Monticello Guide Olivia Brown looks at Jefferson's travels to several famed English pleasure gardens and their influence on the gardens he designed at Monticello.
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.
Olivia Brown: Cheswick Hampton Court. Twickenham. Esher Place. Claremont. Paynshill. Woburn. Caversham. Wotton. Stowe. Leasowes. Hagley. Blenheim. Enfield Chase. Moor-Park Lawn. Kew.
Guided by Thomas Whately's Observation on Modern Gardening from 1770, Thomas Jefferson visited these 16 English gardens between April 2 and April 14 of 1786. Today's episode of Mountaintop History looks at Jefferson's travels to these English pleasure gardens, and their influence on the gardens he designed at Monticello.
Always the diligent record keeper, Jefferson detailed his notes on these visits and wrote out his observations. He described the dazzling features of the gardens, saying about Blenheim Gardens that "The water here is very beautiful, and very grand. The cascade from the lake a fine one." Others did not wow Jefferson as much and he unfortunately said that one garden had "nothing remarkable." Either way, while traveling the pleasure gardens of England, Jefferson found inspiration for his continued gardening efforts back at Monticello.
In describing his travels to John Page in 1786, Jefferson wrote from Paris that the gardens he visited in England, "Indeed went far beyond my ideas." It was ideas about the natural elements and an ornamental farm that Jefferson most wanted to include in his own garden designs. He had already begun designing Monticello's gardens in the early 1770s, years before he traveled to Europe. The initial plans included rectangular flowerbeds and a semicircle of shrubs and trees on the East front of his home. Thomas Jefferson may be one of the most well-documented men in American history, and though he left behind plans and ideas for his gardens, starting in those early stages, many of the proposals did not come to fruition. Jefferson had considered construction of a Gothic-inspired temple in the family cemetery and statues of nymphs decorating scenes among natural springs and trees. Many of these classical elements were reminiscent of descriptions of gardens written about in English literature, likely when Jefferson read some of these ideas before visiting them in person.
The ornamental farm, or ferme ornee, that Jefferson envisioned did have its own unique patriotic sentiment. In his notes from visiting the gardens with John Adams, Jefferson often did not enjoy some of the features, like extensive art or statuary, used by the English landscapers. He found it to reflect the aristocratic ideals of the British empire that he, quite clearly, disagreed with. What he planned to build was an ornamental garden that prioritized the natural beauty of the American landscape; one that reinforced ideas of democracy in a very young nation.
In an 1806 letter to William Hamilton, whose gardens at his home The Woodlands were among Jefferson's inspiration as well, he wrote about his concerns with the difference in climate between Virginia and England. Speaking first of the climate in England, he wrote, "Their sunless climate has permitted them to adopt what is certainly a beauty of the first order in landscape. Their canvas is of open ground, variegated with clumps of trees distributed with taste. They need no more of wood than will serve to embrace a lawn or a glade. But under the beaming, constant and almost vertical sun of Virginia, shade is our Elysium." In considering these differences, Jefferson designs his gardens at Monticello to cultivate shade through tree cover and use this as a way to foster the growth he wanted.
After his travels to England, Jefferson altered his initial plans for the garden and landscape at his home, but the first substantial sign of new activity didn't come until 1804 and continued for the next few years while he served as president. Included in his new designs were planned oval flowerbeds to be planted on the houses West Lawn. In a later letter to his granddaughter Ann Cary Randolph, Jefferson detailed ideas for a "winding walk surrounding the lawn before the house with a narrow border of flowers on each side," and he even enclosed his own sketch. This 1807 sketch has helped to inform the restoration of the Monticello gardens today. Additionally, he planned two groves of trees to be part of the landscape. The Upper Grove, located on the west side of the house past the winding flower walk, was intended to become an arboretum of native and exotic tree species, like the Wild Crabapple, Pride of China, and Umbrella Magnolia. The Lower Grove, along the northwest side of the house, was Jefferson's space to creatively work with the existing trees. He opened up the existing forest, which included large trees, such as Oaks, Hickories, Tulip Poplars, Elms, and Maples.
Ann Cary Randolph, Jefferson's granddaughter through his eldest daughter Martha Randolph, often helped in the garden and is recorded as assisting the head gardener, an enslaved man named Wormley Hughes. Many of Jefferson's ideas and new designs were being sent from Washington DC between 1804 and 1809 while he was living in the president's house. Hughes oversaw much of the planting of bulbs, trees, and other seeds that Jefferson sent back to Monticello.
The inclusion of the ornamental flower garden, groves, vegetable garden, and orchard all contributed to Jefferson's view of a uniquely American landscape garden, though still inspired by the English pleasure gardens he had read about and toured in 1786. While not much change in design or construction happened after Jefferson's retirement in 1809, he continued to spend the rest of his life writing extensively to botanists around the world and exchanging seeds and information, all in the spirit of learning and knowledge.
This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
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Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.