His architectural work was of very considerable consequence. While undoubtedly it represents that part of his thought which has proved of least worth to us in our generation, yet it was credited in its time with far-reaching influence for good. In any study of his intellect and character it is obligatory to take into the account the wide, serious and faithful study which he gave to this subject.
We are to remember him also as a writer. There are those who believe that his greatest achievements were in the field of literature. This was obviously the opinion of his biographer, George William Curtis. It is easy to join in this opinion when we view those numerous books of his in their several fields and in their several editions; when we consider especially those masterly essays contributed to the "Horticulturist;" and still more when we look at all these achievements in the light of the later development of a whole realm of country life literature, now an enormous but then an untouched field.
The literary fame rests upon a most substantial basis, seeing his product had both matter and style. He had real first-hand information to communicate. Much more than that, he had sound personal opinions, the product of careful study by a most extraordinary mind. This information and these opinions were offered to the world in the best literary dress of the times, — in a style clear, finished, distinguished.
Yet it seems to me that we in this day are most of all indebted to Downing for his achievements in the field of landscape architecture. There have been many capable nurserymen in America, hundreds of other writers of ability, other architects of greater influence, but Downing was without a question the founder of American Landscape Gardening. It is here that his work is still the freshest and most vital.
As I look over the work of our great leader in the field of landscape gardening I see three different aspects of it, in each of which his powerful character has impressed itself on following generations. First and probably least was the professional work in the design of private and public grounds. At the present time none of his authentic works exist except in the most fragmentary condition, and the records of his designs are too meager to be given much careful study. Yet in his own day and in the immediately succeeding years his work was seen by all aspiring young landscape architects and to them was inspiration, law and gospel.
Next, and easily superior to his executed works, were his writings, and preeminently his book on "Landscape Gardening." The influence of these books and essays has been and still is of immeasurable proportions.
The third feature of his service to us, and one which seems to have been widely overlooked, was his practical establishment in America of the profession of landscape architecture, as it is now fashionably called, though he always spoke of it under the good English term of landscape gardening. Other men had unquestionably practiced this art in America before him; but his genius soared so far above all else that had ever been done as to put the whole profession upon a new plane. Other men found it easy to follow in the path which he had opened. Several of these disciples did so well under his inspiration as to have preserved their names to the present day. Frank J. Scott and H. W. S. Cleveland may be named as examples of this immediate discipleship.
Out of this story, which we necessarily trace with so much difficulty, of the personal influence of Downing in the beginnings of the profession, there emerges however one conspicuous incident. Calvert Vaux has already been mentioned as coming to America in 1850 to be associated with Downing in his professional work. This very able and well-trained young architect doubtless had a considerable influence upon his acute and impressionable partner; but it is quite as certain that the stronger qualities of Downing left their impress upon Vaux. The professional work undertaken by them jointly was continued by Vaux after Downing's death. And then a few years later another most fortunate juncture occurred when Vaux in his turn became professionally associated with the late Frederick Law Olmsted. With the long and notable career of Olmsted landscape architecture became an established and recognized profession, and one in which the highest ideals were so firmly fixed as never again to be lost or obscured. This triple association of Downing, Vaux and Olmsted must ever form the great opening chapter in the history of the landscape profession in America.
Finally, and most of all, as we remember Andrew Jackson Downing we come to realize that he was a man of rare and extraordinary gifts, — a genius in the large and good meaning of the word. Any man beginning life in a new country, in poverty, almost without education, and with the handicap of physical weakness, who before the age of thirty-seven years reaches a position of commanding importance in four separate fields, such as pomology, architecture, landscape gardening and literature, and who in each field leaves work to last a century, — such a man is more than a genius, he is a prodigy. His powers obviously and altogether transcend those of ordinary men.
Yet in Downing these prodigous faculties were so mixed and tempered with warm human qualities as to be largely lost to sight. We have been told that in his associations with most men he was reserved, even cold; but in the writings through which we chiefly know him he is always frank and friendly, — the most cordial and genial of companions. We have learned so much to love the memory of the man as to forget the sum total of his genius. And to-day as we revisit the scenes he loved so well and bless ourselves with the inspiration of his memory, and try again to measure the bequest of his life to us, we need not let our admiration for his work in pomology, or literature or landscape gardening stint our thought of his larger genius; nor need we dwell so long upon his superhuman genius as to lose our hold upon the man of flesh and blood who still commands the love and admiration of our common human hearts.