Apostle of Taste: Andrew Jackson Downing, 1815-1852

Article excerpt

Apostle of Taste: Andrew Jackson Downing, 18151852. David Schuyler. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Though early manifestations of genius in the fine and performing arts are so common as to obviate notice, it is rare that a cultural tastemaker makes a mark at a very young age. Those who speak with authority about higher culture tend to have both experience and authority behind their pronouncements. Yet, by the time Andrew Jackson Downing perished in a steamboat fire at the age of thirty-six, he had a national reputation as a landscape designer, an architect, a writer, and a leading proponent of scientific farming and agricultural education. Even granting the hyperbole that accompanied the early death of a popular individual, it is a strong indication of the degree of his influence and reputation when such a major political figure as Senator Charles Sumner-neither connected by geography or background-would laud Downing's contributions by noting that he knew of "no man who at that early age had rendered services of such true beneficence to his country."

Schuyler's biography is the first to document the life, activities, and impact of the young horticulturist who, in partnerships of varying sorts with the architects Alexander Jackson Davis and Calvert Vaux, helped define the style and the materials of buildings, their gardens, and the community in which they were created. Much more than a biography, or even an intellectual biography, this clearly and concisely written volume defines the contributions of Downing and his parents, while placing his aesthetics and worldview in the context of their time. The author traces and explains the obvious roots in the English Arts and Crafts movement and in the larger field of British aesthetics of the early nineteenth century, with all the built-in ambivalence to the industrial revolution and the accompanying social changes. So, while advocating the construction of private residences, far from the physical and social pollution of city and factory, Downing was a passionate and scientifically oriented horticulturist and experimental farmer. He proposed the development of a native wine industry, he thought about the types of plants that would best work for America, and showed particular recognition of historical roots in the work of John Bartram. Further, Schuyler indicates, Downing also studied but rejected the work of the formalists in landscape design, favoring and advocating the picturesque but carefully planned work of Humphry Repton and John C. …