Since the nineteenth century, private decorative gardens in the United States have become status symbols for the rich, the powerful and the newly enlightened upper classes. But garden ornaments have been used in gardens to enhance the natural environment since Roman times, and the ruins of sundials, birdbaths, columns and porticos can still be seen today in the gardens of ancient Pompeii.
To understand the history of these garden ornaments and antiques, one has only to look to Europe. Europeans have usually valued decor and style more than have Americans. Italian villas, English estates and French chateaux have had showplace gardens for hundreds of years, but it wasn't until the nineteenth century that Americans began to think of gardens as more than functional sources of food.
Europeans understood that gardens were extensions of their homes and as such should reflect the same design style as the interior. While the earliest American horticultural societies date from the early 1800s, it wasn't until after the Industrial Revolution that American society began to throw off its Puritan constraints and began to think of gardens in terms other than pragmatic function. And by the 20th century, Americans developed their own sense of gardening styles, recognizing that gardens could be used as outdoor entertainment areas.
Today it seems that almost every American garden, no matter what its size or scale, has at least one piece of garden art?a birdbath, a fountain, a cherub, a birdhouse, a wishing well, a gazing globe or even a pink flamingo. And yet there was a time when Americans thought only of classical artifacts when designing a garden space.
Nineteenth century America looked to Europe for taste and not only bought most of their art in Europe, but also copied their garden designs. But with the Industrial Revolution, a new kind of American ingenuity and inventiveness was born, and by the mid-nineteenth century American gardeners were stamping their own idiosyncratic personality on their home gardens.
Since European gardens had classical outbuildings designed like temples, follies and pergolas, American homeowners built outhouses with Greek inspired columns, smokehouses, summer kitchens and springhouses adorned with porticos and covered walkways. As early as the 1800s, American gardeners such as Thomas Jefferson were modifying classical ideals to conform to the constraints of American weather. Today Jefferson's gardens at Monticello and Poplar Forest are a perfect example of a blend of classical dimension and American pragmatism. And, by the end of the century, American capitalists were sending agents to Europe to buy European antiques and statuary for both the inside and outside of their homes.
The Europeans usually adhered to a classic symmetry, but American gardens, like the American lifestyle, became a blend of the old and new. Since American society has always been free of any historic or stylistic constraints, garden styles developed according to region, ethnic origins and geography.
What has been most interesting to the author and her husband in their research for Garden Ornaments and Antiques, (Schiffer Books, August 2000) is the relationship between indoor decor and outdoor style. Often antique and traditional garden furnishings reflect both the architectural and the aesthetic styles of the day. Just as 17th and 18th century furniture had classical motifs, so did the late 17th and early 18th century gardens of Italy, England and France look back to classical Greece and Rome. Garden alcoves had copies of the gods of Greece and Rome. Grounds were filled with a surfeit of mythological spirits, nymphs, satyrs and women robed in flowing robes and tunics. And every garden had at least one Greek temple.
Garden furniture also followed the popular tastes and culture of the day. The 17th and 18th centuries favored classical garden seats of marble, but by the 18th and 19th centuries, outdoor furniture began to copy architectural motifs. Benches, chairs and tables had pediments, arches, lion and animal supports for legs and arms.
By the 19th century, one found Chippendale, Queen Anne, and Sheraton influence in outdoor garden seating. By the mid -19th century, there was such a growing fascination with the Orient that botanists such as Thomas Hooker were trekking to the Himalayas and bringing back specimens of rhododendrons, azaleas and other exotic plantings. And at the same time the Orient was influencing interior and exterior design. Chinoiserie became the rage. Agents were exporting Oriental porcelain, china and fabrics, and before long European gardens had gates and trellises with Chinese fretwork, and Chinese moon gates, Buddhas, Chinese stone lanterns, and Foo Dogs flanking pathways and entrances.
It was perhaps the Victorians who cast the largest and most lasting impact on garden ornaments. Their heavy Victorian influence was soon seen in ornate cast iron benches and chairs and heavily baroque lead urns and planters, and the elaborately conceived many tiered fountains.
