There is little record of Vaux’s childhood and youth in England. His father was a doctor and apparently provided a comfortable living for his family. Vaux attended a private primary school until he was nine and then began architectural training as an apprentice in the London office of Lewis N. Cottingham, an early advocate of the revival of Gothic architectural styles. Vaux became a skilled draftsman, and in 1850, a London gallery exhibition of his watercolors of continental landscapes attracted the attention of Andrew Jackson Downing, who had come to England to find an assistant to run a new architectural department in his own thriving landscape gardening practice. He recruited Vaux, then twenty-six, who seems to have welcomed the opportunity to escape the relative rigidity and stuffiness of English society.
During the two years that Calvert Vaux worked with Downing in Newburgh, New York, up the Hudson from Manhattan, he devoted most of his energy to designing “rural” house plans (thirteen of which are included in his 1857 book, Villas and Cottages). The “rustic” style of these houses (with pitched roofs, picturesque porches, and ornamented stone and wood work), complemented the “rural scenery” of Downing’s broad sweeping lawns, carefully placed specimen trees, and massed border plantings of shrubs and flowers. Vaux, who became Downing’s partner, also helped prepare plans for more formal public grounds at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., a project that probably inspired an article he wrote in 1852 for the Horticulturalist in which he called for government recognition and support of the arts. That summer Downing drowned in a steamboat accident. Vaux carried on his mentor’s architectural practice, working with another English architect, Frederick Clarke Withers. He married Mary McEntee, the sister of a Hudson Valley painter, then moved to New York City in 1856, where he became identified with the city’s artistic community — “the guild,” as he called it. He joined the National Academy of Design and the Century Club and in 1857 was a founding member of the American Institute of Architects.
To his advocacy of an American architecture that personified spirited “character,” Vaux brought the confident respectability of a bourgeois English upbringing and a deep personal respect for craft and skill. His Villas and Cottages reveals his intellectual debts to Ruskin and to Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as to Downing. Vaux, a personally devout man, became a liberal Unitarian. Like Ruskin’s, his appreciation of art and nature was grounded in their moral attributes, and like Ruskin, he believed that a skilled craftworker could express genuine artistic inspiration. But Calvert Vaux rejected Ruskin’s pessimistic assessment of the decline of art and craft in industrial societies and instead embraced Emerson’s optimism in the “self-reliant” capacity of Americans to create a new and vital culture.
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The Park and the People