In this year he finally resolved to devote himself entirely to architecture and building, and, in order to benefit by the largest variety of experience in elegant rural life, and to secure the services of an accomplished and able architect, thoroughly trained to the business he proposed, Mr. Downing went to England in the summer of 1850, having arranged with Messrs. D. Appleton & Co. for the publication of "The Architecture of Country Houses; including Designs for Cottages, Farm-houses, and Villas".
Already in correspondence with the leading Englishmen in his department, Mr. Downing was at once cordially welcomed. He showed the admirable, and not the unfriendly, qualities of his countrymen, and was directly engaged in a series of visits to the most extensive and remarkable of English country seats, where he was an honored guest. The delight of the position was beyond words to a man of his peculiar character and habits. He saw on every hand the perfection of elegant rural life, which was his ideal of life. He saw the boundless parks, the cultivated landscape, the tropics imprisoned in glass; he saw spacious Italian villas, more Italian than in Italy; every various triumph of park, garden, and country house. But with these, also, he met in the pleasantest way much line English society, which was his ideal of society. There was nothing wanting to gratify his line and fastidious taste; but the passage already quoted from his letter at Warwick Castle shows how firmly his faith was set upon his native land, while his private letters are full of affectionate longing to return. It is easy to figure him moving with courtly grace through the rooms of palaces, gentle, respectful, low in tone, never exaggerating, welcome to lord and lady for his good sense, his practical knowledge, his exact detail; pleasing the English man and woman by his English sympathies, and interesting them by his manly and genuine, not boasting, assertions of American genius and success. Looking at the picture, one remembers again that earlier one of the boy coming home from Montgomery Academy, in Orange County, and introduced at the wealthy neighbor's to the English gentleman. The instinct that remembered so slight an event secured his appreciation of all that England offered. No American ever visited England with a mind more in tune with all that is nobly characteristic of her. He remarked, upon his return, that he had been much impressed by the quiet, religious life and habits which he found in many great English houses. It is not a point of English life often noticed, nor presupposed, but it was doubly grateful to him, because he was always a Christian believer, and because all parade was repugnant to him. His letters before his marriage, and during the last years of his life, evince the most genuine Christian faith and feeling.
His residence in England was very brief — a summer trip. He crossed to Paris and saw French life. Fortunately, as his time was short, he saw more in a day than most men in a month, because he was prepared to see, and knew where to look. He found the assistant he wished in Mr. Calvert Vaux, a young English architect, to whom he was introduced by the Secretary of the Architectural Association, and with whom, so mutual was the satisfaction, he directly concluded an agreement. Mr. Vaux sailed with him from Liverpool in September, presently became his partner in business, and commanded, lo the end, Mr. Downing's unreserved confidence and respect.
I remember a Christmas visit to Downing in 1850, after his return from Europe, when we all danced to a fiddle upon the marble pavement of the hall, by the light of rustic chandeliers wreathed with Christmas green, and under the antlers, and pikes, and helmets, and breastplates, and plumed hats of cavaliers, that hung upon the walls. The very genius of English Christmas ruled the revel.
During these years he was engaged in superintending the various new editions of his works, and looking forward to larger achievements with maturer years. He designed a greatly enlarged edition of the "Fruit-Trees," and spoke occasionally of the "Shade-Trees," as a work which would be of the greatest practical value. He was much interested in the establishment of the Pomological Congress, was chairman of its fruit committee from the beginning, and drew up the "Rules of American Pomology." Every moment had its work. There was not a more useful man in America; but his visitor found still the same quiet host, leisurely, disengaged; picking his favorite flowers before breakfast; driving here and there, writing, studying, as if rather for amusement; and at twilight stepping into the wagon for a loitering drive along the river.
His love of the country and faith in rural influences were too genuine for him not to be deeply interested in the improvement of cities by means of public parks and gardens. Not only for their sanitary use, but for their elegance and refining influence, he was anxious that all our cities should be richly endowed with them. He alluded frequently to the subject in the columns of his magazine, and when it was resolved by Congress to turn the public grounds in Washington, near the Capitol, White House, and Smithsonian Institute, into a public garden and promenade, Downing was naturally the man invited by the President, in April, 1851, to design the arrangement of the grounds and to superintend their execution. All the designs and much of the work were completed before his death. This new labor, added to the rest, while it increased his income, consumed much of his time. He went once every month to Washington, and was absent ten or twelve days.
He was not suffered to be at peace in this position. There were plenty of jealousies and rivalries, and much sharp questioning about the $2500 annually paid to an accomplished artist for laying out the public grounds of the American Capital, in a manner worthy the nation, and for reclaiming many acres from waste and the breeding of miasma. At length the matter was discussed in Congress. On the 24th March, 1852, during a debate upon various appropriations, Mr. Jones, of Tennessee, moved to strike out the sum of $12,000, proposed to complete the improvements around the President's house; complained that there were great abuses under the proviso of this appropriation, and declared, quite directly, that Mr. Downing was overpaid for his services. Mr. Stanton, of Kentucky, replied: — "It is astonishing to my mind — and I have no doubt to the minds of others — with what facility otherwise intelligent and respectable gentlemen on this floor can deal out wholesale denunciations of men about whom they know nothing, and will not inform themselves; and how much the legislation of the country is controlled by prejudices thus invoked and clamor thus raised." After speaking of the bill under which the improvements were making, he continued: "The President was authorized to appoint some competent person to superintend the carrying out of the plan adopted. He appointed Mr. Downing. And who is he? One of the most accomplished gentlemen in his profession in the Union; a man known to the world as possessing rare skill as a 'rural architect' and landscape gardener, as well as a man of great scientific intelligence. * * * * I deny that he has neglected his duties, as the gentleman from Tennessee has charged. Instead of being here only three days in the month, he has been here vigilantly discharging his duties at all times when those duties required him to be here. He has superintended, directed, and carried out the plan adopted, as fully as the funds appropriated have enabled him'to do. If all the officers of the Government had been as conscientious and scrupulous in the discharge of their duties as he has been since his appointment, there would be no ground for reproaches against those who have control of the Government".