Country, Park & City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux

Country, Park & City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux

by Francis R. Kowsky


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195114959
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date: 01/22/1998
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.30(d)
Lexile: 1570L (what's this?)

About the Author

Buffalo State College

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Calvert Vaux made the decision to leave his native England and to emigrate to the United States the day that he met Andrew Jackson Downing, a man whom many in America regarded as the supreme authority on matters of cultivated living. The encounter took place in London late in the summer of 1850, near the end of the European tour that Downing had been making since July of that year. "I was in a settled position and surrounded by friends," said Vaux, "but I liked him so much, his foresight and observation were so apparent in the conversations we had and above all his style was so calculated to win confidence, that without a fear I relinquished all and accompanied him." After supplying references to Downing, Vaux made arrangements for his departure. In the meantime, Downing took off on a hasty trip to Paris. Perhaps he went armed with advice on what to see from Vaux. Five years before, the young architect's keen interest in the nascent urban park movement had led him to travel to the Continent to see royal parks and public gardens there. In early September, after Downing had returned to England, he and Vaux sailed together from Liverpool to New York. Within three weeks of having met Downing, Vaux was hard at work with him in Newburgh at the office that Downing had created in his home, the Tudor villa that many knew as Highland Garden. Initially, Vaux, who was one of a number of professionally trained English architects to emigrate to the United States before the Civil War, had agreed to accept the post of assistant; by the end of the year Downing had made him his partner. This whirlwind sequence of events bears out a friend's appraisal of Downing as a man who possessed "an almost intuitive perception of character" and in whom were combined the qualities of "keen perception, great energy, decision, and boldness."

By midcentury, Downing was riding the crest of a wave of fame that had lifted him to prominence as America's foremost authority on horticulture and domestic architecture. He had successfully brought about the wedding of these two disciplines before a large audience of well-to-do and middle-class readers of his earnestly written books and articles. His Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening of 1841, Cottage Residences of 1842 (with other editions throughout the 1840s), and essays in the Horticulturist, which he began editing in 1846, instructed the growing class of American homeowners in how best to arrange their dwellings and to lay out the grounds around them. Having begun his adult life as a nurseryman in the Hudson River town of Newburgh, he had become the oracle of picturesque architecture and naturalistic garden design to a generation of home-building Americans whose imagination had been captivated by the Hudson River School landscape painters. His popular works exemplified "the advantages of a studied irregularity and broadly conceived picturesqueness in arranging country houses that may be intended for naturally irregular and picturesque sites," said Vaux, and in the estimation of historian David Schuyler, they made him America's "Apostle of Taste." In England, whence Downing derived many of his ideas, his name was also respected. John Claudius Loudon, the dean of British horticulturists and a man with whom Downing has often been compared, called him "a man of taste" and recommended his books to his countrymen.

Downing undertook his trip to Europe at a significant turning point in his career. Having just finished his third book, The Architecture of Country Houses, Downing had formed a plan to go into the business of furnishing designs for houses and grounds. Up to this time, he had been content to accept gentlemanly remuneration for advice, much of it informal and even verbal, that he gave to persons landscaping the grounds around existing dwellings. As for buildings themselves, Downing, although an articulate critic and theorist of architecture, lacked sufficient practical knowledge to plan and execute designs on his own. This inadequacy had led him to rely on the knowledge and example of professionals like John Notman, Richard Upjohn, and Gervase Wheeler, men whose works often appeared as exemplars in Downing's books and articles. But his strongest tie to the profession was with Alexander Jackson Davis, with whom Downing formed an informal association in the early 1840s. For a modest fee, Davis prepared drawings for buildings after sketches that Downing had furnished him. Many of these projects, as well as full-blown works by Davis himself, illustrated Downing's writings, and in Cottage Residences Downing recommended Davis as the architect his readers should consult if they desired professional services.

