Alexander Jackson Davis, Artist
Once upon a time, architects could draw, could show to you the world direct from the mind, vivid in color, form and line. Michelangelo, an unlicensed architect, imagined the storybook of our humanity upon the Sistine ceiling, set it within a picture of pictured architecture. And then, of course, you know his Saint Peter’s Basilica, grandest building in Christendom, a building begun by Bramante, continued by Raphael, extended into exalted clarity by Michelangelo. We all live and work and dream within inherited tradition.
Traditions have their way with us even when we plan to have our way with tradition, even when we plan to do away with tradition. The Dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, grandchild of the Pantheon, I see in our U.S. Capitol dome … yes, I see it in this moment of writing when on the roof deck of my home. Below me, the streets of Alexandria, Virginia, explored by young Alexander Jackson Davis when walking with ink-stained hands from his brother’s print shop to the theatre where he performed. As I’ve been told, the teenaged Alexander designed stage sets, much as Michelangelo theatrically set the Bible upon the stage of the Sistine ceiling. We artists are dreamers all.
Perhaps you know: What enters your mind through your eye leaves from your heart through your tongue. Yes, we live in an envious, pornographic, wikipedia Age when the harmful is merely mundane. Look about you and see what we have made. When in Alexandria, between labor and acting and designing, young A.J. Davis read Romantic novels. No, not nickel romances but the great works of the Romantics, Byron, Shelly, Wordsworth, et alia, and see what he made of what he allowed into his mind.
Released from his indenture at 20 years, Alexander took himself to New York, The American Academy of Fine Art, then, truly fine, and there met the great Colonel Trumbull, artist of our War for Independence, the excellent painter, Samuel F.B. Morse, who you know for inventing the Morse Code, and Rembrandt Peale, scion of the excellent Peale family of picture makers. Before long, Alexander Davis’ architectural aptitude distinguished him among his fellows, and suggested a career of creating the picturesque of hammer and stone rather than of oil and brush.
When 26 (1829), Davis took a job with Ithiel Town and Martin Davis and there drew and there imagined and there looked hour after hour into the plates of architectural books (Town’s architectural library was then the largest in these united states) and what came in through Davis’ eye left through his hand, and much from his hand became solid in wood and stone. And much of that stands to this day.
Greek Revival, Classive Roman, Gothic and other styles lived within Davis, not merely in form but in the personality of style, its story, plot, and players. You will notice, as in Michelangelo’s ceiling, as in Raphael’s School of Athens, that a building is suited to the persons of the place. You will notice that the Classive School of Athens is inhabited by heroes, that Saint Peter’s is inhabited by God, angels, and millions who would be as saints. Who inhabits New York’s debased Penn Station, that crowded warren fit for snarling underworld creatures. What might those subterraneans become if elevated into the ennobling tradition of a reconstituted Pennsylvania Station.
You will have noticed the vogue of ideological nonsense. Some forms of nonsense are always in vogue, though rather more now than then, and theory has its place, in textbooks. In practice, theory and ideology seldom make a house suitable for living, a post office suitable for posting letters, a rail station suitable for gentlemen and ladies, a schoolhouse suitable for the active, inquisitive bodies of young souls. As you see, as you know, the modern schoolhouse is often steel-sterile glass, vacant and unnatural, cold and ideological. And the modern house, well … seems we prefer rather more beauty, more aesthetic nature, something more of storybook, of the good that makes us a better people.
You will notice that Davis designed buildings not theories, as he said, “I am but an architectural composer.” And the compositions, well, brilliant and humane, suitable for ennobled man. Davis understood the lineament of art, its rules, the human body, a soul in imagination. Pictured here, a few of Alexander Jackson Davis’ 100-plus designs (mostly built) from his 60-year career. You will notice in these drawings a civilizing imagination, a skilled hand, a keen eye, a wealth of tradition, his inheritance, an inheritance now yours.
In thinking of architectural practice and the mirroring minions of middling modern architecture and the million CAD designs all mullioned the same, I recollect Davis’ namesake, President Andrew Jackson who said, “It’s a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.”
Only one way, one style, one parroted thought. Do you notice the lack of innovation in modernistic architecture, the slavish fealty to Progressive orthodoxy, the boring lack of originality, that poverty in imagination. Expect you do. I wonder if Alexander Jackson Davis would have found something in modernistic architecture suited to a picture of home, to a house comfortably seated in nature, to a family’s loving story, to the stage setting and the delightful play of parts. “What has become of our wealth in inherited tradition,” Davis might wonder.
Should mention: Davis, with Andrew Jackson Downing, popularized in America the Gothic styles, including the romantically picturesque Carpenter Gothic. You might like to know: Davis drew for landscape architect Downing many houses in illustration of Downing’s books on architecture, mostly, the “Gothic”, that mysterious, romantic style, pretty yet dark and brooding, woven into the tendrils of winding nature … a style in contrast to its sister, “Classical”, a style logical, clear and bright, Platonic, fixed, heady in the ideal, a style mastered by Davis, as you have seen.
Both the Gothic and the Classical styles are suitable to genius, especially the fertile genius of A.J. Davis, an artist who would not be shackled to ideology and theory, who drew freely from imagination a wealth of Classive Civilization.
Featured image: Litchhfield Villa, Alexander Jackson Davis, artist.
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