Exhibition | Gardens & Groves: George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on July 4, 2015


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Now on view at Mount Vernon:

Gardens & Groves: George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon, Virginia, 22 February 2014 — 30 May 2016

Countless photographs testify to the beauty of Mount Vernon’s landscape. Two hundred years after its creation, it continues to delight. Although the beautiful gardens, sweeping lawns, and inviting paths seem perfectly natural, these features were all carefully planned by George Washington. When he returned to Mount Vernon after the American Revolution, General Washington found the estate in need of extensive repairs and improvements. The buildings and grounds surrounding the Mansion lacked an overall design, having evolved over time with an eye more for practical function than beauty.

Between 1785 and 1787, George Washington completely transformed Mount Vernon’s grounds into a landscape very similar to the one that survives today. During this break from public affairs, few days passed without the General working on the landscape. To update Mount Vernon, Washington had his free and enslaved workers install such picturesque features as sweeping lawns, groves of trees, curving paths, vistas, and hidden walls (called “ha-has”). From laying out paths to tagging trees for transplanting, the General was involved in every aspect of designing and installing his gardens and grounds.

From the exhibition press release (27 January 2014) . . .

Mount Vernon invites visitors to explore George Washington’s design for the grounds of his estate, through the exhibition, Gardens & Groves: George Washington’s Landscape at Mount Vernon, on view until May 2016. Gardens & Groves is the first museum exhibition to focus specifically on Washington’s landmark achievements as a landscape designer combining rarely-seen original documents, artworks, and books with period garden tools, gorgeous landscape photography, and a stunning scale model of the Mount Vernon estate. In Gardens & Groves, visitors can view the first president’s spyglass, watering can, and garden roller, in addition to reading Washington’s notes and instructions for Mount Vernon’s landscape in his own hand.

Kitchen garden at Mount Vernon

Kitchen garden at Mount Vernon

“Each year, more than a million visitors enjoy the remarkable beauty of Mount Vernon’s gardens and grounds,” said Mount Vernon curator, Susan Schoelwer. “But few realize that the views that we enjoy today were all carefully planned by George Washington himself. Gardens & Groves aims to change that, as visitors have the opportunity to ‘unpack’ the landscape surrounding the Mansion, following in Washington’s footsteps to examine each of the elements in the design.”

The exhibit presents five 18th-century views of Mount Vernon—oil paintings of both river and land fronts of the Mansion, by Edward Savage; two detailed drawings of the layout of the grounds, by English admirer Samuel Vaughan; and a recently-acquired image of the Washingtons relaxing on the piazza in 1796, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the US Capitol Building (due to their fragility, the Vaughan and Latrobe drawings were on view in Gardens & Groves through August 17, 2014).

“Bringing these five important works together presents a rare opportunity to see Mount Vernon through the eyes of artists who visited during George Washington’s lifetime,” said Mount Vernon exhibition curator Adam T. Erby. “These artworks record details of the landscape that we would not otherwise know—information that continues to inform our ongoing research and restoration efforts.”

Watering Pot, made in France or England, 18th century, copper, iron.

Watering Pot, made in France or England, 18th century, copper, iron.

At the center of Gardens & Groves is a fascinating 8’x 9’x 11’ model of Mount Vernon’s landscape as Washington last saw it in 1799. Developed by Mount Vernon historians, archaeologists, and curators, this state-of-the-art model has returned home from a national tour in Mount Vernon’s traveling exhibition, Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon. In addition to delighting viewers with its intricate craftsmanship, the model incorporates countless scenes from daily life—laundry drying in the laundry yard, a sailing ship on the Potomac, just-planted trees along the bowling green.

Such details introduce a broad view of the landscape, revealing two separate, but intersecting landscapes that existed at Mount Vernon: the pleasure grounds of the planter and the working spaces of the enslaved community. Gardens & Groves also tells the stories of the men and women, both hired and enslaved, who created and maintained George Washington’s gardens, and visitors will see some actual artifacts that they used, including a copper watering can and archeologically-recovered flower pot fragments.

An interactive touchtable will demonstrate the evolution of the landscape at Mount Vernon over time. Visitors will be able to scroll through three topographical maps created by Mount Vernon’s preservation staff, reconstructing the appearance of the landscape when Washington inherited the property, during an early renovation, and as it finally appeared at the end of Washington’s life. On each of the maps, visitors will be able to click on individual elements to bring up more information about a particular feature.

A list of ten facts about the landscape at Mount Vernon is available here»

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Published this spring in connection with the exhibition:

Susan P. Schoelwer, ed., The General in the Garden: George Washington’s Landscape at Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 2015), 208 pages, ISBN: 978-0931917486, $35.

generalinthegardenThe General in the Garden provides an engaging, informative, and richly illustrated introduction to George Washington’s landscape at Mount Vernon—arguably the best-documented, best-preserved complex of gardens and grounds to survive from eighteenth-century America.

The book’s three essays, by Adam T. Erby, J. Dean Norton, and Esther C. White, chronicle Washington’s transformation of the estate in the years between the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the stewardship of its gardens by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association since 1860, and the archaeology that led to the recent restoration of Washington’s showplace upper garden. Mount Vernon assistant curator Adam Erby examines Washington’s critical role in developing Mount Vernon’s landscape, arguing that the general drew on British design sources and gardening manuals but adapted them to his own circumstances, creating a truly American garden. J. Dean Norton, Mount Vernon’s director of horticulture, traces the evolution of the estate’s landscape and recreated gardens across the two centuries since Washington’s death. And Esther White, Mount Vernon’s director of historic preservation and research, shows how groundbreaking archaeological methods facilitated the discovery of Washington-era garden beds and borders of flowers, shrubs, and vegetables in his upper garden—a remarkable find that yielded one of the most significant eighteenth-century garden recreations of our time. Also included is a lavishly illustrated guide to Mount Vernon’s landscape features, introducing Washington’s beloved estate to a modern audience.

An interview with the authors of the book is available here»


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