Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design

“…There is a secret charm which binds us to these haunts of the water spirits. The spot is filled with the music of the falling water. Its echoes pervade the air, and beget a kind of dreamy revery…”                                                                                                                                                       —Andrew Jackson Downing

Book Review: Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design

I was more than delighted to receive a copy of the exquisite book Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design from Sue Ramin, the publicist at my publisher, David R. Godine. Richly illuminated with drawings, watercolors, and engravings, Godine has joined with the Morgan Library and Museum and the Foundation for Landscape Studies to produce this sweeping and superbly researched survey of the development of the Romantic movement in landscape design in Europe and America. This beautiful and beautifully written scholarly, yet accessible, book will become a highly valued resource for landscape designers, architects, landscape architects, historians and students of the Romantic movement. And, as do all Godine books, Romantic Gardens makes for a treasured and thoughtful gift. The book was written to accompany the exhibition Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design held at the Morgan Library and Museum during the summer of 2010. The authors Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, Elizabeth Eustis, and John Bidwell co-curated the exhibit.

Drawn from the Morgan’s holdings of manuscripts, drawings, and rare books, from the collections of the authors Rogers and Eustis, and from collections across the nation, Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design features approximately one hundred and fifty texts, outstanding works of art, plan drawings, and photographs providing an overview of ideas championed by the Romantics and also actualized by them in private estates and public parks in Europe and the United States. Notable are the plan drawing and early photographs of Olmstead and Vaux’s winning Entry No. 33 of Central Park, a J.W. Winder photograph of Adolphe Strauch’s Spring Grove Cemetery, located in Cincinnati, Ohio, and several Frederic Edwin Church landscape vistas in oil, including a view of Olana, Church’s estate overlooking the Hudson River. Elizabeth Eustis writes about Church’s Eden, “…Olana was truly envisioned by Church. Three decades of his devotion resulted in an environmental version of the Romantic Gesamtkunstwerk, integrating architecture, decoration, and landscape to fully engage the senses, emotion, and spirit. Church opened the view, set the house in an expansive lawn, and laid out more than five miles of drives curving through the estate.” By 1860 Church had become the most famous painter in America and with his Olana he could …“make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio.”  Eustis writes, “He resisted the gaudy flower beds and subtropical foliage plantings that by this time had come to rival the divinized nature garden aesthetic and instead planted thousands of trees.”

So that you may share a bit more in the experience of the exquisite writing found in Romantic Gardens, the following is a brief excerpt from the conclusion of Roger’s erudite introductory essay “The Genius of the Place” The Romantic Landscape, 1700-1900.

The fact that space and time are unbounded and infinite is still difficult for the human mind to comprehend. Romanticism can therefore be seen as the search for the divine in the boundlessness of the firmament and belief in nature as eternal and God-ordained, a bulwark against despair over the darkness-bracketed transience of life.

“…. In Romantic painting the landscape itself became the subject, not merely the background or the setting. The works of Turner, Friedrich, and Church bespeak the sublimity of sky and distant horizon. By such means Romantic art elevates the mind and heart to something approaching joy, peace, and an intuitive appreciation of the divine in the face of the unfathomable immensity and mystery of the universe.

“Nature as both place and space is the medium and the compass in Romantic landscape design. Revealing the “genius of the place” accords nature particularity and personality. The eighteenth-century Romantic designers did not treat space as a tabula rasa, a neutral ground plane on which to plant vegetation in geometric shapes and alignments, as was the case in the seventeenth century. Because of its more practical objectives and domestic sphere of activity, landscape design, unlike painting and poetry, cannot incorporate rugged peaks, vertiginous deeps, or crashing waterfalls—hallmarks of the Sublime. Nevertheless, landscape design is Romantic in its mood-evoking treatment of space, allying itself with nature, obscuring boundaries, and reaching for what lies beyond. We can therefore appreciate Central Park’s seemingly unbounded acres of green spaciousness not only as playing fields, but also as Olmstead intended, an illusion of unrestricted nature fostering a relaxed dreaminess and democratic sociability.”

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers is a scholar, educator, author, and was the founding president of the Central Park Conservatory. She is currently the president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, which publishes the journal Site/Lines. Elizabeth Eustis is an author, adjunct curator at the New York Botanical Garden library, and teaches at the Landscape Institute at the Boston Architectural College. John Bidwell is Astor Curator and department head of Printed Books and Bindings at the Morgan Library.

A note about Andrew Jackson Downing (see above): Considered the first Romantic hero of American horticulture, Downing was a nurseryman and horticulturist from Newburgh, New York. As editor of The Horticulturist, he became the leading advocate for home gardening, village improvement societies, agricultural education, public parks (including a central park in New York City and a national park in Washington, D.C.). In the above quote from Romantic Gardens (page 157), Downing is describing the Ravine Walk at Blithewood in the The Horticulturist (1847), with illustrations by Alexander Jackson Davis.

Romantic Gardens, Nature, Art, and Landscape Design

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, Elizabeth Eustis, John Bidwell

David R. Godine, Publisher

ISBN: 978 1 56792 404 6

Available through your local bookseller, David R. Godine, and Amazon.

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