1801–1848). A Pic-Nic Party, 1846. Oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum, Healy Purchase Fund B. Downing was a great admirer of Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, whom he called “the greatest of our landscape painters.” (The Horticulturalist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, July 1848). In 1836, Thomas Cole married Robert Bartow’s first cousin Maria Bartow (1813–1884). Picnics and other rural pursuits were extremely popular in the mid-nineteenth century. Here, adults and children enjoy the peaceful beauty of nature as they relax in harmony with the serene landscape. This idyllic pastoral scene depicts majestic trees and undulating soft, green ground dappled by light and shadow; a sky illuminated by late-afternoon sunlight; and water reflecting the tranquil surroundings.

The ultimate status symbol for people of means in the mid-nineteenth century was a country seat. Better than a collection of pictures, “the sylvan and floral collections, . . . which surround the country residence of a man of taste,” are confined only by “the blue heaven above and around them,” the Treatise tells us. (Downing had a way with words.) He defined landscape gardening as a fine art, like poetry, music, and—especially—landscape painting.

But the Treatise goes beyond idealistic philosophy and theoretical precepts. It was also a practical how-to guide. The book includes sections on trees and plants, preparing the ground, laying out roads and walks, building artificial lakes and waterfalls, designing flower gardens, and much, much more.

Creating a manmade landscape that appeared natural required a great deal of skill. Downing’s approach included strategic groupings of trees and shrubs; curvilinear paths and roads; undulating surfaces (including lawns of velvety green grass); carefully planned views and vistas, and a sympathetic connection between the house and grounds. And he felt strongly that in order to succeed “in the modern style,” it was important that the parts of a landscape be interconnected. In his view, “the chief beauty of the modern style is the infinite variety produced by following a few leading principles and applying them to different and varied localities; unlike the geometric [old-fashioned] style, which proceeded to level, and arrange, and erect its avenues and squares alike in every situation, with all the precision and certainty of mathematical demonstration.”

He believed that trees arranged in a diverse composition of “groups, single trees, and large masses”—and “even the grove or wood”—would “produce that diversity, and that breadth of light and shadow, so agreeable in real landscape and so enchanting in fine pictures.” “All variety, grandeur, and beauty would be lost,” he warned, if scattered single trees or “uniform groups alone” were used.

William Rickarby Miller (1818–1893). Woodland Path, Pelham Priory, 1856. Watercolor on paper. Ex-collection Catherine Boericke

Roads and walks, in Downing’s opinion, should be laid out “in easy flowing lines, following natural indications.” The “approach”—the drive leading from the public road to the house—was the most important of these. In the past, this was usually a straight road leading directly to the front of the dwelling. But Downing regarded the rigid linearity of earlier times as inflexible, inartistic, uninteresting, and unnatural. A curved approach also allowed one to see the elegance of the façade as well as one of the side elevations. However, Downing cautions, “the curves should never be so great, or lead over surfaces so unequal, as to make it disagreeable to drive upon them . . . [and] the road should never curve without some reason.” But, take note! “Since the modern style has become partially known and adopted here, some persons appear to have supposed that nature ‘has a horror of straight lines,’ and . . . they immediately ran into the other extreme, filling their grounds with zig-zag and regularly serpentine roads, still more horrible, which can only be compared to the contortions of a wounded snake.”

The Treatise repeatedly emphasizes the importance of a unified connection between the house and grounds. “If our readers will imagine, with us, a pretty villa conveniently arranged and well constructed, . . . properly placed in a smooth well kept lawn, studded with groups and masses of fine trees, . . . however there is felt to be a certain incongruity between the house, a highly artificial object,” and the “beautiful nature” of the “surrounding grounds.” How could the two be more harmoniously linked? Downing suggests a terrace, perhaps with a wall or balustrade adorned with urns and vases. And “on the drawing-room side of the house, that is, the side towards which the best room or rooms look, we will place the flower garden.” Now, he says, “the mind is led gradually down from the house.”

