Victoria here. Today, I want to explore — or at least skim over — the concept of the Picturesque — as a sort of introduction to bringing a few scenes from The Tour of Dr. Syntax to this blog.
I am sure that like me, you have your own personal idea of what “picturesque” means. My ideas were formed before learning of the particular theories of Rev. William Gilpin in the 18th Century. Before consulting the dictionary, I found this picture of a quaint cottage which I would call picturesque. In fact, in my mind, I guess picturesque is almost a synonym for quaint. Or pretty, charming, old fashioned, etc.
But this is not what Gilpin and meant by “Picturesque.” His theory was more sweeping (pretentious???).
Many 18th century theorists wrote on aesthetics. They differentiated among definitions of “beauty” (instinctively attractive and pleasing) and “sublime” (inspiring awe, perhaps even fear or terror). They argued among themselves about nuances of various meanings.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can identify signposts on Western culture’s journey from the Age of Enlightenment to the Age of Romanticism, from the emphasis on classical ideals to nature’s sometime-chaos. This aesthetic debate was part of it, from the balanced proportions of classicism to the wild torrents of the romantic in art.
Here are two examples of what I mean, not necessarily what ANYONE else means.
The extremes of the two styles are perhaps even more evident in architecture.
At Queen’s College, Oxford, before being ordained as an Anglican clergyman, Gilpin wrote of landscape and what he believed made a scene picturesque, that is worthy of sketching or painting. He liked wild scenes, craggy mountains, twisted trees, a general sense of unquiet in nature. In the last quarter of the 18th century, his travel writings and the engravings of his nephew became widely read and studied. These trips were taken in the intervals between his terms as headmaster of a school for boys.
Gilpin’s work was very influential among aesthetic theoreticians and artists. Perhaps one of his most famous “pupils” was the landscape designer Humpry Repton, who often “improved” on Capability Brown’s classical English landscape to include a grotto or a hermitage, for example.
Gilpin’s writings and drawings were well known to Jane Austen, who referred to his views in several of her novels, sometimes in a rather satirical vein. For an excellent discussion of JA and WG, see the excellent blog AustenOnly here.
The contrast in approach can be easily seen in the two pictures above (perhaps enlarged for clearer viewing), with Dr. Syntax falling backward into the river in front of the castle, in one of the many illustrations for the series done by artist Thomas Rowlandson.
I hope you enjoy the excerpts I choose from Combe’s lines and the wonderful illustrations by Rowlandson, to start soon.