Now, having both sold his nursery business and concluded litigation that had tied up his assets for some considerable time, Downing hoped to capitalize on the demand for well-designed homes and gardens that his writings had stimulated. Before he left for Europe--the first and only such trip he was to make--Downing suggested to Davis that they regularize their partnership. As Downing scholar George B. Tatum has pointed out, precedents for such alliances between landscape architects and architects existed in the collaborations of Capability Brown with Henry Holland and that of Humphrey Repton with John Nash and John Adey Repton. Davis, however, declined to pursue the matter with Downing.

In going abroad, Downing intended as much to hire an assistant as to visit the great gardens and public grounds that he had known only through books. (After his trip, he published in the Horticulturist vivid descriptions of the places he had seen.) Shortly before his departure in early July he breezily informed Davis that he had "taken it into [his] head to run over to London on a little business." It must have come as a surprise to Davis to learn from Downing upon his return that "finding a clever young architect in London I persuaded him to come out with me & work at architecture and landscape gardening with me." Despite Downing's protestations to Davis of continued "pleasant intercourse & joint partnership of feeling," the older men's relationship came to an abrupt end with the arrival of Vaux. In his 1852 revised edition of Cottage Residences, Downing deleted Davis's name from the discussion of architectural services. And while Vaux himself never directly criticized the influence that his predecessor had had on the formation of Downing's architectural notions, he later referred to Downing's books as deficient in the area of architectural expression. Clarence Cook (1828-1900), who served as assistant to Downing and Vaux, was less generous toward Davis: "What heaps of money he has wasted and worse," complained Cook, "what numbers he has disgusted with architecture! Yet, for a long time, Downing treated this person with great respect and consideration, acknowledged his indebtedness to him, put his designs into his books and recommended him to his friends." What Cook's caustic remarks indicate is that for America, as well as for Downing, the arrival of Vaux and others like him heralded a new direction in architectural taste. Sadly, Davis became a victim of the times; his influential career had virtually ended by the start of the Civil War, although he lived on until 1892. Given the evasive tone of Downing's letters to Davis before and after his European trip, one wonders if a dawning awareness of the increasingly pass character of Davis's designs, which Davis had conceived without the benefit of formal architectural training, could have motivated Downing to hitch his fortunes to a younger, more modern talent from abroad.

In his search for an assistant, Downing proceeded to London's Architectural Association, a fledgling organization whose 150 members were largely young draftsmen, architects, and students. The association had come into being in the fall of 1847 with the goal of improving the level of architectural education and discourse while seeking to raise the public's estimation of the profession. "The business of the Association," stated its organizers, "is to consist of the production of designs for previously determined subjects; the reading of papers on the several branches of science and art, comprehended under the term Architecture; free and open discussion; and contribution to the Society's portfolio of subjects, displaying either originality of design, examples of construction and decoration, or modes of representation." On alternate Fridays, members of the association read papers that became the focus of debate. Vaux delivered at least one such lecture, a paper on the subject of "the supply and discharge of water to buildings," with special reference to "the details of arrangement in which the responsibility of the architect is more especially involved." On intermediate Fridays, members displayed sketches produced in response to a given theme.

In addition to these charettes, the association sponsored an annual exhibition of architectural drawings and models that it opened to all free of charge. This event was a forum especially for new talent, whose work was unlikely to be shown in the Royal Academy exhibitions. The association maintained an equal distance from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), where many younger men felt unwelcome. Undoubtedly, the Builder spoke for many aspiring architects, including Vaux, when it called on the institute to "open its arms wider, increase the number of its allies, obdurate narrowness, and maintain its position, not by keeping back others, but by advancing itself." Each year, the association's exhibition had attracted a wider audience. In February 1850, the association announced its intention to hold its next exhibition during August and September in rooms loaned to it by the New Society of Water-Color Painters. The exhibition that opened on August 12 contained 190 drawings and was a great success, in spite of the summer schedule. It was a fateful event for Vaux. Explaining his purpose to the secretary of the association (probably the architect John P. Seddon), Downing was introduced to Vaux, whom he immediately asked to join him in looking over the drawings on display. Vaux must have proudly directed Downing to his own work, two drawings for a baptistery that the Builder praised for the way "a lantern light is made to rise from the octagonal intersection of groining, cleverly devised." Downing too must have found the baptistery design, as well as its creator, to his liking, for he promptly made Vaux an offer of employment. Without hesitation, Vaux accepted. By the following evening, the two men had concluded the formalities and were prepared to begin promising new phases in both of their careers.

