Gilpin and the Picturesque

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.

Duck Island Cottage, St. James Park, London

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.

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii,  1784 The Louvre, Paris
Example of (neo)classicism

J.M.W. Turner, Tintern Abbey, 1794, Tate Britain
Example of Romanticism

The extremes of the two styles are perhaps even more evident in architecture.

Chiswick House, Greater London, English Heritage, finished  1729
Lord Burlington and William Kent, architects in the Palladian neoclassical style
Strawberry Hill House, Great London, redone from 1749-1776
Horace Walpole and friends, architects, in the neo-Gothic style
On that great aesthetic journey from the Age of Classicism/Reason to Romanticism, one of the movers and shakers was William Gilpin, who lived from 1724 to 1804.  Gilpin was a clergyman, travel writer and observer who developed ideas about what was worthy of a picture — that is, by his definition, picturesque — in the English countryside.
William Gilpin by artist Henry Walton, 1791, NPG, London

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.

William Gilpin, Landscape with a Ruined Castle, 1790, watercolor

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.

William Gilpin, Scaleby Castle, Cumbria
All of this discussion is by way of introduction to a few posts I will be doing here in the next weeks, dealing with The Tour of Dr. Syntax in search of the Picturesque by William Combe (1741-1823), another writer who took a satirical view of Gilpin and other travel writers of his time.

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.

4 thoughts on “Gilpin and the Picturesque”

  1. I enjoyed this post. Always interesting to have a different view of the meaning, or interpretation of a word. Some of these words in common usage to describe the look of an old cottage or a village are often used in a derogatory way, but understood by many to be complimentary. 'Pastoral' and 'buccolic' being two others. I like your cottage and would also have called it 'picturesque'!

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