Glorified Gardens (Post 2)

Chloe Kiernicki, Post 2

The elite of the elite, the “super-gentry” of the Virginia colony defined themselves by their material possessions. Their crops, their slaves, their wives, their children, and their animals all served to visually display an ideal of class identity and power. Around themselves, the gentry created a built landscape of gardens, buildings, and interior spaces; these too were extensions of the planters and reflections of the honor of the super-gentry.

Image of Christ Church in Lancaster County, VA.  Image courtesy of pinterest.com

Image of Christ Church in Lancaster County, VA. Image courtesy of pinterest.com

One extension of Robert ‘King’ Carter was Christ Church, the church he built in Lancaster County to show his piety and devotion to the Anglican Church.  The Georgian architecture displayed Carter’s knowledge of the style in England and his ability to afford such a lavish building and grounds (Hudgins, 64).  The building itself is impressive, but, along with the landscape, the church is a symbol of authority of the gentry.  The brick fence surrounding the symmetric church separates the holy from the secular.  Encompassing the church on all sides with gates allowing for entry to the church and Carter family cemetery, the fence creates a boundary between the outside world and the world of Robert Carter.  Once inside the fence, the landscape is orderly and planned; in keeping with Georgian architecture of the church, the grounds are symmetrical about the church, with the exception of the Carter family tombs.  The path leading up to the church from the river, where those were coming in off of their horses, and where those who were forced to walk, is lined with imported cypress trees (Isaac, 60).  These trees serve no purposes other than to shade the path and show off the wealth of Robert Carter.  Because the trees are imported, they would have cost a sum of money that most planters in the eighteenth century would not have been able to afford; this unnecessary display of wealth and power allows Carter yet again to display his status as the richest man in the Virginia Colony (Hudgins, 62).  On the opposite side of the tree-lined entrance to the church, Robert ‘King’ Carter and his two wives are buried.  This opposition to the Georgian architecture places even more importance on the Carter family, specifically Robert Carter, the donor of the church.  As Carter Hudgins wrote in his article “The Landscape of Tidewater Virginia,” “Robert Carter increased the distance that separated him from his Lancaster County neighbors, and when he made other improvements to the yards around his mansion he made those distinctions even starker;” when he imported the lavish plants and the English styles, he displayed his wealth, but also isolated those poorer classes who did not have access to such wealth (Hudgins, 67).

Image of the Rosewell Plantation house before it was burned in 1916.  Image courtesy of  wikimedia.org

Image of the Rosewell Plantation house before it was burned in 1916. Image courtesy of wikimedia.org

Photograph of the Rosewell Plantation ruins after the fire in 1916.  Image courtesy of blogspot.com

Photograph of the Rosewell Plantation ruins after the fire in 1916. Image courtesy of blogspot.com

Sketch of the planned additions at Rosewell Plantation for the main house to connect to two outbuildings to engulf the visitor.  Image courtesy of farm5.staticflickr.com

Sketch of the planned additions at Rosewell Plantation for the main house to connect to two outbuildings to engulf the visitor. Image courtesy of farm5.staticflickr.com

At the Rosewell ruins, the remains of the once looming mansion exhibit the skeleton of power that the mansion once presented.  The house itself was imposing upon visitors, but along with the outbuildings and the planned wings connecting the outbuilding to the house, the entire estate engulfs the visitor.  By forcing the guest, who could have arrived by land or water, to travel in between the fields on parallel roads to reach the house, the Pages impressed upon visitors their status as wealthy landowners and planters who had been able to secure desirable land on waterways.  This huge, brick mansion was a great departure from the planters of the seventeenth century who typically lived in small, two-room wooden houses (Hudgins, 66).  In the eighteenth century, with the addition of slaves into the manual labor force, planters could buy laborers for life, instead of the five to ten years they had with indentured servants (Breen, “Horses,” 241).  Slave labor allowed planters to reinvest their money earned from tobacco back into more slaves, who produced more tobacco, allowing more even more profit to be reinvested and eventually for the tobacco plantation to grow at an exponential rate.  With the influx of more and more money and the ability to own hundreds of acres, the wealthy and powerful super-gentry now had the ability to show off their wealth not only in their huge, palatial homes, but in their manicured, pristine landscapes.  Behind Rosewell is the garden, a complete opposite to the fields of crops expanding the majority of the Rosewell land.  Today the garden lacks its original splendor, consisting of only a few scraggly boxwoods, but during the height of Rosewell, in the eighteenth century, the garden was an oasis of planned, orderly, beautiful plants which complemented the acres of tobacco surrounding the plantation house.  The remaining boxwoods indicate that the decorative plants once provided a clear division between the practicality of the fields and the impracticality of the garden.

Aerial view of Shirley Plantation.  Image courtesy of williamsburgtours.com

Aerial view of Shirley Plantation. Image courtesy of williamsburgtours.com

Similar to the wings of Rosewell engulfing the visitor, at Shirley Plantation, a landholding of the Hill family, and later the same Carter family as Corotoman and Christ Church, the outbuildings of the plantation lead up to the entrance of the house, facing away from the river.  By situating the true entrance of the house away from the river, the gentry who were arriving by boat on the James River were forced to take a carriage from the river around and up the side of the house before entering.  The carriage would require the guests to view the estate of the Hill family, including the outbuildings, the gardens, and the fields before entering the home itself and seeing even more splendor inside.  By building the house above the banks of the river, the house is visible to merchants trading by water and other gentry who were able to afford boats and rowers to take them upstream.  From the other side of the house, the house itself and the kitchen and laundry buildings are broken off from the fields and other miscellaneous outbuildings by a brick and hedge fence.  This fence places emphasis on the central buildings and the river by separating them from the part of the plantation which is devoted solely for business and agriculture. Similar to Shirley Plantation, Westover seems to loom above those on the shoreline of the James River.  Westover is physically above those entering, and when guests arrive to the grounds themselves, they are surrounded by symmetry in buildings and in land.  In front of the house, facing away from the river, is a manicured park for those who have not been let into the gates of plantation yet.  Separating the park and a pristine and private garden is a brick fence.  The fence breaks the landscape into neat, manageable plots of earth, each with a different purpose: the park for meetings, the garden for solemn reminiscence of William Byrd, whose monument is centered in the garden.

View of Westover Plantation, rising from the shoreline of the James River.  Image courtesy of farm2.staticflickr.com

View of Westover Plantation, rising from the shoreline of the James River. Image courtesy of farm2.staticflickr.com

 

 

Class division in eighteenth century Virginia was evident throughout the business and economy of the colony, but was becoming more evident in the landscape and architecture of the time.  The super-gentry were able to afford palatial houses on massive plots of land with many outbuildings, gardens, and parks, all symmetrically laid out.  The purpose of these houses and their layout was to impress upon visitors the wealth and status of the owners; the extravagance served little pragmatic purpose in the functioning of these estates, but was another “extension” of themselves that the gentry used to show off their power over subordinate classes.

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