What little we know about Vaux before he met Downing suggests that circumstances would have disposed Vaux to take a bold step that moment in his life. The son of a surgeon, Vaux, who was born on December 20, 1824, had spent his earliest years together with his younger brother, Alfred (born 1828), and sisters, Emily (born 1823) and Julia (dates unknown), in comfortable circumstances in a house at 36 Pudding Lane, not far from London Bridge. We can only speculate on what effect the death of Vaux's father at the age of 42, in September 1833, had on the young Vaux, who was then only eight years old. Three months after his father's funeral, Vaux entered the nearby Merchant Taylors' School. Having learned to "read and write pretty well" and having mastered "the 'Accidence' in King Edward the Sixth's Latin Grammar," Vaux took his place among the venerable institutions 250 students, who came from the ranks of prosperous families. His classmates were the sons of solicitors, merchants, attorneys, and clergymen. Housed in the red brick building that Sir Christopher Wren had designed after the Great Fire, the school in Vaux's day retained its original seventeenth-century furniture. It is unlikely, however, that these surroundings activated young Calvert's curiosity in architecture. One of his contemporaries remarked that the school "possessed few features of architectural interest or beauty." Nonetheless, Vaux was one day to draw lessons about modern street planning from Wren's thwarted scheme for the rebuilding of the Pudding Lane neighborhood, where the Great Fire had begun.

As a young pupil at the Merchant Taylors' School Vaux received a classical education. Here he learned the Latin that would spice his adult writings and acquired an enduring interest in literature, art, and history (In adulthood Vaux would write a perceptive essay on Marcus Aurelius.) We also can assume that Vaux took away from the Merchant Taylors' School, where the curriculum paid special attention to Anglican ideals of religious training, that devotion to "higher and noble principles of action" which Matthew Arnold regarded as the chief legacy of English public school education and which was to be a conspicuous trait of Vaux's character in his later professional life.

Young Calvert remained at the Merchant Taylors' School for four years, until 1838, after which the family seems to have moved from Pudding Lane. City directories give no clue to the Vauxes' address in the late 1830s and early 1840s, but it is likely that they resided on Kennington Place, across from Kennington Common, in South London, where Vaux was documented as living in 1848. At least one biography states that he attended a private school on nearby Harleyford Place run by one Francis Adolphus Reynell. Reynell's academy must have been one of the many private schools for boys that flourished in London before the advent of municipal education. Unfortunately, nothing is known of the curriculum Reynell followed.

Vaux's new neighborhood was less distinguished than the family's former address. A contemporary described Kennington Common as "a small, graceless square, surrounded with houses and poisoned by the stench of vitriol works and by black open sluggish ditches." The common had long been favored by evangelical preachers for outdoor sermonizing and by dissenting political groups for public demonstrations. The most historic political gathering to take place on the common occurred on April 10, 1848, when the radically minded Chartists--a populist movement so-called from the People's Charter, which sought universal suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by ballot, rejection of property qualifications for the right to vote, and equalized electoral districts--assembled over 15,000 people there. The demonstration threw respectable London into a panic. Police surrounded public buildings, soldiers guarded all bridges, and 170,000 special constables, among whom was Louis Napoleon, the future emperor of France, were enlisted to maintain order. Vaux was also sworn in as a special constable. Armed with a baton and wearing a white badge, he would have watched the historic proceedings take place without incident. Considering the strong republican sentiments that Vaux would express later in his life, as well as his distaste for the despotic Second Empire, one wonders if his sympathies did not lie more with the protestors than with his fellow constables. But the days of the common as Vaux had known it were numbered. Already in 1841, the area had been proposed for upgrading by the creation there of an ornamental lake surrounded by villas. While nothing came of this scheme, shortly after Vaux left for America, the notorious square became one of London's earliest landscaped public parks. The transformation solved a pressing aesthetic and health problem but at the same time foreclosed the use of the space by working-class political movements.

