ONE of the most striking proofs of the progress of refinement in the United States is the rapid increase of taste for ornamental gardening and rural embellishment in all the older portions of the northern and middle states.
It cannot be denied, that the tasteful improvement of a country residence is both one of the most agreeable and the most natural recreations that can occupy a cultivated mind. With all the interest and, to many, all the excitement of the more seductive amusements of society, it has the incalculable advantage of fostering only the purest feelings, and (unlike many other occupations of business men) refining, instead of hardening the heart.
The great German poet, Goethe, says —
"Happy the man who hath escaped the town, Him did an angel bless when he was born".
This apostrophe was addressed to the devotee of country life as a member of a class, in the old world, where men, for the most part, are confined to certain walks of life by the limits of caste, to a degree totally unknown in this country.
With us, country life is a leading object of nearly all men's desires. The wealthiest merchant looks upon his country-seat as the best ultimatum of his laborious days in the counting-house. The most indefatigable statesman dates, in his retirement, from his "Ashland," or his "Linden-wold." Webster has his "Marshfield," where his scientific agriculture is no less admirable than his profound eloquence in the Senate. Taylor's well ordered plantation is not less significant of the man, than the battle of Buena Vista. Washington Irving's cottage, on the Hudson, is even more poetical than any chapter of his Sketch Book; and Cole, the greatest of our landscape painters, had his rural home under the very shadow of the Catskills.
* Original date of July, 1848.
It is as interesting as it is surprising to observe how completely the point of view and even the use of the English language have changed in 70 years. No one now would think of addressing an essay to "rural improvers" nor of writing a chapter on "rural embellishments." Even "ornamental gardening" has now an unpleasant sound. Yet Mr. Downing in his day used the English language with the utmost care and refinement. — F. A. W.
This is well. In the United States, nature and domestic life are better than society and the manners of towns. Hence all sensible men gladly escape, earlier or later, and partially or wholly, from the turmoil of the cities. Hence the dignity and value of country life is every day augmenting. And hence the enjoyment of landscape or ornamental gardening — which, when in pure taste, may properly be called a more refined kind of nature, — is every day becoming more and more widely diffused.
Those who are not as conversant as ourselves with the statistics of horticulture and rural architecture, have no just idea of the rapid multiplication of pretty cottages and villas in many parts of North America. The vast web of railroads which now interlaces the continent, though really built for the purposes of trade, cannot wholly escape doing some duty for the Beautiful as well as the Useful. Hundreds and thousands, formerly obliged to live in the crowded streets of cities, now find themselves able to enjoy a country cottage, several miles distant, the old notions of time and space being half annihilated; and these suburban cottages enable the busy citizen to breathe freely, and keep alive his love for nature, till the time shall come when he shall have wrung out of the nervous hand of commerce enough means to enable him to realize his ideal of the "retired life" of an American landed proprietor.
The number of our country residences which are laid out, and kept at a high point of ornamental gardening, is certainly not very large, though it is continually increasing. But we have no hesitation in saying that the aggregate sum annually expended in this way for the last five years, in North America, is not exceeded in any country in the world save one.
England ranks before all other countries in the perfection of its landscape gardening; and enormous, almost incredible sums have been expended by her wealthier class upon their rural improvements. But the taste of England is, we have good reasons for believing, at its maximum; and the expenditure of the aristocracy is, of late, chiefly devoted to keeping up the existing style of their parks and pleasure grounds. In this country, it is quite surprising how rapid is the creation of new country residences, and how large is the aggregate amount continually expended in the construction of houses and grounds, of a character more or less ornamental.
Granting all this, it cannot be denied that there are also, in the United States, large sums of money — many millions of dollars — annually, most unwisely and injudiciously expended in these rural improvements. While we gladly admit that there has been a surprising and gratifying advance in taste within the last ten years, we are also forced to confess that there are countless specimens of bad taste, and hundreds of examples where a more agreeable and satisfactory result might have been attained at one-half the cost.
Is it not, therefore, worth while to inquire a little more definitely what arc the obstacles that lie in the way of forming satisfactory, tasteful, and agreeable country residences?
The common reply to this question, when directly put in the face of any signal example of failure is — "Oh, Mr. -is a man of no taste!" There is, undoubtedly, often but too much truth in this clean cut at the aesthetic capacities of the unlucky improver. But it by no means follows that it is always true. A man may have taste, and yet if he trusts to his own powers of direction, signally fail in tasteful improvements.
We should say that two grand errors are the fertile causes of all the failures in the rural improvements of the United States at the present moment.