In 2009 while researching at the American Academy in Rome, I came upon a cache of images in the Academy’s Photographic Archive. The photographs were diminutive, measuring only 2×3 inches, but the subject matter was colossal—the gardens of the Italian Renaissance. I had serendipitously discovered a collection of nine hundred photographs taken in the early 20th century. I learned that these photographs had originally been known as the “Lawson Collection” and had been reference material in the Academy’s library. The work was attributed to Ralph Griswold, Henry V. Hubbard, Richard Webel, and Edward Lawson. Most of these names were stalwarts of American landscape architecture and easily recognizable with the exception of one—Lawson. I wondered about the mysterious and little-known Lawson—who was he and why had this collection been named after him? Surely, he must have had some prominence. This is where my research and journey began.
Ironically, the little-known Lawson was very prominent in his day. He won the prestigious Rome Prize in 1915 after graduating from Cornell, and he was the first landscape architect to be awarded a Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. During his tenure in Italy from 1915 to 1920, he photographed and documented the iconic gardens of the Italian Renaissance from the 15th and 16th century—creating a trove of metadata for future scholarship. His photographs were methodically catalogued by the Academy’s librarians.
Later, as a Cornell professor, Lawson promulgated the principles of Renaissance and Beaux-Arts classicism for nearly twenty years, mentoring a generation of students and future practitioners. Although he was a great talent, Lawson was also plagued by a series of personal problems that cost him his career. He was fired by Cornell in 1943 and never returned to academia. Despite Lawson’s significant contributions to American landscape architecture, his work was eventually obscured by the changing professional and societal trends that de-emphasized classicism after the Second World War.
Lawson was hailed as “Our first Fellow” by the leadership of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and his historic fellowship created a tradition at the Academy that continues to our day. His opus of photographs, drawings, sketches, and notes on Italian Renaissance gardens created a timeless record of these cultural landscapes as the First World War raged around him. The next phase of the Lawson Project proposes an education outreach component—a traveling exhibition highlighting his legacy and the rich visual narrative that he created. The centennial anniversary of Lawson’s historic achievement—winning the 1915 Rome Prize—will be observed in 2015.
As a result of the research project, a 125-page monograph was produced. Edward Godfrey Lawson: Continuum of Classicism—Photographs and Drawings of Italian Renaissance Gardens examines Lawson’s important work as a Fellow in Landscape Architecture at the American Academy in Rome from 1915 to 1920. My work on the Lawson project was funded by a grant from the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation, and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.
by James O’Day, ASLA, a 2012 Kress Foundation Mid-Career Fellow, historical landscape architect, and garden writer who lives in Washington, DC