Landscape Gardening, in the Graceful School. Illustration from the 1844 edition of Downing’s Treatise

Downing was inspired by the eighteenth-century British ideals of the beautiful (“graceful,” “general,” or “natural” beauty, to use his terms), which was “characterized by simple and flowing forms,” and picturesque beauty, which was “expressed by striking, irregular, spirited forms.” “We think the Grecian and Roman styles [of architecture] (especially the former) should be chosen . . . when the landscape is that of graceful beauty.” “The Tudor and Rural Gothic styles are . . . most happily exhibited in connection with picturesque scenery.” “Graceful” and “picturesque” landscape designs complemented the various architectural styles of the 1840s—from Greek Revival to Gothic Revival to Italianate.

Landscape Gardening, in the Picturesque School. Treatise, 1844

In 1841, Downing observed that “within the last ten years, especially, the evidences of the growing wealth and prosperity of our citizens have become apparent in the great increase of elegant cottage and villa residences . . . wherever nature seems to invite us by her rich and varied charms.” The Bartow mansion was built between 1836 and 1842, exactly during this period. Did Robert Bartow (who, by the way, was a retired book publisher) read Downing’s treatise and follow some of his advice?

The Residence of Rev. Robt. Bolton, near New Rochelle, N. Y. Engraving after a drawing by Alexander Jackson Davis, Treatise, 1844. In an 1862 family history, Robert Bolton Jr. describes his late father’s passion for laying out the grounds of their 1838 family-built home and school, the picturesque Pelham Priory. “The grounds and woodlands were being more and more cultivated and adorned under Mr. Bolton’s eye and became objects of admiration to visitors,” he says. On October 1, 1841, Alexander Jackson Davis—who drew illustrations for the second edition of the Treatise—wrote in his day book about visiting the Priory, “Rode to New Rochelle . . . dined at the Neptune House and visited Mr. Bolton. Sketched his places.” And on April 10, 1844, he made the following entry: “Drawing Bolton’s Pelham Priory on Wood for Downing $10.00.” The artist took some artistic liberties, placing the waters of Long Island Sound closer to the house, for example.
William Rickarby Miller (1818–1893). Pelham Priory, Main Portal, 1856. Watercolor on paper. Ex-collection Catherine Boericke. Robert Bolton’s old friend Washington Irving (whose residence is also illustrated in the Treatise) reportedly provided yellow bricks from the old church at Sleepy Hollow to form the date “1838” above the door. A picturesque neo-Gothic folly—which is not depicted in Davis’s drawing made twelve years earlier—can be seen at the left.

The estates of two of Robert and Maria Bartow’s neighbors appear in the 1844 and 1849 editions. “The seat of John Hunter, Esq., is a place of much simplicity and dignity of character. The whole island may be considered an extensive park, carpeted with soft lawn and studded with noble trees.” The classicism of Hunter’s estate—which reflected Downing’s idea of graceful beauty—contrasted with Robert Bolton’s Gothic Revival pile built in 1838, an example of the picturesque. “A highly unique residence in the old English style is Pelham Priory, the seat of the Rev. Robert Bolton, near New Rochelle, N. Y. The exterior is massive and picturesque . . . it has at once the appearance of considerable antiquity . . . and one may more easily fancy himself in one of those ‘mansions builded curiously’ of our ancestors in the time of ‘good Queen Bess.’”

Bartow mansion, built 1836–42, front façade. While Robert and Maria Bartow’s new mansion and its outbuildings were under construction, the family lived in an older house on the property. On June 17, 1838, Augustus Moore, the family’s tutor, described the property in a letter to his sister Lydia. “Mr. Bartow is a very wealthy gentleman formerly a merchant of New York, now retired from business. He has a splendid situation on the sound 16 miles from New York City, formerly his country seat where he spent the summers when he lived in the city. . . . Has splendid gardens with gooseberries, currants, etc etc etc. The gardener devotes his whole time to it . . . Mr. Bartow and I have many pleasant walks about the place examining the improvements etc.”