Long before he served the queen as special constable, Vaux had begun his architectural studies. At the relatively late age of 19, Vaux became, in 1843, an articled pupil of Lewis Nockalls Cottingham. Cottingham, who was one of the elders of the English Gothic Revival, had supervised the sometimes overzealous restoration of a number of important medieval churches. These included the Chapel of Magdalene College (1829), Oxford; Rochester Cathedral (1829); St. Alban's Abbey (1833); and the Temple Church (1840), London. During the time that Vaux spent in his office, Cottingham, who was proud that ancestors in his family had been artists and craftsmen in the Middle Ages, would have been devoting much of his staff's attention to the effort to return Hereford Cathedral to its Romanesque appearance. This work included removing later vaulting, rebuilding the famous stone crossing lantern, re-creating Norman-style moldings, and erecting a new timber roof over the nave. The work at Hereford remained unfinished at Cottingham's death in October 1847 but went forward under his son, Nockalls Johnson Cottingham, who had started as a pupil in the office several years before Vaux.

As a fresh apprentice, Vaux must have thought himself fortunate to have begun his architectural studies under Cottingham's knowledgeable tutelage. For in addition to his many restorations and new buildings, Cottingham was well-known for the drawings that he had published in the 1820s of Westminster Hall and the Chapel of Henry VII, as well as for books on Gothic Ornament and historic iron and brass. Furthermore, Cottingham had built country houses (notably Snelston Hall and estate Village [1822-1830] in Derbyshire, where he also laid out the grounds in the informal style); planned new streets and designed many urban dwellings in the Waterloo Bridge Road area on the Surrey side of London (where he built his own house); erected banks (the one in Bury St. Edmund's of 1844-1846 was most admired), hotels, and other commercial buildings; and published a book on Greek and Roman architecture. Generous and affectionate by nature, Cottingham enjoyed a special reputation for "sound and able instruction" of the young. Among the resources he provided to eager pupils like Vaux was not only a large library but an extensive collection of medieval furniture and architectural fragments. These objects he housed in underground rooms of his design at his home in Waterloo Bridge Road. The collection, noted a contemporary, "may justly be considered as unique, comprising as it does specimens and casts of all the rarest examples in the different styles of architecture, arranged in chronological order, in numerous apartments appropriately furnished." One assumes that Vaux became intimately familiar with the bas reliefs from the north transept of Westminster Abbey, the "roof of carved oak, painted and gilt, from an old council chamber of a City corporation," several fourteenth-century windows from the Church of St. Catherine in London, the fragment of a fireplace from the Star Chamber at Westminster, the facsimile of the tomb of William deValence, the processional cross from Glastonbury Abbey, the hanging silver lantern from Seville, the numerous examples of stamped leather and carved furniture, and the many other splendid objects that were in Cottingham's unusual house. Between his employer's museum, library, and office, Vaux had a superb opportunity; even in the days before institutionalized architecture training, to acquire a broad and deep knowledge of architecture, both its practice and its history.

