Americans love this TV drama and the landscape provides a fitting setting, especially the lawn, which runs up to the gravel drive along the walls of the honey-colored castle.
The television period drama “Downton Abbey” has returned with its third season. PBS reached its highest ratings in years with this story of an aristocratic family in Edwardian England and their servants who try to make sense of a world undergoing immense social change, including World War I.
Americans love this TV drama and the landscape provides a fitting setting, especially the lawn, which runs up to the gravel drive along the walls of the honey-colored castle. The lawn embodies the classic English garden.
In some strange way, the English garden with its green lawn continues its hold on the American psyche. Today, amid much talk about sustainability, homeowners still spend $30 billion a year on lawn care. According to the National Gardening Association, we spend less money on gardening now than five years ago, except for growing vegetables, but more money on lawn care. The lawn still plays a key role in the home landscape.
The stateside success of “Downton Abbey” reflects, in some way, the sentiment that the landscape of sheered grass still ranks high among the hopes and dreams of American homeowners. That affection for green developed over the past 200 years, encouraged by the mass-produced 19th century American seed and nursery catalogs.
The lawn as the dominant symbol in the classic English garden dates to the mid-18th century with the work of landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown. By the 1770s Brown had worked on many properties in England, including Highclere Castle, the site of the fictional Downton Abbey, located 69 miles southwest of London.
Brown’s signature look, called minimalist, meant an expansive lawn, giving the property its own park-like area of grass suitable both for grazing deer and providing the owner a view from the house. Brown promoted that picturesque look to the landscape, and downplayed formal gardens. He sought to make the landscape garden look as if it was always there and no one had planned it. English garden historian Edward Hyams wrote that Brown, “isolated many a great house in a sea of lawn.” Though some at the time complained, Brown’s work included grading of the soil for the gently rolling contours of the lawn, which often meant removing existing gardens. Since the sweep of lawn became his signature look to the garden, trees and shrubs near the house disappeared.
The list of his clients, nobility and gentry who could not resist the persuasive manner of Capability, spoke to his success. Brown first worked under popular landscape gardener William Kent at the classic garden Stowe. Later, he designed similar gardens of England’s gentry like Chatsworth and Blenheim. In 1764, King George III appointed Brown the Royal Gardener at Hampton Court.
English writer and politician Horace Walpole wrote at the end of the 18th century, “We have reached the peak of perfection. We have given the true model of gardening to the world.” And America, starting with its presidents -- George Washington at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello -- treasured that model.
So as “Downton Abbey’s” opening shot of the castle’s lawn appears on the screen, many Americans enjoy that sense of calm the English intended in resting one’s eyes on that sea of green.
Thomas Mickey is a master gardener from Quincy and professor emeritus at Bridgewater State University. You may reach him at www.americangardening.net.