Modernism has been the latest stylistic influence to change garden decor. By the beginning of the 20th century, furnishings became more individualized reflecting a new stylistic obsession with ``art moderne.'' Function and practicality became as important as design. New materials such as mesh, stainless steel and aluminum replaced the heavier and more ornate earlier materials of marble, terra cotta and iron.
American gardeners have been among the most practical, and it is interesting to note the influence they have had on gardens. It was the American gardener who pioneered wooden garden structures, forgoing the more elaborate stone structures found in Europe. It was the Americans who favored the more durable and cheaper cast iron products. It was Americans who chose the less expensive molded copies of the classics, and it was the Americans who pioneered in an informal outdoor lifestyle.
Today most garden ornaments and antiques are strictly decorative, but it is interesting to recall that all of these garden antiques originally had a functional history. And many of today's ornamental garden structures grew out of necessity. Fences and gates kept out marauding animals such as pigs, cows and deer. Weathervanes, sundials and armilliaries were devices to tell time and weather. Outbuildings were functional. Walkways were enclosed for weather. Covered patios allowed summer refreshment. Columns and porticos provided protection from weather. Orangeries were built to bring the outside inside.
It is also important to note that environment and geography determined materials. Where trees and forests were abundant, fences and outdoor structures were built of wood. In New England and Pennsylvania, native craftsmen were more apt to choose fieldstone. Since birds beautified a garden and protected the plants from bugs and insects, gardeners built birdhouses. Fountains not only provided beauty and soothing sounds but were also a source of water for man and animal.
Today some of the most popular garden ornaments are marble statuary, bird baths, urns and finials. Modern gardeners prefer copies of antique female nudes, gods and goddesses, cherubs, putti, and sphinx. Foo Dogs and decorative lions are another classical form. Another popular garden conceit is the appearance of pairs of lead gardeners dressed in 18th or 19th century pastoral dress or groups of the five senses or the four seasons.
One of the most popular 19th century statuary conceits was the appearance of matching pairs of lead male and female gardeners as well as naked cherubs gamboling on lawns and gracing fountains. Eagles were particularly popular in America. Foo Dogs and Buddhas became a symbol of the mysterious Orient.
Among the most popular classical materials were marble and stone. By the middle of the 19th century, terra cotta and cast iron became more economical choices. By the late nineteenth century manufacturers were developing large cast iron, zinc, and lead statuary. The 19th century growing interest in the study of archeology and the classics continued through the present day and as scholars expanded their study to Rome, Greece and Ancient Egypt, classical copies and figures began to appear in gardens.
Another area of popular garden art began in the late nineteenth century, when realism took hold of the Victorian fancy, and an obsession with the hunt began to show itself as gardens became populated by cast iron, lead and stone stags, dogs, lions and eagles. Even today a greyhound or a whippet can be found casually located at garden entrances in suburban gardens, and the proliferation of painted stone deer in backyards is becoming a common sight in many suburban ?estates.?
One of the most extraordinary hunt displays the author found in her travels was the topiary scene of two riders, their hounds and a very frightened fox on the grounds of the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland. Another unusual garden design was found in the Villa Reale di Marlia outside of Lucca, Italy which features a complete topiary theater featuring the familiar Commedia del Arte figures of Harlequin, Punchinello and Columbine, the Italian ancestors of the better known English Punch and Judy shows.
Twentieth century whimsy has created its own design statement. Americans seem to be fascinated with luminous brightly colored reflecting gazing globes, concrete and cast iron jockeys, burros and kissing Dutch. And with the last two decades, plastic pink flamingoes have become an almost universal ubiquitous presence in gardens everywhere.
Myra Yellin Outwater, along with Eric B. Outwater, is the author of Garden Ornaments and Antiques, Schiffer Books, August, 2000. The Outwaters have also written six other books for Schiffer Books, Advertising Dolls, 1997, Ocean Liner Collectibles, 1998, Judaica, 1999, Florida Kitsch, 1999, Floridiana: Collecting Florida's Best, 1999 and Cast Iron Automotive Toys, 2000. They are now working on a book on Antique Garden Tools.Back to Tips & Techniques