Out in the Garden

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Today marks the 78th annual Historic Garden Week in Virginia, an event the Madisons would have enjoyed with relish. In addition to his roles as politician and scholar, James Madison was interested in science, agriculture, and horticulture. Montpelier’s garden and grounds were included in Madison’s overall development of the formal landscape, improved over time much in the same way the architecture of the house evolved.

Following the death of his father in 1801, James Madison inherited Montpelier and began redesigning the landscape to his particular vision. When the Thorntons, friends of the Madisons, visited the next September, Anna noted in her journal that “the grounds are susceptible of great improvements, and when those he contemplates are executed, it will be a handsome place & approach very much in similarity to some of the elegant seats in England.”[1] English landscape gardens during this period typically featured an “edited and improved version” of nature, with rolling grass lawns and groves, meant to evoke an idealized version of country life.[2] From visitor accounts and modern landscape surveys at Montpelier, we believe the Madisons sought a similar aesthetic. Around 1804, one visitor noted that, “Mr. Madison talks of some day laying out space for an English park, which he might render very beautiful from the easy graceful descent of his hills into the plains below.” [3]

One of the most desirable features of the English garden style was an easy transition between the indoors and the outdoors, ideally facilitated by a french window or back terrace.[4]The Madisons achieved this goal in the 1808-1812 redesign of the central Drawing Room, which features three triple-hung windows open to the back colonnade terrace. Describing the house and grounds in 1816, the Baron de Montlezun wrote “it can hardly be seen in the midst of the trees which surround it, but the interior is agreeably planned and decently furnished. The land around it is laid out in an English garden; the lawns stretch up to the house itself.”[5] Jessamine and “ever-blooming” roses climbed along terrace pillars, perfuming the air and blurring the lines between the house and grounds.[6]

Visitors often referred to flowers, fruits, and vegetables, both native and exotic species, in the Madisons’ gardens, which lay behind the house. Mary Randolph described the garden as having an “abundance of fruits and vegetables,” while Mary Cutts recalled it as a “paradise of roses and other flowers, to say nothing of the strawberries, and vegetables.”[7] Dolley wrote to her niece in 1826, “our garden promises grapes and figs in abundance.”[8]] The gardens were supervised by Charles Bizet, a French émigré who worked at Montpelier from 1810 until at least 1817 under Madison’s watchful eye. Writing to Monroe in 1810, Madison requested the services of Bizet and “2 or 3 hands under him in preparing a piece of ground for a garden and to have it executed to a certain degree at least before I return to Washington about the beginning of October.”[9] Bizet was undoubtedly assisted in his efforts by members of Montpelier’s enslaved community.

Madison often received plants, seeds, clippings, and seedlings from friends throughout the country as gifts and natural specimens, to be studied and adapted to different climates. He was known to harvest figs and grapes himself, and took interest in forwarding cuttings to others.[10] The garden was, for Madison, not merely a landscape feature or a food resource, but an environment in which he engaged mind and body.

Researchers are still investigating the design of the Madisons’ formal gardens, which were purportedly in the same location as the walled and terraced gardens you see on the grounds today.[11] However, several early twentieth century articles note that the Madisons’ garden was originally modeled “in shape and size after the House of Representatives in Washington.”[12] Unfortunately, no citations verify this story, but it seems fitting that the man who tended over both garden and Congress would unify the two in design.

Notes:


1. Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton, Diary, 1793-1863 (September 5, 1802), Papers of Anna Maria Brodeau, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.]


2. Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978), 228.


3. Richard Beale Davis (editor) and Augustus John Foster (author), Jeffersonian America, Notes on the United States of America Collected in the Years 1805-6-7, 11-12 by Sir Augustus John Foster, Barronet (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1954), 142.


4. Girouard, 218.


5. Baron de Montlezun-Labarthette, “A Frenchman visits Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Orange County, 1816, Part II: A Frenchman visits President Madison, 1816,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (July 1945): 198.


6. Jane C. Slaughter, “Anne Mercer Slaughter: A Sketch,” Tyler’s Quarterly Magazine (July 1937): 35; and Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 38-39.


7. Mary Randolph to Ellen Coolidge, October 30, 1826, box 2, Ellen Coolidge Papers, MS 9090, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia; and Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 38-39.


8. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Dolley Payne Madison Cutts, July 30, 1826, Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


9. James Madison to James Monroe, July 16, 1810, Unlocated.


10. George Divers to James Madison, October 11, 1819, New York Public Library, New York, New York; James Taylor to James Madison, October 13, 1806, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC; Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 38-39.


11. Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 38-39..


12. For an example, see Edith Dabney, “Famous Colonial Estates: Montpelier,” Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), September 20, 1908, B6.

 

 

 

 

Montpelier Staff