Vaux also took away from Cottingham's office an enduring friendship with fellow architect George Truefitt. Truefirt studied with Cottingham as an apprentice from 1839 to 1844, after which he worked briefly for two other members of the profession. Truefitt was especially adept at rendering and may have encouraged Vaux to perfect his skill with the pencil. (Vaux imitated Truefitt's lettering in his two-character monogram.) In the summer of 1846, Truefitt and Vaux went together on a walking tour of France, Germany, and Belgium. During the trip, Truefitt made many sketches of historic buildings, architectural details, and panoramic views. The following year, he published 60 examples as Architectural Sketches on the Continent, a book that won the praise of the influential Ecclesiological Society and others who saw it. "We have a very agreeable book of plates," noted a reviewer in the Ecclesiologist, "for which we thank the author, and which we hope may be profitable to him." In the preface to the little volume, Truefitt told the reader that in addition to stopping at principal sites, he had sought out villages and byways that were "seldom visited by Architectural tourists." Therefore, most of the subjects in the portfolio were new to most readers. Truefitt advanced his perspective views and vignettes as "hints to the artist," images that he hoped would be more suggestive of the esthetic character of a detail or building than merely descriptive of its dimensions and appearance. From the list of plates, we learn that, among other places, Truefitt and Vaux had rambled through Normandy, Picardy, and the Rhine Valley, as well as visited Paris, Cologne, Strassburg, Liege, Antwerp, and Louvain. Unfortunately, none of the sketches that Vaux must have made along the way have survived, but we can surmise that he often sat alongside his friend taking his own views of Truefitt's subjects. Vaux also may have brought away other vital lessons from his tour. In the opinion of modern British architect David Matzdorf, Vaux's Continental journey "cemented firmly his concern with the rural and urban contexts of buildings, their relationships to the land and to other buildings, in a way that was essential to his later role in the urban parks movement." Coming on the heels of Truefitt and Vaux's formal education and apprenticeship, this footloose summer abroad was an adventure of liberation and discovery that neither man ever forgot. In articles written at the time of Truefitt's retirement and later when he died, the friends' tour featured as one of the significant events of his life.

Back in London, Truefitt began to advance his career. In the spring of 1847, his competition entry for the Army and Navy Club earned him much praise, especially when a full-page illustration (Fig. 1.1) of it appeared in the Builder. The architect obviously had drawn on his memories of the late medieval guild-halls of Flanders that he and Vaux had recently admired. The design (which did not win the competition) exhibited airy elevations, with ranges of mullioned windows and a wealth of figural and ornamental carving. As one of only two Gothic designs entered in the competition, the drawing, said one critic, displayed great care and knowledge of forms." Indeed, the evident attention to detail and studied historicism bore the impress of Truefitt's years with the antiquarian Cottingham. Truefitt exhibited the drawing the following year at the Royal Academy along with a design for an unidentified residence that he was erecting in Pall Mall and a drawing for a marble baptismal font recently completed in Manchester Cathedral. In 1848, Truefitt won first prize in the competition for a Tudor-style savings bank at Newbury, Berkshire. And in the 1850 Architectural Association exhibition that Downing had visited with Vaux, Truefitt displayed his Design for Rebuilding the Church of St. Thomas at Newport and a drawing for a picturesque wrought iron lamp standard in Manchester, where he had struck up a long-term professional relationship with the vestry of the cathedral.

Truefitt's reputation with churchmen was bolstered further by the publication of his second book, Designs for Country Churches, which appeared in 1850. The folio volume contained twenty perspective views of hypothetical churches "generally conceived with reference to specific though imaginary varieties of site: they merely profess to the attempts to think in 'Gothic,' exclusive of actual authority." The Ecclesiologist, despite serious reservations, conceded that the designs "indicate vigour and spirit." The quaint Decorated-style church that the Builder chose to illustrate demonstrated Truefitt's special sensitivity to the relation between rural buildings and their settings. Discerning the emotive potential of a certain creekside site, Truefitt nestled his church into the sloping stream bank. Moreover, the only access to the chapel's portal was by means of an arched bridge crossing from the opposite shore. With grace and imagination, Truefitt showed how to develop the potential of a site so that "advantage is taken to give individuality to the design." One of those who must have appreciated the picturesque conception was Vaux. The sense of intimacy between building and site, as well as the whimsical device of the bridge, anticipated the spirit that would animate many of his later park structures.

Truefitt. In any event, we can count the friendship with George Truefitt as the first of three close attachments that Vaux made in his lifetime with others who possessed status superior to his. From Truefitt, Vaux would have acquired a love for sketching, a sharpened appreciation of the picturesque, and the resolve to pursue an architectural career.

