A.J. Downing & His Legacy

Pattern Books

Downing authored two important pattern books, Cottage residences (first published 1842) and The architecture of country houses (first issued in 1852). The books featured black-and-white illustrations of Gothic Revival and Italianate style houses set in verdant landscapes, along with a chatty, approachable text aimed at the potential home-owner, not the builder.  In Downing’s hands, the pattern book was a source of design ideas and advice on good taste in building, furnishing, decorating, painting, and in some sense, good manners for the early Victorian age.

Downing showed “ideas” for buildings, but rarely included dimensions, structural information, or written specifications to guide actual construction. Homeowners had to rely on skilled local craftsmen to take these small drawings and floor plans and translate them into a full-size building. Homes based on Downing's designs dot the American landscape, including Willow Hall, built for George Vail, a businessman and member of the New Jersey legislature and United States Congress. Vail's home, of local granite conglomerate rock known as “puddingstone,” was derived entirely from Design V in Downing’s Cottage residences.





Downing’s interest in the decorative arts encompassed furnishings, wall and window treatments and flooring. These illustrations from The architecture of country houses (below left) provide rare views of mid-19th-century interiors from a designer’s point of view.

Downing was also the first (and a rare) author to include color swatches in his volumes on building. The text of Cottage residences contains a lengthy section on appropriate colors for the exterior of cottages and villas; colors that would have the buildings blend into the landscape, rather than stand out from it. Downing described the soft tones he favored as “fawn” and “straw” but added colored swatches to his book, recognizing that words were inadequate. Color printing was in its infancy so in order to achieve the desired effect, each rectangle was hand-painted with water colors. Compare the color swatches of these examples from Avery’s collection. They are different from each other, and from other versions of the book, but they show the general range of colors that met Downing’s dictate of “colors harmonious with nature”.

Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library / 300 Avery, M.C. 0301 / 1172 Amsterdam Avenue / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-3501 / avery@libraries.cul.columbia.edu