In 1836, Mr. and Mrs. Bartow purchased the estate that had once belonged to his Bartow and Pell ancestors, and over the next six years, the couple built a new house on the property. “The present proprietor has lately erected a fine stone house, in the Grecian style, which presents a neat front with projecting wings,” their neighbor Robert Bolton Jr. wrote in A Guide to New Rochelle and Its Vicinity in 1842, the year in which the mansion was completed.

Plan of a Country Seat after Ten Years’ Improvement. Treatise, 1841. “From the windows of the mansion itself, the trees are so arranged as to group in the most pleasing and effective manner; at the same time, broad masses of turf meet the eye; and fine distant views are had through the vistas in the lines.” This is similar in many ways to the layout of the grounds of the Bartow estate as seen in the New York City surveyor’s map of 1885.
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. The City Surveyor’s Office published this plan of the Bartow estate in 1885 before the family was required to sell the property to the city to form part of the new Pelham Bay Park. The curving drives, naturalistic grouping of trees, and carefully planned vistas recall designs in the Treatise. However, Downing would have objected to the line of trees along the approach road. (Only the left side of this road exists today.) The Pell Treaty Oak is the single tree on the left side of the front lawn. Downing considered oaks “the most majestic and picturesque of all deciduous trees.”

Although scant documentation from the 1840s has been found, it appears that perhaps Robert Bartow was influenced by some—but not all—of Downing’s principles. A couple of later sources provide a few clues. In 1885, when the Bartow family still owned the property, a plan of the estate was published that is comparable to one in the 1844 edition of Downing’s treatise. Both plans feature a curved approach road leading to and from the house; a secondary road to the outbuildings; open lawns; a combination of scattered and massed groups of trees; “fine distant views . . . through the vistas in the lines;” and an orchard set off to one side near the public road.

Bartow mansion. Albumen print, ca. 1870. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. This photograph was taken about thirty years after the house was completed, and the haphazard single shrubs seen here were probably not part of the original plan.

The Bartow mansion sits on a small knoll, and the 1885 plan indicates that—like today—there was a terrace at the rear of the mansion facing Long Island Sound, providing a link between the house and grounds. Downing, however, would have called the uniform rows of trees lining the carriage drive a “violation” of “the principle of unity” because they were at odds with a “natural” grouping of trees and shrubs. In his opinion, this type of incongruous arrangement showed a deplorable “absence of correct taste in art.” And the great man probably would have been appalled by the awkwardly random shrubs at the front of the house that appear in an 1870 photograph. By this time—about thirty years after the grounds would have been laid out—much of the original planting scheme may have been abandoned. Although Robert Bartow possibly followed some of Downing’s modern guidelines for graceful beauty, it is noteworthy that the 1844 edition of the Treatise did not include the Bartows’ new mansion but instead praised both the nearby Hunter and Bolton properties.

Bartow mansion, rear façade, October 29, 1905. “A conservatory is frequently made an addition to a rectangular Greek villa as one of its wings,” Downing tells us in the Treatise, advising that it should connect by “a glass door with the drawing room.” Furthermore, he declares that “Nothing can be more gratifying than a vista in winter through a glass door down the walk of a conservatory, bordered and overhung with the fine forms of tropical vegetation. . . . Let us add the exulting song of a few canaries, and the enchantment is complete. How much more refined and elevated is the taste which prefers such accessories to a dwelling rather than costly furniture or an extravagant display of plate!”

As Robert Bartow wandered around his estate in the early 1840s and watched the fine new house and outbuildings taking shape, he must have been thinking about his vision for landscaping and gardens. Was he pondering Downing’s modern ideas? Perhaps Bartow admired both traditional designs as well as more contemporary ones, and the mansion’s grounds were a mixture of both. At any rate, it is probably safe to say that he wholeheartedly agreed with Downing’s desire to use landscape gardening “to embody our ideal of a rural home.” (1844)

Margaret Highland, Bartow-Pell Historian

Unless otherwise noted, the 1841 edition of Downing’s Treatise has been quoted here.

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