Another architect friend in London was George Godwin. By the early 1840s, Godwin, who was nine years Vaux's senior, had attained a position of respect and influence in the London architectural profession. As an expert on the history of Gothic ecclesiastical architecture, he had restored a number of medieval buildings and, in 1838, had published The Churches of London. Of his own designs with which Vaux would have been familiar, St. Mary's, West Brompton, Middlesex, of 1849, represents the scholarly, restrained expression Godwin sought. But Godwin was best-known as the editor of the Builder, a position that he held from 1842 until his death in 1888. Godwin's devotion to the journal and the profession it represented was legendary; "it was war to the knife with any one who menaced the interests of the Builder in any way," wrote his successor. As editor, he became an eloquent and influential spokesman for the improvement of architectural education and for the professionalization of architectural practice. Because of these concerns, he took special interest in the new Architectural Association, whose meetings the Builder often chronicled. "We should find that in upholding the dignity and high character of the profession," he once told the association's members, "we were best advancing our own individual interests." And as a public spokesman for all architects, he sought to smooth any feathers that the maverick organization might have ruffled among the members of the architectural and art establishment. Shortly before the opening of the association's exhibition that Downing saw, Godwin had called upon the RIBA to give its support to the "young members of the profession who had spiritedly and at much personal cost" organized the event. As for the Royal Academy, Godwin succeeded in winning the goodwill of Charles Robert Cockerell for the success of the event. The esteemed architect to the Bank of England, who held the post of professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, assured Godwin that he need not fear that the exhibition would be "looked at with other than friendly feelings." No letters survive to shed light on the depth and nature of Vaux's friendship with Godwin, although we can assume that Vaux benefited from the counsel and influence of his successful friend. It is probable, for example, that Godwin, whom friends remembered as an enthusiastic companion, gave Vaux and Truefitt advice on where to go and what to see on their 1846 tour, for Godwin had visited the Low Countries before them and had kept a detailed journal of his travels. It is also intriguing to speculate that Vaux might have picked up his interest in the theater from Godwin, who attended performances regularly and even wrote plays. Perhaps, too, Godwin's dedication to the cause of improved housing for the poor spurred a similar interest in Vaux, who in later life would serve as architect to the Children's Aid Society in New York. Godwin had also seen a need for architects to study landscape architecture. "We should be glad to see architects paying some little attention to landscape gardening, he exhorted the readers of the Builder in 1849. Asserting that "both they and proprietors may take our word for the fact that skill in it does not come by intuition," he noted that "at the present moment we know scarcely any persons who may pretend to be masters in the art." He continued with words that were prophetic of sentiments that Vaux would utter as champion of the American park movement: "To the flagging spirit of the hard worker in towns, the mere mention of quiet fields induces a refreshing and soothing vision," said Godwin. And surely Vaux would have smiled to read, in later life, Godwin's affirmation that "the study of landscape gardening lends additional interest to every country ramble ... and brings a healthful as well as profitable result." Godwin made these remarks in an 1849 review of the fourth edition of Downing's A Treatise on Landscape Gardening, which he ranked among the best books on the subject. It is highly likely that a year later, Godwin, along with Truefitt, received a hurried request from Vaux to furnish the references that Downing had requested.

Table of Contents

1 What Is a Young Architect to Do, and How Is He to Get On?:
2 Il Buono e il Bello: 1850-185223
3 The Inexhaustible Demand for Rural Residences: 1853-185600
4 All That Human Intelligence Can Achieve in Adorning and
Beautifying the Earth: 1857-185800
5 The Only Thing That Gives Me Much Encouragement That I
Have in Me the Germ of an Architect: The Terrace00
6 Possible Together, Impossible to Either Alone: 1859-186500
7 Country Life in Comparison with City Life a Question
of Delicate Adjustment: 1866-187200
8 Always Light-Armed, Cheerful, and Ready for a Run to the
Nearest Summit: 1873-188000
9 A School of Romanticists Even Then Fast Vanishing:

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