In the dispositions of most men devoted to beauty, as artists and poets, there is a vein of languor, a leaning to luxury, of which no trace was even visible in him. His habits of life were singularly regular. He used no tobacco, drank little wine, and was no gourmand. But he was no ascetic. He loved to entertain Sybarites, poets, and the lovers of luxury: doubtless from a consciousness that he had the magic of pleasing them more than they had ever been pleased. He enjoyed the pleasure of his guests. The various play of different characters entertained him. Yet with all his fondness for fine places, he justly estimated the tendency of their influence. He was not enthusiastic, he was not seduced into blindness by his own preferences, but he maintained that cool and accurate estimate of things and tendencies which always made his advice invaluable. Is there any truer account of the syren influence of a superb and extensive country-seat than the following from the paper: "A Visit to Montgomery Place." "It is not, we are sure, the spot for a man to plan campaigns of conquest, and we doubt, even, whether the scholar whose ambition it is "to scorn delights, And live laborious days," would not find something in the air of this demesne so soothing as to dampen the fire of his great purposes, and dispose him to believe that there is more dignity in repose, than merit in action".
So, certainly, I believe, as the May days passed, and found me still lingering in the enchanted garden.
In August, 1846, "The Horticulturist" was commenced by Mr. Luther Tucker, of Albany, who invited Mr. Downing to become the editor, in which position he remained, writing a monthly leader for it, until his death. These articles are contained in the present volume. Literature offers no more charming rural essays. They are the thoughtful talk of a country gentleman, and scholar, and practical workman, upon the rural aspects and interests of every month in the year. They insinuate instruction, rather than directly teach, and in a style mellow, mature, and cheerful, adapted to every age and every mood. By their variety of topic and treatment, they are, perhaps, the most complete memorial of the man. Their genial simplicity fascinated all kinds of persons. A correspondence which might be called affectionate, sprang up between the editor and scores of his readers. They wanted instruction and advice. They confided to him their plans and hopes; to him - the personally unknown "we" of their monthly magazine - the reserved man whom publishers and others found "stiff," and "cold," and "a little haughty," and whose fine points of character stood out, like sunny mountain peaks against a mist. These letters, it appears, were personal, and full of feeling.
The writers wished to know-the man, to see his portrait, and many requested him to have it published in the "Horticulturist." When in his neighborhood, these correspondents came to visit him. They were anxious "to see the man who had written books which had enabled them to make their houses beautiful, - which had helped their wives in the flower-garden, and had shown them how, with little expense, to decorate their humble parlors, and add a grace to the barrenness of daily life." All this was better than Queen Anne's "magnificent ring".
Meanwhile, business in the nursery looked a little threatening. Money was always dropping from the hospitable hand of the owner. Expenses increased - affairs became complicated. It is not the genius of men like Downing to manage the finances very skilfully. "Every tree that he sold for a dollar, cost him ten shillings;" - which is not a money-making process. He was perhaps too lavish, too careless, too sanguine. "Had his income been a million a minute, he would always have been in debt," says one who knew him well. The composed manner was as unruffled as ever; the regal will preserved the usual appearance of things, but in the winter of 1846-7 Mr. Downing was seriously embarrassed. It was a very grave juncture, for it was likely that he would be obliged to leave his house and begin life again. But his friends rallied to the rescue. They assured to him his house and grounds; and he, without losing time, without repining, and with the old determination, went to work more industriously than ever. His attention was unremitting to the "Horticulturist," and to all the projects he had undertaken.
His interest in the management of the nursery, however, decreased, and he devoted himself with more energy to rural architecture and landscape gardening, until he gradually discontinued altogether the raising of trees for sale. His house was still the resort of the most brilliant society; still - as it always had been, and was, until the end - the seat of beautiful hospitality. He was often enough perplexed in his affairs - hurried by the monthly recurring necessity of "the leader," and not quite satisfied at any time until that literary task was accomplished. His business confined and interested him; his large correspondence was promptly managed; but he was still sanguine, under that Spanish reserve, and still spent profusely. He had a thousand interests; a State agricultural school, a national agricultural bureau at Washington, designing private and public buildings, laying out large estates, pursuing his own scientific and literary studies, and preparing a work upon Rural Architecture. From his elegant home he was scattering, in the Horticulturist, pearl-seed of precious suggestion, which fell in all kinds of secluded and remote regions, and bore, and are bearing, costly fruit.
In 1849, Mr. John Wiley published "Hints to Young Architects, by George Wightwick, Architect; with Additional Notes and Hints to Persons about Building in this Country, by A. J. Downing." It was a work preparatory to the original one he designed to publish, and full of most valuable suggestions. For in every thing he was American. His sharp sense of propriety as the primal element of beauty, led him constantly to insist that the place, and circumstances, and time, should always be carefully considered before any step was taken. The satin shoe was a grace in the parlor, but a deformity in the garden. The Parthenon was perfect in a certain climate, under certain conditions, and for certain purposes. But the Parthenon as a country mansion in the midst of American woods and fields was unhandsome and offensive. His aim in building a house was to adapt it to the site, and to the means and character of the owner.